The Windrush scandal signifies more than Ministerial incompetence: it has revealed the shocking inhumanity of our immigration policy. How can we talk about British values when we deliberately design policies that negate the values of hospitality, compassion, solidarity and justice? So far so obvious for some, so contentious for others.
But where are the ethical principles going to come from that might guide us towards putting things right? The Christian tradition might be a good place to look. A helpful start would be to read: Fortress Britain? Ethical approaches to Immigration for a post-Brexit Britain, edited by Ben Ryan, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, from the Christian Think Tank, Theos.
Pope Francis believes that the human person and respect for human dignity should be at the centre of policy; that the State’s role in controlling immigration for the Common Good is legitimate; that host and immigrant have reciprocal obligations to foster integration within the life of a country. All long standing Catholic social teaching. But making relationship and compassion the priority, rather than keeping numbers down, a theme of Fortress Britain, does not harmonise easily with pressures on governments to create orderly and non-threatening immigration flows.
Public debate about immigration swings between an emphasis on economic and cultural concerns, both contested, and critiques of multi-culturalism or assimilation. Add on recent worries about terrorism. For example, we rely on foreign labour: in the NHS, to look after old people, pick crops, sell meals, dispense our daily coffee, and hamburgers, and so on. We need foreign intellectual labour as students, entrepreneurs and to contribute to research.
Or alternatively, there is evidence at the bottom end of the wage scale, that immigrants depress earnings, however much they contribute in taxes. More than a million Poles and EU migrants arriving in a relatively short space of time are suspected of taking our jobs and our housing. That said, unemployment is at an historic low of 4.3%, and it is our building industry and governments which created the housing scarcity and homelessness by failing to provide adequate accommodation for those on low income.
Our feelings about migrants and their children are contradictory. We hit the “like” button for Indian and Chinese take-aways, Thai and Vietnamese restaurants, reggae bands, Lenny Henry, Sadiq Khan, and the Polish plumber who actually arrived on time and cured the leak. Then there is the Egyptian cardiologist and that very kind Ghanaian nurse who looked after a relative, the Bangladeshi corner shop down the road who always asks after her.
Or alternatively, we resent the noisy immigrant family in the flat above, Muslims wearing funny gear in the streets, cutting animals’ throats, failing the “cricket test”, people speaking languages we don’t understand on the bus, too many of their kids not speaking English in our children’s schools. With nostalgia for a sometimes imaginary past, we feel that we have lost something and suspect strongly they have taken it away and, for want of a better word, we call it our culture.
Immigration’s critics always frame it in terms of threat: loss of identity for the native population and unfair economic advantage for the immigrant. That is how many people think and talk about it. The ridiculous Brexit lie that we would soon be invaded by large numbers of Turks played on these anxieties. The appeal of “take back control” is that it allays anxiety about identity.
The irony is that immigrants, whether migrants or asylum seekers have experienced personal threat even more acutely, and the loss of their identity and culture back home. The migrants’ similar wish to make a decent living, have better lives, propels them to leave their countries. They are people who share the ambitions of those who are most hostile to them.
Every year over 32,000 migrants are held in our ten UK detention facilities, often treated as imprisoned criminals, deprived of liberty, and, as research by Theos highlights, experience debilitating loss of hope and psychological damage. This level of criminalisation is not unique to the UK. So unfair are Home Office processes that half of asylum applicants who are denied refugee status have their appeals upheld. Meanwhile they languish for months in a moral limbo, forbidden to work and made virtually destitute. This is not an accident, it is a matter of policy.
The Windrush scandal is not at heart a matter of a Home Office not fit for purpose, a chaotic bureaucracy disposing of Landing Slips. Nor a question of who amongst State officials can make the most abject apology, who knew what and when, a problem susceptible of cure by compensation and by changing the language from “hostile environment” to the more Orwellian “compliant environment”. Those are symptoms. The root problem is policy-making in a moral vacuum.
Given current universal denunciation of the treatment of the children of the Windrush generation, there is an opportunity to step back and engage in a serious reform of immigration policy, to create an environment in which both Minsters and civil servants opt for just and compassionate treatment of immigrants.
Hospitality means, at the very least, stopping forced destitution as a disincentive to migration. Solidarity means sustaining international aid so people are not forced to migrate for a decent life taking their skills with them. Justice means fair processes adjudicating status without rejection as default position, and without unreasonable demand for documents. So it demands sufficient trained and supportive Home Office staff well informed about countries of origin. Compassion demands drastic reduction in indefinite detention and time spent waiting for a decision, as well as action to address anxiety and resentment in poor host communities.
These changes would complement the compassionate work of many in civil society, particularly the faith communities and notably the Christian churches. It would not be easy and it would sadly carry some political cost. But after Windrush many more will see it as essential if Britain is to retain some moral integrity as a modern State.