On the Dehumanization of Immigrants

Britain is in the grip of a worrying trend.

Our own Prime Minister compared migrants in Calais to insects when he called them a “swarm”.

Meanwhile, internet comment sections relating to the refugees are filled with hatred and venom. Asylum seekers are referred to as “invaders”, and the trolls encourage the British authorities to shoot them, to machine gun them, and hang them on meat hooks.

This dehumanization of immigrants frightens me. Not simply because dehumanization of large groups of people often foreshadows violence. It frightens me because this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is a lot more of this hateful stuff bubbling beneath the surface of our society. Anti-immigrant sentiment has been swelling in Britain for the last two decades, gently encouraged by tabloid journalists and other intellectually lazy people looking for an easy scapegoat for the economic and social problems of the age. As Richard Seymour noted last year in The Guardian, “77% of people in the UK want immigration reduced, and 56% want it ‘reduced a lot‘”.

Britain has been subject to soaring inflows of immigration in the past twenty years. This has meant large-scale changes to the fabric of society, some of which people may like, but many of which they may not. And there is an additional burden on public services. IPSOS-Mori, for instance, found that there is a strong correlation across Europe between anti-immigrant sentiment and people’s perception of strain on public services. In that sense, anti-immigration sentiment in itself may not be entirely irrational.

Still, it does ignore the fact that there may be cleaner solutions to Britain’s problems than simplistically blaming immigration, and trying to clamp down on human movement. None of the strains on public services, health care and infrastructure would exist if only the government would properly scale investment in infrastructure and public services to demand. Immigrants pay more taxes than they draw out in services, so immigration has hardly made such investment unaffordable. Not to mention the billions of pounds in cheap lending that the private market made available to the government at negative real rates during the last parliament — money that could have been invested in infrastructure and public services — but which the government passed on.

As America — with its millions of undocumented migrants — is discovering, trying to stem flows of humans is very hard. People are slippy, and they go where they wish. Walls and fences are impediments, but they are not absolutes. People can be incredibly singleminded. The stories of the migrants in Calais who have escaped warzones, famines and despots in Africa and the middle east to slip into Europe, and across the Channel are a testament to the resilience of the human will. That resilience is why the anti-immigration internet trolls are setting their sights upon machine guns and meathooks and other such savagery. Walls and barbed wire and officers with searchlights and sniffer dogs isn’t working.

In the bigger picture, as anti-immigrant sentiment has swelled, there may be an overflow into the demonization and ostracization of ethnic minorities, even those who are here legally. Even those who were born here. Even those such as myself who were born here and are the children of white, English mothers. Even, perhaps, to white Britons who favour multiculturalism and immigration. The data shows that Britain is getting more racist, with 1 in 3 admitting to racial prejudice, up from 25 percent in 2001.

In the long run, I have no doubt that the economic benefits of migration — it’s estimated that completely open borders would roughly double global GDP via more efficient matching of workers and firms — will win out and that humanity will become increasingly transnational, and postnational, and ultimately interplanetary.

But for now, with this tidal wave of anti-immigrant and increasingly racist sentiment, I feel frightened at what my own country — a country that I have lived in my entire life — might be becoming.

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