Thursday, October 01, 2015

On Population Matters, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the United Kingdom

While I was reading my RSS feed the other day, I came across an Open Democracy essay by Adam Ramsay with the eyecatching title of "The charity which campaigned to ban Syrian refugees from Britain". The British charity Population Matters, concerned with demographic trends in the United Kingdom and potentially unsustainable populations there, has opposed the resettlement of Syrian refugees there.

Amnesty has called on the UK and other EU countries to 'significantly increase the number of resettlement and humanitarian admission places for refugees from Syria'. Yet the UK has Europe's fastest growing population and England is one of Europe's most densely populated countries. People have difficulty finding homes and jobs and even getting a seat on public transport. Our cost of living is rising as our growing population requires ever greater expenditure on infrastructure projects to meet this growing demand. It is becoming ever harder to protect our environment and to limit our contribution to climate change as numbers climb inexorably.

Instead, the UK and other EU countries should continue to support migrants from the Syrian civil war and other conflicts in the countries adjacent to those conflicts. In addition, the international community should consider intervening in long running conflicts with regional implications.

This Ramsay has connected the underlying themes of racism and xenophobia which, he argues, are present in this movement.

Population Matters has long called for “zero net-migration” to the UK: essentially, “one in, one out” - a position more extreme than the BNP. It's not just them. Last year, the Swiss organisation Ecopop (as in “ecology” and “population”) launched a referendum campaign calling for net immigration to be cut to 0.2% of the country's population. Swiss people need, as they put it, “lebensraum”. In their January 2015 magazine, the Swiss referendum campaign was the top item in Population Matters “international movement” section.

It's not just their extreme views on migration which are controversial. Among Population Matters' six policy proposals for the recent general election was a suggestion that child benefit and tax credits should be scrapped for third and subsequent children. With child poverty as high as it is in Britain, it must have been the only charity in the country celebrating as Osborne subsequently cut tax and universal credits for third and subsequent children. Many were surprised by the Chancellor's decision, but, as Polly Toynbee put it, “there was always a eugenic undercurrent in Tory thinking: stop the lower classes breeding.”

Of course, none of this is new. Malthusian arguments have been used to justify brutal policies ever since the British civil servant responsible for Ireland, Sir Charles Trevelyan, wrote that the great famine there was an “effective mechanism for reducing surplus population”.

This genocidal tradition is, of course, not represented in contemporary Malthusianism. But the broader questions of race and gender are uncomfortable for them. The organisation wraps itself in the flag of women's empowerment and concern for global poverty, and I am sure that for most of those involved in it, those are genuine worries. But any interrogation of these issues ends in a deeply problematic place. George Monbiot, as ever, puts it in the clearest terms: “People who claim that population growth is the big environmental issue are shifting the blame from the rich to the poor”.

This article got quite a lot of attention, in the comments at Open Democracy, in the blogosphere (see the Bright Green blog), and eventually from Population Matters. In "7 reasons why some progressives don’t get population", Chief Executive Simon Ross responded to the criticisms. For instance:

Migration is running at unprecedently high levels and is the British public’s greatest concern. People can see the impact of one of Europe’s highest levels of population density and population growth, particularly in London and the south east – a growing insufficiency of affordable housing, conveniently located education, responsive healthcare and comfortable transport. These all hit the poorest hardest. However, progressives typically consider themselves internationalists, with a hearty welcome for others, and so would rather not address the issue. We think there has to be limits to migration for any society concerned about environmental sustainability. That doesn’t mean no immigration. If well managed, UK emigration of 300,000 each year provides plenty of leeway for admitting some refugees while achieving balanced migration. That said, the huge numbers involved, with three million fleeing Syria alone, preclude migration being a solution for most.

I would note that, in fact, no one has proposed resettling the three million Syrians in the United Kingdom. I would also note, after Ramsay, that countries where Syrian refugees are concentrated, particularly Jordan and Lebanon, are facing absolutely and proportionally much greater stresses than the United Kingdom in Ross' implied scenario with fewer resources.

More broadly, I would also observe that Ross' scenario actually doesn't prescribe very specific for the Syrian refugees? What, exactly, are they supposed to do? Should they stay in Jordan and Lebanon, perhaps seek resettlement elsewhere, perhaps return to Syria? Ross' essay talks at length about how everyone is responsible, but it also provides no concrete solution. Earlier in his essay, Ross talks about the world of the ideal versus the world of the material, but he addresses neither in regards to the Syrians. This leaves me profoundly suspicious. I'd find a straightforward statement that the refugees should be left to hang more honest, in truth, than the statement that something could possibly be done, hopefully, if all goes well.

What do you think of this?

Monday, September 28, 2015

Two links on the census in Canada and on public institutional memory

As Canada prepares next month's federal election, the governing Conservatives being opposed by a variety of other political parties, the census that the Conservative government undermined is a simmering issue for reasons described in Donovan Vincent's Toronto Star article "Reviving the census debate".

Researchers, public policy advocates, statisticians, business groups, economists — and the Liberal and NDP parties — continue to call for the mandatory long-form questionnaire to be brought back, arguing that important statistical data is getting lost.

In a package of recently proposed reforms on transparency, the Liberals are promising to immediately restore the mandatory long form if they form government in the Oct. 19 federal election.

And Jean Ong, a spokesperson for the NDP, said in a statement that the party has long advocated for the restoration of the long-form census and continues to do so.

The lost data has massive implications for public policy decisions, business planning and a host of other areas, proponents of the mandatory long survey say.

Yet so far, the census hasn’t been in the spotlight on the campaign trail. But could it become an election issue?

