In the last few months, hundreds of thousands of people have arrived in Europe seeking asylum. Most of them are coming from Syria, although the majority of people fleeing the civil conflict there have remained in neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
A number of countries, including Britain, followed Germany’s example of pledging to accept tens of thousands of refugees. Other states, like Hungary, have been doing all they can to put people off coming.
The reaction from the European public has varied from thousands offering refugees their homes to arson attacks on asylum shelters.
Some people have been confused though. How do we know all these people are really refugees?
To many people, this group of men taking a selfie having landed on Lesbos don’t look like typical refugees. Pictured in the Daily Mail, They look too well-fed, too well-dressed. Their iPads are way too charged.
A torrent of images and memes like this have flooded the web showing these men to be hulking body-builders. The problem with this meme, Vice tell us, is that these images are not actually of Syrian refugees and were not actually taken in Europe, but we’ll let that one slide.
Quite a few UK public figures have been asking the same question. In his column for the Daily Mail, Peter Hitchens asked “You really think these crowds of tough young men chanting ‘Germany!’ in the heart of Budapest are ‘asylum-seekers’ or refugees’?
Boris Johnson commented in the Telegraph that the crowds of people trying to enter Germany “seem to be composed overwhelmingly of young, able-bodied men.”
The suggestion these two columnists are making is that these tough young men are not in fact refugees at all: They are economic migrants, attempting to slip illegally into Europe among the genuine refugees. They are not, the argument goes, fleeing war and persecution but simply looking for a more prosperous future. Basically – young strapping lads who want better jobs, not refugees with rights to asylum,
That’s quite a big conclusion to draw from just looking at people. But looks can be deceiving.
How do we know a refugee when we see one? If these guys aren’t real refugees, then who is?
A refugee is a specific legal category, defined by the United Nations 1951 Refugee Convention as someone who:
“owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
Type ‘refugee’ into Google images and you won’t be too surprised by what comes up. The people in the pictures are mostly women and children, shabbily dressed, and often quite dusty. These are the kinds of images we are used to seeing when we hear about refugees.
This is why it is, to be fair, quite confusing when we see pictures like the well-built well-dressed young men taking a selfie with an iPad. They don’t seem too badly off…
However, young men are in very specific kinds of danger in a war zone. Military service of up to three years is mandatory for Syrians men aged 18.
Whether those who receive the draft do not support the regime or fear what will happen to them if captured by rebels, many have chosen to flee rather than stay and kill or be killed.
Four years into the civil war, these defections have left the Assad regime facing a manpower shortage, which only leads to further mandatory conscription, where the newly drafted can expect to be shipped to the front lines with little training.
Sanjayan Srikanthan, director of humanitarian policy at the International Rescue Committee told Buzzfeed : “There’s a common fear of being conscripted into fighting, regardless of which side that’s driving people to flee.”
Of course it’s not just about conscription. This all comes on top of the barrel-bombing and airstrikes which Syrian civilians, men and women, rich and poor, young and old, have found themselves in the middle of, and which have left many Syrian towns and cities completely destroyed.
Strapping young lads, or fighting-age men as they are sometimes referred to, might not look like stereotypical helpless refugees. But it is precisely because they are young, fit and male that they face conscription. This, on top of barrel-bombing or fear of the police, is why they choose to leave.
We cannot know who is a real refugee and who isn’t just by looking at them. You do not have to look helpless in order to be in need of help.
High profile players like Al Jazeera and UNHCR have led the way in insisting that the thousands of people arriving in Europe are refugees and not migrants.
The argument behind this was that the word migrant had become a dehumanising label that allowed governments to keep people out rather than let them in.
The groundswell that followed of European citizens insisting their leaders take their fair share of refugees was proof of how powerful a difference the word refugee made.
However, insisting that we call them refugees did not solve the primary problem of migrants being dehumanised.
On the contrary, it has given politicians and the media a licence to distinguish between crowds of people to pinpoint who was worthy of Europe’s help (the refugees) and who was not (tough young male migrants who were supposedly only posing as refugees).
Is this what happens when we start talking about two different kinds of people? In practice, the difference between a migrant and a refugee is often barely recognisable: Both are leaving intolerable situations.
