Write up: Talking about Borders
|3 May, 2016||Filled under Opinions||
The Liverpool Salon discussed immigration and national borders at Ullet Road Unitarian church on Friday 15 April, at an event that attracted around thirty people. The panel of invited speakers started the discussion with three individual perspectives on Europe’s response to the ‘migrant crisis’.
Peter Simm began by presenting some key facts on immigration and asylum law, based on thirty years experience as a solicitor working in asylum and refugee law, including taking and representing cases before the Asylum Tribunals and European Commission for Human Rights and Supreme Court. Peter explained that in legal terms, being granted ‘asylum’ means being given permission to remain in another country because of a risk of persecution. A person who has asked for asylum in the UK and is waiting for a decision on that claim is called an asylum seeker. Someone who has received a positive decision on his or her asylum claim is called a refugee. There is no legal definition of a migrant or economic migrant. People fleeing persecution and seeking asylum in the UK must make their case within a set of legal categories, mainly defined though the language of Human Rights. States have been granting protection to individuals and groups fleeing persecution for centuries, however, modern approaches are largely influenced by post World War 11 international legislation and protocols protecting Human Rights. For example, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, by which the international community sought to define and protect human rights, freedoms and dignity; the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), signed in 1950 and ratified by the United Kingdom in 1951. Article 3 of the ECHR is given legal recognition in the UK by the 1998 Human Rights Act. Article 3 of the ECHR prohibits torture and inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The absolute prohibition on torture and ill-treatment applies to the UK, but also prohibits the UK from deporting a person to another country where he or she would face a real risk of being tortured or subjected to ill-treatment. People may also ask for asylum on the basis of that they are fleeing persecution (on the basis of their race, political opinion or religion, etc) or that they are fleeing war and conflict.
Peter explained that there is a standard procedure for people asking for asylum in the UK. Everyone must travel to Croydon, where they will be interviewed by an immigration officer, who asks the same two part question: 1) Why did you leave and 2) why can’t you go back? If the application for asylum is refused, there is a right of appeal that goes before a Tribunal and a judge. A further appeal may be taken to the Supreme Court. The process appears extremely fair, but decisions are often influenced by the political and personal prejudices of the particular officials and judges presiding over each case. The ‘migrant crisis’ has raised questions around the way the UK and Europe more broadly are taking responsibility for asylum claims. 850,000 people were crossed the Aegean Sea, many wanting to claim asylum in Europe. The question arises, is Europe ‘contracting out’ its international responsibilities.
Chris Gilligan began by asking us to think about the long term implications of open borders, rather than responding to ‘the migrant crisis’ on a day to day basis. Chris argued that arguing for freedom of movement is an argument for the expansion of freedom for everyone – not just refugees, or migrant workers. Arguements for freedom of movement are not simply about humanitarianism, for example re-uniting familie. Nor should they be limited to particular nationalities. Freedom of movement was restricted by custom and law under Feudalism and prized as a fundamental liberty in the modern era. Apart from defending and expanding individual freedom, many people also see campaigns for open borders as a way of expressing their common humanity. For all these reasons, we should applaud the detemination of so many people to stand up for open borders and against deportations. The broader political question must be: how do we take up the arguement for freedom of movement in the conditions that people face today. For Chris, it is imperative that everyone with an ambition to build a human-centred world gets involved in developing, making and winning arguments in favour of open borders. Chris explained what he meant by ‘human centred’ by refering to the writer Max Frisch, who said: ‘we asked for workers, but human-beings came instead’. In other words, a human centred world is one which puts people first, rather than subordinating people to something else (e.g. the free market, or ‘we will take them if they bring overall benefits to us’). Chris then asked, what would happen if we had open borders? The bleak vision currently on offer is that open borders would give rise to more terrorism, more homelessness and more poverty. A more positive vision might be that people would co-operate and help each other. Both of these visions have a basis in the reality of society today and both are therefore open to argument and debate. Chris ended by asking, how do we get to open borders? People at the borders of Europe are demanding ‘Open up the Border’. They are asking questions like ‘Are we not human beings too?’ European policy to date says ‘No to open borders, European governments must retain control’. They also say ‘We have a duty to our citizens first, not to humanity as a whole’. However, borders divide humanity. People die from the enforcing of borders. Borders are inhumane constructions. They are an imposition on human freedom. Our task must be to build on the positive impulse that many people have, which leads them to stand in solidarity with migrants as fellow human beings. We must say ‘You are human beings too’, ‘we recognise your humanity’, ‘Open up the borders’.
