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Brexit Britain should welcome more refugees

Credit:Carl Court/Getty Images

Credit:Carl Court/Getty Images

January 4, 2019   4 mins

I am fundamentally anti-migration to this extent: migration severs the bonds of community life through which most mutual care is delivered.

For centuries people have moved from the place where they were born to escape war or famine. And yes, sometimes economic disaster. But after the industrial revolution particularly, large numbers of people began to move in search of employment, with employers taking full advantage of what we now call a flexible labour market – that is, a market of people willing to leave home and work for low wages in whatever place that the industrialist wants to cite his factory.

With that weasel euphemism “flexible”, capitalism describes the unpicking of our historic patterns of mutual care embedded in the extended family and its long-term rootedness in a specific place.

Most migrants don’t, in fact, want to leave home. This is where migrants differ fundamentally from that epiphenomenon of global capitalism, the “citizen of nowhere”.

In contrast to this gilded globe-trotting elite, most migrants have been forced to leave their home. They don’t travel for pleasure or entertainment or to ‘see the world’. They travel because they have to, they have been forced from their home.

Morally, I think we get our attitude to migration entirely the wrong way round. Too many count as common sense that we want an immigration system that prioritises those workers that our economy might benefit from – doctors, engineers, crop pickers etc. To my mind, these are the people who may not need a welcome on our shores. Those who are the brightest and the best should stay with their home community and be of service there.

Taking doctors and engineers from poorer parts of the world is a form of asset stripping. If we need people to do these jobs we ought to be training up our young people, not importing cheaper labour from elsewhere. The free movement of labour is an extension of the flexible labour market beloved of big business, one that’s purpose is to keep wages low. It also allows the business class easy access to the international playground. Little wonder big business loves the EU.

But those who are escaping war, persecution and famine, they are in a whole different category. They absolutely need our help. First, because of straightforward fellow-feeling and compassion. And second, because often we have had a hand in the violence that has forced people from their homes.

When it comes to this group, we must be as generous and accommodating as we can be, and then some more. I have no truck with the disingenuous idea that migrants stop being vulnerable and in need the moment they first set foot in a county where they are no longer persecuted. To those who say that the migrants crossing the channel are hardly escaping oppression – having come from France – I would refer you to the horrendous and insanitary conditions of the French camps like the Calais Jungle. I saw better organised refugee camps in Iraq.

And why should those immediately adjacent to places of conflict have to shoulder the burden of refugees from that conflict? Jordan and Turkey take millions. By dint of geography, countries surrounding conflict zones are taking more than their fair share.

The heroic Mrs. Merkel – God bless her – welcomed millions, with occasions when 10,000 people a day were regularly coming across the border. Germany was a Noah’s Ark to people in distress. The USA does not deserve the Statue of Liberty with its “bring me your huddled masses” inscription. That statue should be taken down from New York and re-erected in Berlin.

It is very much to our deep discredit as a nation that we baulk at a few hundred migrants trying to cross the channel. We are shamed by our pathetic moral panic. Many of these people are trying to link up with family members already here. And no, Mr. Home Secretary, you have no right to assert by fiat that people claiming asylum here are illegal – we have a legal process to decide that matter, it’s not down to you to decide.

I agree absolutely that we must stop people traffickers from exploiting the venerable and ferrying them across the channel. And it may well be that the best way to stop this dangerous trade is to return those who attempt the journey back to France. But we should nonetheless be welcoming many more people here, albeit through proper mechanisms. We must act out of our better natures, and not out of some manufactured fear.

I’m afraid I don’t have some big moral argument as to why we should help refugees. I don’t think there is one – an argument I mean. And there isn’t an argument because helping other people in conditions of extreme vulnerability is so properly basic in moral terms that there is no stronger moral position from which you can argue to that conclusion.

There is no convincing answer to ‘Why should I help someone else in distress?’ because responding to the vulnerability of the other with care is almost the very definition of being good. Morally, the story of the Good Samaritan, for example, is illustrative of something foundational. For instance, if you need an argument to convince you that it is right to save a drowning child then the very idea of morality is lost on you. All you can do is hold out a photo a dead child on a beach or a family home destroyed by bombing and say: ‘Can you not see?’

Brexit will rightly give us control over our laws and borders. I welcome that wholeheartedly. But Brexit does not say what we have to do with that control. One thing most agree on is that we should level up the rights of EU and non-EU immigrants. It is quite wrong that mostly white EU citizens get a free pass whereas many darker skinned immigrants from non-EU countries are given such a difficult time trying to gain leave to remain. The current system is subtly racist and must change.

But we should go substantially further than this, and seek to gain a reputation for being welcoming and generous. From March, it will be our decision who to welcome. The EU will not be foisting the free movement of people upon us. And once we have confidence in this new system we should be prepared to use it to offer sanctuary to those who are fleeing disaster. Wouldn’t it be one in the eye for all those who have accused us Brexiteers of being racist if we could transform Brexit Britain into a beacon of welcome and generosity?

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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