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Cities of Refuge

John Mann reviews three books on race, asylum and immigration by Matt Cavanagh, Michael Dummett and Jacques Derrida.

In the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 the British government strengthened the Race Relations Act of 1967 by attempting to address the problem of institutional racism. One section of the act presented general and specific duties for all schools to comply with. As a school governor responsible for multiculturalism I had to ensure that our school complied with the act: this included reviewing existing school policies in terms of race equality and ensuring they were all race-equality proof. I was also responsible for making sure our school had passed a Race Equality Policy by 31 May 2002 and that the school was working to eliminate race discrimination and promote equality of opportunity and good relations between people of different racial groups. As a philosopher I wanted to reflect on the values and ideas implicit in the act and decided to read the books reviewed here to shed light on my experience.

Matt Cavanagh’s book Against Equality of Opportunity promised to challenge the assumptions of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. Cavanagh argues against giving everyone an equal chance and instead argues that “so long as people have enough control over their lives, that will encourage and enable them to live in the right way – to see their lives as stories they help construct, stories whose evolving shape reflects the good and bad choices they make along the way”, the important thing is that “people are in a good enough position, never mind whether equal”. Cavanagh distinguishes between ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ approaches to discrimination, the former being objective discrimination that can be measured statistically and the latter being subjective discrimination that can be understood as deliberate, intentional bias. The Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 is a typical ‘top down’ approach where it requires schools to monitor the race equality impact of a school policy through keeping statistics of ethnic groups. For example, if it could be shown that a smaller proportion of ethnic minority pupils went on school trips than white pupils the school would be required to address this imbalance, regardless of any subjective reasons for it. Cavanagh does not consider ‘top down’ assessments of discrimination to identify real discrimination because no actual instances of intolerance or favouritism are established, “I happen to think that the bottom-up approach must be the right one”.

So far this may sound as if in practice Cavanagh’s differences are fairly mild. He does not object to providing special help to disadvantaged groups and he believes discrimination exists – provided we can identify someone doing the discriminating. However, the key argument of the book concerns giving people the right to discriminate except in the very extreme circumstance of ‘unwarranted contempt’. Cavanagh argues at length that no one has the right to a job and it is very much up to an employer who they want to hire. If, for instance, an employer decided that in his or her experience black people were not going to be suitable for a job, he or she should be free to explicitly state that the job was not open to black people. In Cavanagh’s view, this should not be unlawful provided the employer does not hold black people in ‘unwarranted contempt’. An employer might argue that since most of his or her customers were racists, his business would not benefit from the employment of a black person – Cavanagh believes such an employer would be making a justified business decision.

In theory, the same should hold true for employers who discriminate against women – Cavanagh says that employers should be free to use “race-based or sexbased rules of thumb” – an employer should be free to refuse to employ a woman if they felt it was likely that she might leave to have a baby for example. Bizarrely, Cavanagh then claims that because the state owes a ‘debt of gratitude’ to women for having babies, employers should not be able to discriminate on these grounds!

Against Equality of Opportunity is therefore a muddled but nevertheless a rather nasty book whose author shows no sign of understanding the problems of racism in our society and whose arguments would irresponsibly allow almost all discrimination to be justified.

Jacques Derrida’s On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness looks at the subject of the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers and immigrants. Derrida supports the demand from the International Parliament of Writers in Strasbourg for the setting up of a series of ‘Cities of Refuge’ where migrants could seek sanctuary from the pressures of persecution, intimidation and exile. Derrida calls for the rediscovery of the ethics of hospitality and reminds us of Kant’s Perpetual Peace: A philosophical Essay. In this Kant writes:

We are speaking here… not of philanthropy, but of right; and in this sphere hospitality signifies the claim of a stranger entering foreign territory to be treated by its owner without hostility. The latter may send him away again, if this can be done without causing his death; but, so long as he conducts himself peaceably, he must not be treated as an enemy. It is not a right to be treated as a guest to which the stranger can claim… but he has a right of visitation. This right to present themselves to society belongs to all mankind in virtue of our common right of possession on the surface of the earth on which, as it is a globe, we cannot be infinitely scattered, and must in the end reconcile ourselves to existence side by side: at the same time, originally no one individual had more right than another to live in any one particular spot. (Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Essay, trans. M. Campbell Smith, Garland Publishing 1972, pp.137–138)

Derrida makes the link between Kant’s law of cosmopolitanism and the cosmopolitanism of St Paul: “consequently you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow-citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household.” (Ephesians 2:19).

The original cities of refuge of course come from the Bible. In the book of Numbers God orders Moses to institute six ‘cities of refuge’ or ‘asylum’ for the ‘resident alien or temporary settler’. This concept was taken into Christianity as the ‘sanctuary’ provided by churches to secure immunity and survival for refugees.

The concept of cities of refuge points to a strategy for assisting refugees, asylumseekers and immigrants beyond the traditional nation-state politics, within a sphere of local, regional aid. Germaine Greer speaks of individuals and families adopting refugees – taking them into their own homes and taking responsibility for them. Perhaps there are other dimensions for assisting refugees – for example in which companies, voluntary groups, football clubs, trade unions, churches, town councils, even political parties, could each take in and be responsible for those who seek sanctuary in this country.

Our school asked the older pupils to update the nativity story for their Christmas play last year – they decided to present Mary and Joseph as refugees fleeing to England, with the Immigration Officer playing the role of King Herod. The younger pupils continued to act the traditional Christmas story, but the two plays were put on at the same time, with scenes alternating to powerful effect. This sort of example shows that schools can counter the negative image of asylum seekers and immigrants by giving pupils access to the facts.

