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Contradictions at heart

United Kingdom

Migrants arriving on the Island of Lampedusa in August 2007. Sara Prestianni / noborder network. under a Creative Commons Licence

Natalie Sharples on migration, international development and Britain’s shame.

Immigration minister James Brokenshire’s dubious claims earlier this month about migrants crossing the Mediterranean in search of work rather than fleeing persecution fit perfectly with the warped narrative on migration and poverty in Britain.

There are so many ironies in Britain’s approach to migration and global poverty, from the fact that we are the third-largest exporter of migrants – or ‘expats’, as we are supposed to call rich, white migrants – in the world, to the fact that since 1999 migrants have made a net fiscal contribution to Britain, paying more in taxes than they have received in benefits.

Let’s not neglect the real reason why people travel in unsafe boats across perilous seas or attached to the undersides of lorries to reach our shores, either. According to the European Union (EU), one of the key factors determining where migrants settle is ‘historical ties between countries of origin and destination’. In other words – colonialism.

An incredible study has shown that Britain has invaded 90% of all countries in the world. We’re not exactly shy about turning up on other people’s doorsteps. It might have been a long time ago, but the ramifications are still felt today. With the arbitrary boundaries and resource mal-distribution we put in place fuelling conflicts, our legacy in many parts of the world is very much alive.

Whilst Brokenshires's claims are dubious – the UNHCR has cited persecution and conflict as the main drivers forcing people to cross the Mediterranean Sea – even if they were coming to escape poverty, who can blame them? Poverty is real. And it can be a death sentence. Every day 17,000 children under 5 die. Most of these deaths are due to preventable causes. That’s 12 children consigned to death, mostly from poverty, every minute.

Justine Greening, Britain’s Secretary of State for International Development and Conservative MP, has argued that addressing global poverty and improving standards of living across the world is key to preventing ‘economic migration’. This may well be true. What’s also true is that poverty is created. Despite our stated generosity, Britain has pillaged – and continues to pillage – other countries, draining them of resources that could be spent on health, education and improving standards of living.

For me, the narratives about global poverty that are brought into the migration debate are the most difficult to swallow. Health Poverty Action’s research last year showed that the rest of the world takes $192 billion from sub-Saharan Africa each year. In return those 47 countries between them receive $30 billion back in aid. Whilst people across the world are struggling against the barriers to improve their lives, Britain is actively stamping on them.

Aid can be a good thing if it is viewed as a form of compensation for all the trouble we are causing. But when it comes to using it as an excuse for inaction – a smokescreen behind which to hide from our responsibilities – this is when we have to speak out.

Over 1,800 people have lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean so far this year. Another 5 have died trying to cross through the Channel Tunnel. Each one a personal tragedy. Whether they are fleeing persecution, escaping grinding poverty or simply seeking a better life, it is pretty clear people are not doing so lightly. Their lives and their aspirations deserve a little more respect.

Britain cannot claim to be a ’world leader’ in international development whilst consigning people to poverty. We cannot congratulate ourselves for our generous aid budget whilst refusing our quotas for asylum-seekers, reducing our support to save lives and, literally in the case of the Calais migrants, allowing desperate people to die on our doorstep.

Britain is obliged to offer refuge to people fleeing persecution. Full stop. If it really wants to stop people it calls ‘economic migrants’ being forced to make desperate journeys to flee poverty, it will drastically cut its carbon emissions (global warming is disproportionately impacting poor countries), it will stop the exploitative actions of its transnational companies which use cheap labour overseas, it will pay compensation for the health workers it has recruited from developing countries (thus adding to the brain drain from the Majority World), it will rethink the War on Drugs, which devastates poor farmers from Afghanistan to Colombia, and it will shut down its network of tax havens where the rich hide their money.

Until such day, the least we can do is pick up the pieces from the lives we have shattered.

Natalie Sharples is Senior Policy Advisor at Health Poverty Action.

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