Getting angry: gaps in migration thinking

I wrote this piece a couple of weeks ago about Labour's position on free movement, and people tended not to agree with it. The extremely brief recap of that post: it's not worse to have migration controls with Europe than it is to have them with the rest of the world. The ideally just policy is to have open borders generally. But a policy position that says "immigrants are not the cause of our problems, but now that we're resetting our relationship with Europe to parallel our relationship with the world, we'll have migration controls as we do with everywhere" is a regrettable but probably necessary concession to current political reality, aimed at defusing rising political xenophobia, and should be treated that way - not as some kind of deep act of evil.

Your mileage will probably still vary on that, and I'm not going to go over it again. But I think it's an interesting window onto two (related) distortions in how we tend to think about migration policy. One is that we react intensely to the direction of change in policy rather than to its level. The second is that we give a lot more attention to the treatment of migrants who reach our country's borders than to others who are similarly affected by our policy.

Attending to changes and trends is not something unique to migration. People are more likely to get outraged about a cut in taxes on the wealthy than about the thought that the current level is too low. This is partly just the understandable fact that people have their most significant political reactions when things are happening, not in a vacuum. The danger, though, is that it bakes in all the injustice of the status quo to fight against moves in the wrong direction so much more fiercely than we fight for moves in the right one. That effect is much more pronounced the worse the current situation is.

And it's particularly acute when it comes to migration. What is the current level of immigration to the UK? (Or pick your country.) I only have a ballpark estimate of this; I know the Australian numbers better; most people, including most politically active and aware people, have no real idea. This is not to say that everyone needs to have really detailed factual knowledge before they can have a legitimate political stance. But I think if you ask people to characterise, in general terms, what they think a just health system would look like, they will have a much more solid idea than if you asked the same question about migration policy. People's views about immigration almost exclusively take the form of views about bad directions that we shouldn't head in. Think about the strength of grassroots opposition to and disgust with UK Labour for proposing attempts at) migration controls in 2015, and compare it to the strength of support for putting new loosening of immigration rules in the platform.

It shouldn't be that a political party can get a pass from people who care about migration justice merely by not pledging to make things worse. The way we - I include myself, as someone who writes, talks, tweets, and so on, about migration a lot more than most - currently direct our moral anger and political demands in this area is tailored to the criminally unambitious goal of keeping things roughly as good as they are now. We should be aiming higher than that.

One way to think about the focus on change is that tightening immigration policy feels much more concretely like taking something away from someone. This is particularly true of free movement, where it clearly is taking away a right to migrate to the UK from millions of Europeans. That brings me to the second, and I think much worse, bias: we think a lot more about the impact of migration policy on the welfare of people we can identify - which largely means migrants who make it to, or near, our country - than the potentially much greater impacts on people who never get close.


The most striking example of this comes from refugee policy. If you were asked to name the rich countries whose refugee policy is most immoral - it's a crowded field - who would you name? Maybe Australia, and there's no doubt that Australian policy is barbaric and pointlessly cruel. Maybe you'd think of Hungary and Austria, or some other central European nations who in the last two years have distinguished themselves by their escalating xenophobia and determination to keep refugees out. They're good candidates.

Would you think of France? If you did, were you thinking of the Calais 'jungle' camp, or maybe the new camps in Paris? Those places are bad and reflect real xenophobia. But the epicentre of French policy's injustice is... not really anywhere. It's in the fact that France has no resettlement program to speak of. The French government has a standing agreement with UNHCR, under which the agency sends 100 dossiers - all regarding people with confirmed refugee status - to France each year, and France looks at them. There's no commitment to actually resettle any particular number of them.

You can read about the agreement in this document, in which the government proclaims its "strong commitment to resettlement" and crows about the fact that 766 refugees were admitted in 2015. (Most of these were from a one-time offer of places for Syrians, not from the regular program.) Compare this to the United States, which resettles around 70 000 refugees every year, or even Australia, which settles 12 000. (Both those numbers are increasing, and neither includes one-off programs for Syrians.) If France, like the US, admitted 10% of its immigration intake as refugees, 20 000 people every year would be saved from life- and rights-threatening situations. The point of this is not to suggest that Australian policy is more moral than French policy; I have no idea how you'd even begin to assess the comparison. The point is that very many rich countries - France is particularly bad, but there are plenty of examples: the UK's regular program resettles 750 people a year - manifest a total disregard for the lives and welfare of refugees through their failure to run sizeable resettlement programs.

It's hard to overstate how little we hear about this in comparison to policies that affect the asylum seekers who, because they've made it this far, we can see. This blind spot is built into the 1951 Refugee Convention, which lays down a series of strict duties - most notably, the duty not to deport - refugees who are in your state, but establishes no resettlement obligations at all. That asymmetry is pretty obviously indefensible from a moral standpoint.

Calling these 'biases' suggests a kind of sneeringness which is not intended. None of this is meant as admonishment. The prison camps on Manus and Nauru, and the detention centres dotted around the UK, and the camp at Calais, were and are sites of grave moral outrage by Western governments. But there are many other parts to the injustice of our migration policy, which we won't hear more about unless we think and talk more about. Maintain your rage, and diversify it.

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