Saturday, 2 April 2016

Public opinion on the rights of asylum-seekers and refugees

Angela Merkel’s stance on the refugee crisis has led to a fierce debate in Germany. Supporters of asylum-seeker and refugees’ rights point out that these are people fleeing persecution, torture and death and the country has clear legal and moral obligations to them. Meanwhile, their opponents label these supporters “Gutmenschen”, which translates literally as “good people” but is a derogatory term, meaning something like “politically correct do-gooders”. 

If those of us in the UK, who support the rights of asylum seekers and refugees,  are to win the necessary battle for the hearts and minds of our fellow citizens and avoid being dismissed as mere “Gutmenschen”, then we need to think carefully about how we argue with those who take a different view. 

We should respect people’s fears. As the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said last month, it is "outrageous" to describe all people who are worried about the impact of migration as racist. There is a "genuine fear" of the impact on housing, jobs and the NHS. People are also worried about what they regard as the erosion of their culture.

With political will - and money and sensitivity - some of these fears can be allayed but the first step is recognise them and take them seriously.

At the same time, we should challenge attempts to play on and exacerbate people’s fears. Politicians and the media often point to the views of the British public to justify their own positions. However, the same politicians and media can be guilty of stoking those fears. Examples include the use of words like “swarm” and ‘horde” by Tory politicians and any number of front pages and articles in the press.

We need to make very clear the distinction between asylum-seekers and refugees on the one hand and economic migrants on the other.

The UK does not owe the same legal and moral obligations to all those who want to come to live here. There are essentially two categories. Those fleeing death and persecution and those who are not. The first category is entitled to asylum i.e to stay in the UK, the second is not. 

Even anti-immigration UKIP recognises that the UK has a duty to those in the first category.  These are asylum seekers and refugees.

An “asylum-seeker” is someone seeking the legal status of a refugee. The modern definition of a  “refugee” is set out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, as being someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted….is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” 

In the second category are “economic migrants”, who are people who go from one country to another in order to improve their standard of living. The decision as to whether to allow economic migrants to stay in the UK is taken on completely different grounds to those which apply to asylum-seekers.

The single word “migrant” is regularly used on the BBC and in the broadsheets as well as in the tabloids to describe all or any of asylum seekers, refugees and economic migrants. This conflation - lumping them all together - harms the cause of asylum seekers and refugees, who in crucial respects are very different to economic migrants.

People often think of asylum seekers and refugees as part of an impersonal group, that they feel no human connection with. If people could see them as individuals, they would care a great deal more about what happens to them. 

We can learn from charities and film-makers. When charities advertise they never show a photo of a group of the people they want to help. They always show just one person. 

People remember the little girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List. 

It wasn’t the mass drownings in the Mediterranean that shocked the UK. It was the drowning of just one person - the tragic 3 year old Aylan Kurdi. 

We should acknowledge that asylum-seekers and refugees do need additional resources. It is obvious that a sudden large influx of people will cause more pressure on local services. Furthermore, the new arrivals need help to establish themselves in their new country.  However, it is likely that the drain on the public purse will be only short-term. One could argue that this is an investment, which will pay off for the UK in the medium to long term.

This argument - like all other arguments - is more likely to be given a proper hearing if people think the person making it has some understanding of their fears and is not just one of the “Gutmenschen”.

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