Migration and diversity: creating a society that is at ease with itself

Keith Best

By Keith Best

Migration is a global phenomenon, whether it is people with portable skills taking them where they are needed or the forced migration perpetrated by persecution and economic deprivation. This needs a global response and is an issue very much for world federalists.

The need for co-operation among states on such issues has long been recognised in Europe. Indeed, one of the founding four pillars of the European Union is the free movement of peoples. We are now well on the route, even if the journey is a slow one, to a Common European Asylum System and a common immigration one will not be far behind – its roots are already apparent. Logically, there cannot be a level playing field in trade and economic co-operation without a rationalisation of who are admitted as migrant workers.

Why is it that this axiom is taking so long to establish? It is because in this interdependent globalised world, which is seeing the death of national sovereignty and the old Westphalian order of the supremacy of states, there remains the issue of whom is admitted to a national territory and to citizenship of that territory as the final bastion of the nation state. We must not expect national governments to relinquish such control too easily. Decisions on fiscal management, setting interest rates, relations with other countries and war itself can no longer be taken in isolation from the international community: migration controls and citizenship still can – although they are already eroded in Europe as I have explained and migration decisions will need increasingly to be subject to greater global considerations such as brain drain from developing countries and linkage to development, mutual recognition of skills and qualifications, circulatory migration and refugee flows.

Governments are now realising the economic benefits of migration but this is against the democratic tension of existing residents often being fearful of newcomers both as to the effect on domestic jobs and on the impact on society and welfare expenditure. There is a delicate political path to be trodden. Unfortunately, opinion polls demonstrate that the general public is unable to distinguish an asylum seeker from a refugee and a regular migrant from the other two – often they are used synonymously. Yet in the UK there appears to be a recognition that migrant workers often do the jobs that UK residents are unwilling or unable to do if these are lower skilled and lower paid because the benefits system and the nature of such work make it unattractive (including some unpleasant jobs such as deboning carcasses or long hours and hard work in cramped kitchen conditions or patient care of the elderly). At the other end of the spectrum are the highly skilled migrants who come to work in the City and can command at least six figure salaries and large bonuses. Then there are the students who bring so much wealth to the economy in overseas student fees and their spending power while they are here. Even major education institutions like the London School of Economics derive over half their income from this source. Consequently, this category of migrant is fought over by many countries, especially in the Antipodes, aggressively marketing their own institutions.

Consequently, migration is not a homogenous phenomenon but has many different constituent parts which need to be addressed in different ways. This is the dilemma for Government. How to make it easier for those to come who bring economic benefit but tighten up on those who are unpopular migrants who are seen to bring with them problems rather than benefits for the host community? Government does not have an entirely free hand as we have to honour international obligations such as examining individual claims of those seeking protection under the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees. As we know, European Union citizens exercising their Treaty rights can come to the UK in search of work and can only be expelled if individually their presence is non-conducive to the public good and even then are likely to be able to return.

We need a new paradigm through which we look at migration as a benign phenomenon rather than a threat to national economies and cohesion. This, of course, begs the question that national economies and cohesion are already in a state of happy equilibrium which, in itself, is manifestly untrue. It is politically inept to suggest open borders but there has to be a more mature way of migration management than just pulling up the drawbridge. When Greece in 1981 and then Portugal and Spain in 1986 joined the European Union there was far greater disparity in the economic wealth between the northern European and the Mediterranean countries. One might have expected massive migration from south to north. Some did happen but not on an unmanageable scale. This would indicate that there are many factors in a decision to leave home for work abroad. This is especially difficult for families who are uprooting themselves from their environmental, societal and linguistic familiarity.

Too often the critics of migration fail to appreciate that these are not easy decisions for potential migrants to make. Migration is a manifestation of a globalised world: greater knowledge of other countries through the internet (which has also stimulated the use of the de facto international language of English) and electronic communication as well as widespread news coverage means that often we know more about what is happening the far side of the world than we do in our neighbours’ homes.

Against this background of migration and diversity what can we do to create a society at ease with itself? First, we should recognise our history which, woefully, is now taught so little in schools. That must change. If we do not know from where we have come we cannot see the road for the future. Secondly, we need to accept that diversity is a permanent feature of our society and of the world in an age of globalisation. It is not some temporary blip which can be reversed by migrants going home (whatever that may mean). Thirdly, we need to be clear that for society to be cohesive there can be no question of segregated categories of residents. Clearly, those who are here for temporary purposes will not enjoy all the rights of permanent residents (and we need to be clear what duration that implies – for me it is the limit of five years which the Government has drawn arbitrarily before a migrant can apply for indefinite leave to remain or right of residence which seems to me to be as good a time as any). Yet we must be careful to ensure that they enjoy equality before the law and freedom from discrimination. The question always should be not where people are from but what are they contributing towards society both in economic and social terms.

We should not be ashamed of a human compact or charter of rights and responsibilities in which all are expected but are also assisted towards making a contribution. Those with disabilities want to make a contribution but need help in ensuring that they can do so in their chosen manner. Ours should be a facilitating society and not an indifferent one.

On asylum it is in Britain’s best interests for fair policies to be adopted in all EU member states on the basis of solidarity and burden sharing. The British public want these decisions taken at national level – the theme of the French President’s Pact set out last year – yet migration flows to Europe cannot be determined on a national basis. If the legacy of Empire and widespread use of the English language is a desire for people to come to the UK more than elsewhere then we in the UK have a vested interest in burden sharing as events at Calais make apparent. It also makes sense on non-asylum migration. If we are not careful we shall be left behind and our interests will be damaged.  An EU ‘Blue Card’ scheme for highly-skilled workers, inspired by the US Green Card, was adopted by 24 Member States (not the UK) in May 2009. 

