With racism one of Brexit’s main narratives, part two of our What’s nexit? series asks: what will the conversation surrounding immigration sound like, moving forward? Read part one, here.
In an attempt to diminish the legitimacy of the Leave vote in Britain, political and media pundits revel in characterising these voters as xenophobic and racist. The Leave campaign has been summarised by the EU parliament as nothing more than fear and scaremongering, with immigration used as the foil to rile up nationalistic sentiments. A number of EU MPs made the outrageous but utterly predictable connection between UKIPs political tactics and those of the Nazis in the 1930s and ’40s.
Apparently, immigration is a subject upon which no one is permitted to expound for fear of being labeled a racist. I find this proposition as preposterous as it is lamentable. Immigration is a legislative and social fact that has effects, benefits and consequences. Laws govern immigration into every country in the world. Let us not pretend that immigration is a merely a phenomenon like deciding what kind of T-shirt to wear. It is not a non-issue. It is not a taboo subject (or it shouldn’t be). It is not the third-rail of politics. It’s a legislative concern like any other. And we should be talking about it.
Some governments in Europe seem to conceive of immigration as an unqualified good. Something that deserves no further attention than simply its encouragement. I’m not sure how many readers have had to apply for residency or citizenship in a foreign country…but for those that have, you should be familiar with the kinds of questions that are asked of you, the expectations that are made, and the associated costs.
In the United Sates, you must demonstrate educational competency, meaningful employment and sufficient, ready funds with which to support yourself for three months without working whilst the documentation is reviewed. In Australia, you pay an $8,000 filing fee for a visa, and provide a complete biographical, educational and employment history.
Also on The Big Smoke
- What’s nexit? Part one – The economic effects of the Brexit
- Moving home: The pros of a London city state
What is this all about?
Clearly, the government has an interest in who it lets into the country, and the circumstances under which they arrive. Let us not be so naïve as to imagine that anyone can come to any country simply because they are human beings and have a desire for a better life. As pleasant as that sounds to the ear in some fanciful utopian reality, the world doesn’t actually work like that and nor should it.
If we don’t start to have a conversation about what immigration is, and the distinction between humanitarian immigration and economic immigration, we are going to foster the kind of toxic discourse, and environment, that is not at all conducive to democratic processes. It’s not racist to talk about immigration anymore than it is racist to talk about climate change. They are both policy areas that concern everyday people and society as a whole.
Now, if you’re an individual in a well-paid job, with a nice house, two cars and a couple of kids in school, whether immigration increases or not probably has very little bearing on your life (although you might be interested in assuaging the guilt you have about all the bounty and fortune in your life, and have decided that a useful avenue toward good global citizenship is to share the benefits of your country with others less fortunate than yourself).
Good intentions are not the thing by which anyone should measure the efficacy of an institution. Over the last couple of years, the EU has demonstrated that it cannot be entrusted with the task of establishing the immigration policy of 28 sovereign states.
While I can completely understand these motivations, and God knows that we are readily confronted with images of just how much better our lives are here in the industrialised West than in other less developed or war torn parts of the globe, its not your society – you are a part of a society. This means that you are obliged to consider all the members of your society when making decisions and taking positions on its behalf.
Now, consider you are in a low-paid job, renting in a less desirable part of town. You struggle to find long-term employment and live week to week with little prospect of a better life in the short term. To this person, immigration has both a material and psychological impact. New competition in an already oversupplied “low-wage, low-skill” labour market has the appearance of threat, not benefit. Coupled with the knowledge that new arrivals seem inexplicably to receive benefits that you are your family would greatly appreciate but currently have no access to. Psychologically this sector of society receives no moral comfort for your charitable deeds since they themselves do not feel so well provided for that they have an abundance of riches for which they need to account. Indeed for many people in society, they too would like to “emigrate” – from their part of town, to the part of town you live. For some people the logic goes, “If we are handing out lifestyle upgrades and someone is going from terrible to mine – can I please go from mine to yours, ’cause as far as I’m concerned mine is quite terrible compared to yours too”.
I only mention this so before we start firing off accusations of racism and xenophobia we might consider if there is any psychological and material difference between ourselves and those at who’s feet we are now hurling loathsome epithets.
Finally, I want to talk a little about immigration in Europe, and why it was a legitimate issue in the Brexit campaign. There is a belief that the vote was simply a question of, “do you want immigration or not” – as though a vote for Leave was a repudiation of immigration in toto, and a vote for Remain was a vote for the concept of immigration in general. This is a myopic way of approaching the referendum and voting behaviour.
It needs to be re-framed.
It is not simply a binary question of “Do we want immigration: yes or no?”. If immigration methodology is causing tangible issues and negative consequences, we need to be able to examine these specific measures and policies.
People were also voting on this proposition: “Would you prefer the British parliament to determine the immigration policy of the UK, or are you happy to continue to have the EU parliament decide the immigration policy for the UK”?
To understand why many people who voted Leave may have certain reservations about the EU parliament’s ability to make appropriate decisions on this front, let us cast our mind back to 2014/2015. Does anyone truly believe that the EU did a good job regarding immigration consequent from the Syrian civil war? If you are such an EU sycophant that you maintain, “yes, they did a good job”, then I would ask you to please consider that Angela Merkel’s policy has been completely altered, and to a large extent reversed from its initial, failed program. They have acknowledged through their own actions that they needed to stop what they were doing and do something completely different – actions of a party that is conceding a complete policy failure, not a triumph. Consider this: Angela Merkel is now advocating for the kind of Syrian safe zones that Donald Trump suggested nine months ago and for which he was resoundingly pilloried.
In addition, the manner in which the EU decided to deal with the immigration crisis created deep divisions within the European community, led to violence, demonstrations, crime and great general distress, and resulted in the erection of walls and fences in many states. The EU’s response to the immigration crisis was an abject failure. Now, whether you think it was well intentioned or not – whether you think it was morally laudable and justified – is completely beside the point. If I wanted to do you a favour and re-wire your house for you, but have no competence in this field and wind up burning your house down, did I do a good job? Am I a responsible electrician that should be charged with fixing the wiring of all the houses in the neighbourhood? No! Good intentions are not the thing by which anyone should measure the efficacy of an institution. That’s not how you consider policy or legislation. Institutional and legislative competence and efficacy are measured by what is achieved and how it was achieved. Over the last couple of years, the EU has demonstrated that it cannot be entrusted with the task of establishing the immigration policy of 28 sovereign states.
Hopefully, this article has provided two fairly compelling reasons to stop calling people racist or xenophobic when they speak of their reservations about immigration policy. First of all, the considerations you might have surrounding immigration may not be the same as your fellow citizens, based on their particular material and psychological circumstances. Secondly, it is not simply a binary question of “Do we want immigration: yes or no?”. It’s a question of competency and duty of care expectations placed on an institution or government, regarding the manner in which they undertake and execute their immigration program. If a particular institution’s immigration methodology is causing tangible issues and negative consequences within and without the state, we need to be able to examine these specific measures and policies. Why? Because we want to make them work properly. It’s simply not good enough to just wave the moral flag and say that the intentions and principle upon which the policy is based is superior, and therefore damn be the consequences.
The bottom line is that our leaders never had a proper conversation with the nation about immigration – and we still don’t. The Brexit vote established what may become a precedent – the people are concerned and want to talk openly and honestly about immigration policy, without being flayed by the moral whip: racist.