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Humanising immigration: Taking the discussion further

Diplo Wisdom Circle

In this blog post, I want to respond to some of the questions that were raised during our recent WebDebate on humanising immigration. This is crucial for keeping the discussion going and doing justice to all the valuable questions and comments we received.

1. Why does immigration need humanising? Does it not concern human beings?

Migration is about the movement of human beings, whether voluntary or involuntary, but the human dimension is all too readily overlooked. This is often because the numbers of migrants are so vast that we end up talking about statistics and their bureaucratic or political significance, not lived lives. A related reason is compassion fatigue – that we simply cannot engage, in the case of refugees, with deprivation and suffering on a large scale and end up switching off. Finally, migrants may get thrown into a dustbin category of ‘the other’ whose primary defining quality is that they are different from those labelling them. It is all too frequent a hop, skip, and jump from ‘them’ being different, to them being deficient, and finally to them being demonised as snakes, cockroaches, rats, or ‘hordes’ and ‘swarms’ who threaten to ‘invade’ and ‘overrun’ our homeland. Perhaps a better title would have been ‘rehumanising immigration’, placing the emphasis on restoring those defining qualities that make us human, including dignity and diversity.

There is a crucial follow-up question: is the status of being human enough to humanise an individual or a group? Do we possess rights merely by virtue of being human, or must we have some additional status that grants and protects our rights as humans, such as citizenship? If it is indeed the case that we need to belong to a recognised political community in order to ensure our ‘right to have rights’, in Hannah Arendt’s expression, then the question of humanising immigration shifts its focus from human attributes to political status. And those who have no citizenship either because it has been revoked, or because it has become worthless in the context of a failed state, or because they have become stateless through flight, can only be rehumanised by being reintegrated into political communities. Statelessness itself is dehumanising.

2. What is the scope of immigration as opposed to migration?

The term ‘migration’ is the more general one, and includes emigration and transit as well as immigration, whereas ‘immigration’ strictly speaking refers to the movement of migrants into a destination country. The boundaries between these terms have become blurred, however, largely due to changing usage and connotations. In 2015, Al Jazeera decided to abandon the word ‘migrant’ in its coverage of refugees crossing the Mediterranean, claiming that ‘it has evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances, a blunt pejorative.’ Some of these negative connotations have also tarred the related terms ‘migration’ and ‘immigration’. The term ‘illegal immigrant’ is increasingly being replaced by ‘irregular immigrant’ in an attempt to dismiss the attribution of illegality to individuals rather than to their actions. Whenever аn area of human experience becomes contentious, the words used to discuss the controversy are likely to become negatively loaded, causing usage to shift.

A complicating factor is that ‘immigration’ extends in time to decisions and actions that both antedate and postdate entry into the destination country. Thus, the pull factors that inform a person’s destination of choice long predate their application for immigrant status. On the other hand, Donald Trump’s decision to revoke the status of Dreamers in the USA and Theresa May’s deportation of the so-called Windrush generation of immigrants in the UK extend the scope of immigration well beyond integration, since these immigrants are fully integrated into the countries from which they are now being expelled.

3. What is the role of diplomacy?

In so far as mainstream diplomacy deals with state-to-state relationships, humanising immigration does not obviously fall within its remit. Indeed, there is a risk that mainstream diplomacy may contribute to the dehumanisation of immigration in significant ways. The most salient of these is the use of migrants as negotiation pawns. In February 2016, for instance, President Erdogan threatened to bus vast numbers of migrants into neighbouring Greece and Bulgaria unless the EU agreed to favourable terms with regard to membership application, visa-free access to Schengen, and substantial financial aid. In 2012/2013, Jordan and Libya used the expulsion of Egyptian immigrant labourers as leverage for a variety of policy concessions from Egypt, and in 1999, former President Milošević of Serbia used the threat of an outflow of refugees from Kosovo to gain leverage over the NATO alliance. The linking of migration with other issues can thus be used as a form of leverage to advance national interests in what may become a coercive form of diplomacy, using human lives as bargaining chips.

Furthermore, any attempt at disincentivising immigration is potentially dehumanising. Transit and destination countries who want to decrease the flow of people across their borders use deterrents to send a clear message back to prospective migrants – ‘stay home!’ Hungary’s denial of food to detainees and its ‘pushback’ policy, the conditions of limbo in the Australian offshore detention camps such as Manus Island, the family separation practice under Donald Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy, and Theresa May’s hostile environment policy, all actively seek to disincentivise immigration. Even policies that appear to promote humanitarian concerns, such as the EU’s aid for border control, has proven dehumanising by condoning arbitrary detention and inhuman treatment.

