Inevitable Brexit Post

I am a citizen of Portugal. My mother is from Macau and was born there when it was still under Portuguese control. She went through the long and difficult process of claiming her Portuguese citizenship so that I could have it through legacy. This allows me to live and work in the UK without having to apply for visas every few years (my other passport is Australian).

The process of gaining Portuguese citizenship was long, arduous, and expensive. But the Portuguese government treated us ex-colonials with respect and dignity. It was worlds apart from the way I was treated by the UK Border Agency when I tried to apply for visas as an Australian.

The UKBA treats applicants like criminals. It makes it impossible to speak with anyone in the system. The forms warn that any attempts to contact the agency will not be successful but will result in delays to the processing of your application. The agency is fortified within a labyrinth of Kafkaesque runarounds. It charges outrageous fees. The process of bringing in dependents or applying for spousal visas requires submission to humiliating and invasive examinations.

The UKBA also rejects every application it possibly can by creative interpretation of the laws. A friend of mine had his application rejected because his pen mark went too far outside one of the boxes he ticked. One of mine was rejected because I included the wrong page on one of twenty bank statements I had to send with the application. When your application is rejected, you are told that you have 28 days to leave the country. You are not told that you are allowed to appeal the decision and provide the right documentation (or send another form with all the ticks exactly the correct size). I had to ring a lawyer to find this out. The UKBA also warns that the appeal process can take months. You are not informed that you cannot be deported while the appeal is pending – again, I needed a lawyer to tell me this.

When I had sent in the correct page on my bank statement, my application was eventually accepted after appeal. But from that point onwards, I could never cross the UK border without being made to wait while an agent investigated my sordid past of illegal immigration. I must say that every agent apologised to me after finding out the truth but told me that they are obliged to investigate any visa that has a ‘flag’ on it.

Strangely enough, I still have this problem when entering the UK on my Portuguese passport, since the UKBA has linked together my EU passport with my Australian one. I am told this is (was!) in direct contravention of its treaty obligations to the EU, but that is a different story.

My immigration story is incredibly benign compared with others I have heard. I have heard of people being detained, deported, and fined for the most absurd imaginable reasons. I have heard of children being separated from their families. I have heard worse than that.

Immigration was a core issue in the EU Referendum, possibly the deciding issue. Intelligent people have argued that one advantage of leaving the EU is that Britain will be able to pick and choose its immigrants rather than having them forced upon it. My friend Neil Wilson has made this argument eloquently.

Neil claims that “every other advanced civilised nation on earth, outside the EU” runs a points-based system of selective immigration. I respectfully disagree. Face down the Australian Department of Immigration or the US Department of Homeland Security and tell me if you see evidence of civilisation.

I see a process that is deliberately made as expensive and dehumanising as possible. At times I barely managed it, and I am well off and a native speaker of English, with friends in high places. I cannot imagine what it would be like for somebody less privileged.

Do I believe in open borders? No. I believe, as Michael Dummett argued (please read his book), that just as anyone prosecuted for a crime should be treated as innocent until proven guilty, anyone seeking to migrate to a nation should be treated as legitimate until proven otherwise. We should not be treated as criminals trying to prove our innocence.

Now let me explain one reason why I voted for Britain to remain in the EU. The inhumanity of the UKBA and its counterparts in other nations did not emerge out of nothing. Such procedures are brought in on a wave of popular support, among native populations that always will harbour resentment against immigrants – including the ‘good’ (high point-scoring) sort of immigrants: fancypantses like me with higher degrees, often mixed ethnicity, middle-class jobs, and the requisite impressive bank balance. This popular resentment will always be a rich seam from which votes can be mined. The television stations make documentaries about heavily armed border guards chasing foreigners around, and the native populations squeal with delight. When one nation does it to the immigrants of another nation, that nation retaliates in kind. An accelerating arms race of nastiness between the UKBA and the Australian Department of Immigration has got us to where we are today. Immigrants become cannon fodder in a battle of national egos.

