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?