What does a refugee look like? Explained: Anyone can find themselves in a situation where they have to seek asylum from war or persecution. We are used to picturing refugees as poor and desperate women and children, but war puts young able-bodied men in specific kinds of danger, like being drafted into the army of a regime they no longer support. However – this exercise of sorting between who is and isn’t a refugee can be dangerous. This is because it suggests that refugees’ lives are worth more than those of migrants.
The UK government promised to lower immigration levels to the tens of thousands. They are nowhere near meeting this target; do they really want immigration to drop?
By Bobbie Mills
Immigration is up there with the NHS and the economy as the issue which most worries Britain’s electorate. When politicians start on their immigration spiel, what we hear are numbers, numbers, numbers.
One number in particular keeps coming up: Net migration figures. This is the total number of people coming in to the country minus the total number of people going out.
If 100 people come in and 99 go out, net migration is 1.
If 1 person comes in and 0 go out, net migration is 1.
This figure includes people coming or going for more than a year for reasons of: work, study, joining family and seeking asylum. This means we are counting a very mixed bag of people –including students, children who arrive as dependents, senior managers transferring to their company’s London branch, and asylum seekers who cannot work while they await a decision on their refugee status.
The most recent statistics show net migration in the UK to be at 330,000.
This figure is enormously greater than Cameron’s pledged reduction of net migration to the tens of thousands. The Conservative government have since renewed their commitment to reducing net migration to these levels, but literally no one believes this is possible. Fail!
Why is the government failing so monumentally at meeting this target? Why do we want so badly to reduce immigration in the first place? Is it really such a good idea?
There is one simple answer to these questions: Not everyone wants to reduce immigration – INCLUDING THE GOVERNMENT.
Yes. We’ll say it again – the UK Conservative government, and pretty much any rich democratic state, does NOT want to reduce immigration by anywhere near the amount it says it does.
Cameron’s government could not be clearer in what it says about immigration: the current rate is too much and must be reduced. We know, however, that there is often a difference between what politicians say and what they mean.
Behind the scenes, the government is being pulled in two different directions on the subject of immigration.
This is because there is a great demand for immigration (both high-skilled and low-skilled) from the business sector. Rich economies like the UK rely on immigration to function properly. This not only goes for the National Health Service but also for processing plants, hotel cleaning, public transport and food processing, the list goes on.
The government has great interest both in keeping the economy moving and keeping the business sector happy. Therefore, it has great interest in allowing immigration at a reasonable level.
Why does the business sector favour higher levels of immigration? Business leaders tend to favour the free movement of highly-skilled workers because this allows them to take their pick from a wider pool of talented people. No surprises there.
Business leaders also tend to favour the freer movement of low-skilled workers because these people are more likely to take the jobs that British nationals simply do not want to do.
There are certain jobs that most Brits will not do because the education and aspirations that come with living in a rich economy mean they tend to want well-paid and fulfilling jobs which are seen as better than manual jobs. Even if we don’t want jobs from the top of the pile, we still have an idea of acceptable working hours, acceptable pay, and an idea of our rights.
Migrants, like everyone else, also have education and aspirations for decent jobs and a decent life – and this is why they decide to leave their country where they see few opportunities to come to work in a rich economy. Those who come to Britain, rather than another country, do so because they speak English (which all politicians agree they should do) or because they already have friends or family living there.
Not only are migrants more likely to take jobs that Brits do not want; migrants are also much more easily exploited than British nationals. This is because their visas are conditional on them remaining with a particular employer. If they quit their job because, say, their wages are being withheld, they automatically become illegal immigrants. Therefore, even if there were plenty of British nationals who wanted to do the hard and poorly-paid work typically done by migrants – like picking vegetables and cleaning toilets – employers would still prefer to employ migrants because they are cannot quit. They are a captive and exploited workforce, unlikely to complain.
This is the harsh reality of why the business sector prefers higher levels of immigration. Because the government needs to keep the economy growing and to keep business happy, it has great interest in allowing immigration at a reasonable level. This is why the government does not want to reduce immigration as much as it says it does, and why in many ways it does not want to meet its net migration target.