There is one and only one way to escape this vicious cycle. It is for nations to give up their sovereignty over immigration and enter into mutually binding international agreements, overseen by transnational bodies not subject to the ugly identity politics from which no national government can escape on its own. Nations must compromise on core principles of immigration to which they can all agree. The EU’s Free Movement of People might not have been the right principle, and I personally disagreed with its approach to non-EU migrants. But that is a matter that should have been argued within the EU Parliament or, in the ideal case, a Parliament of all the stakeholder nations.

Neil argues that: “People want nations for the same reason they want family and not just friends. People like their friends but want to live with their family – behind their own front door. Demonising nations is like demonising family, and needs to stop.

I strongly repudiate the analogy. We all struggle to get on with our families at times, but if you’re lucky enough to have a good family you know they’ll always be there for you when you need them most. Nations are not like this. The ex-industrial regions of England needed the more affluent regions to support them during the 1980s. Instead they got Thatcher telling them they weren’t getting their grubby hands anywhere near the family jewels, to wild popular acclaim. The resentment builds to boiling point, and the only escape valve for it blows straight through the hearts of immigrants and their families. That is what we have just seen. I’m sorry for being unoriginal, but it is true.


12 thoughts on “Inevitable Brexit Post

  1. NeilW

    That’s a very nice post Alex. One of the reasons I want to run through this with you is because you are directly affected by it. That makes you a ‘domain expert’. The dual passport makes you even more valuable in this discussion.

    I’m wary of discussing this topic, because it is raw stuff – particularly for anybody who has been at the sharp end of failure as you have. So if any of this irritates you too much just tell me to STFU.

    Let me expand on a few sentences to make where I’m coming from clearer. When I talk about a visa system as used in ‘civilised advanced’ nation, what I’m talking about is one that excludes ‘unskilled’ people (for whatever definition of unskilled) – because the destination country is ‘civilised’ so the country doesn’t need them as cannon fodder for the civil war the country is currently engaged in, and ‘advanced’ in that the country has a surplus of its own ‘unskilled’ already.

    Similarly ‘International family’ is more about who you choose to live with. That’s the ideal, but nations at the moment are more ‘international house share’ or even worse ‘international student house share’.

    It about the lock on the door, and who gets a key. And about why we have locks and keys in the first place. And I suppose whether we need locks and keys.

    Just because a nation is drawn on the map, doesn’t mean that it will always be there – or always has been there. The tension between London and the rest of the UK has to be resolved, or people will be metaphorically packing their bags and moving out. This has been the case throughout history since nations became a thing. There is a set of something that keep a nation together that clearly isn’t there in the European Union – as we have seen with the treatment of Greece by Germany. And it may no longer be there within the current United Kingdom. What is that set of something is one of the questions to answer.

    The UKBA is clearly not fit for purpose. Anybody reading the stories about them (here’s another one that is completely insane: knows that. But is that the same as saying that a border system that works cannot be designed so we must dispense with borders? How is that different from saying that all Job Guarantee ideas necessarily become Workfare so we must dispense with jobs? How is it any more brutal than the thousands and thousands of people at housing offices across the country being shifted from one set of ‘temporary accommodation’ to another – other than those people don’t normally have the eloquence to write up their horrific stories on Social Media?

    I’d suggest this is the usual brutality you get from an underfunded, out of the way, over centralised public service, and the the root cause is, as ever, the artificial fiscal restrictions on the state to prevent them having priority access to resources and the general screwing down of living standards that turn people into animals. The brutality comes from the theories behind the ‘Single Market’ and the other inhuman nonsense coming out of the sphere of economics – a profession that is long past time it was added to the charlatan category where astrology, alchemy and homeopathy reside.

    There is no perfect solution to any of this. There is only an engineering compromise that allows you to deliver what you want to deliver. And that goes back to the fundamental question of ‘what do we need borders for?’ and ‘what are we trying to deliver and why?’.

    Answering those is our challenge – should we choose to accept it. Preferably before things self-destruct. Or we both go mad from thinking about it.