Michael Dummett is Emeritus Professor of Logic at the University of Oxford, but for much of his life he has also been actively involved in the struggle against racism in Britain. In On Immigration and Refugees he looks at immigration and asylum with a philosopher’s eye, but writes for the general reader – the arguments are rigorous but not technical. This is easily the best of the three books reviewed here; every one of its one hundred and sixty pages throws light on this difficult subject.Dummett has divided the book into two parts: the first section on principles explains the duties of states towards refugees and immigrants and what grounds can be given for refusal; the second section covers the history of immigration.

Dummett makes his own views clear with well-presented arguments. Essentially, he believes that everyone should be free to enter other countries provided they are not criminals such as drug dealers or terrorists and should be free to stay in other countries provided the country’s native population is in no danger of being swamped (Dummett makes the point that ‘swamping’ occurs when millions of Europeans emigrate to North America, not when a few thousand West Indians emigrate to the UK).

Dummett argues that each political party pretends the other is ‘soft’ on immigration leaving the public with the false impression that the country is being swamped with immigrants, whereas the reality is that since the early 1960s largescale immigration has stopped. Ironically, the decision in the 1960s to make it difficult to immigrate into Britain had the opposite effect. Many workers had only moved temporarily to Britain and were planning to return to their country of origin (where their families still lived) after they had made some money. When Britain announced the new rules these workers realised they would no longer be easily able to visit their families and quickly arranged for their families to move to Britain.

In 1972 Idi Amin of Uganda announced that the Asians of Uganda had just three months to leave the country. As UK citizens they were entitled to move to Britain but a ‘Keep Them Out’ campaign by Enoch Powell stirred up an atmosphere of panic and Britain pleaded with other countries to ‘share the burden’ – Canada promptly creamed off the most highly qualified. In the end just 27,000 – hardly enough to fill a football stadium – were admitted to Britain. This shows the sort of hysteria typically generated by the media when even just a few thousand people seek refuge in Britain.

Dummett points out that the policy of ‘firm but fair’ on immigration – keep any more immigrants out but welcome those who are already here – is actually a contradiction. If we think immigrants have helped our society, helped our economy and made Britain a better place to live then why don’t we want more immigrants? Britain’s immigration laws appear deliberately racist: they allow people from ‘selected’ (i.e. white) colonies to enter Britain – the Channel Islands, Gibraltar and the Falklands – but black immigrants are kept out.

Why was it that in 1996 Canada allowed 82 percent of claims for asylum by refugees from Sri Lanka while Britain allowed 0.2 percent? Similarly for Somalis, Canada allowed 81 percent and Britain 0.4 percent; for refugees from the former Zaire, Canada allowed 76 per cent and Britain 1 per cent. These figures show that there are no objective criteria applied to whether people are genuine refugees: typically those people sent back by Britain return to persecution, imprisonment and torture. People who have seen members of their families killed or mistreated, or who themselves have suffered terror, torture or wrongful imprisonment need to be treated with sympathy, but instead the West places as many obstacles as possible in the path of those seeking help.

Dummett makes the point that Britain needs immigrants for deepseated demographic reasons. A UN Report, Replacement Migration: a Solution to Declining and Aging Populations, calculates that in Britain, Germany, Italy and France the ratio of people of working age to those retired is currently 4:1; by 2050 it will be only 2:1. The social security systems of these countries were founded on the assumption of a 5:1 ratio. The only feasible solutions are a great increase in the number of immigrants admitted or a marked increase in the age of retirement. The report estimates that the EU needs an average 5.3 million immigrant workers entering the EU per year for the next thirty years to solve the problem, yet years of hostility to immigrants and refugees – fostered by politicians – makes this solution unlikely.

Dummett argues that we should see immigrants as a benefit to the receiving country – a British Home Office report published in 1995 stated that one in three among those accepted as genuine refugees had a university first or postgraduate degree or a professional qualification – only five percent were unskilled. It is estimated that there are two thousand asylum seekers in this country who could work in the NHS if the infrastructure was available to convert existing medical qualifications into those recognised in Britain. However, in the 1960s it became notorious that teachers and other professionals admitted were frequently found to be working as bus conductors – it looks as if we haven’t learned any lessons since then.

The town of Hadleigh where I live contains a particularly telling example of failing to appreciate the benefits of immigration. In the Middle Ages the enormous wealth generated by the cloth industry led to Hadleigh being ranked 24th in the list of important provincial towns (equal with Southampton). However, the heavy felted broadcloth upon which much of the wealth of Hadleigh was built was overtaken in popularity by the ‘new draperies’ fostered by Dutch immigrants who settled in the larger towns of Colchester and Norwich. By failing to attract these immigrants, by the end of the 16th century the town of Hadleigh was in serious decline. It seems likely that those western countries which fail to attract and support immigrants today will meet with a similar fate.

© John Mann 2002

John Mann is a software engineer and lives in Hadleigh, Suffolk.

Against Equality of Opportunity by Matt Cavanagh, Oxford University Press, 2002 0-19-924343-3. £25.00 UK, $35.00 USA.

Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness by Jacques Derrida, Routledge, 2001, 0-415-22712-7. £7.99 UK, $12.95 USA, $19.95 Canada.

On Immigration and Refugees by Michael Dummett, Routledge, 2001, 0-415-22708-9. £7.99 UK, $12.95 USA, $19.95 Canada.

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