As the contest for the Labour leadership gathers pace the candidates are sounding their policy horns. On immigration, rhetoric about its positive influence competes with that emphasising the challenges it poses to our country. This mirrors the nature of the wider debate. As a society, we seem unsure what to do with the issue.
Immigration is one of the six key policy areas highlighted in the Labour leadership race, alongside tax, welfare, tuition fees, housing and Trident. Significantly, it connects with and can arguably deflect the other five. Who deserves access to our welfare state? To our housing? To what extent do universities need foreign students? And if migration is driven partly by wars and violent conflict then shouldn’t we have a role to play to mitigate such conflicts and their threat? With recent news that UK net migration has hit a record high, being able to handle these questions seems more urgent than ever.
The pervading nature of this issue was evident again last week when the BBC attracted polarised views for broadcasting Songs of Praise from a makeshift Church set up by Ethiopian and Eritrean migrants in Calais. It seems that immigration is something people want to discuss, that policy makers are responding to, but is nevertheless hard to hold.
The recent spotlight on St Michael’s church in Calais’ ‘Jungle’ camp for migrants shows a hunger for discussion, including amongst faith based groups. Indeed, a strongly worded letter from 200 people including 20 rabbis compared the plight of the migrants to that of Jewish refugees who fled Hitler. And, in defending the BBC’s decision to broadcast from Calais, Aaqil Ahmed (head of religion and ethics), said “Songs of Praise is not only about Christian music, it also explores contemporary issues and modern themes from a Christian perspective. Songs of Praise is simply reflecting the conversations going on in many churches and Christian households around the country.”
The question this episode raises for me is whether some of us are regarded as more entitled than others to discuss the critical issues facing our society? Do we leave it to those contesting political office? To the media? Dare we extend the conversation to communities beyond our borders? Are some people too young to air their views? Too old? Too uneducated? Too intimidating? How vocal should churches and other religious institutions be?
The dilemma of course is that our anxieties about those who are different from ourselves and uncertainty about how ‘incomers’ will impact on our lives blocks the very discussions we need to be having. Migration, however, is a global phenomenon that is not going away. We need informed, inclusive and widespread discussion about how best to manage it. If not, we are just reinforcing the divisions that make it all the harder to deal with.