Faith & Politics / The Long Versions

Project Migraphobia

EU immigrants contribute more per capita to the economy than native-born UK nationals.

Photo by janeandd on Flickr.

The seminal American phrase “no taxation without representation” springs to mind. The UK now faces a situation in which those contributing the most to the financing of key government services will have the least influence on the national stage. Yes, Britain is a “kind” country which is not likely to see the mass deportations common in the United States. But key rights of EU nationals – the right to vote in European elections, the right to vote in local elections, and recourse to the European Court of Justice, to name a few – are in dire threat.

Tack on fresh threats to add EU migrants to a national register – even those which have a right to remain under current law – and the fears and concerns of EU nationals in the UK appear to be entirely justified.

It’s just rhetoric, some of the moderate Brexiteers tell me. Theresa May doesn’t actually want to scare immigrants away from Britain. She’s just taking a hard line to strengthen her negotiating hand when facing the EU Commission. They play to my Remainer fears and point out that Britain is going to need all the cards in the deck if they’re to secure a good deal from the Brexit negotiations. I riposte by suggesting that her immigration goals, rhetorical or not, might be achieved by making the UK an undesirable place to live.

This approach to the economic and cultural goldmine that is the EU migrant population is callous and foolhardy. With the fall of the Pound against the Euro and the oft-overlooked fact that the UK hasn’t officially left the EU yet, we should be seeing a rise in EU migrants, and we should be scrambling to make them welcome. But instead, they have plummeted dramatically, and the Home Office is sending them lengthy forms, filling detention centres, and generally being a pain in the backside for immigrants and the businesses that employ them. Why?

The Brexit campaign gives us part of an answer. “The 23 June will go down in history as our Independence Day,” cried noted British euroseparatist Nigel Farage in the early hours of the 24 June 2016, as it became apparent that the UK had voted to leave the European Union. His jubilation was palpable, even for those who did not share it.

Leave always had the more creative and inspiring campaign. Leading Remain figures such as Prime Minister David Cameron and the newly elected Mayor of London Sadiq Khan talked about the dire economic consequences of leaving. “Project Fear,” some called it. Leave campaigners, on the other hand, spoke with a more positive and unified voice – the UK outside the EU, they claimed, would be a courageous enterprise against our old competitors, France and Germany. “Take back control” was the mantra – leaving it to the imagination of the voter to fill in the blank as to what we could control.

And voters did. Worried about EU regulation and beaurocracy? Take back control of our exports. Worried about fishing rights? Take back control of our waters. It was a mantra that let you envision the future in any way you saw fit, and the vision would always be optimistic, even beautiful. After all, Britain once had an Empire on which the sun never set. Globalism is in our blood. Why should we rely on the EU to compete on that stage?

The icing on the Brexit cake was immigration. Enough Leave leaders said fine things about immigration to quell the accusation of racism. Former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who surprisingly endorsed Leave (likely as a political ploy to compete with then Prime Minister David Cameron), preached the virtues of non-EU immigration and alternative internationalism. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, advocated a points-based system to attract a higher class of immigrants. By contrast, then Home Secretary Theresa May, the leading government figure arguing for massive reductions in immigration, had endorsed Remain.

But the public imagination mattered a lot more than facts. With house prices soaring and living wages scarce, immigrants of all flavours have long been a convenient scapegoat for British economic woes. Perhaps the biggest dream of all was to imagine less competition and more jobs for native Brits: take back control of our borders.

The Leave Dream had seemed never more possible when Theresa May called a snap election in April 2017, to “strengthen her hand in Brexit negotiations”. The main opposition to May’s Conservative government – the Labour Party – was neither a serious threat nor a magnet for disaffected Remainers. Labour had backed the legislative vote to confirm the referendum result, and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, harboured Euroskeptic opinions.

Corbyn, however, is a skilled and principled campaigner, and not so easily suppressed. He found a rhetorical edge ignored by many Remain campaigners and many former Labour leaders – the benefits of immigration.

