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Philip Hammond's Comments on Migrants Risk Legitimising Xenophobia in the UK

12/08/2015 10:42 BST | Updated 10/08/2016 10:59 BST

On Sunday, the UK's foreign secretary Philip Hammond spoke candidly on the Calais situation, and more generally Europe's 'migrant crisis'. In a series of comments made in Singapore, he decried a situation where "Europe can't protect itself, preserve its standard of living and social infrastructure if it has to absorb millions of migrants from Africa."

The rise of nationalism in recent years has been well-documented, with media outlets giving increased airtime to expressions of anti-immigrant sentiment. In such a climate, it was perversely refreshing to see a member of the political class articulating the latent fear that an influx of foreigners will entail a deterioration in the quality of life in Britain.

It seems that the normalisation of anti-immigration rhetoric has meant that many of us have ceased to question, let alone confront, the ugly truth which lies behind it. The 'us vs. them' standpoint, formerly confined to UKIP pamphlets and certain, often disadvantaged, communities, has come to occupy a legitimate place in the spectrum of national political discussion. By failing to acknowledge and challenge it, we have in some way validated an attitude which is fundamentally inhumane.

The problem with 'us vs. them' should be obvious, although its acceptance in political spheres of late suggests that commentators have grown reluctant to acknowledge its practical implications. In Hammond's case, the distinction is clear. 'We' are the British, the Westerner, even the 'educated' or 'civilised'; 'they' are the foreigner, the asylum-seeker, the 'uneducated' or 'uncivilised' individual. 'We' have the right to safety, health and compassion; 'they' do not. In other words, 'we' should be treated like human beings, while 'they' should not.

The sole justification for this distinction is arbitrary: birthplace. We demand the 'right' to British jobs, housing and welfare yet fail to recognise the 'right' of asylum-seekers to the fundamental human rights which we take for granted. British nationalism is fundamentally arbitrary. Its rhetoric suggests that Britain's advantages are God-given, when in fact our high standard of living is inherited from colonial gains and exploitation of the very peoples being turned away from our ports.

We can no longer claim ignorance of the migrant condition. Indeed, we acknowledge that life for those seeking refuge in the UK must be truly awful for them to risk so much in attempting the journey. Philip Hammond himself described those at Calais as "desperate". As a society, we recognise why somebody would want to improve their quality of life yet feel justified in denying them this opportunity based on a quality as arbitrary as birthplace.

'Us vs. them' is essentially racist. It assumes that human beings born in one place are more worthy than others born elsewhere. Ironically, it is our failure as a society to challenge expressions of this kind that strips us of our humanity, and sees us desert the very values that our 'civilisation' claims to embody.

In the UK, migrant has become a byword for parasite. If an immigrant is skilled or hardworking, they are unfairly depriving the British workforce of their jobs. If they are unskilled or unable to work, both of which are often the result of poor education, inadequate healthcare or ill-treatment in their country of origin, they are bloodsucking off the Welfare state made for 'us'.

The growth of nationalist sentiment is, of course, attributable to a series of inter-related socio-economic realities. The "credit crunch" and its aftershocks have perhaps been the largest catalyst in this process. A brief glance at recent European history will show that economic hardship often leads to an increase in such sentiment; the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece is a prime example of this. Meanwhile, mainstream political parties and media outlets have capitalised upon such sentiment to further their own agendas.

As Hammond's comments demonstrate, the Conservative Party has embraced the nationalist line and given it credence in an attempt to appeal to voters in areas where it has traditionally struggled to do so. The neglect of the interests of vulnerable groups within and without the UK is an apparently small price to pay for increased popularity. On the other side, Labour has seen few of its high-profile politicians actively criticise nationalism for fear of further alienating its already splintered demographic.

In many areas of the UK where recent years have witnessed an increase in poverty and a perceived decrease in the quality and availability of public services, nationalism has undeniably gained traction. Xenophobia has become increasingly convenient for the government. Ministers wilfully invoke the threat of the Other to direct resentment away from their own policies of austerity and onto marginalised groups both within and without the UK.

The foreign policy of successive British governments must accept some responsibility for the scale of the current migrant crisis. Hammond has consistently supported British military intervention abroad, voting for the Iraq war in 2003, and for air strikes in the same country just last year. It is pure ignorance, wilful or otherwise, to fail to recognise the causal link between the destruction of infrastructure and society abroad and an increase in displaced persons seeking asylum at home.

Hammond's record reflects the British government in its pairing of blind faith in military intervention with humanitarian disregard. He embodies the inconsistency between intervention and isolation which has exacerbated the migrant crisis, advocating meddling on foreign soil while simultaneously closing our doors to outsiders. In a climate of 'us vs. them', such cognitive dissonance exposes the flaw in contemporary British nationalism; we must take responsibility for the actions of our government abroad if we wish to claim the right to a better standard of living at home.

As Frankie Boyle argued last week: "We invade their countries and justify it by saying that our way of life is better, then boggle at the idea they might think living here is great. We pay no attention to how our actions in other countries have precipitated this situation." Whether due to the after-effects of the British Empire or of more recent intervention in conflict abroad, we must acknowledge our responsibility for the low standard of living in the places where these migrants come from.

While we cannot grant every single migrant asylum, we must push for sensible immigration policy. We need a policy based upon fact rather than fiction which doesn't play into hysteria and hearsay; fear lies at the heart of xenophobia, and no government should seek to reproduce fear to its own ends.

The Conservative Party portrays itself as the party of responsibility, but its refusal to acknowledge the plight of migrants and take on this crisis is socially and morally irresponsible. With this in mind, the government must pursue an immigration policy with its foundations in humanity, or risk exacerbating problems in and outside the UK for decades to come.