The message to any incoming Government must be that to act in isolation will damage Britain whereas to act in concert with agreed principles across Europe will ensure a fairer and more sustainable solution. This is especially relevant in view of the fact that the number of people seeking asylum in industrialised countries has grown for a second consecutive year according to the UN’s refugee agency. Some 383,000 people applied for refuge in Europe, north America and other developed regions in 2008 – 12% more than in 2007, the UNHCR said. Most applicants were Iraqi, but the steepest rise in applications was from Afghanistan, with an increase of 85%. The overall growth has been partly fuelled by regional conflicts.

It is against this background that we see increasing intolerance towards asylum seekers from ostensibly civilized countries. Both Greece and Italy are likely to be taken to the European Court for their failure to admit asylum seekers to a proper process, in the latter’s part by sending back asylum seekers to Libya in clear contravention of the principle of non-refoulement. It was exemplified only recently by the Australian authorities which have said 78 Sri Lankan asylum seekers in Indonesia will not be taken to Australia, their intended destination. The ethnic Tamil asylum seekers spent 10 days on an Australian customs ship in Indonesian waters. Indonesia agreed to take the group to have their claims examined but local officials refused to allow the Australian vessel to dock.

So what is the answer? Is it the concept of the melting pot in which, ultimately, we all end up a light shade of brown, a polyglot collection of different cultures indistinguishable from each other? The UK has an enormous ability to assimilate different cultures and adopt them as its own – the restaurant trade being one obvious example while popular music with so much Afro-Caribbean and African influence is another. Dance, literature, architecture – the list is endless of how our own British way of life has been enhanced by outside influences. Our language is peppered with imported words from other languages as anyone living in a bungalow will know. Of course, rightly, any resident community will expect new arrivals to comply with the social norms and legal requirements of the host community. The British people do not take kindly to those who come here and then appear to want to subvert our constitution and way of life.

Yet tolerance of religion, dress and custom is part of what makes the UK not only an attractive country but also is fundamental to our values. Freedom of speech means that, short of sedition, we should not complain when those who want to see change articulate that in vocal ways. The election of two British National Party MEPs may have much to do with a concern about migration but it is more about protest that the politicians are not listening – it is a reaction. That reaction, I believe, is not based on racist sentiment but on the velocity of change which disrupts communities. It is this which needs to be addressed.

It is also recognised, partly as a result, that integration is best achieved at the local level rather than trying to socially engineer it at a macro national level.  This is where the ignorance can be dispelled through mechanisms designed to enable different communities to reach out to one another and then for good practice which achieves community cohesion to be shared as a possible model for other parts of the country. There is a need for experimentation and innovation, not the imposition of uniformity.

What are the common values and common characteristics around which we can unite while still enjoying diversity or, as Peter Ustinov used to put it to me as a characteristic of federalism, “to enjoy each others differences”? The search for so-called Britishness can be sterile, not least because the nature of it is changing constantly. Cohesion is not assisted by the Prime Minister adopting, however inadvertently, a BNP slogan of “British jobs for British workers” because, apart from its chauvinistic implications, it begs the question of who are British workers. We need to find that which unites us rather than that which divides us. In a multi-religious society it is encouraging that these characteristics are secular values even if they may have their origin in Judaeo-Christian thought. Human rights, tolerance, freedom of speech and conscience, democracy, rights and responsibilities would find resonance with many. There is the tension between individualism and collectivism. We now all can acknowledge that there is such a thing as “society” but that does not answer how we manage individuals within it. One person’s freedom is another’s tyranny just as in the world one person’s freedom fighter is another’s terrorist. This tension is not as difficult to reconcile as may first seem apparent. The cult of uncurtailed individualism (to quote the awful current advertisements which announce “because I’m worth it”) is unacceptable without accountability to those around us. We should ask more what we can do for the society in which we live rather than what it can do for us. Likewise, we should render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and unto God that which belongs to God – freedom of religious worship is fundamentally an individual issue.

We can identify what divides society. What exacerbates division is dispossession and poverty whether among the new or existing community. Where that affects one particular community more than another it becomes a token for identifying the problem with that community rather than recognising it as a general social evil. The poor will always be with us and we need to combat poverty. Benjamin Disraeli identified his two nations as the rich and the poor. We need also to recognise that in a globalised world different countries are at different stages of civilisation in terms of historical and as well as economic development.

Those who are opposed to immigration hearken back to a supposed age when only the indigenous population existed but it never happened. They have the impossible task of defining a migrant. When does an immigrant cease to be one and become part of the established community: one, two, three generations or is it more about when an individual can be said to be integrated and mutually at ease with the community? For the closet racist the colour of skin will always define a migrant however long the person or family have been here. If we discount this crude and offensive measure then with what are we left? The only safe definition is a legal one: those who have a legal status to remain whether for temporary or permanent purposes. To them the law should apply equally and they should enjoy the same dignity as anyone entitled to live on British soil.

When setting out on a journey we should always look back to see how far we have come as the path just travelled may help us deal with the hurdles ahead. I hope that what I have done is to show that there is no reason to be pessimistic about these trends and global migration, that societies can absorb migrants and benefit from them and that so long as there is goodwill and understanding we can all accept the inevitable and ensure that it enriches society as a whole.

Based on the Donald Chesworth Memorial Lecture given by Keith Best at Toynbee Hall on 3 November 2009.  Keith Best is a Deputy Chair of Federal Union, chair of the Executive Committee of the World Federalist Movement, and Chief Executive of the Immigration Advisory Service. The opinions here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union, the WFM or the IAS.

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