My ears pricked up when, in an interview in early May, Jeremy Corbyn reiterated his belief that immigration was a net benefit to the UK. This wasn’t surprising from Corbyn per se, but it was surprising for a Labour leader in a campaign. Sadiq Khan, the son of immigrants and representing the most pro-immigrant part of the country, was no stranger at pandering to UKIP voters. The tradition had begun with Gordon Brown back in 2009, yet the public notion that Brown had “not done enough” to curb the immigration boom of the 2000s continued to haunt him.

Corbyn, in contrast, doubled down on his remarks, refusing to commit to a net migration decrease, a policy his predecessor seemed eager to adopt. Theresa May, meanwhile, reiterated her purported desire to reduce net migration to a third of its current levels.

Of course, the UK can’t reduce immigration to those levels, with or without EU membership. If it could, it wouldn’t, because business lobbies would run screaming. And if in Theresa May’s Brexit fairyland we somehow could and would, we shouldn’t. Mass reduction in immigration is unfeasible, unjustified, and wrong.

But it’s just rhetoric, I’m told. We only want them to believe that reduced immigration implies shorter queues at the NHS. We only want them to believe that reduced immigration will free up houses, jobs, and university places for our children and grandchildren. For a Conservative party which likes to say as little as possible about social contract theory, the immigration pledge is a precious talisman. To be concerned about immigration, apparently, is to be concerned about the NHS, education, and affordable housing.

But if all this is “just rhetoric”, then it is an outright deception of UK voters, and one that panders to the worst devils of our nature. “Project Fear” may have been flawed in its statistics, but Project Migraphobia targets human beings. Migrants are a particularly soft target, caught in a political limbo where the nation wants their money but not their opinions. They’re defenceless, easy to scapegoat, and prey to widespread public ignorance.

Fortunately, the holes in the Conservatives’ immigration rhetoric are beginning to emerge. But the damage has been done. You don’t need to go far in Britain to find Project Migraphobia in action, even among some urban internationalists. And there’s a difference between migraphobia and xenophobia. When Project Migraphobia aficionados say “I’m not racist”, I’m inclined to agree. It’s not necessarily “racist” to discriminate against a fellow white, middle-class, educated, European person. But the discrimination is there.

Soon after the Brexit vote, I found myself chatting with a couple Anglo-Philippine pensioners in London about the local culture. They talked about their predominantly Pilipino family, frequent trips back to the Philippines, and the strength and history of the Pilipino community in London. But they were frustrated by queues at their local NHS clinic and long delays waiting for specialist consultations. The culprit, in their estimation? Too many immigrants. I pointed out that immigrants are a vital resource for the NHS. “Oh, but that’s different,” they said, with a Govian segway. I might have mentioned that the biggest problem is that we’re all getting older, but I erred on the side of politeness.

I’ve even heard complaints about immigrants within third sector organisations which are typically kind to immigrants. “We should take more refugees,” a Catholic priest involved in refugee support told me, “but we can’t have any more of these ‘economic migrants’.” A young man from the alternative left on the streets of Haringey suggested something similar when I told him I shared office space with a noted refugee charity which stylised itself as a “Migrant Support Network”.

“Should we really be calling them ‘migrants’?” he asked.

“Not all of them are refugees,” I answered.

“But our priority is to help the refugees, right?” he insisted.

I agree to a point – I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to label refugees as immigrants, as it may imply that they had a real choice to remain in their homeland. It carries severe implications when it comes to treatment under the law. And as a social attitude, it resembles the myopia of US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson when he labelled slaves as immigrants.

When is an immigrant not an immigrant? Slaves, certainly, are not immigrants. Refugees, probably not. But we cannot accept the implication this question sometimes holds, that is, “When is an immigrant acceptable?”

That’s a question we shouldn’t have to ask. The movement of peoples, and especially the very mobile and competitive EU workforce, has been an immense benefit to UK economy and culture. It’s about time community and faith leaders stepped up support for immigrants, to back up our considerable efforts on refugees. The pressures on immigrant communities, especially EU migrants, will only increase.

We are all immigrants. Let’s take back control of our rhetoric.

For updates on EU-UK expat’s concerns, I recommend following The 3 Million on Twitter and on the web:

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