Hysterical? Racist? Just deeply misguided? Even legitimate arguments against migration rest on endless discussions of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors. Dragged out in angry newspaper columns, shouty TV debates and political speeches, everyone and their uncle thinks they have come up with some new way to tinker with the ‘pull’ factors and somehow stop the ‘swarm’ of migrants descending on our shores.
The latest of these is the current episode of the world’s most endless and increasingly desperate saga, David Cameron’s EU renegotiation, which has achieved the impossible by uniting the pro- and anti-EU camps in collective derision. The dubious jewel in the crown of this triumph of diplomacy is an ‘emergency brake’, which can be applied to halt benefits to EU migrants for four years. This is problematic for a number of reasons, most obviously that EU migrants have repeatedly been proven to flock to the UK for higher wages, being fairly unaware of the benefits system until they arrive. This fact alone renders Cameron’s piece-de-resistance almost completely redundant; not least because the minimum wage will be increasing concurrently, closing this gap. Considering this pathetic attempt to pull the wool over the public’s eyes, it almost seems worthless to point out that a two-tier benefits system that discriminates against people working based on their country of origin is blatantly racist, and hardly likely to encourage EU migrants to integrate into their local communities. Underlining all this is a simple reality; people are flocking to Britain under the promise of higher wages and security, not the benefits system. Furthermore, we actually need them to do this, to support economic recovery and pay taxes into our collapsing social welfare system for the elderly. This situation is almost farcical in its stupidity.
The ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors debate takes on a far more sinister dimension across the English Channel. I recently had the dubious privilege of visiting the refugee camps at Calais and Durkirk, where migrants are trapped in legal limbo for fear that helping them escape poverty and war might encourage others to want to be helped. At Dunkirk, the situation is particularly grim; children play in thick mud, sanitation is virtually non-existent and increasingly fraught competition between people-smugglers is beginning to create a security risk. According to the most heartless people in the world, providing the most basic sanitation and healthcare facilities to people fleeing conflict is unacceptable, despite the fact that denying these facilities has done nothing to stem the tide of migrants to the filthy conditions at Dunkirk and the promise of a better life in Britain.
The problem is that for people running for their lives from war, the threat of measles and scabies pales in comparison with the threat of death. It takes a lot for people to abandon their homes to live in tented squalor, and refusal to provide showers is not going to reduce the threat of war. Instead, rightwing politicians are determined to paint migrants as selfish or greedy, not even for asking for these facilities, but simply for needing them. At the other end of the spectrum are the ‘pull’ factors; not the fact that Britain is the tenth wealthiest country in the world with an average wealth of £28,750 compared with Eritrea’s £373.97 per person; but apparently because the refugee camps where we abandon the destitute provide basic amenities like shelter and medical treatment.
So what is the solution? In terms of European Union migrants, stepping into the toxic debate to point out that there really isn’t much of a problem at all would be a start. I work in a restaurant with two British staff and more than 30 Europeans. These jobs haven’t been stolen; they would lie vacant if there wasn’t an army of highly-motivated, hard-working Europeans to fill them. All the problems associated with European migration, like pressure on housing stock and public services, are the result of austerity and bad policy. The migrants’ tax bills more than pay for what they take from British society; they are a net asset actually propping up our creaking social welfare systems, not undermining them.
The refugee crisis is an entirely different story. First of all, adequate facilities must be provided at the refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk, including the ability of migrants to apply for UK asylum from the camps, where they can be filtered and the migrants who do not demonstrate a large enough need deported back to their home countries. This would cut funding for the criminal people smugglers and reduce the burden of security and the danger of people making desperate attempts to cross the channel. Britain is already seeking to address the problem of poverty by providing increasing humanitarian aid to Syrian refugee camps, and should be applauded for doing so. These efforts must be increased further still and continued; it shouldn’t be difficult to make conditions bearable enough that people could be incentivized not to attempt potentially lethal journeys into fortress Europe.
But lastly, we must also accept that some of the pull factors are legitimate, and Britain’s incredible wealth means we must do our bit to provide sanctuary to victims of war. David Cameron’s promise of 20,000 refugees over five years is a dismal commitment when Germany has opened its doors to more than a million. A commitment by Britain to take 250,000 refugees over five years would be a much more robust response, and something we can certainly afford. Taking these refugees from the camps themselves serves a multitude of purposes, including encouraging migrants to apply from the camps rather than attempt the dangerous journey across Europe and providing the benefit of being able to select those most in need rather than those least in need who are capable of attempting the dangerous journey. Our current asylum system is a paradox that rewards those who manage to run the gauntlet and successfully enter the country illegally by offering them asylum. A bold commitment to take a significant number from the camps would also be a strong diplomatic bargaining tool in finding lasting solutions and forging agreements with Turkey and other current host countries, and other members of the European Union.
There is little chance of any of this happening of course. Our politicians are too xenophobic, too heartless, or too obsessed with austerity to warrant spending money on those who do not serve their political interests. Britain is paying the price for a situation it has had an enormous hand in creating. The global economic system we have played a part in creating, a neo-liberal world order that drags wealth from the poorest countries and places it firmly in the hands of the richest, has positioned us a beacon of hope for those escaping the horrors of conflict and poverty. And while I would never wish to blame Britain for the Syria conflict, its catastrophic foreign policy forays in Iraq and Afghanistan, its failure to provide adequate humanitarian aid to Syrian refugee camps at the beginning of the conflict and its responsibility for being part of the catastrophic European impotency, dysfunction and selfishness in the face of the refugee crisis have all contributed massively to the scale of this problem. But taking responsibility for its failings is not part of the British political psyche. Instead, we will continue burying our head in the sand, and blaming hot showers and the benefits system for drawing victims of poverty and war to our shores.