16/09/2012 18:02 BST | Updated 14/11/2012 05:12 GMT

What Can Paddington Bear Tell Us About Migration?

Migrants are currently viewed with considerable scepticism in the United Kingdom.

Politicians have seized upon this general feeling of unease to mobilise support by offering what has been described by the prime minister as 'muscular liberalism' - a rhetoric that harnesses fears that migrants are poor, uneducated, threatening, and culturally incompatible.

Given this current climate of hostility towards those from other countries who come to live in Great Britain, it may seem a little strange that we can learn something from the adventures of Paddington Bear, one of the country's best-loved children's characters.

But, however unlikely it may seem at first, my argument is that Paddington asks us to take a closer look at the politics shaping perceptions of migration in the UK. The stories shine a light on the paradox of how foreigners are regarded as both a positive and negative force in this country.

When we first meet him in A Bear Called Paddington, the little bear with the tattered case has just completed a dangerous journey to the UK, all the way from South America as a stowaway. His decision to leave his homeland is based on the belief of his Aunt Lucy that his life prospects will be far better abroad than if he stays in "deepest darkest Peru".

From the very start, Paddington's adventures and experiences mirror those of others who undertake long and dangerous trips in search of a better life. His passage here also underlines another point - if migrants are prepared to come to the UK despite the associated dangers and costs, it must be a good place to live.

Yet, the institutions, values, and ways of life that lead to self-perceptions that the UK offers excellent opportunities are also said to be under threat and in need of protection from an influx of migrants who it is claimed wish to undermine them.

After being discovered by the Brown family at Paddington station and welcomed into their family home, Paddington certainly benefits from their initial kindness. Similarly, in the real world, extending charitable gestures to migrants like Paddington can contribute to the idea that the host country, be it the UK or otherwise, occupies the moral high ground, again reinforcing positive self-perceptions.

Moreover, these 'generous gestures' by a host are often undertaken on the understanding that migrants have agreed to abide by an unstated set of rules and that they will also fulfil certain responsibilities. For example, the government's muscular liberalism champions English fluency and the adoption of specific cultural practises as necessary for residency in the UK. Yet, this misses the point that migrants should not be governed through the charitable whims and accompanying demands of a host, but rather on the firm legal duties enshrined in international human rights law. Importantly, it fails to recognise that migrants- like Paddington - can offer myriad benefits and skills to their new home and society.

Given the number of predicaments he creates, Paddington is often identified as a source of disruption in the stories. Thus, the little bear with the love of marmalade sandwiches, like other migrants, is a ready-made scapegoat for a variety of complex problems. Many of his misadventures are as much about the failure of others to make sense of his world view as they are about his own misinterpretations of British culture. Yet, while there are a series of tests to be passed for migrants - financial, security, language proficiency, cultural - in order to find acceptance in the UK, there are no comparable formalised processes for UK citizens to show that they are worthy of hosting newcomers.

Finally, when he is confronted about his antics, Paddington's sense of natural justice can lead him to deploy his trademark 'hard stare' when interacting with those who mistreat him. But, because he is otherwise portrayed as extraordinarily considerate and deferential to others, the reader is encouraged to be sympathetic to Paddington when he asserts himself.

Paddington, as an outsider, by challenging those attitudes and outcomes that appear to be unfair, revitalises the moral standards that guide everyday life around his home in Windsor Gardens. Yet, in contrast, muscular liberalism demands similar levels of consideration and deference from migrants but provides no legitimate avenue for them to articulate political demands or desires. Moreover, there is no recognition that the presence of migrants can make society a more just place.

When you look at the stories as political texts about migration, Paddington Bear provides an opportunity to think about the expectations we place on migrants and the problems that the presence of migrants is able to solve in the UK.

Simultaneously, Paddington also illustrates how solutions to these problems can be distorted by reactionary forces that tap into our most base forms of cultural chauvinism. Thus when discussing migration policy, we might be well served by keeping Paddington Bear in mind.