By Susan Bryson and Cathy Silman. Susan is a member of Dorset Humanists Pastoral Team and Cathy is Secretary of Dorset Humanists.
In this article, Susan and Cathy argue that we need to look for positive solutions to the immigration issue. There will have to be sacrifices but if the prevailing view of most Britons changes from fear to openness, then we can start to plan for how we can all benefit from the inevitable arrival of asylum seekers. Note on terminology: The words 'migrant' and 'immigration' are used in a broad sense to include asylum seekers, refugees, foreign students, and labour migrants.
"Let us remember that a bogus asylum-seeker is not equivalent to a criminal; and that an unsuccessful asylum application is not equivalent to a bogus one."
Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations (1997-2006) Image: Wikipedia
Yes, let us indeed remember, as we consider the type of language used in current headlines: ‘REDUCE THE NUMBERS’, ‘INVASION’, ‘ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS’, ‘STAY IN FIRST SAFE COUNTRY’.
At the end of November, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said we only want ‘the brightest and the best’, and Leader of the Labour Party Keir Starmer’s message was ‘train our own people to fill the job vacancies’. We argue that these sentiments show little understanding of the great store of skills asylum seekers can bring.
There are so many myths surrounding the issue of migration. It would be easy to feel we are a country under siege. As Sudanese-born journalist Nesrine Malik wrote in The Guardian, “Brexit is exposed, the economy is in shreds, the party has imploded and the government is running out of people to blame” (November 7, 2022). But migrants are an easy target. Don’t let us fall into that trap. Instead, let's plan ahead to speed up the painfully slow processing system so that the current debacles, such as long delays at the Manston migrant centre in Kent, can be avoided.
It's been argued that the recent increase in migrants could not have been predicted, but the numbers crossing in small boats were steadily increasing last year as other asylum routes were blocked and we knew that Covid had created a backlog. Crime agencies must have predicted recruitment drives by people smugglers in places such as Albania. These issues, alongside the exceptional circumstances whereby Ukrainians, some Afghans and some Hong Kong residents were granted legal entry routes, have led to the present increase in asylum seeker numbers. We would like to argue that as migrants are inevitably going to be a constant issue, we need to look for positive solutions and to stop scaring our current population with horror stories.
We acknowledge that it's going to be extremely difficult to solve the problem of migration without genuine global co-operation. 79.5 million - 1 out of every 97 people on the planet - are fleeing their home country due to famine or persecution (2019 figure, UNHCR, quoted in Refugees: A Very Short Introduction by Gil Loescher). We argue that this problem should be approached from a positive, caring viewpoint that acknowledges refugees are all in desperate need. They are our neighbours seeking help. We live in a global world, so we have to seek solutions to this problem. Inevitably there will have to be sacrifices, but there are also benefits. There has to be a different mindset from ‘nimbyism’ to accepting that we all have a part to play.
Refugees flee countries of residence at great expense to themselves, seeking protection from persecution or famine. Instead of welcoming them as human beings that can help to plug the huge hole in our labour market, we try to scare them away because, we say, we do not have enough resources to share. At the same time, we tempt well-educated professionals to our country as we need their professional skills, as highlighted in the medical establishment. It could be argued that we are happy to take but not to give.
"Many refugees will be happy to fill our vacancies in the social care, hospitality and food industries, which are crying out for workers."
Amongst the 40,000 human beings who arrived on our shores in small boats this year there will be the well-educated, the terrified, and those searching for work in order to save their families from near starvation. As a country with an ageing population, we need workers of all kinds. Tony Danker, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry stated this on the Laura Kuenssberg programme recently. Many refugees will be happy to fill our vacancies in the social care, hospitality and food industries, which are crying out for workers. Others will be trained doctors, physicists, nurses, or other professionals who are ready to use their skills. Still more, if we invest in their education alongside educating our current citizens, we will be able to gain the technological 'green' skills of which we are so short. The UK has 1.2 million job vacancies (Office for National Statistics, November 2022) not counting those needed short term by the agricultural sector. We need these employees who at present are knocking on our door.
If the prevailing view of most Britons changed from fear to openness, then we could start to plan for how we can all benefit from this inevitable arrival of asylum seekers. In addition to the economic advantages of extra workers, immigrants change culture for the better by introducing new ideas, expertise, customs, art, and cooking skills. Without these refugees we wouldn’t have had the talents of musician Freddie Mercury, athlete Mo Farah, and writer and illustrator Judith Kerr, to name but a very few. Can we imagine the UK’s high streets without the Indian, Thai, Chinese (and many more) restaurants which have enriched us all?
