Suella Braverman has a point about immigration. But she's wrong about the solution – Ian Johnston
Suella Braverman is right: migration is becoming an increasing problem. In a much-pilloried speech to the Conservative party conference, the Home Secretary warned that “one of the most powerful forces reshaping our world is unprecedented mass migration”, adding: “The wind of change that carried my own parents across the globe in the 20th century was a mere gust compared to the hurricane that is coming.”
Given she had previously referred to immigration as an “invasion” – in words criticised by Holocaust survivor Joan Salter as reminiscent of the “language used to dehumanise and justify the murder of my family and millions of others” by the Nazis – this remark represents an improvement. An invasion suggests people are coming here to attack us and that, therefore, we would be justified in using violence against them. A hurricane, on the other hand, is a force of nature to which we must adapt.
According to research by the Institute for Economics and Peace, by 2050, a combination of climate change, war and civil unrest could result in mass population movements in countries that are home to more than a billion people, mainly in Sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. Another estimate suggested that, by 2070, between one and three billion people could find themselves living outside the “surprisingly narrow” range of climates in which humanity has prospered for 6,000 years. For context, earlier this year the United Nations High Commisisoner for Refugees estimated that 110 million people were displaced.
So for all Braverman’s unpleasant language, she is correct in identifying the problem. But what about her solution? Should the developed world simply “stop the boats”? Should we rip up the international rules about helping refugees, developed partly because of the shame felt by many that their countries had turned away Jewish people fleeing the Nazi Holocaust? Should we “build the wall”, to quote Donald Trump’s favourite campaign slogan?
To the dismay of some, Joe Biden’s administration is actually pressing ahead with plans to build a new section of border wall between Mexico and Texas, although the US President claimed he could not cancel it as the money had already been allocated. Asked if he thought the wall would work, he replied laconically: “No.”
It seems to me to be obvious – given the struggles to stop the current movements of people across the Mediterranean, English Channel and elsewhere – that if the number of displaced people is to increase anything like as dramatically as some predictions suggest, then efforts to keep people out are not going to work. Or at least, they are not going to work without recourse to extreme violence.
Is this the future we are heading towards? The rescue boats of the RNLI replaced by Royal Navy warships? There are those who appear to relish this prospect.
In 2015, after 400 migrants were feared to have drowned in the Mediterranean, former reality TV contestant Katie Hopkins infamously wrote in an article in the Sun newspaper: “Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad – I still don't care… Bring on the gunships, force migrants back to their shores and burn the boats.” She also described the refugees as “cockroaches” and “feral humans”.
And earlier this month, Trump said undocumented immigrants were “poisoning the blood of our country”. “It’s so bad, and people are coming in with disease. People are coming in with every possible thing that you could have,” he said. “Nobody has any idea where these people are coming from. We know they come from prisons. We know they come from mental institutions. You know, they're terrorists.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, of the US Anti-Defamation League, described the language used by the Republicans’ likely presidential candidate as “racist, xenophobic and despicable”. It also appears designed to make the case for the use of horrific tactics to stop migrants. However, like Hopkins, Trump was playing to an audience and frighteningly large numbers of people agree with him, perhaps, to an extent, because of the lack of an alternative.
In Britain, public debate is dominated by the idea that the number of people coming here must be reduced, even though many migrants are a positive boon – like the nearly 40 per cent of non-EU migrants in 2021/22 who were international students and contributed nearly £42 billion to the UK economy. There are those who want this particular goldmine to be shut down, such is their dislike of immigration, a word used so often in a negative context that it is beginning to sound pejorative.
There surely has to be an alternative to spending vast amounts of money on keeping people out; to the turmoil, misery and, in all likelihood, wars that hundreds of millions of people on the move without a plan to accommodate them would create; to the inhumanity of not just turning our backs on desperate people but turning our guns on them. Doing so would come at a moral cost to our own society. If the UK were to adopt such a barbaric policy, it might well live to regret the message sent about right and wrong to some of its own.
Indonesia offers a potential alternative. Its capital, Jakarta, is in the unfortunate position of sinking as the sea levels rise, so the government plans to relocate its ten million inhabitants to an entirely new “sustainable forest city” in Borneo. This might sound fanciful but construction has already begun.
The world is facing a similar dilemma, so could this national solution become an international one? Again, it sounds fanciful, but there has to be an alternative to the ‘fortress Britain/Europe/America’ approach. Finding a way to manage migration, rather than trying to hold back the coming tide of desperate humanity, would surely be safer for us all, more sensible from an economic point of view, and, as importantly, far more humane.
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