Let's not do the "good migrants/bad migrants" thing
28 August 2015
In the debate about immigration, there is a tendency amongst progressives and liberals to try to protect the reputation of refugees at the expense of (economic) migrants. One might understand a media outlet examining the difference between refugees and migrants, as Al Jazeera did in a pretty responsible way.
Not all of these efforts have been helpful though. For example, we've recently seen a campaign to exclude overseas students from immigration figures, because they're an obvious economic 'gain' for the UK. But campaigns like this can be counterproductive, serving to feed into the good migrant / bad migrant narrative that is encouraged by those in power. Taking out perhaps the best organised and most politically aware group of migrants from the heart of the immigration debate doesn’t help strengthen the progressive argument.
The problem with this approach of dividing migrants from refugees is that it diverts us into discussing which migrants are acceptable and which are not instead of challenging the demonisation of immigrants by mainstream political parties and the media. The solution is not to try to find "acceptable" immigrants, but to say people are welcome here and to detoxify the term immigrant.
So we should stick to the UN definition of a migrant as someone who moves to another country to live for a year or more. And let’s unashamedly argue that all migrants should be welcome here.
The Movement Against Xenophobia (MAX) did a good job of presenting the contribution made by (mostly) economic migrants with the I Am An Immmigrant poster campaign in the run up to the general election. It served to start an attempt to reclaim the word immigrant from the jaundiced and prejudiced way that papers like the Daily Express use it, but campaigns are not won by posters alone.
We need solidarity. We see bits of it: the missions to Calais, the grassroots projects providing basic care and support for migrants, the health professionals providing clinics for irregular migrants, the legal professionals giving free advice and assistance to those trying to regularise their status here and the individual acts of solidarity that happen under the radar every day.
The last thing we should do is to reinforce the good migrant / bad migrant narrative. If you think economic migrants are less deserving or somehow able to pop back home at any point, perhaps you should read the books of Hsiao-Hung Pai who tells the stories of Chinese migrants working and living in awful and dangerous conditions to keep the money rolling to the snakehead gangs and loan sharks, lest their families get hurt or killed.
Unity between migrants and between progressives and migrants is essential. Don't buy into the idea that if fewer Romanians or Poles or Chinese or African people came in there'd be more capacity to shelter Syrian refugees. The UK has taken a handful of Syrian refugees because the Government prioritise their own ridiculous migration targets over the lives of actual human beings.
Russell Brand put it very well. An immigrant is someone who used to be somewhere else. In that sense we ARE all immigrants, only for some of us, our journeys didn't happen to cross an imaginary line that was designed by people to keep us in our places - both geographically and financially.