A good example of the intellectual benefits to the UK is the value gained from the foreign student population. In the recent frenzy of the immigration issue, the Prime Minister put forward a plan to limit their entry. The high number of students that appears to horrify ministers is the product of a concerted strategy by the Department of Education and the Department of International Trade to increase the number of international students hosted in the UK to at least 600,000 by 2030. This is a sound policy, because UK universities need the money that the students bring – in many cases to survive. In addition, it is the intellectual mix that encourages a flourishing environment. Referring to the Downing Street statement that Rishi Sunak is considering curbs on foreign students taking ‘low quality’ degrees and bringing dependants, Jo Johnson (the Rt Hon the Lord Johnson) said, “If you had to design a policy to thwart our ambitions to become a Science Superpower, that was going to set back our ambitions to level up the country, this is basically it” (The Independent, November 26, 2022).
Negative side to a vast number of immigrants
We do acknowledge the negative sides to a vast number of immigrants coming to a country, especially to one area in a short space of time. We have a housing shortage in Britain – in large part caused by wealthy foreigners using our housing stock as an investment, the rich purchasing second homes, and our restrictive planning laws that value scenic views over people’s basic needs. All of these, with courage, could be changed by a forward-looking government. This would benefit the million people in Britain currently homeless or in temporary accommodation, as well as providing housing for the workers we need.
Fears are constantly raised that refugees will increase the current pressure on the NHS – but the NHS only functions with the employment of so many migrants. We need to invest urgently in more medical places at our universities as we strive to balance loss and gain. Increasing the pressure on school places is too often quoted as a drawback to accepting refugees. However, these refugee children will be our badly needed skilled professionals of the future. All our children will gain from a wider understanding of the world.
Many argue that they are not against welcoming refugees but feel they might be better off in camps in countries near their own, where the culture and proximity could make it simpler for them to return home when conditions improve. They also argue that refugees should legally seek asylum in the first safe country in which they land. This has been untrue since the time we withdrew from the EU's Dublin III regulation, although the UK has introduced laws to this effect (Migration Observatory briefing). 69 per cent of refugees live in countries near their country of origin (UNHCR.org Refugee Data Finder). Currently, nearly 20 per cent of the population of Lebanon, and 10 per cent of the population of Jordan, are refugees. The figure for the UK is 0.2 per cent (Refugee Council). Is it fair or possible for the first two countries, not the most stable and wealthy in that area, to assist so many? How often are these figures given prominence?
"Let's try creating a web of UK asylum application stations near all hot spots such as Syria, Iran and Afghanistan with well-organised camps nearby where people can await assessment in safety. If asylum is granted, safe transport to Britain needs to be provided. If these centres existed, fewer people would be open to the lure of the traffickers."
We need to tread carefully. Life is full of unintended consequences. The French, in a joint operation with the British, have almost stopped access for refugees crossing the Channel by lorries. This encouraged people smugglers to coerce refugees in northern France to pay for unsafe passage in small boats. We need to massively increase our staffing of Project Invigor, the UK’s organised immigration crime taskforce set up to target the criminal networks behind people smuggling impacting on the UK. The net has to spread worldwide because it is not the organisers who can be found on the beaches of northern France who are ultimately culpable, but the global networks behind them. Let's try creating a web of UK asylum application stations near all hot spots such as Syria, Iran and Afghanistan with well-organised camps nearby where people can await assessment in safety. If asylum is granted, safe transport to Britain needs to be provided. If these centres existed, fewer people would be open to the lure of the traffickers.
"People flee their homes in the main for safety from war, persecution and famine. Many do so, as did the ancestors of most Americans, in search of a better standard of life for themselves and their families. The only way to solve this is to reduce the lure from the wealth and comparative peace of the West. This West must share out this wealth through investing and sharing resources. If in doing so we lower our own standard of living, so be it."
Long-term solutions can only be reached with planning and positive attitudes, and by richer countries owning up to their responsibilities as contributors to the developing world’s difficulties. A glimmer of hope came from COP27, with the decision to aim to implement a loss and damage fund. People flee their homes in the main for safety from war, persecution and famine. Many do so, as did the ancestors of most Americans, in search of a better standard of life for themselves and their families. The only way to solve this is to reduce the lure of the wealth and comparative peace of the West. This West must share out this wealth through investing and sharing resources. If in doing so we lower our own standard of living so be it. Is this not better than the alternative, where unrest and starvation caused by climate deterioration and inequality of intellectual resources and wealth force millions to aim to reach our shores? Those who fight vigorously against migrants should ponder whether their actions will in the long term have the opposite effect of that which they wished for. The culture of politicians, press and social media needs to change from fear and hate to one of openness to the opportunities that people of all cultures can bring. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
Briefing: Asylum and refugee resettlement in the UK (4th edition, 2022) by Peter William Walsh for the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford
Refugees: A Very Short Introduction (2021) by Gil Loescher