Are immigration controls moral?

Vaughan Jones


This is a paper delivered by Ekklesia associate Vaughan Jones to the inaugural meeting of the Westminster Forum, looking at the ethics of migration, and whether immigration controls are in fact practical, expedient, realistic, necessary or moral. If there is a crisis, whose is it? Should be pursuing a long term policy of the opening up of our borders? The intimate historic dependence of Christianity on people movements, and the prophetic biblical call for justice toward sojourners and strangers is basic to the author's perspective. Vaughan Jones is director of Praxis, a multi-agency initiative working with displaced people in London. He is a United Reformed Church minister.

[This paper was originally delivered in 2005.]

The election coverage of Jack Straw's difficulties in Blackburn has brought to mind my experiences as a naive young teacher at a difficult secondary modern school in that town. It was an overtly racist institution where senior staff would be unashamedly discriminatory to the children who were then recent immigrants from Pakistan. One of the things that was said to me again and again by my colleagues when I challenged them was. "you are young and idealistic but when you reach our age, you will think differently." Well, I am now probably past their age and I stand before you unrepentantly hopeful; although I don't think I could be accused of not having the first hand experience which I certainly lacked in those days.

I mention this because I am sure there will be a plea somewhere in tonight's debate to be "realistic", because "we can't take everyone, can we?" - "This island is already overcrowded - how many more can we take?" and "What is the limit going to be?"

There is a new mantra which has appeared in the immigration debate and it actually featured in a Conservative Party poster - "it's not racist to talk about immigration controls." Well, talking about it is not - but there is a deep problem in the subtext of the statement; the subtext being that it is not racist to have immigration controls.

Immigration controls actually are racist, if I can be permitted to make that assertion in a calm philosophical way rather than a rhetorical manner. What is race? In its essence 'race theory' determines that physiological differences between human beings have meaning beyond the physical and impact upon the political, economic, social and cultural realm. This is a construction.

Immigration controls are the imposition of the conception of race into another construction - the political unit of the nation state. Once you define the nation, then you define the need for population controls, along with defence, self-interest in trade and so on. Citizenship is defined by birth or adoption, but principally it is defined along ethnic lines. No matter how nicely you say it, effectively by advocating immigration controls you are advocating a difference of rights on the basis of ethnicity. That is the unspoken part of the debate. Immigration controls are racist.

Of course I appreciate that if you are a politician or an adviser in the Treasury or sitting in the Community Cohesion Unit, you may feel that the ethical dimensions of immigration are a little more nuanced than the blunt instrument of an accusation of racism. Quite rightly so. I intend to explore some of the ethical nuances involved, but within the framework of that central tenet.

In asking whether immigration controls are ethical, I venture to submit a number of parallel questions. The first of which is derived from my Blackburn experience. "Are immigration controls realistic?"

Are immigration controls realistic?

At the heart of the demand for realism are two things. One is the fear of the subversion and even pollution of the indigenous culture and the second is the knowledge that the world is a mess and could potentially get worse and being realistic we could literally be overrun. I fully endorse the proposition that if an ethical theory is impractical, then if it is not fundamentally flawed, it requires very careful scrutiny.

Let us tackle the cultural issues first. Britain is not a remote Amazonian tribe of the like for which Survival International campaign. Neither are the shifts of British culture a product of migration. I found myself singing a hymn in the bath the other day. It crossed my mind, with some regret, that I will never again sing a hymn in a large congregation in a non-conformist chapel in four-part harmonies. A spiritual reference of my culture no longer exists. But that isn't the fault of migration. The shift from fireside, family entertainment to American TV sitcoms, from fish and chips to McDonalds, from dowdy sensible footwear to high street fashion shops, from well behaved classrooms of disciplined children to sniffer dogs at the school gate, from large families to 2.4 children, from respect for the institution of marriage to divorce and co-habitation, from regular church-going to B&Q Sundays, from respect for the monarchy to a tabloid soap opera of a royal family - this has nothing to do with migration whatsoever. Our culture is in a state of fluidity regardless of migration. And migrant communities are as susceptible to those shifts as are the indigenous. The words "easy scapegoat" come to mind.

