People are flooding into Europe from Africa and the Middle East. In media coverage, they tend to be referred to as “refugees”. Sometimes, perhaps, they could be better described as “immigrants”. It’s an important distinction, which should influence all our thoughts on the subject. We feel that Britain has had enough immigrants and that the flow has to be greatly reduced, or, at least, temporarily halted. But our consciences respond to people who are so obviously in trouble, people whom we should help: refugees without a home.
Many of those who are coming might perhaps be described as part-refugee, part-immigrant. But let’s start with some initial rough-and-ready distinctions:
Immigrants are people who have left their homes to seek a better and more prosperous home in another country. They are not running away from anything, except perhaps poverty and lack of opportunities. They are leaving families and extended families behind them. They regard themselves as pioneers. They hope to establish themselves in a more prosperous environment. If and when they succeed in making good in their new homes, they will encourage families, extended families and friends to follow them.
Refugees are of two kinds. There are political refugees who fear for their lives. These are people who are being persecuted. In most cases, they have become involved in politics in a way which the government of their country does not permit. There are also sometimes whole groups of people – Protestants in 17th century France, Jews in Hitler’s Germany – who fear for their lives simply because of who they are. Political refugees will always be welcome in Britain, provided they do not arrive in excessive numbers at any one time. Almost certainly very few of the people who are currently trying to enter Europe belong to this category.
But there are currently many refugees who are not leaving their homes so much as leaving their countries because their homes and places of work have been destroyed, and their lives have become increasingly intolerable due to the dangers, privations and anarchy of war. Refugees are families fleeing with children. They are people who would never have considered emigration if their lives had only been allowed to continue as they were a few years ago. They may want nothing better than to be reunited with their extended families and friends in their home countries if and when conditions there return to normal.
There is another rough-and-ready way in which refugees can be distinguished from immigrants:
Immigrants are almost always young men, travelling alone or with friends. If they have families at home, they have left them behind in conditions of reasonable safety and stability, hoping that, in due course, their families will be able to follow. Immigrants are subject to pull factors – they are attracted to their chosen destination.
Refugees are responding to push factors, which are driving them out of their homes.
In practice, both pull and push factors will influence a decision to chance one’s luck with a long, dangerous and perhaps expensive journey. For example, conditions are getting worse and worse at home; then an opportunity occurs to get to the Promised Land – or so it seems. The money is paid. The journey commences. Perhaps long before the chosen destination is reached, the decision is bitterly regretted, but it seems too late to go back…
From the point of view of those on the receiving end in Europe, immigration policy must depend greatly on the category into which the arrivals fall.