Tuesday, 25 November 2008

In favour of an amnesty for illegal immigrants

In recent days, London Mayor Boris Johnson has come out in favour of an amnesty for illegal immigrants. There are thought to be about 400,000 illegal immigrants in London alone, part of a total 700,000 across the country and, in Boris' own words, a mass "programme of explsions" is "just not going to happen." Instead, he has suggested that the UK "should have a system whereby people who have been here for a long time can earn a way out of the mess they're in" whereby after five years those who could "show their commitment to this society and to this economy" would achieve an "earned amnesty." His idea has been backed by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

Typically, the right, their voices in the tabloid press, and their flatterers in government have been quick to denigrate the idea of treating illegal immigrants as human beings. Hardline immigration minister Phil Woolas, whose prior calls for a cap on migration and accusations that asylum seekers are "playing the system" smack of the far-right, has branded Boris "a bit of a nincompoop" and "naive in the extreme." The Daily Express tried to suggest that Murphy-O'Connor's backing of the plan attracted "strong criticism" and "anger," and yet was ony able to cite "Sir" Andrew Green of MigrationWatch UK, often the sole source of "widespread" discontentment when the issue of immigration pops up, whilst Melanie Phillips of the Daily Mail has led the way in calling the proposed amnesty an idea of "staggering stupidity."

Despite the frankly predictable chorus of opposition, and despite my personal reservations about the politics of both Johnson and Murphy-O'Connor, the idea put forward by the former holds considerable merit.

On an ethical level, the question is a simple one. There are a variety of reasons that people become illegal immigrants, and most of them are borne of desperation. Failed asylum seekers terrified of being deported will go to any lengths to avoid the horrific consequences of deportation. The case of Mehdi Khamezi illustrated this vividly when he fled the authorities after his case, like so many others, was rejected despite the fact that he faced the death penalty in Iran simply for being gay. Others are victims of the modern day slave trade, brought here either as sex slaves or as labour slaves forced to work in the black economy. They are not criminals, as the right are so quick to brand illegal immigrants, but victims of horrendous crimes. Deportation would serve only to worsen their situation, either as freed slaves sent back to where they were captured and could be again, or refugees who face torture and death. Granting these people an amnesty, whilst working to solve the root problems so that more aren't forced here by circumstance or gangmasters, is the only humane way to tackle the issue.

But it's not just ethics and a sense of common humanity that cries out in favour of an amnesty, so too does practicaity. The alternative of rounding up and deporting all illegal immigrants is, as Johnson said, "just not going to happen." There are roughly 700,000 illegal immigrants in the UK, or "2 million plus" according to the BNP, though I suspect that 1.3 million margin of error is deliberate to accomodate some of those who wouldn't "volunteer" to be repatriated if the party gained power. How exactly would the government find all of these people, all of them already having evaded borders and customs across several countries? How much would it cost for the necessary resources and manpower to achieve this? According to estimates, about £4.7bn, as compared with the £6bn economic boost of an amnesty. And where would this money come from at a time of recession when government borrowing is at an all-time high?

Both ethics and practicality support the idea of an amnesty for illegal immigrants. If only the politicians could hear this fact over the din and clamour of the anti-immigration press.