Now what about the second (and more potent) argument - that injustice in trade, the consequences of uncontrolled arms trading, corruption in governance, the AIDS pandemic, environmental change and collapse all have within them potential for chaos and one of the likely fall-outs (already evident) is that mass migration will increase.

Well, yes. But being realistic, most people do not have the means to travel and migrate from south to north. The problem of mass migration following conflict or disaster is felt far more at a regional level in the South. It is the more enterprising or better resourced who can move greater distances.

In reality, migration is a significant factor in preventing total collapse. Remittances enable inward investment in developing countries to reach family and community level very quickly and are far in excess of the international aid contribution.

The Geneva Convention is operative in the southern hemisphere and underlies the mandate of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. There is a real danger if western countries who take a very limited share of the world's refugees actually withdraw from the convention. The message to poor countries facing a refugee crisis would indeed be clear.

Need we be in such fear or is there a working paradigm for this crisis? I believe it stares us in the face. In 1945, Europe had experienced genocide and tribal killings on a grand scale. Millions were homeless and displaced, millions were traumatised and bereaved. In 1992, Western Europe opened its borders between the nation states for the free movement of labour. How did such transformations take place in less than fifty years? It happened through the creation of supra-national institutions and treaties, through inward investment, through the levelling off of inequalities within and between economies. And only this year we have seen the next stage of the experiment as the ending of conflict between East and Western Europe leads to further opening up of borders. And that trend will continue.

Immigration and asylum are best tackled within the broader context of conflict resolution and development. Strategies to deal with these must include methods of assisting the human victims. What a pity that Michael Howard and Tony Blair were not able to see the contradiction between their polite and principled campaigning on World Poverty Day and the brutalism of their approach to asylum and immigration.

Arresting the causes of migration at source and creating positive economic and cultural opportunities for exchange is the only realistic mechanism to "control" migration.

Are immigration controls expedient?

I do not believe the "numbers game" is at all helpful. Migration Watch and The Daily Mail build their statistics on flawed and inadequate data and within a highly questionable paradigm of a static population base where ever more people occupy an ever reducing space. Indeed deficiencies in data collection open the doors, if not the floodgates, for wild and irresponsible speculation.

Immigration itself is expedient and should be viewed in the context of declining and changing populations in the northern hemisphere where we are in need of people.

Many of the management issues surrounding migration relate to the changing nature of the state. Whether we like it or not, we no longer live exclusively in a nation state. In fact we live in a supra-state called the European Union, which is a new animal altogether. The European Union estimates that it needs 16 million migrants a year to keep its working age population stable until 2050.

But we also live in smaller national and regional units. Visit the website of the Scottish Executive and see how positive they are about the need for "fresh talent" to facilitate the development of a country with newly devolved powers.

And similarly the City State of London, in competition with and increasingly linked by transport to Brussels and Paris, is building its economic success (and Olympic bid) on cultural diversity, being an international transport hub and financial and media centre. London is a global city requiring a global workforce and needs to accept high density living if it is to be economically successful.

We also live in Diaspora communities. Ex-Conservative leader Michael Howard noted recently that two countries which were developing well, India and China, had not been subject to special aid measures. We might note the irony that both these countries have dynamic and well established Diaspora communities which are significant drivers in their success.

The varying population needs of the more complex formations of statehood present us with interesting challenges. It is not expedient that the paternalistic and increasingly anachronistic notion we have of the nation-state imposes controls without accommodating other dimensions of state.

Are immigration controls practical?

I would argue that they are not. Firstly, the idea that the labour market can be managed from week to week as if it was a supermarket chain is absurd. "We need 10 engineers in Hartlepool and there are 10 engineers in South Korea ready to be shipped over to be put on the shelves just on time." As former CBI chief Digby Jones has said recently, "No one knows from one month to the next how many people we need in the labour market". We really do need a free market in migration - the free movement of labour to correspond with the free movement of capital, if we are going to meet the skills gap and population deficit. Of course, freedom without fairness is illusory for many, the point that laissez faire economics misses. But the current situation is certainly not fair.

