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Immigration: Distinguishing heat from light

Lisa Fraser attempts the impossible by offering a non-partisan approach to immigration. Read on and see if you can spot your own prejudices.

“We are in the age of walls and barbed wire.” Pope Francis’ 2021 statement resonates with me as I scan the media each day. 

There are examples galore. Latin American migrants dying in a truck in Texas. War refugees fleeing Ukraine. Migrants risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean sea and the English Channel.

While economies and supply chains are getting more and more integrated, some issues remain local, like the burden of mitigating climate change, unemployment, or ethnic conflicts. Meanwhile, human beings caught in issues bigger than themselves try to navigate this complexity, survive, and thrive abroad.

Migration is hardwired into human nature and human history. It’s in our nature to seek to escape misery and look for a better life. It’s in our nature to be curious about the world, and to want to discover more of its wonders. It’s also in our nature to hope for the best, and to try to protect our loved ones.

And precisely because of this, no country is in a state of ethnic purity. We’re all a mix of bloods, cultures, languages, ethnicities, histories. We’ve changed, and we’re still evolving.

What is also in our nature is to be afraid of change, especially exogenous change. So, sustainable communities must strike the right balance between order and change. Allowing a form of stability while continuing to embrace novelty and development. 

Immigration is one of the most visible societal changes we can see in a lifetime, or even in the span of a few years.

 

Immigrants bring new words, new colours, new food, to a land that used to feel familiar. But we can also see them as a threat.

 

While States and international organisations can put legal frameworks in place, they do not necessarily answer the key questions we ask ourselves as individuals, like: how should we react to migration issues? What role should I play in this debate? How will I treat my new immigrant  neighbours?

These questions are all the more important now that immigration is becoming a deeply divisive issue for modern democracies. The last few presidential elections in France, the United Kingdom and the United States showed this very clearly.

These campaigns sometimes dug out old fears often expressed in crude ways in the popular press or on the internet: ‘foreigners’ taking our jobs, undermining our prosperity, threatening our identity… These feelings are real, legitimate and widespread, whether they be based on reality or not.

However, the saying is right: ‘fear is a bad adviser’. Legitimate feelings do not always make good policies. Passions can be powerful drivers for change, but in some cases they can also burn bridges between communities. 

The first step to respond constructively to the issue of immigration is to seek out accurate information – useful facts produced by organisations which do not have a stake in the debate.

 

Facts do not tell us what to do, but they help build a clear understanding of the issue. 

 

For instance, understanding that migration is deeply rooted in human history helps reframe the debate. The question cannot – or should not – be ‘how do we close the border?’, because human beings by nature are called to travel.

However, we can ask ourselves: how do we deal with people crossing borders (which they will try to do)? We also need to understand the migration flux on a country-by-country basis. Who are the migrants crossing the borders? What drives them? What can’t they find in their native land that they search out elsewhere?

There can be both local and universal factors to consider. Thus, the type of migration each country faces shapes how it reacts. So depending on where migrants come from, integration can be more or less easy. But whatever their origin, refugees have certain rights granted by international conventions. 

Due to the complexity of the issues, immigration policies require fine tuning. This does not always work well with the simplified soundbite culture of modern political debates, but we need to step back and think if we want to design efficient, balanced, ethical policies.

If we don’t, we can fall into easy traps.

The first of these is to politicise, or even demonise, the figure of ‘the migrant’. In 2005, for example, the campaign for the French referendum on establishing a Constitution for Europe was dominated by the concept of the ‘Polish plumber’ supposedly stealing French people’s jobs. 

That’s why, after seeking facts and understanding, the second necessary step is to examine our own heart. Am I driven by feelings and fears or by facts and figures? How am I approaching the issue of migration?

One risk is to put migrants into categories: for instance, good migrants versus bad migrants. Naturally, we are drawn to people we identify with, culturally, ethnically, linguistically. On the other hand, we can be tempted to reject the unfamiliar – due to such factors as religion or skin colour. 

 

The media often accentuate these cliches. Refugees are depicted as good migrants, economic migrants as parasites.

 

Another risk is to forget that the issue of migration is about human beings. The issue is often narrated in terms of numbers: “X number of people died at sea today”. People become sad statistics. A form of compassion fatigue settles in and we pay less attention; or we shut our hearts.

Dealing with figures is easier than feeling the pain. But while passions do not lead to constructive debates, we shouldn’t fall into the opposite trap, which consists in closing our hearts. 

There is a middle way, which requires us to see people instead of seeing numbers. No-one leaves their country, language, family or culture because they are happy, safe and hopeful in their homeland. Some situations are more dramatic than others, but we shouldn’t overlook the challenge that these individuals face.

Acknowledging the humanity in everyone can be emotionally tiring, but ultimately, the ability to be moved is a gift. 

Our response to the crisis will shape migrants’ lives, in each case potentially making or breaking them. So it shouldn’t be made lightly, out of fear and pressure, or worse, out of self interest or xenophobia. We need to think about the values we want for our community before making collective decisions. 

Our human nature calls us to see humanity in every person. In the Christian faith, the commandments to love God and to love our neighbour cannot be separated. In Islam as well, the Angel Jibril advises the Prophet Mohammad to take care of the neighbour. The question is: who do I recognise as my neighbour? Do I refuse to see the humanity in some people?

