Five bottom lines that we need to secure our attitude to immigration and refugee movements

In a troubled week for those who have been advocating for a welcoming approach to refugees we offer our reasons to hold firmly to the progressive, open-minded line

Pulled in opposite directions

Immigration issues in the news during the first ten days of 2016 seem to be pulling liberal instincts in two opposite directions. 

On one hand we’ve seen the distressing images coming from the Syrian town of Madaya, where tens of thousands of people have been subjected to a blockade involving food supplies.  Hundreds of distressing cases of malnutrition are being reported with children being particularly affected.  These numbers are likely to grow much larger if the hardship confronting the town and its citizens are not quickly relieved.

It is situations such as this that are driving those who are still able to flee the country in the hope of finding a safe haven elsewhere. Most people with compassionate instincts towards their fellow human beings will be of the view that, if that is their only option, the way should be opened for a safe route to a place of safety.

Balanced against this has been the news about the incidents that took place on New Year’s Eve in the German city of Cologne.  Reports vary but it seems probable that groups of young males, described in the media as being of ‘middle eastern’ or ‘north African’ appearance were present in the town’s cathedral square that evening, engaging in opportunistic assaults against women involved in the traditional revels. 

This has fuelled a backlash against what had been called the Willkommenskultur that had marked a big part of the response of German people to the refugee crisis in Europe.  The argument has been put that in adopting this approach a door has been opened through which have flowed hundreds of thousands of people with cultures that conflict with those of liberal Europe.

Five bottom lines

In confronting these matters we should set down the bottom lines which are needed to guide us around the set of issues which came to the forefront on New Year's Eve in Cologne.

Number one is that the battle which has been led by women for decades to make the streets of towns and cities a safe place for them to be at anytime is one from which there is no pulling back.  But we should not presume that it is a fight in which only those women who hold so-called European values have a stake. We would suggest that it one which is being waged by women from all across the world, including those who are caught up in the current flows of refugees.

Secondly, there is the need to resist the vulgar idea that Europe is the paragon of virtue when it comes to respect for the position of women in its society, and all other others stand in a relationship of pitted opposition to its advanced viewpoint.  We need to remind ourselves that there are many places across Europe, and certainly across Britain, in which there is no migrant presence to speak of, but where the local town centre is a worrying place for a woman to be on the late evening of any weekend.

Third point, and following on from the above – the safety and well-being of women in European towns and cities is not secured either well or at all through the mechanism of immigration controls.  Misogynistic attitudes and behaviour emanate on a distressingly large scale from both native male citizens and those born abroad.  The extent to which they can be contained, pushed back and defeated has depended throughout history on the mobilisation of women rather than border guards. We should return to thinking about this as our basic strategy in the fight against harassment and violence.

Fourthly, there is no zero sum game in the field of human rights which means that what is gained by one group – in this case, refugees – has to be subtracted from what is currently held by another i.e. women.  The fight for a better world for both those fleeing persecution abroad, and for an end to gender-based violence can – indeed must – go hand in hand.

Our final bottom line is that if liberal and progressive viewpoints are to continue to play a role in making out a route to a better world for us all it is because they are up for the fight against the set-backs and reactionary moods that events will surely throw up against us.    

The things that we can be most certain about with regard to the future is that migration will continue to go on, with people being compelled to cross frontiers for the imperatives of survival that the world will continue to challenge us with.  In the light of this fact we cannot escape from the need to come up with policies that are both humane and just: nor should we even try.    

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