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‘In Fighting for the Cause of Refugees and Migrants, We Fight For Ourselves’

AC Grayling reflects on what immigration really means, how right-wing politicians are twisting that meaning to exploit xenophobia, and what can be done to counteract their rhetoric

Home Secretary Suella Braverman speaks at the National Conservatism Conference in London in May 2023. Victoria Jones/PA/Alamy

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If Trump wins next year’s US Presidential Election, as Robert Kagan in The Washington Post both terrifiedly and terrifyingly says is now inevitable, will there be a flow of intellectuals and scientists out of the United States in a reverse of the flow of intellectuals and scientists from Europe into the US in the 1930s?

A flow of US refugees – genuine refugees, fleeing the collapse of their country into an illiberal, mean-spirited, even perhaps dangerous place for anyone not of the MAGA persuasion – is not inconceivable. Who with a sense of decency could stomach a situation of Donald Trump’s making?

The triumph of the US began in economic power before the Second World War and was sustained and enhanced after it by those refugees from European fascism. What will the world be like with wealth-powerful bullying states overshadowing it and bridling against each other – a Trumpian US; an irredentist, expansionist China; a world dominated by dictators?

This speculation invites analysis, given that the likelihood is that this is our future. But for present purposes let us focus on the word ‘refugees’ just used in this unexpected connection: ‘refugees from the US’. And let us consider that the refugee crises of recent years are as nothing – are as mere Sunday picnics – in comparison to the vast displacements of populations soon to be precipitated by climate change: a catastrophe of hundreds of millions of refugees, not mere millions, into regions unprepared and unwilling.

We have grown used to refugees from the crises in the Middle East and Ukraine, but the future’s refugees will be different, from different places, and far more numerous, than those we see today.

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In the far-right rhetoric of Victor Orbán, Geert Wilders and Suella Braverman, ‘immigrants’ are lumped together – whether they are refugees or migrants – in one unwelcome mass of moving populations seeking (in the case of refugees) safety or (in the case of migrants) opportunity. But as this distinction illustrates, refugees and migrants are not the same.

Many refugees are anxious to return home when peace is restored; migrants are in quest of a new home. Does this distinction show up in the numbers on ‘immigration’, in the provisions made for them, in the way they are dealt with? No. They are all lumped into the category ‘immigration’ because would-be immigrants, when their numbers reach a critical mass, trouble native populations, which – everywhere in the world, when left to unreflective tribalist instincts – are naturally xenophobic if not downright racist.

The resurgence in recent years of far-right politics in Europe and the US is based on the exploitation of xenophobia as the tool of choice for gaining power. Once got, that power is used to roll-back democracy, civil liberties and the rule of law, aimed at reducing the state from a structure of governance on behalf of the people to a structure for wielding coercive power over the people. It is a familiar story to anyone who bothers to read history.

In the UK today, a desperate Conservative Party is flogging the immigration horse as hard as it can to try to save its skin – because it sees how the right elsewhere is gaining ground by means of the anti-immigration agenda. It has not yet finished delivering the state into private pockets and completing its agenda of creating a subject population unable to protest, strike, or expect decent public services. It wants to finish the job of asset-stripping the country for themselves and the masters behind them in the media and tax-havens and board rooms.

That the citizenry of the UK is not pouring onto the streets in protest at the screaming hypocrisy of a UK government stuffed out with the offspring of immigrants is testament to the dazement induced by the anti-immigrant rhetoric of these immigrant children. But what is worse is that the rhetoric is so effective in switching off thought on the part of so many.

For if they did pause to consider, just for a moment, what the individual units of ‘immigration’ actually are – ie: human beings; men, women, fathers, mothers, children – how could they persist in accepting the bemusement of their faculties? Readers of these words won’t need reminding, but here is the distinction between a refugee and a migrant, and what each is.

‘Asylum seeker’, ‘refugee’. What is such a person? A human being fleeing persecution, danger, death, struggle, terror, horror. A human being fleeing guns and bombs, prisons, torture, cruelty, murder. A human being traumatised, shaking with fear, desperate. A human being who has heard, who has emitted, screams and cries of pain and grief, who has run away from a nightmare. A human being in dire need of safety.

‘Migrant’ What is such a person? A human being quitting places of hunger, futurelessness, who wants a chance to make a life, for himself or herself and his and her children, who wants stability, opportunity, who wants a new life, who wants a job, a home, security, a chance to grow into something they feel they can be.

People leave places because they are pushed and because they are pulled. The refugees are pushed by danger, the migrant by sterility of opportunity. Both are pulled by places that are better, safer, far more promising. Their situation in either case is so bad where they are that they risk much, often everything, to reach better places. However unfamiliar the new place, the strange language, the uncertainty of their reception, it is better by far than the place they leave.

Their action takes immense courage, resolve and effort. They do what human beings have always done, from the moment that homo sapiens trekked out of Africa 60,000 years ago – indeed, from the moment that homo erectus trekked out of Africa two million years ago – to find better places to be.

And here is the clincher: immigrants add, they do not take away. Look at the US in the years 1880-1939 and ask whether the huge waves of immigration in those decades was a bad thing for it. Well, was it?


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In today’s UK there are 165,000 vacancies in the care industry – yet the politicians, to pander to ignorance and prejudice, bring down the shutters. Our NHS, our universities, our small business sector (99% of British businesses are small to medium-sized enterprises or SMEs), profit hugely from ‘incomers’. Germany and Australia need net immigration lest their economies stall; whereas the saner political parties in the former understand the problem, politicians in the latter play the same tattered card on both sides of the aisle. It is madness.

Among the solutions to the ‘problem’ of immigration are these: (a) educate the home population on the facts: immigrants add value; (b) invest in the countries that drive migrants outward because of the economic insufficiencies there, so that talent remains there and the impulse to leave is lessened.

And as to refugees and asylum seekers: chief among the solutions to this different problem are: (c) work to bring peace and stability to the regions that drive their terrified populations out; (d) be humane, be kind, welcome them when they stagger onto our shores, succour them.

Note always: migrants are those who explicitly seek to be immigrants. Not all refugees, indeed, perhaps not many of them, wish to be immigrants. Do not discriminate against either of them; discriminate between them and treat them accordingly – which with regard to both means decently.

It is essential to recognise, and not be fooled by, the use of the ‘immigration’ canard to blind us to the real agenda of the far-right. The far-right stir up hostility to an easily demonised ‘other’ as a mask for the rest of their wider and equally bad agenda. They are at present winning this nasty game. We must not let them. In fighting for the cause of refugees and migrants, we fight for ourselves.

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