Migration is an urgent and complex issue, but a fundamental change of approach is needed, says Joseph Kelly

When our Lead Bishop for Migrants and Refugees hit out this week at conditions at the Manston refugee centre, he also made an extremely important point about migration that many governments are conveniently inclined to ignore.

Bishop Paul McAleenan issued a timely reminder that migrants and refuges are above all human beings that “must be treated with respect and dignity.” And in a clear reprimand to the Home Secretary, he said “It is also imperative that everyone refrains from inflammatory language that undermines people’s humanity and creates tensions between communities.”

Earlier this week Suella Braverman caused widespread uproar when she spoke of “stopping the invasion on our southern coast”, as if our nation was somehow in a state of war.

But Bishop McAleenan also made the fundamentally important point that the real issue at hand is not stemming the flow of migrants, but tackling the circumstances and upheavals that put people and families on the road in the first place. The reasons for this can be many and complex, from war to poverty, misgovernment to exploitation, but the common denominator is inequality, and for that a great deal of culpability lies with the so-called ‘developed’ nations.

One of the most fundamental laws governing our planet is that you cannot exploit with consequences, and almost all forms of migration can be honed down in some way or another to the consequences of exploitation – much of which has led to the enrichment of a few nations, and the utter impoverishment of countless others.

It’s actually extremely hard to drill down through the reluctantly-released figures to see why those arriving on our shores are taking such appalling risks to reach sanctuary. Decades, centuries more likely, of a narrow fortress mentality and an uncomfortable obsession with wealth and the building of personal economic fortunes have bequeathed us with an unpleasant suspicion of the stranger in our midst. But the truth is, we’re all strangers here.

This week the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published the results of its 2021 census data on migration which showed that one in six residents of England and Wales were born outside the UK. The media were quick to jump on the fact that there has been a 576 per cent increase in the number of Romanians coming to live in the UK over the past decade. In case that has led the Home Secretary to conclude we’re now being swamped by Romanians – for the record they only account for 0.67% of the current UK population. A scan of the media coverage of this week’s ONS figures sees words like “staggering”, “explosion”, “dominating”, “surge” and “overwhelming” in common usage – a real weaponising of vocabulary that needs to be called out.

Traditionally, even those in the Conservative party have been careful to distance themselves from such inflammatory metaphors, because they have the common sense to realise that such language assumes people seeking sanctuary on our shores have the singular motive of territorial encroachement and social disruption. They also know that a deeply uncertain darkness lies just beneath the surface of public opinion, and many believe that the immigration issue is a huge potential flashpoint for substantial civil unrest.

In fact, they’re almost certainly wrong about that. In 2019, the reliable and respected British Social Attitudes survey revealed that immigration was actually of decreasing public concern. Topping the list of worries were prices (54%), the economy (34%) and climate change (23%). By contrast only 11% were concerned about immigration (down from 77% in the 2013 survey). And why would we be fixated with halting immigration; we are almost all the children or grandchildren of immigrants of some kind.

It’s tempting to think that a rational explanation for the current government’s outrageous and inhumane fixation with shipping migrants out to Rwanda is to deflect from their economic failings, if indeed these are the key concerns of the public. In much the same way the Home Secretary has been whipping up division with claims about benefit scroungers “taking my money, your money”, her ‘invasion’ remarks this week have fuelled the myth that Britain is under serious threat from ‘illegals’ whose only goal is to steal our jobs and our homes.

Such language and mythology is nothing new, as most of our parents and grandparents can testify. When my own father first came to London from the west of Ireland in the 1950s, the “no blacks, no dogs, no Irish” signs were in boarding house windows everywhere. Like the overwhelming majority of immigrants over the decades, my father pulled himself up from desperate home poverty to become a very successful businessman, a significant contributor to his new country’s wealth and even a beneficiary to his homeland.

When my maternal grandfather passed through the immigrant processing centre on New York’s Ellis Island in 1929 alongside millions of others, he was just a wine cellarman, but five years later he had considerable skills, a good job in Manhattan and was both a contributor to, and participant in, that great American dream. In his later years my grandfather would talk about being in a rough tenement in New York during the Great Depression, but how the arrival of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932 changed everything. A quick scan through the economic and societal circumstances America confronted at that moment in time are not dissimilar to the challenges confronting our present UK government. How did FDR get America on its feet again? In his election campaign of Autumn 1932 he promised “a new deal for the American people”, won by a landslide – and delivered! By 1939 his New Deal programme saw unprecedented investment in new infrastructure projects, reforms to banking laws, the Social Security Act, and – significantly – programmes to aid migrant workers.

What FDR recognised was that for fiscal success and national prosperity, money needs to flow freely around an economy and the means to that is employment – more workers earning more wages, spending more money. Another crucial aspect of the New Deal philosophy was that, beyond excluding a few obviously dangerous or criminal individuals, every immigrant was seen as being a potential contributor to the nation’s net worth. It was merely a matter of providing the opportunities and upskilling. Within 12 months of my grandfather arriving in New York in 1929, he’d been processed through evening college classes and was out in the workplace as a fully qualified, wage-earning maintenance engineer.

Here in the UK today we simply don’t recognise that every human being has skills and gifts to offer, and a human potential that they can achieve given the support and opportunities. Far worse, our immigration system operates a brutal meritocracy where incomers are screened for their qualifications and perceived immediate value to the British economy. Those coming in with the required or desirable skills are fast-tracked into the system, whilst all others are left to rot in holding camps or bleak hotels, with no support, nor hope of a meaningful future.

It is little surprise that the current and past Home Secretaries have been desperate to ship migrants out of the country, however brutal the process. It has become horribly clear this week that the whole immigration system has broken down entirely, largely due to a profound failure by the government to commit to proper and sound mechanisms to process those arriving on our shores. The utter determination to prevent people from entering the UK’s monetary system has created a human catastrophe that is threatening to shame the nation, and certainly doesn’t comply with any notion of democracy or a supposedly humanitarian – never mind Christian – nation. Over many decades there have been numerous migration streams to the UK, and absorption has always been the outcome – hardworking incomers have created opportunities for their descendants and Britain is now a nation of people of who are equally proud of their nationality, and their roots. That a few legislators of extreme wealth, themselves the direct descendants of immigrants, could act with such inhumanity, is both shocking and unacceptable.

But, as Bishop McAleenan has pointed out, adopting a more humane approach to the stranger in our midst is only one half of the challenge. The other is to create safe and viable homelands that render such desperate migrations unnecessary. For that to happen, the West in particular will have to take a long hard look at the way it interacts with other nations; economic exploitation will have to be reversed, wealth and innovations will need to be shared, and above all the arms trade must stop. The UK must also recognise that the projection of the global map we have all grown up with – that seems to place Britain at the centre of everything – no longer applies. We are fast becoming one global family, with requisite responsibilities, and treating our nation like a tiny fortress in the north Atlantic that can reject the desperate whilst continuing to exploit or ignore the plight of their homelands is profoundly unacceptable, and cries out for justice.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer, and founder of www.thecatholicnetwork.co.uk