On top of this, there are reasons why the UK government cannot meet its target. All liberal democratic governments (who are committed to freedom, equality and human rights) are under a number of obligations under international law to guarantee human rights.
The UK is bound by the UN Convention on Refugees which requires it to provide shelter to people fleeing war and persecution.
The UK has passed the Human Rights Act, which brings its law into line with the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 8 of which guarantees the right to a family life.
This means that the government cannot really control the number of people who settle in Britain as refugees or through family reunification. Neither can it control the number of people arriving, settling or leaving from within the European Union, owing to the terms of its membership of the EU.
Let’s combine the business stuff with the human rights stuff. There are big reasons why the government cannot meet its target on reducing net migration – because this would be going against a whole bunch of human rights conventions. Then there are equally important reasons why the government does not want to meet its target. Not only would this displease powerful business leaders, it would also be a very bad move for the British economy, which relies on migrants workers both highly- and low- skilled.
Again, there is a simple answer to this: the government wants your vote, and it thinks that what you want are fewer immigrants in the country. So long as the government believes that the electorate is opposed to immigration, it will do all it can to at least appear to be reducing immigration by any means possible, regardless of how many it actually wants to let in.
This is where the targets come in – nothing sends a strong message of a government’s intentions like a solid target for reducing immigration.
Everything this article has explained so far is what fancy-pants people call the ‘liberal constraint theory’. Governments tend to have good reason to want to keep immigration at a good level, but because public opinion tends to be anti-immigration, they have to keep up a tough-on-immigration rhetoric to win votes. Any government who wants to win votes, keep the business sector happy, and uphold international obligations finds itself in this tricky situation. So that goes for basically any liberal democratic government ever, it’s not just a UK thing, it’s not even a left- or right-wing thing.
There’s a loose end to this theory. Does public opinion always tend to be anti-immigration?
It’s not even that clear what the British public actually think about immigration – and we seem to be obsessed with talking about it!
The British Social Attitudes Survey found in 2011 that 77% of the public wish to see immigration reduced, whilst research from think tank British Future found in 2014 that the majority of the public have much more pragmatic and nuanced views, and do not necessarily wish to see it reduced. Is our government pandering to an anti-immigrant public opinion that doesn’t exist?
To be fair – the arguments surrounding the immigration debate are pretty hard to stay on top of. Every argument has a counter-argument, and it’s hard to get our thoughts straight.
Scenes of Reason have put together a graphic that shows why the immigration debate cannot be won.
Politicians know that immigration is ultimately what our economy needs to keep ticking over.
Conversely, every politician feels the need to take seriously people’s legitimate worries about how their towns are changing and how their local services are faring. That makes a lot of sense: people do have genuine worries and problems. Whether these problems are genuinely caused by immigration is an important and complex part of the debate.
What should politicians make of the fact that a lot of people see immigration as a problem not so much for their local area but for Britain as a whole? This trend was found by an Ipsos Mori study:
What should we make of the fact that a lot of the anti-immigration feeling in Britain comes from places which have next to no immigrants living in them? This is the case in Clacton-on-Sea where UKIP member Douglas Carswell won his seat. According to the last census, less than 1 in 20 residents of Clacton were born abroad.
What makes people anti-immigrant?
Local level tactics. It has been proposed that rather than shouting at the government for or against the crisis, members of the public need to contact their local MP and work up rather than down. How immigration affects your town should be more of a concern than how immigration affects the entire of the UK. Whatever you think about these issues, you can contact your MP using the WriteToThem service. Now you’re decoded, there might not be an excuse.
Immigration in the UK explained: The UK government does not want to reduce immigration as much as it says it does because it knows how important immigration is for the UK economy. However, all political parties maintain tough rhetoric on reducing immigration because this is what they believe the UK electorate want to hear. Is this what you want to hear?
How do we form our views on migration? Do we care how immigration impacts the economy? Is it more about how it affects our local area? How can we know what kind of impact immigration is really having? If we have no direct experience with UK immigration, where do our views come from? Are these fears about immigration coming from the press?
Bobbie has just finished an MSc in Migration Studies at the University of Oxford. She writes on politics, the media and migration and lives in North London @MsBobbieMills