Paul Jacobson, a Toronto economics consultant who relies heavily on census data for his work, believes it should. He says business planning is being seriously harmed by the new census data collection system.

“All the money in the world given to business surveyors could not replace the (mandatory) long form, period. You need a mandatory survey to get the quality of data you need to make good comparisons in small areas. That’s how you do business planning,” Jacobson says.

Stephen Toope, president of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, a national public policy advocate for Canada’s scholars, students and practitioners in the humanities and social sciences, says the “essence of the concern” about not having the mandatory long-form census is the impact on public policy.

“Thinking about questions around immigration, social service, children’s health and what kind of investments need to be made and where they need to be made — if we don’t know who is where, it’s very difficult to make informed policy decisions,” Toope says.

This is part of a broader disturbing trend in Canadian governance, away from the collection of vital data and towards increasing inaccessibility. The implications of this was described ably in Anne Kingston's front-cover article in MacLean's, "Vanishing Canada: Why we’re all losers in Ottawa’s war on data". The census is not alone in being gutted.

Stories about government data and historical records being deleted, burned—even tossed into Dumpsters—have become so common in recent years that many Canadians may feel inured to them. But such accounts are only the tip of a rapidly melting iceberg. A months-long Maclean’s investigation, which includes interviews with dozens of academics, scientists, statisticians, economists and librarians, has found that the federal government’s “austerity” program, which resulted in staff cuts and library closures (16 libraries since 2012)—as well as arbitrary changes to policy, when it comes to data—has led to a systematic erosion of government records far deeper than most realize, with the data and data-gathering capability we do have severely compromised as a result.

Statistics Canada no longer provides a clear snapshot of the country, says John Stapleton, a Toronto-based social policy consultant. “Our survey data pixelates—it’s a big blur. And the small data, we don’t know if it’s right.”

How many Canadians live in poverty now, compared to 2011? We don’t know; changes in income-data collection has made it impossible to track. Austerity measures, ironically, have resulted in an inability to keep track of the changes: StatsCan used to provide detailed, comprehensive data on salaries and employment at all levels of government; now we can’t tell where, or how deep, the cuts have been.

Disappearing data is only one part of a larger narrative of a degradation of knowledge—one that extends from federal scientists being prevented from talking about their research on topics as mundane as snow to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission being forced to take the federal government to court to obtain documents that should have been available under Access to Information. The situation has descended into farce: Library and Archives Canada (LAC), entrusted with preserving historic papers, books, photographs, paintings, film and artifacts, was so eroded by cuts that, a few years ago, author Jane Urquhart was unable to access her own papers, donated to LAC in the 1990s.

The result is a crisis in what Canadians know—and are allowed to know—about themselves.

Without accurate and dependable sources of data, Kingston documents how difficult it is for Canadians to know what has been happening with their country, and to respond to these changes with useful actions. If Canadians lack good data on poverty among First Nations, for instance, or on particular types of pollution, or indeed on the effectiveness of past government policy, this makes it all the more difficult for Canadians to respond effectively. I would speculate that, if a government does not want to act in a particular area and wants to make it more difficult for people and governments to act in this area in the future, poor data collection would inhibit this.

The census, in Canada, is an election issue. I really hope that this issue will have serious consequences for the government that made it so.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

On Joe Daniel, Syrian refugees, Eurabia, and the Canadian elections

Joe Daniel, Conservative MP for the Toronto riding of Don Valley East, has today caused something of a stir. As reported by the Toronto Star's Tim Harper, in talking to his constituents Daniel ended up talking about Eurabia. Yay.

On the same weekend Conservatives expedited a refugee processing system in a nod to what they called “Canadian generosity,” one of their candidates seeking re-election was telling voters about an “agenda” to move Muslims into European countries.

And that is something Joe Daniel doesn’t want to see in Canada.

In a video obtained by the Star, Daniel offered this warning to voters in Don Valley North: “So I think there is a different agenda going on in terms of these refugees.

“Whereas at the same time Saudi Arabia is putting up money for 200 mosques in Germany I think the agenda is to move as many Muslims into some of these European countries to change these countries in a major way.

“That is something that I certainly don’t want to see happening in Canada. I think Canada is the greatest country in the world.”

A later CBC report quotes his manager as saying these reports are taken out of context.

Daniel's comments were circulated online days after the Conservatives announced an expedited process to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees by September 2016, in an effort to move past criticism the government wasn't doing enough to help ease the crisis.

In a phone interview with CBC News, campaign manager Didar Khokhar said it was ultimately up to Daniel to explain his comments, but immediately went on to say they were "taken out of context."

"He was touching upon the controversy that has seized Europe," Khokhar said Wednesday afternoon.

Khokhar said Daniel gave a brief speech during a barbecue with some 30 people in attendance, where he touted the government's record on the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees.

"He made the comments in passing," Khokhar said.

Both news agencies feature the video in question. The CBC"s version is below.

Readers should make their own judgement.

I rather dislike the introduction of unfounded Eurabian conspiracy theories into the Canadian elections. That such potentially dangerous falsehoods are apparently being passed off casually by candidates at meet-and-greets is appalling. I will note that Daniel at least apparently chooses not to own up to this. I'll also note that Daniel himself is of immigrant background, both to parents of Malayali background in Tanzania, product of the Conservative Party's effective outreach to "new" immigrant communities. Might, I say only partly jokingly, the propagation of nativist and xenophobic myths by these people at least show that integration is working in some skewed way?

More, about Syrians and Canada's elections, later this week.