    1. axdouglas Post author

      Hi Neil,

      This is a very thoughtful reply. I need time to think through it and respond properly, but for now let me say: do not, under any circumstances, STFU! The worst thing that can happen now is for dialogue to break down over this result, let alone among people who agree on almost everything else.

    2. axdouglas Post author

      So, as a preliminary stab…

      We need to rework the concept of a border. I don’t mean this in any airy-fairy philosophical way. I just mean that we should take seriously Dummett’s view that borders should not be open, but that open borders should be the default position. Divergence from it requires justification by the state wishing to diverge. The analogy is: the default position is that the state can’t throw you in prison; if it seeks to diverge from that default, it must prove in a court of law that it has the right to do so.

      In practice, migrants should be treated as valid until proven otherwise. For instance, in the story you sent me, that woman should have been let through and allowed to go about her business while her entry claim was being investigated. A legitimate case for refusal of entry should have been made to an independent tribunal, and if it were approved then the border police should have had to find her and deport her with a fair warning.

      The idea that illegal immigrants will exploit such a policy by getting in on the prima facie presumption of innocence and then disappearing off the radar is ludicrous. Anyone who wants to overstay a tourist visa and risk fines and deportation is already perfectly capable of doing so. God help them when they get caught.

      Thus I don’t think that the image of the locked door is appropriate. I don’t believe that a nation has the right to leave migrants waiting outside the locked door or trapped in the vestibule. I think they should be let in (unless they pose a credible security risk) and deported if their entry clearance turns out to be fraudulent.

      To your question: “How is it any more brutal than the thousands and thousands of people at housing offices across the country being shifted from one set of ‘temporary accommodation’ to another?” Here, of course, we’re on the same page. But let me point out that even the worst of those stories is a fairytale compared with daily life in Australia’s refugee camps on Nauru. It might not seem like it (and it’s easy to say from my privileged position), but there does seem to be an upper limit to how brutally the British government can treat its own domestic population. It doesn’t, for instance, solve the problem of the unhoused by throwing them into a hellish prison on an offshore island (not since the foundation of Australia anyway). But there is no upper limit to how cruel a nation’s border controls can become.

      The difference, as I see it, is that the domestic population get a vote. Thus if a benevolent Job Guarantee were brought in, and a politician proposed to turn it into Workfare, he or she would face the same political barriers as a politician proposing to mess around with the NHS.

      With immigration it is different. Proposals for a more barbaric system of border control will always be popular with the native population. The immigrants themselves have no say, and their native-born friends and spouses will never be numerous enough to tip the balance. The case is trickier with things like the penal system (even if prisoners vote, they don’t make up a big constituency, except in the US). But that’s a topic for another day.

      I’m not sure I agree entirely that “The brutality comes from the theories behind the ‘Single Market’ and the other inhuman nonsense coming out of the sphere of economics”. Those theories, to my mind, simply give intellectual legitimacy to something deep and fundamental in human nature (cf. the René Girard post I linked to on Twitter recently). Australia didn’t need to join any common market to become the leading human rights abuser in the developed world.

      Legislation is an imperfect solution in many ways, but I can’t think of a better one. But it’s important for the lawmakers to be partly controlled by the stakeholders. Since everyone can stand to gain by something like the Job Guarantee, or a proper social housing policy, I think these can be safely left to the discretion of a national government.

      With immigration it is quite otherwise. Border controls can only hope to be humane within an international system, in which one nation can’t impose them without the consent of other nations, and without having the very same controls apply to its own citizens when they try to migrate overseas. Of course I don’t mean that if one nation takes only high-skilled migrants other nations should do so too – that would be silly. What I mean is that the way in which border controls are decided and implemented, and the rights of migrants, should be decided internationally, not left up to the discretion of government.

      In other words, it should work the way that it does for refugees, de jure though sadly not de facto. I am, of course, exposing my Achilles heel using that example, since it suggests that international agreements aren’t worth the microchips they’re stored on. My reply is that there’s a difference between saying that an internationalist solution is the only viable one and saying that I know how to implement it.