Tom Slater argued that the public debate surrounding borders and immigration has become politically charged in the UK because many of the arguments in the debate are running up against arguments for political freedom and popular sovereignty – that is people’s right to assert, control, define and determine their political future. The scale of the current migrant crisis has undoubtedly heightened fears about mass migration, but immigration issues also speak to people’s sense of detachment from politics and popular resentment towards political leaders, both in Whitehall and Brussels. While supporting greater freedom for people to move and flourish wherever they please, Tom argued that political freedom is the main issue at stake in the current debate. It is only possible to win freedom of movement through democratic debate: ‘we need to get to freedom of movement through democracy’. The starting point for many pro open borders arguments has been the problem of managing the hostility of the mass of the people towards migrants. From this perspective, the masses are are motivated by fear and even racism. For example, it is argued that the fears and prejudices of British people have been manipulated through ‘dog whistle’ appeals to racist sentiments. Debate is shut down as free speech, democracy and popular sovereignty are seen to be problems rather than solutions. Tom argued that majority of people in the UK today are not racist, nor should racism be a factor in the debate around open borders. One of the biggest problems facing people in the UK – the same problem facing people all over the world – is the politics of limits. We need to argue for the ability and the need for people to push against the limits currently placed on economic growth. We need to argue for and find solutions to problems of scarcity that will create plenty for all. That means arguing for more not less democracy and for more not less freedom. Tom agreed that he wanted immigration to be as liberal and as free as possible, but stressed the need to link the case for free movement to arguments for popular sovereignty and a rejection of the idea that populations needed to be managed. The European Union’s immigration policies – with their managerial approaches and quotas – express an anti-democratic sentiment widespread among the political classes. It is not surprising that immigration has become one of the big questions at the heart of the debate about remaining or exiting from the EU – many ordinary Europeans feel their views are being sidelined as decisions are negotiated on the basis that policy makers and politicians know best. Immigration has become a lightening rod for the current anti political mood. Tom ended by arguing that a vote to leave the EU represents an important step towards reinvigorating popular sovereignty and building a more open democratic rather than technocratic debate on the question of borders and immigration.
The audience responded with a number of questions and comments, which focused on the EU and the upcoming referendum. What was it about public opinion in the UK that had forced the referendum to leave the EU? Was there something exceptional about British attitudes to Europe and migration? Another comment suggested that it might be more helpful to separate questions of staying in or coming out of the EU from debates around migration and borders. Public opinion across Europe reflects very different attitudes towards immigration and different European states have very different ways of managing immigration. If we are arguing that the choice for open or closed borders should be determined by the people, then why not separate arguments for open or closed borders from arguments for or against remaining in the EU. Why should the two be connected? Another comment drew the distinction between EU policy, national laws and more expansive ‘European ideas’ associated with universal freedoms, based on understandings of a common humanity that transcended national borders, localities and communities: surely ideas like ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are more important than either the human rights and policy agenda of the EU or the limited democratic freedoms of the nation state? Why limit aspirations for freedom and democracy to the boundaries of small nation states? Isn’t this view of humanity an example of the politics of limits? Another questioner asked, aren’t we guilty of not trusting people’s ability to argue about open borders, when we say we can’t argue for open borders just because lots of other people are making those arguments from anti democratic perspectives?
Another comment drew attention to the international context and the need to think about immigration and the current migrant crisis in relation to uneven development between North and South and the way nation states are behaving as international ‘superpowers’ intervening in the affairs of other nations around the world. Another comment was made about the need to place current concerns about immigration into a historical context. For example, Britain’s experience of ‘open borders’ and immigration controls predate the EU. Britain essentially enjoyed an open borders policy until the early part of the twentieth century. Borders largely remained open to citizens of the Empire and later Commonwealth until 1968 when immigration laws were enacted which restricted ‘non patrials’ (i.e. mainly citizens of the former African colonies). The 1968 Immigration Act, possibly the most explicitly racist piece of legislation controlling borders was introduced by a Labour government, almost a decade before Britain joined the EU.
The discussion didn’t spend a lot timethinking about ‘cultural identity’ or racial issues. There seemed to be general agreement that race and cultural differences were not the key factors motivating public disquiet over immigration. The discussion raised a lot of issues that remained ‘hanging in the air’, ending with the question of the debate on immigration could be developed and progressed in the real life context of a low growth economy and an increasing anti political and perhaps even anti democratic mood.
The EU’s Use and Abuse of Syrian Refugees, Tom Slater, spiked, 20 April 2016
Can Humanity Live without Borders? Frank Furedi, spiked, 25 April, 2016
Is it Utopian to Argue for Open Borders?, Chris Gilligan, Open Democracy, 4 May 2016
Eight Educational Resources to Better Understand the Refugee Crisis, Amnesty International, 2016