Migration: A World Without Borders
By Rhiannon Watts
CHELTENHAM LITERATURE FESTIVAL 2016
As a member of the National Union of Students and the grassroots movement Stand Up to Racism, and of course in the aftermath of the somewhat shocking Brexit vote and subsequent concerning rise in racially motivated hate crime, a discussion on migration naturally appealed to me. I expected the talk to be both informative and challenging, and I was not disappointed.
The talk was chaired by barrister and BBC broadcaster Hashi Mohamed, who opened with a moving anecdote about his own experiences as an unaccompanied refugee child to the UK. Hashi and his elder brother Ali fled to the UK from war in their home country, Somalia. Their father had died just months before, and their mother would not join them until four years later. Hashi was nine, his brother ten. It was July 1993 when the two children arrived in Britain and by September the same year they were enrolled at a primary school in London. Hashi reflected, with an unmistakable tone of criticism, that the experience of refugee children today is starkly different to his own. There are several hundred vulnerable children known to the British government with the legal right to be in the UK, either under the Dublin reunification agreement or the ‘Alf Dubs’ amendment, that are waiting in the perilous Calais Jungle, their futures still uncertain and now with the threat of the camps imminent closure. No one need be reminded that the last time part of the camp was demolished, 220 children went missing, a shameful fact that both the British and French government bear guilt for.
Two guest speakers contributed to the afternoon’s discussion: Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs, Alexander Betts, and Principal Research fellow at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, Jonathan Portes. Several intriguing arguments were raised by both academics. One example would be the idea that immigration is in many ways the intersection between the economic and social implications of globalisation. Whilst experts can and have told the the world time and time again that migration has vast economic benefits, it remains politically divisive. Why in the West are we so willing to accept the notion of a free market but not free movement? Is it because of the fear of a small distributional impact or is it a symptom of a deeper xenophobia, intensified by austerity, the right-wing media, a growth in fascism in Europe and intolerant parties here in the UK too? This is certainly a possibility we must confront. Particularly as last summer the infamous Daily Mail published a cartoon depicting refugees as terrorists and rats - an image frighteningly similar to that of the Nazi propaganda film ‘The Eternal Jew”.
Throughout the talk, some salient points were made. Firstly, whilst there is no inherent right to migration, in the case of refugees we have a moral and legal duty to do our part. Currently, 83% of the world’s refugee population are residing in developing countries. In Lebanon, a country smaller than Wales, 25% of the population and over half of school age children are Syrian refugees. Meanwhile the UK and other wealthy countries have accepted just two percent of the world’s displaced people, in fact the refugee percentage of our own population is only 0.18%. Another point emphasised at several points during the event was the positive impact migration has on our economy. As recent research from University College London shows, migrants are not a drain on Britain’s finances; what is more, they actually pay in more in taxes than they take out in state benefits. That contribution – valued at £2bn a year – is helping to fuel Britain’s economic growth. Thus not only do we have a moral responsibility to accept refugees, in the long term it is the UK economy that will reap the benefits of migration.