The result is often morally objectionable but public outrage and international pressure do not always have the necessary leverage to deflect governments from such anti-immigration policies. The victims certainly lack the leverage themselves and their countries of origin are not always motivated.  

Sometimes, the very process of reducing net immigration targets can prove dehumanising. In the UK, the increased rate of processing applicants caused face-to-face interviews to be abandoned. As Lucy Moreton, head of the ISU, the union for borders, immigration and customs staff, explained: ‘When you’re dealing with thousands of applications, you’re not seeing the people you’re seeing the files. It’s inevitable that you will cease to see these people as people, you will see them as files.’

It would seem therefore that it is the ‘hyphenated’ diplomacies that are better suited to the objective of humanising immigration. Track 2 diplomacy is an important contributor, given its involvement of players beyond accredited diplomats. Humanitarian diplomacy, which aims to persuade decision makers to act in the interest of vulnerable people, very obviously foregrounds a concern for fundamental human principles. Cultural diplomacy can also contribute significantly to humanising immigration through the exchange of images, plays, films, and other potentially transformative narratives that use individual plights to speak for universal concerns.

Are we doomed to an impasse where the drive to disincentivise immigration and the need to humanise it fail to engage meaningfully? Not necessarily. Attitudes change and culture shifts are possible. We have witnessed a swing towards a tougher anti-immigrant stand recently with the rise of populism and non-liberal democracies. Brexit was the result of such hostility. At the same time, the simultaneous increase in organisations and laws that seek to protect migrant rights, for example the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2007, and the International Humanitarian Law, 2011, indicate a countervailing dynamic. Moreover, recent polls in the UK suggests that attitudes towards immigration have become significantly more positive since before the Brexit referendum. The key issue is how we can influence opinions and policies towards greater humanisation, which leads us to the next question.

4. Is the current resistance to immigration a passing stage?

It may be a passing stage, but it is one that will return. The reason for this is that as a species, we humans are susceptible to two conflicting narratives. One is driven by fear and exclusion, the other by compassion and inclusion. Which one we resonate with is in part dependent on our individual make-up, in part on our circumstances, and in large part on how the narrative is being spun. Religions by and large emphasise the narrative of inclusion and compassion, but ISIS promotes fear, hatred, and not just exclusion but extermination. Photographs of Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a Greek beach elicited compassion from viewers across the world, as did images of separated children being detained in federal detention cages, yet Donald Trump’s recitation of the song lyrics The Snake by Oscar Brown Jr., which he has appropriated as an anti-immigrant allegory, receives rapturous applause from his supporters.

We swing between being tough and being tender. There is nothing inherently wrong with either of these stands, but we need to be alert to the risks of buying into dominant narratives uncritically for fear of the false conclusions they may lead us to. If the aim of persuasion is to lead an audience to the conclusions the speaker wants them to reach, the aim of the audience should be to recognise how they are being captivated. By all means suspend disbelief while enjoying the telling of a story, but recognise the story for what it is: one of many possible narratives, a story which, no matter how winning, should nevertheless be subjected to scrutiny. This call for critical appraisal applies as much to humanising narratives as it does to dehumanising ones. When the humanisers begin to denigrate and demonise the dehumanisers, they are guilty of the same methods as their opponents. And they are probably resorting to the same rhetorical devices, logical fallacies included, in order to make their case. In this light, rehumanising immigration is an attempt to reclaim the narrative of immigration from the facelessness of numbers and the threat of the ‘other’ and to refocus it onto the lived experience of individuals and the shared attributes and aspirations of our species.

To conclude, rhetoric may well help to defuse the current hostility to immigration. So may the ‘hyphenated’ diplomacies, each in their own way and collectively as a ‘force for the good’. But as noted, what is good for some may be to the detriment of others. Countries that want to decrease immigration will continue to restrict and disincentivise it, at the risk of dehumanising the lived experience of immigration at every stage of the process. In order to find a dynamic equilibrium as the wheels of migration continue to revolve, two concerns need to be constantly updated, one having to do with the human rights of individuals, the other with their political status so that they may legitimately appropriate those rights for themselves.

13 March 2019
2 replies
  1. mohansingh
    mohansingh says:

    Thank you for enlightening…
    Thank you for enlightening us with this subject of Immigration.


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