      Still, I remain a hopeful internationalist. Could it be that that is what separates us?

  2. NeilW

    A few articles for consideration.

    The first one is pretty good, and due to the nature of where it was published reflects on the view of migration as a response to the conflicts between ‘worldwide’ Catholicism and ‘constrained’ Protestantism that created the Westphalian settlement in the first place.

    I’m particularly drawn by the argument:

    ‘We have a moral duty to care for refugees, but the communitarian insight identifies a concurrent obligation to maintain our own ­societies as stable and well-governed. That means political communities must regulate their borders. Drawing on Rawls, political theorist Stephen Macedo argues, “An immigration policy cannot be considered morally acceptable in justice unless its distributive impact is defensible from the standpoint of disadvantaged Americans.” This does not mean we should not assist foreigners or promote generous immigration policies. Rather, it requires that we give priority to the needs of the most vulnerable in our political community, which today means unskilled American workers. They are the most likely to suffer economically as a result of a larger influx of low-wage immigrants.’

    So to create a social differential between one nation and the others in any reasonable timeframe and to better the life of the poor above the lowest common denominator (i.e. the Job Guarantee), you have to have some sort of flow control system between your political control area and others – simply because you don’t have political power over those other areas.

    The two theories seem to be based around the notion of nations vs no-nations. However to have a currency area, you have to have one nation driving it (as we can see with the disaster that is the Eurozone). That leads, logically, to the communitarian viewpoint which is the only one that embraces nations as a positive force.

    The second is a call for net-zero migration as a policy:

    This adds in the ecological viewpoint. You have to stabilise the population at the footprint, or all you are doing is taking the footprint from some other nation.

    The third is one of the reviews of the Dummett book which states:

    However, Dummett makes no attempt to counter the claims of those such as those of the University of Oxford’s Centre on Migration Policy and Strategy (Compas) that immigration is harmful to the poor; consider the following conclusion concerning the emigration of Zimbabwe’s healthcare professionals (often encouraged by receiving countries): “The migration of skilled health workers from the country needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency because it has reached critical levels. There has to be a political will to address the grievances of health workers without confrontations. Arresting the current brain drain from public health institutions should be one of the government’s major goals. It needs to be appreciated that a healthy health sector is a prerequisite for economic growth and sustainable development because it ensures the availability of a healthy workforce. Thus, the research shows that there is a call to adopt and implement an integrated policy that will retain skilled health professionals in the country for the benefit of the main users of public health systems, the poor.”

    IOW one nations’s skilled immigration is another nation’s brain drain.

    In other news Labour continues to avoid this particular elephant in their room.

    1. axdouglas Post author

      Thanks Neil.

      These articles give arguments for divergence from the open borders status quo – quite compelling ones. But that doesn’t touch Dummett’s point that the burden of proof falls on those who want to diverge from the status quo, not those who want to preserve it. It also doesn’t touch the point that such divergences should be justified and decided internationally rather than being a matter of national sovereignty.

      Basically, control over borders is too powerful a tool to be left in the hands of a sovereign government, who will in my view inevitably misuse it.

      1. NeilW

        “Basically, control over borders is too powerful a tool to be left in the hands of a sovereign government, who will in my view inevitably misuse it.”

        Unfortunately that falls back to the point made in the first article – that the implementation and enforcement of any international agreement always falls back to the nation state. And there is no law without enforcement.

        Plus the usual issue of getting global agreement takes decades and is near impossible – see climate change for details.

        I’d suggest that what you are proposing falls foul of the Solomon Fallacy, the same as the idea that a committee of experts knows best, the principle of world government, and all the other ‘big hug club’ ideas. They get huge brownie points, but lack any punch without allying themselves with authoritarianism – the old ‘benevolent dictator’ concept so beloved of Eurocrats and others.