The United States has invested millions of dollars in the construction of the wall between themselves and Mexico. As a result, more migrants have died in transit taking ever more risky journeys. More have stayed illegally in the US because it is no longer easy to come, work for a while and then go home for a while. All the evidence is that the harder it is to come in and out of a country, the longer people stay, the harder it is to track newcomers and the more likely it is that criminal elements will take advantage of that situation.

Are immigration controls necessary?

There may be an argument that crime and terrorism transcend national borders and need careful checks. But I do wonder why it becomes immediately linked to asylum and immigration. Crime is crime and there needs to be robust international policing to ensure that criminals and terrorists are not able to undertake their business. However, using immigration law as a method of policing is neither logical nor effective. It is tempting because it takes away the burden of proof. The immigrant or asylum claimant has to prove they are not a criminal, as opposed to a proper prosecution and a represented defence. International cooperation in policing is surprisingly undeveloped. But that is not the fault of an asylum claimant. The current portrayal of asylum claimants as fully paid up Al-Qaeda members or Yardies and so on is plain wrong. Immigration controls are not a substitute for international cooperation in policing.

Are immigration controls victimless?

If they were, then there may not be such a need to provoke this debate. But the truth is that there are many innocent victims of immigration controls. And when you get to know people and the real life stories you realise that we are very much in the territory of human rights abuse. We have to be concerned about the imprisonment of children, the forced removal of children at birth, the trafficked women, the exploited farm workers, the suicides, the lives lived in fear and uncertainty, the deportations from a liberal democracy to the prisons of dictatorships. All this is happening.

Our immigration bureaucracies enforce destitution, separate families and waste talent. No policy which hurts people as immigration controls hurt and kill human beings can possibly be described as moral.

The only safeguard we have against the worst excesses is the 1951 Geneva Convention. It is limited and flawed but it is the best thing we have. Of course it should be reformed but by widening and extending its reach rather than for ever reducing its scope.

I was at a meeting recently when an adjudicator of Immigration Appeals arrived late. He apologised and then told us that he had had a heavy load that day with appeals from appellants from Iraq. He said, "there is one common word between all the cases - Christian." In the Christian community we, like others, have known persecution from the earliest days of our formation. We need the Geneva Convention for our brothers and sisters from Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Congo, Colombia, Iraq, and Iran and must be the strongest advocates of protection for all people of faith and goodwill who face persecution.

Are immigration controls wise?

I am of course using the term "wise" in the biblical sense, wherein for me lies the true basis of ethical authority. Wisdom is contained in the narrative of the Bible and the stories and acted parables of Jesus the Christ.

The narrative from which we derive wisdom is a story of a Diaspora community, an exiled community and an enslaved community. In order for the wisdom of our faith to flourish in our present day context, we need to identify those who share the experience of our community. Then we need to extend and expand with them the conception of the promised "abundant life" of the Gospel (St John).

Immigration controls contravene the wisdom of the narrative of "good" Samaritans, of a new Israel, of missionary journeys, of imprisoned and tortured apostles, of persecuted minorities and martyrs of the faith. It seems to me that it is impossible to commit yourself to the narrative of the faith of and in Jesus the Christ and not see the perversity of separating human beings along ethnic lines and of drawing lines across the map of God's creation and calling them borders.

In summary,immigration controls are not realistic, expedient, practical, necessary, victimless or wise. It is not unreasonable to seek for morality in this aspect of public affairs and for our political leadership to demonstrate leadership (an this is not a crude party political point) as opposed to playing on fears for electoral advantage.


(c) Vaughan Jones is a United Reformed Church minister in East London and director of Praxis, which has worked with displaced people in London since 1983. He is an Ekklesia associate.