Fair borders: Who decides what's smart & humane?

David Hall is a Senior Researcher at the Auckland University of Technology's Policy Observatory. Though he primarily focusses on policy quandaries related to forest and land use, he also has a strong interest in migration, and commissioned and edited the recently published collection of essays Fair Borders: Migration Policy in the Twenty-First Century. David explained his motivations for producing the book to me for Impolitikal, along with some of the many complexities surrounding the issues of migration and immigration.

Where did the idea for Fair Borders come from, and how did the book actually come about?

The book was prompted by my experiences of living in England between 2009 and 2015. I saw immigration become this dangerous political talisman. So many of the problems that people faced – rising living costs, availability of affordable housing, reduced social services, underemployment, stagnating wages – were blamed on immigration. As a public issue, it became this source of incredible political energy, which political leaders felt they had to either affirm or exploit.

Ed Miliband was an affirmer. As Labour leader, he said he would “take immigration seriously” and had the phrase “Controls on immigration” chiselled into his ignominious Ed Stone, even printed on Labour-branded coffee mugs. Nigel Farage, however, was an exploiter. He released that notorious “Breaking Point” billboard in the latter stages of the EU referendum. It had a picture of hundreds of migrants crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border with the caption: “We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders.” Having spent those years in England, I knew how potent these politics were.

I’ve been back in Aotearoa for two years now and it seemed fairly obvious to me that the conditions were in place for immigration to become a prominent issue in the upcoming election. Current high levels of net migration are part of that of course, but not the whole story. On the one hand, we are seeing rising levels of real stress and social suffering in parts of New Zealand society. On the other, there has been this paradoxical message from government that things are alright, that GDP is growing, that our deficit is reversing, that we have a rockstar economy.

It’s this disjunct – between people’s experiences of hardship and the dismissive response from political leaders – that creates the conditions for a toxic politics of immigration. It is much easier, much less effortful, to blame immigration than it is to understand and overcome the complex, longstanding causes of infrastructural deficit or weakened social cohesion. For politicians, it’s also an irresistible opportunity to evade the tough trade-offs and decisions that would create enduring solutions, such as large-scale investment into public transport, or giving greater weight to capital gains in our tax system. That’s why, in late 2016, I started pulling the book together, to add some other perspectives into the mix.

All this said, I don’t think that the political dynamic in New Zealand is as volatile as it was in the UK or the USA. I also think that our MMP system releases steam in a way that the British and American two-party systems don’t. So there are commonalities, echoes, of global trends, but these invariably play out in locally contingent ways. Asking whether the rise of a Trump is possible in New Zealand, for example, is a misleading question because it obviously isn’t possible – but nationalism, racism and anti-establishment politics will have particular manifestations in Aotearoa New Zealand.

What do you think drives people's fears around migration, and migrants?

I don’t think most New Zealanders are afraid of migration, or not entirely. I wrote about a UMR survey recently which suggests that about a quarter of people in New Zealand have strongly negative views toward immigration and about a third strongly positive. The remainder – over 40 per cent – have mixed views. They recognise the benefits of migration, or they recognise that migration is a fact of life, but they also have specific worries about the consequences.

And let me be clear; people’s concerns about housing, infrastructure, job insecurity, diminished sense of community, and so on – these are sincere concerns that are perfectly justified. People themselves are the real experts of the troubles they face. The question is how these troubles relate to migration – and often the lines of cause-and-effect are more complex, elusive or illusory than it seems.

One worry I hear a lot these days is that we need to look after our own before we help others. Whānau first. This is a worry that shouldn’t be dismissed lightly. Personally, I’m not a strong cosmopolitan who thinks that we have equal duties to each and every single person in the world. I think there are special obligations toward those closest to us. I also suspect that our capacity to care authentically for strangers is likely founded on our capacity to care first for family, friends and local communities.

In Fair Borders, Tahu and Arama beautifully sketch out an aligned line of thought from a kaupapa Māori perspective. They say, “there can be no manaakitanga without mana.” In other words, to be good hosts, a community has to preserve the basic capabilities to provide hospitality. If immigration undermines a community’s capacity to care for its own and for others – as it did in Aotearoa in the colonial era – then border restrictions could be fair and defensible.

But is that really what we’re seeing today? The deterioration of care for one another in New Zealand is part of a much larger story than mere immigration. We need to look at the way we run our economy, our expectations of government, the influence of vested interests from inside and outside of Aotearoa New Zealand. We also need to take into consideration the fact that many recent migrants are deeply involved in community work and social policy, as well as constituting a large part of our care sector workforce to look after our elderly and disabled. In this sense, migrants aren’t a “strain” on communities in any simple sense, because migrants are also constantly contributing to building our communities. So we see here another manifestation of this mythology of immigration as a simple cause, rather than a more complex interaction.

What are your personal thoughts on what a smart and humane approach to migration would look like?

To be honest, I’m much more comfortable working in the opposite direction, focussing on what isn’t smart, on what isn’t humane. This probably sounds hopelessly incrementalist, but when there’s so much mean-spirited and poorly thought through policy out there, it’s not like this leaves us short of work to do.

This is probably an expression of Judith Shklar’s influence on my thinking. She argued that we should put cruelty first when we think about politics – and I think that’s helpful in thinking about borders. It gives us clear guidance on what not to do, which cuts through the complexity of migration. It stops us from going down the path of determining who is or isn’t deserving of hard borders, who we should deter from trying to migrate. For example, detention centres on offshore islands simply cannot pass the cruelty test – and that’s true whether or not a migrant meets the legal definition of a refugee. No one should ever be treated that way.

Migration is just an eternal aspect of human potential. That’s not to say everyone migrates, but that some people always have. If our border policies genuinely result in cruel outcomes for people, then by all means revise our policy to prevent cruelty when it occurs, whether to protect people already inside of borders, or people crossing borders, or even people prevented from crossing at all.

This is the driving idea behind the “fair borders” concept, that when the consequences of a border are cruel, then people on either side of a border could agree that regulation is justified in such instances. But when it comes to determining what would be smart or humane, I always wonder who gets to determine what’s smart, or who gets to decide who is deserving of humane treatment. Typically, that privilege falls to people on the inside vis-à-vis those on the outside.

What do you perceive to be some benefits associated with freedom of movement? Any negative impacts?

I guess one thing I’m trying to sidestep here by talking about fair movement, rather than free movement, is the liberal assumptions of the latter. I’d rather acknowledge from the outset that freedom of movement can potentially have negative impacts, because acknowledging this makes us more sensitive to when it occurs.

Colonial migration is a relevant example. What the British did to Māori in the mid- to late-nineteenth century was more disruptive than the worst nightmares of Britain’s anti-immigration movement today. Māori were truly demographically overwhelmed by immigrants – from about forty Māori to one Pākehā in 1840 to about ten Pākehā to one Māori by the 1870s. Most British migrants also didn’t expect to assimilate or integrate, which is what migrants are usually expected to do today. On the contrary, Māori culture was largely dismissed, displaced or suppressed.

So for me it’s about being honest about the impacts, whether negative or positive - whether they fall on the inside or the outside of borders. And this will require more than just economic modelling at the national level: it will require listening to people and thinking locally as well as globally.

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