Debating migration is fine – establishing an intrinsic link between migration and fear? Not so.
In an interview for Parliament’s The House magazine, the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, argued that Europe is faced with a ‘colossal crisis’ of migration [for details see here]. As a result of that crisis, there is, in many communities, a ‘genuine fear’ about the impact of this migration – on jobs, housing, the NHS. Welby added that referring to those who voice their fear about migration as racists is ‘outrageous, absolutely outrageous.’ As we are witnessing ‘one of the greatest movements of people in human history’, Welby continued, ‘to be anxious about that is very reasonable.’ This is a point I could easily write a second piece about: given the level of racism I have seen and heard myself, I would, at a minimum, say that it is important to avoid such sweeping generalisations. Per se the wish to debate migration is not racist. True. But it can certainly be. To not recognise that is very problematic.
But I want to focus on something else here.
Welby is certainly correct to note that the movements of people we are seeing at the moment are significant. In fact: it is my view that, as a result of ongoing wars and, more significantly, climate change, migration will be a defining question, perhaps the defining question, of the 21st century. I also agree that it would be wrong to suggest that migrants have no impact on the societies in which they settle – after all, much of my research looks at exactly that question. There is nothing wrong with asking, for example, about what increasingly culturally diverse communities mean for the UK.
What is very wrong, however, is to establish an intrinsic link between migration and fear. Regrettably that is exactly what Welby has done – even if inadvertently.
Why is this wrong? Because it contributes to entrenching stereotypes – one need not look much further than the Daily Mail’s piece on Welby’s statement. Aided by a selectively chosen range of quotes, the piece does well in creating a sense of unease about migrants and the potential of their arrival in the UK. Similarly, the Sun chose to refer to the fears of ‘worried Brits’, lauding what it calls ‘a marked change in the Church’s PC rhetoric about immigration’.
That Welby chose to make his point about migration fears in connection with questions concerning the impact on communities expressly in housing, for jobs and the NHS, exemplifies the problematic nature of such generalisations about migration. The housing crisis, unemployment rates and concerns over the future of the NHS are all very valid. But the underlying reasons for problems have very little, if anything, to do with migration. Why, then, establish that connection?
By doing so, Welby has effectively enabled the ‘blame game’ in which migrants are frequently singled out for causing essentially all of the problems the UK faces today. A wonderful campaign – I am an Immigrant – sought to challenge this in the run-up to the 2015 General Election, but stereotypes are hard to overcome.
Undoubtedly it was not Welby’s intention to entrench them, but in an environment where, nearly every day of the week, there is a story of scaremongering in the press, where much of that scaremongering rests on casting migrants as the ‘other’, a threat, Welby’s comments are not helpful. That it should be Iain Duncan Smith, the minister responsible for many of the most savage cuts that threaten the very fabric of society, marginalising the already marginalised even more, who is one of the first to applaud Welby’s comments is telling.
As a German I perhaps know better than many others – certainly in light of my upbringing and intensive engagement with Nazi history throughout my school education – about the power of fear, the power of casting fellow humans as ‘the other’. I commented previously on the wider context – the creation of ‘the other’, the dehumanisation of people. It is during times when that happens frequently that far right support increases. Fear, Welby is right to note, is a very powerful emotion. And that is exactly why making that link between fear and migration is intensely dangerous.
So within that wider context my response to Justin Welby is clear:
It is reasonable to fear about housing.
It is reasonable to fear job loss.
It is reasonable to fear for the future of the NHS.
It is reasonable to want to debate migration.
It is not reasonable to fear migration.
Fearing migration can only mean one thing: fearing what is different. And here this difference relates fear not to using a different hair colour or a different detergent for the washing machine. It relates fear to human beings. Given that a large number of them are not actually even migrants but refugees who are fleeing war-torn countries – conflating these terms is problematic in its own right – makes the establishment of the link between fear and migration all the more problematic.
What we need is hope. And while Welby did refer to the importance of hope, he chose to focus on making his point about migration through fear. And that is something that I find very regrettable.