Theological Perspective "Is immigration to UK too much,   too little or just right?"

There is a call from within this place for population rises to be controlled. A group calling itself the Optimum Population Trust approaches population from the simple premise that there are just too many people on this earth.  The cross party Balanced Migration group is calling for net migration to reduce to the level of the early 1990s (and this is already Conservative Party policy) and that population in this country should be capped at 70 million. The government say that will happen anyway.

One perspective comes from an organisation which may perhaps be one of the larger community based agencies working with very vulnerable migrants in UK.  This works on a day by day basis with people who are refugees, asylum seekers, victims of human trafficking, temporary workers, and undocumented migrants and so on.  It is at the sharp end of immigration work and functions in community centres, health centres, probation offices and prisons.  It claims to be well aware that whatever policy is pursued whether it is relatively liberal or excessively draconian there will be a human cost.  That cost is masked by rhetoric and labelling – people are categorised and demonised notably by the popular press. 

Immigration is often seen as primarily an economic issue – how many people, with what skills and at what wage level do we need to maintain our economic output?  It is also a social issue – how are we going to care for our elderly and how are people of different ethnic, religious and linguistic backgrounds going to live cohesively in increasingly tightly packed urban spaces?  It is also portrayed as an issue of national and cultural identity, by engaging with people of other faith and culture are we denying our own – betraying our ancestors?

The Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an both make reference to the story of Cain and Abel, the first two sons of Adam and Eve.  Cain was a crop farmer with a settled lifestyle in relation to land and Abel was a shepherd, a wanderer, a migrant.  Cain kills Abel. This is mentioned, not to make a religious point, but to point out that the battle between those who settle and those who move is archetypal to the human condition.  Human beings are both migratory and sedentary.  It is the tragedy of our condition that we have not yet learnt to accommodate these contradictory components of our makeup.  But we must.  This is not just an economic, social and cultural issue; it is profoundly ethical going to the core of our human being. 

Debates around migration are too often shrouded with simplicity making it all too easy for politicians, bureaucrats and commentators to have huge blind spots. This is not said to be pejorative, but because there are many aspects and consequences of the policy area which are overlooked.  There are moral choices which need to be made – complex and difficult though they be. 

So when we are told we need an optimum population, what happens when we exceed that number? Do our institutions become Cain and cull the unacceptable and undesirable?  How many old people can we manage – do we just let some die earlier than they need?  Do we limit the number of births as in China?  What happens when our quota of immigrants for a given year has been reached, do we refuse visas and if so for who? overseas students, partners for arranged marriages, Indians or Australians, Latin Americans or North Americans?  Are our decisions based on need or wealth, race or status?  Immigration policy involves these ethical dilemmas which because they are difficult are usually kept to one side.  It is not possible to have an immigration policy based on tight controls without there being an element of racism even if it is not the full blooded BNP variety. Neither is it possible to have an immigration system based solely on economic advantage which does not have some measure of human rights violation.

Once you inject these ethical questions into the picture, then we realise that there is something wrong and that there is a blindness which avoids some fundamental problems and actual abuses. In the UK children may be imprisoned in maximum security prisons because their parents don’t have the right stamp in their passport.  People may be detained for as long as eight years without charge or trial. All this is justified on the grounds that the public want to see tough controls or that we have to protect our shores from terrorism or that public resources are scarce and cannot accommodate more people.  But children are still being seriously damaged no matter what the intention of the policy.

The point it seems is that we cannot manage migration but we can significantly impact upon those factors which increase the flow.  Debates about climate change, economic development, conflict resolution, arms controls are all debates which have a significant migration component. 

Climate change will displace people so part of our strategies for adaptation must include agreements as to where people will go.  The Indian army is camped on the border with Bangladesh to prevent climate change migrants coming across. The UKBA is well established in Dhaka to ensure they do not come here either.  But where will they go?  Someone has to plan for that contingency.

Economic development does require migration.  Africa should not be turning away Chinese investment just as the UK has not turned away the investment of Asian business.  But we need circular migration with some equity of exchange.  At the moment migrants in the UK send significant remittances to their countries of origin but UK citizens resident abroad send far more back to us. 

Finally, we have to face the ultimate challenge.  As long as war exists then there will be forced migration.  Any new world order has to look again at the mechanisms of resolving complex conflicts and abuses of power without the sort of conventional warfare which are too apparent.  Although while we correctly focus on Iraq and Afghanistan, low intensity conflicts in Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Sri Lanka, Colombia have had a terrible toll with real consequences for migration. 

In conclusion, seeing immigration from the perspective of numbers will always result in uncomfortable and unacceptable moral dilemmas.  Managing migration is a difficult if not impossible task.  However, we can factor migration into wider and more visionary economic, social and political approaches to the tough challenges of our globalised economy.  In the meantime some of us have to make a moral choice to protect the victims within the system which is failing them.


Vaughan Jones

Asian British Connection (ABC) Think tank

27th January 2010


   Rev Vaughan Jones is a Minister at United Reform Church, CEO of Plaxis and Ex-Chair of Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants (JCWI)


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