Tag Archives: Charlie Hebdo

Immigration – more than a numbers game

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The UK election will be decided in less than three weeks and immigration is indeed one of the main issues  as it has been in many other European countries. Whilst the party leaders will debate the UK’s membership of the European Union, none has so far mentioned the two airplane loads of passengers washing up dead on the European coast this week alone. Let me rephrase this. The equivalent of two plane loads of irregular migrants assumed dead in capsized boats trying to make the Italian coast from Libya in the past week. If they had been airline crashes then the media coverage would have been tenfold greater. But they are not plane  passengers, they are nothing more than “clandestinos” and supporting their rights wins few votes. Perhaps the biggest moral issue for Europeans in this generation is rarely a central political concern, particularly to those in the North and West of Europe far from the Mediterranean. When agreement is reached, it is often perverse – such as ending support for Italy’s “mare nostrum” humanitarian interventions for fear that it just attracts more migrants.

However, political debates about immigration are not really about numbers. How does any society decide it has enough migrants? About 9% of the UK’s population is foreign born, whilst in Australia or Switzerland it is 24% and it is over 80% in the United Arab Emirates or Qatar. How to know when enough is enough? It is very hard for host populations to make objective decisions about this, so too their politicians. One common factor for most of these countries is that it is the localities within them with the lowest percentage of immigrants that are often the most anti-immigrant in sentiment. So perhaps it is not about numbers at all, but about the perception of those numbers, about qualitative and not quantitative issues. The target to reduce net immigration to the UK by the current coalition government to 100,000 was all but abandoned last year – so perhaps mainstream British politicians are also realizing this.

Immigration debates then become more meaningful when they are about qualitative issues. Sometimes this can raise tough questions about cultural identity and religion – some of which we discussed in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January. These can be uncomfortable and challenging discussions but they are what the immigration debate in Europe is really about (but in code), not about the numbers. At its essence is the clash between those that believe Europe should remain predominately white and of Christian heritage and others who see Europe as part of an interconnected world united by a set of universal values but not a set of religious beliefs or a shared bloodline. Those of you who read my blogs know what side of this discussion I am unambiguously on – but it is where the debate really is. In fact it is less and less about immigration at all, as each of cultural identities is beginning to become independent from where in the world any of us are born.

On a more positive note, some British politicians are taking a much smarter position of immigration – linking it more to abuse and exploitation than to numbers. It is an undoubted fact, that some immigrants coming to the UK (in particular those entering illegally) are vulnerable to considerable exploitation in the labour market. This came to prominence in 2004 when 23 Chinese workers drowned whilst picking seashells in the North of England and the issue of unregulated third party labour providers came into focus. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which now regulates the role of labour providers in UK agriculture, horticulture and shellfish farming, is a very important step towards ending labour market exploitation. Fundamentally, it focuses on ending exploitation not just for foreign-born workers but also native workers too – exploitation is exploitation. The powerful message this sends is that the UK wants to be home for migrants but not at any cost – not if it means undercutting the protections and rights of native workers or the migrants themselves. This is surely the most effective way of controlling immigration – regulating the labour market and not just the borders.

No UK Government minister has yet been willing to extend the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to other business sectors donated by temporary agencies, such as hotels, catering or construction. But perhaps after the forthcoming election, whichever party wins, it would make good political sense to do so, in particular if Britain’s newest piece of legislation, the Modern Day Slavery Act, is to become more than a piece of paper.

The fear confronting Europe in 2015

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“Martyrs for Liberty”

The terrorist attacks in Paris today are a watershed moment. This is not the largest terrorist attack of recent times – Paris has been spared until now the major incidents faced by New York, London, Madrid, Mumbai, Bali or Nairobi for example – but today’s attack will be remembered for the clear message it delivers in relation to international values because it is such an obvious one. I am not one to usually talk about things such as “French values”, given that human rights are now universal and internationally recognized, but there is something specific in historic terms about freedom of expression and democracy in a city such as Paris. It is debated as to whether Voltaire ever actually said “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” in 1758 (it might be a summation by Tallentyre much later) but it was clearly Voltaire’s sentiment.

Since 1948 freedom of expression has been an internationally recognised human right and is an essential aspect of life for activists, entrepreneurs, artists, journalists, writers, comedians and politicians across every continent. The fact that this freedom is not an absolute and is denied to the populations of too many countries does not diminish its universality or its essential role in the modern world.

I am not a freedom of expression fundamentalist. I have often argued with colleagues often about why papers in Copenhagen or Paris should go out of their way to be offensive, particularly to minorities who already face considerable racism and marginalisation across Europe. The cartoons did not just offend extremists but many moderate Muslims, in the way Christians, Hindus and Jews have been offended by other publications, works of art, music for decades. For example, the offence of “blasphemy” was only removed from English law in 2008 and this had only protected Christian sentiment.

I would not ban Wagner’s powerful music even though he was clearly anti-semitic, nor any of the movies depicting the death of Jesus Christ or even stop the bookshop at Amman airport from selling copies of Mein Kampf in Arabic and English which I believe it still does (a book still banned in some European countries). So whilst I have never read any copy of Charlie Hebdo and did not agree with the sentiments of some of their cartoons, there is a fundamental value at stake which is much more important.

Democracies cannot function without freedom of expression, freedom and liberty. More than this, as Aung San Suu Kyi wrote under house arrest in 1991, it is also fear that corrupts and fear of terrorism will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression even without specific threats. This of course is the basis of such terrorism. The murdered journalists and editor were very aware of this and undoubtedly pushed the envelope for this very reason – offending many religions and establishment figures over the years in order to push back the boundaries of fear that chill freedom of expression itself. The most invisible type of censorship is self-censorship and newspaper editors must remain brave. Many of us tweeted #jesuischarlie today even if many of us will never read Charlie Hebdo regardless of how good our French might be (or not).

And then there is the other even greater threat to European values, from the bowels of the continent itself and its extreme right. Racists also kill people, from the thousands of racially motivated attacks every year to the specialists such as Anders Breivik who killed 77 fellow Norwegians in 2011 for being young social democrats. But beyond this, like the beating drums of Mordor, looms the ugly face of xenophobia and intolerance which has recently taken the form of the “Pegida” marches in Dresden and other parts of Germany. Pegida or Patriotische Europäer gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes (in English: “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West”) would claim to be the counterpoint to Islamic extremism, but actually it has much in common. It is clear that both hate liberalism, both hate journalists and both wish to divide European society based on ideology. The danger now is that the Pegida marches will grow and we will see similar in France led by Marine Le Pen who must fancy her chances to run for the next French Presidency. A fascist in the Elysee Palace, the first since 1945, would warm the hearts of all those wishing harm to the democracies of Europe and our essential values. Those in the UK and other countries debating whether we still need a European Convention on Human Rights or would like to further restrict the sanctuary offered to refugees from the Middle East should reflect carefully as to which side of history they might stand.

I end by re-quoting the Paris-based Imam (via US Secretary of State John Kerry) who today honoured the murdered journalists as “martyrs for liberty”.