        It a centralised idea in a world where the enforcement power is distributed. To avoid deadlock – and therefore the drop to the default option of ‘the law of the jungle’ – we need a distributed idea that can be implemented unilaterally.

        We need principles that a nation state can engage with on its own without consultation with others, if we believe that a nation state is allowed to operate in any mode other than the ‘lowest common denominator’ within a ‘flat earth’ structure determined by global capital.

        You’ll forgive the mixing of layers here. I’m an engineer, not a philosopher.

    2. axdouglas Post author

      “In other news Labour continues to avoid this particular elephant in their room.”

      Absolutely right. Descending from abstract philosophy to concrete practice, Blairite Labour poisoned this debate by making the decisions on immigration on behalf of the public, with no consultation or explanation. That is so obviously behind this feeling of not being listened to that so many voters feel, and Labour now is doing nothing to address that.

      I believe what I do about immigration as a matter of principle. But I would *never* recommend that a government simply impose these principles on the public without selling them on it first. What a joke.

  3. John Johnson

    Excuse my probably moronic and simplistic interuption but as it would seem that all goverments /polititions (some excptions to polititions) seek power for powers sake they will follow the populist view for their policies.

    Just look at our Boris as an example his only real interest in suporting brexit (hate that phrase) is to further his inevitable leadership of the tory party and hence power and he is by no means the only one. As I can only really speak for this county for certain but suspect the same for many other countries the press /media is pretty much overwhelmingly right wing and good old anti imigration fills up many a column inch on a consistant basis.

    Sadly it is the people who read this guff and believe it to be true that vote for goverments thereby it is not in their interests to condem or contradict these opinions let alone the establishments vested interest in having a pool of undereducated underpayed and unemployed endidginous population to turn against imigrants by telling them its all their fault.

    Perfect example of the uk is the current situation with the labour party rats deserting the ship because they might not get elected in the next general election rather than of some minischule element of principle about coming up whith decent policies.

    Again sorry for interupting..

    1. axdouglas Post author

      Not interrupting at all – it’s a good point.

      I think it’s hard for any government to take a reasonable line on immigration for exactly that reason: tabloids have no trouble whipping up anti-immigration sentiment (whether justified or not), and it makes for an easy way for a politician with no principles to get elected.

      I blame the newspapers, but not the readers. I can totally understand how if you see one immigrant with a full-time job, when you can’t even get a 0-hours contract, you feel like your government doesn’t look after its own citizens. But the mistake is to think that it’s really about immigration. The national government wasn’t looking after ex-industrial regions even when there was net migration *out* of the UK.

      But it’s easier for a newspaper to make it about immigration than to explain how unfair the process of de-industrialisation was, and how it didn’t have to be like that.

      That’s what I think anyway; you know better than I do.

  4. Simon Cohen

    Neil-I generally find your comments illuminating and interesting and perspicacious but to throw in de-contextualised derogatory comments about’ homeopathy’ reveal a side to you that is dismissive and arrogant especially when it draws everyone into a collective ‘of course’ type of agreement. Assumed consensus on a subject that is still in open dispute, is rather thuggish , in my view and does you a diservice.

    This is off-piste for this blog, so I won’t go on but evinces a belief in ‘rationality’ so all encompassing it becomes somewhat irrational itself. Have a read of Raymond Tallis’ ‘Darwinitus: Apeing Mankind’ for issues relating to the beliefs that what can be measured is ‘everything.’

  5. mrkemail2

    “The idea that illegal immigrants will exploit such a policy by getting in on the prima facie presumption of innocence and then disappearing off the radar is ludicrous. Anyone who wants to overstay a tourist visa and risk fines and deportation is already perfectly capable of doing so. God help them when they get caught.”

    Forgive me if this is a stupid point, but wouldn’t it be better to punish *employers* of illegal immigrants. Require them to check everything. One downside is that business might be more likely to be discriminatory in hiring practices against immigrants.

    1. axdouglas Post author

      Not a stupid point, yet another reason we shouldn’t need to fully process somebody’s claim before she can even enter the country.


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