Refugees, Immigrants, and Humanity: J’accuse…

by George Hatjoullis

Refugee Child

Once in a while Twitter throws up some photos that are profoundly depressing and disturbing. I usually move on. This time I could not. The above photo is of a child that drowned in one of the many attempts by refugees to reach the EU by boat. I cannot verify that this photo is of such a child. I know nothing of the status of the child. Was it part of a refugee family or a migrant family? I do know that many children have drowned and that this child has drowned. Let the photo stand for all the innocent children that have drowned because they were unfortunate enough to be born in a war zone. Charities use photos, often out of context, to pull at our heart-strings and get money. I do not want your money. I want your attention.

My wife was a refugee. The area in which I live is full of people of refugee origin. They are all now established upstanding citizens. It disturbs me that there is not more empathy with the current crop of refugees. It depresses me that there are once again refugees. The human species appears to have no learning curve when it comes to humanity. We have conveniently conflated the issue of economic migration with refugee status. It is much easier to ignore economic migrants than people fleeing war zones and persecution. We have also conveniently washed away the memory of our own government’s complicity in the wars that created the refugees. We interpret events in convenient ways.

Economic migration is a complicated matter. The EU single market has opened up the possibility of huge economic migrations to parts of the EU, from other parts of the EU. However, it is in the very nature of EU economic migration to be two-way. The recent inflow from the EU has reflected the comparatively heathy UK economy. The UK has not always had a comparatively healthy economy. There was a time when builders from Newcastle went to Germany to find work. We even made a TV series to celebrate this migration. Around 2 million British people live abroad in the EU. They may all return to the UK one day. By the same token, if comparative economic conditions change, many EU economic migrants will return home or simply go elsewhere in the EU. It is migration from outside of the EU (the type that UKip seems to prefer) that tends to be permanent. Much of the economic migration is foreign graduates of our universities staying on to work. They pay for their education and we benefit. This is a bad thing?

Economics is very concerned with potential output. It is simply the level of GDP that is sustainable without eliciting rising inflation. In the long run, it is often approximated by growth of the active labour force and labour productivity. Ageing populations are thus a drag on growth of potential GDP. Economic migration can relieve this constraint and it does. The problem is the temporary difficulty of integrating new migrants. This can disrupt established communities, create local problems, and generate resentment and hostility. The local community has rights too (and is often just established migrants of earlier generations) and failure to deal with local concerns exacerbates a natural antipathy towards the ‘other’.

The UK is not exceptional in its xenophobia. It is an ever present feature of all migrations and part of the cost of migration. Sometimes this xenophobia is harmful because it slows the growth of potential output. This is acceptable. What is not acceptable is when the xenophobia results in pictures like the one above. It is not potential growth that is forsaken but common humanity. The cold indifference to others that we engineer in ourselves by making up convenient stories hurts us in ways that are far more serious.

The EU has failed to come up with a common approach to refugees. This is inexplicable and wholly unacceptable. The problem has grown for some years. It has failed to distinguish adequately between economic migration and refugees. It has failed to offer refugees safe havens and opportunities to apply for asylum before reaching EU borders. It has allowed frontline states such as Greece and Italy to bear the burden of illegal entry with little coordinated help. If the EU does not exists to provide a coordinated response to such global catastrophes then what is the point of its existence? I accuse the EU of gross irrelevance.