Recognising the common humanity of a migrant then calls us to acknowledge their equal dignity. As beings sharing the same nature, we know that every human being seeks protection, food, warmth and a family. This is a pro-life issue.

Getting these basics right is really important before we start exploring options on how to deal with migrants. The first question we all have to ask (and answer!) is: to whom does my love and respect extend? Who do I see as an equal?

School and early year education can play a role in presenting the various aspects of the issue, balancing and holding together different views in society. For instance, migration can be presented as a way to rejuvenate the overall population and fill gaps in the job market. 

 

Education also has a crucial role to play in how people think about migrants, sensitising our young people to the dignity of migrants and our duty of care towards them.

 

Governments likewise have a role to play in bringing communities together, and building harmony.

Then, once we have the values right, and collectively agreed, we can start exploring solutions. How do I deal with someone whom I recognise as my equal?

Societies need rules to work well and be sustainable; there is little disagreement about this. So how do we design public policies in a way that reconciles accepting the moral duty to respect human dignity with the need to regulate society so that it functions well for the greater number?

Here too taking a case-by-case approach is the most useful. States have different capacities: accommodation, economy, cultural openness, organisational structure. Responses to immigration must fit within these parameters.

For instance, state capacity: can the state offer safety to migrants? Can they be protected from organised crime and human trafficking?

Economically, does the job market need to hire people, and can it offer a decent wage to newcomers, allowing them to settle and live dignified lives?

Culturally: are there similarities between languages and values? It cannot be a deal-breaker, because people can adapt, and live harmoniously, where there is mutual respect. But similarities can greatly help integration, jobs, and education.

Also, we should look at civil society: are there charities and volunteers able to assist? Can they help with red tape, social integration and emotional support? Is civil society willing to share responsibility and offer a safety net, or will it solely depend on the state’s response?

This point is essential in modern democracies where governments are seen as an emanation of the will of the people. A government can think that they need to raise awareness and educate people on an issue. However, forcing decisions on communities that are not ready for them is a risky strategy, perhaps stirring populist kickback as an unintended consequence.

It is important to be honest about our own limitations as well. Our duty of care means we must care about the quality of our welcome and not just the quantity of those welcomed.

 

Welcoming people and leaving them sleeping on the street would not be a dignified response to immigration.

 

Policy responses must uphold migrants’ dignity, whether the answer is temporary or permanent. Dignity means being fed, clothed, sheltered, kept safe and respected. We cannot create second rank citizens, or allow practices like exploitation or cheap labour. The legal system should be tweaked to prevent such abuses.

We must also think about the longer-term. Are we offering temporary support as guest workers or refugees, or will we allow them to stay here permanently to create a life that works both for them and for the community? But what must we do for this latter to actually happen? These are collective decisions, which fall on the host country.

However, clear communication to the people who are being welcomed is essential to respect their dignity. Immigrants must clearly understand their rights, duties and the extent of the solidarity they receive. It’s basic respect. Basic humanity. And it’s also very legitimately calling on their responsibility to correspond honourably to the help they are receiving.

These issues require us to look at party manifestos in detail, and to vote accordingly. We can also influence the direction of travel by getting involved in grassroot campaigns or charities. This way, we can make our governments hear where we want to place the cursor between the various policy options.

At a personal level, we can also get involved in a charity supporting migrants. We can help create a local environment which cares for the people around us – through donation of goods, or volunteering. More generally, the way we approach migration privately as individual citizens  can influence those around us. 

 

We should be extra cautious on social media, checking the sources we share, and the way we talk about immigration.

 

We can ask ourselves: am I shedding heat or light? Am I sharing useful facts, or am I giving in to anger and fear? Am I giving the topic the importance it deserves, or am I oversimplifying it and misrepresenting it?

These are difficult questions. They require examining our hearts and prejudices. Each one of us is tempted to go too far one way or the other – too kind and naïve, or too rigid and intolerant. It’s important to be aware of this, and of the image we’re projecting through our words.

Humility is tough. Finding personal answers to these questions takes time. Modern debates, media and online media often lack time and focus, but we can start the journey ourselves, and with those around us. It is a first step towards influencing the broader environment.

Ultimately, the issue of immigration is bigger than how we relate to migrants. It’s about who we recognise as our neighbour, how confident we feel collectively about our culture, and our ability to support others without losing ourselves in the process. 

It’s also about how we care for those who are vulnerable. Do I look at people because they are useful to me, or do I see them as human beings? How am I able to share my strengths without feeling threatened? How much am I able to give without feeling diminished…?

These questions are deeply personal, and rooted in a given time and culture. It is OK to admit our limitations and inability to give more. 

The main point is that, whatever our response to migration is, we should always uphold the other person’s dignity and the possible contribution they can make to our society. To see them as part of the solution, not just part of the problem. If we do so, perhaps we will see there is only so much a wall can do.

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Lisa Fraser is a staff writer for Adamah Media. She has worked as a political Special Adviser, in lobbying and as a consultant, before joining the Civil Service. She is a board member of Catholic Voices UK, where she gives talks, communication training sessions, and writes articles. She is also a board member of the Catholic Union of Great Britain, and a member of the parish council of a Jesuit Church. She loves having long walks, visual arts, and reading books about history and politics.

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