Columns

The conflict at the heart of the migrant question

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

18 December 2021

9:00 AM

A friend, a Cambridge professor, passing my old college last week, was startled to encounter a young lady standing outside shouting something and carrying a placard exhorting Mathew [sic] Parris to [expletive deleted] off. He wondered if I knew what this was all about. I don’t, but suppose it relates to my Times column arguing (about asylum seekers) that we do not have an equal obligation to all, but rather concentric circles of obligation at the centre of which we stand, the first circle being to self and family, the next to close friends, neighbours and community, then to nation and, finally, to all mankind.

The conclusion to this argument (I said) is that our duty (for example) to accept and care for asylum seekers or indeed economic migrants is not negligible but must stand in line behind other duties. Charity begins (though most emphatically it does not end) at home. I know the young lady’s indignation was shared by many because friends told me ‘You’ve caused a Twitter storm’, with all the comments being angry, even abusive. Social media is a planet I’m not on, but I’m curious. Who are these people? What are the inner thoughts, the emotional processes, that lead to this rage against a person they do not know?

In trying to answer these questions I was put in mind of my late parents, their marital relationship and their relationship with their (six) children. The connection with the woman outside my college may not at first be obvious to you, but I think you will see.

All 58 years of marriage, Dad was always the parent who said no. He worked all his life for us, never wanted much for himself, and maintained always a civil and steady demeanour, but he was not overtly loving. Mum was the demonstrative one, tirelessly kind, a cuddler and consoler, a sort of angel. So if we children craved anything special, we’d ask Mum; and she would always be sympathetic. A trip to the seaside? A new bicycle? Permission to stay up late? Mum would seem to be on our side.


But she would need to ask Dad. Always Dad. And sometimes he would say yes, but often it had to be no. Our request would cost too much (‘We’re a bit close to the bone this month’) or there wasn’t time, or he would like a rest after work. Mum was Mrs Let’s Ask Daddy. Daddy was Mr No. To a young child like me, Mum acquired an aura of boundless charity, Dad of the naysayer, the one who raised difficulties. He was even, perhaps, a bit mean.

In adolescence I did begin to see the other side; to wonder if it was slightly unkind of Mum, though unconsciously so, to leave Dad to do all the turning down. Dad being the backstop, the buffers, the bolt on the outer door, gave Mum the space to be unconditionally kind. In old age, Mum’s widowed mother asked her if she could come and live with us and Dad said no. He got on fine with Nana, but she and her daughter had never really got on and Nana’s judgmentalism and sharp tongue got on Mum’s nerves, though she hid that. But Dad knew. Mum, however, always said Nana never joined us because Dad wouldn’t have it.

Which brings me back to our responsibilities for asylum seekers and economic refugees. I wonder whether — entirely unwittingly — many of our fellow citizens who rail against the ungenerosity of successive British governments towards those desperate, frightened, poor and hungry people trying to reach our shores, the fellow citizens who call our politicians heartless, who point accusatory fingers at leader -writers and columnists, who wave placards or shout abuse at those of us who (they say) are turning our backs on the world’s needy or oppressed people… whether these transparently sincere and kind-hearted critics are, without knowing it, outsourcing their cruelty on to others?

Such critics live and exercise their feelings within a secure zone. Others will say no, will lock the outer door, and the critics are secretly and doubtless unconsciously confident that others always will keep that door locked. So ‘Throw open the doors!’ they cry. ‘Are you without pity? Have you hearts of stone?’ And though the door remains locked as they knew it would, they feel they have done their bit for the world’s poor. It was the government that shirked responsibility.

Understand that I am not accusing them of hypocrisy. I think they passionately do believe we should open wide our arms. But they believe it within the context of a society and government that they know will never do this: they are enabled to dream by the secret security that the dream will never come true.

This is, then, not a matter of lying, but of hiding something from themselves. They do not need to pose, let alone answer, the question of whether there should be any limit on numbers of immigrants, because no government will ever contemplate limitless immigration. They have no need to consider whether the logical conclusion to their mercy would be to facilitate the passage of refugees not only over the English Channel, but all the way from their country of origin. No government would dream of implementing the spirit (as opposed to the letter) of the postwar 1951 Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, so they can shout ‘Geneva Convention!’ without further thought.

And, most important of all, they hardly need to think about how far the appetite among the world’s poor to emigrate would increase if emigration were easy, because they trust governments will never make it easy. They have projected on to other decision–makers the hard decisions that would be necessary were the decision theirs, so they do not need to make boundaries to their generosity. It can be limitless. Others will make the limits, and upon others falls the guilt. With clear consciences they can safely pray this Christmas that Christian charity might extend without limit to the ends of the Earth.

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