The public debate about migration in the UK has been poisoned, and that poison is killing people.
The endless campaign by our right-wing press to hammer xenophobic prejudices into the minds of decent people has seized on an innocent umbrella term, ‘migrants’, and twisted it into an epithet of condemnation.
The word ‘migrant’ doesn’t describe a single, homogenous group of people; it simply means ‘someone who moves from one country to another’. A French worker in Germany is a migrant. Brits who retire to Spain are migrants. Migrants have always come to Britain from all over the world: the current Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge was born to Polish parents, and among those inadvertently counted by the Sun in its recent EIGHT MILLION scare story were Sir Bradley Wiggins, Boris Johnson, and Emma Watson. (Not to mention Steve Jobs, the US son of Syrian migrants.) Even the most ‘native’ of modern-day Brits have 100% migrant heritage: our Norman, Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Roman, even Celtic ancestors all travelled here from elsewhere. Indeed, the very word ‘England’ refers to a northern Germanic tribe that settled in post-Roman Britain. When you get right down to it, we are all migrants.
But the tragedy of the public debate in Britain at the moment is that hard-right politicians — among them some leading eurosceptic voices — are trying to twist a humanitarian crisis to their political advantage. Week after week, we’ve heard Nigel Farage and his allies bemoaning a “gaping hole” in the UK’s migration policy, linking it to our membership of the European Union and implicitly to the idea that natives are good and migrants are bad — an idea that they themselves have carefully stoked over many years.
And the poisoners have been so extraordinarily effective, strengthened by a daily dose of xenophobia from the right-wing press, that politicians are running scared. David Cameron hastily rewrote his EU “reform priorities” in 2014 to focus on undermining internal freedom of movement, after initially making no mention of the issue. And the debate has become so skewed that, in recent election campaigns, UKIP actually sidelined its trademark anti-Europeanism in favour of a crude anti-immigrant platform, and did disturbingly well.
In reality, this has never been a question of EU freedom of movement at all. Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine two more fundamentally different situations than that of the twenty-first century European citizen who takes up a job offer in a neighbouring country, and that of a displaced family from war-torn Iraq or Syria, desperately fleeing deadly peril. Yet if you poison a single word, ‘migrants’, you poison everyone – and among your victims are some of the world’s most vulnerable people.
The real irony of the crisis faced by refugees on the borders of Europe is that, while EU freedom of movement has nothing to do with their tragedy, European cooperation remains their best hope for a solution. As Labour MEPs will be arguing this week in the European Parliament, we need an organised humanitarian response to the crisis, with a fair and coordinated mechanism to resettle refugees where they will be safe. We also need an effective EU search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean, and legal routes to combat people-smuggling.
And here comes the hard part for David Cameron: the UK must play its full role in handling the crisis. It’s not only absurd but dangerously counter-productive to plead geography, leaving the entire burden to be borne by those allies who happen to be the first landing point for refugee families on the northern shores of the Mediterranean. This is a situation in which we need compassion, solidarity and practical cooperation – not political points-scoring and rhetorical poison.
Until that happens, vulnerable people will keep on dying.