Tuesday, October 18, 2016

On the need for a sustainable immigration policy, and where I think you should stick it

The world is on fire.

And at the bottom of this fiery world is a small country (although it isn’t that small), which for the last three decades has been run like a sort of neoliberal theme park. Take its immigration policy, which aside from an embarrassingly small quota set aside for refugees is regulated via a points system grading prospective residents according to their skills in certain areas or by the amount of capital they are willing to bring into the country.

You speak English? Great, that was one of the requirements! You are willing to invest $10 million over three years? We no longer care if you don't speak English!

You get the idea.

The small country (although it isn’t that small) is tucked away so cleverly at the bottom of the world that desperate people wishing for a better life – or any sort of life at all – cannot reach it by boat. It is therefore practically immune from the blight of illegal immigration, with its attendant consequences such as increases in GDP, sudden availability of a greater range of foods, shit getting done all over the place and so forth. Fortunately – thanks to the foresight of legislators – a large portion of the resident population lives in such poverty that there are practically no jobs it won’t do, thereby reducing the need for undocumented foreigners. The judicious use of seasonal or fixed term work visas provides for the rest of the local capitalists’ needs.

The leading political parties of the small country (although it isn’t that small) comprise a centre-right majority which favours this rational and tidy points-based system, and a centre-left opposition which favours this rational and tidy points-based system but would also like to see the actual intake of immigrants reduced. House prices have been rising quite steeply, you see? And once the possibility that this might be due to a plot by the dastardly Chinese was discarded, or at least didn’t prove to be enough of a vote-getter, the finger of blame was pointed to the new migrants, all of whom increase the demand for houses, and some of whom – due to policies favouring wealthy newcomers – are using their wealth to actually bid for the damn things.

Who could have known?

So now the small country is practically bursting at the seams, if by bursting at the seams you mean it has half the population density of Europe, but only so long as you go out of your way to include Russia. Or one fifteenth of the population density of the United Kingdom. In fact the only countries in the OECD with fewer people per square kilometre are Australia, Iceland, Canada and Norway, due to being largely uninhabitable, whereas the small country – as well as not being actually that small – is quite lovely up and down.

New Zealand: nauseatingly inhabitable

Now I’ll be the first to admit that house prices are an actual problem. If something is not done about them soon, it is quite possible that the bubble will burst and the small country will no longer have an economy with which to support its population, old and new. However, I would argue that one could hardly blame migrants for this fact, and that maybe if the small country’s politicians didn’t divide their time equally between lamenting the problem and reassuring home owners that they will never, ever, ever, ever do anything to reduce the value of their properties, it might be possible to find a solution and still fit quite a few more people in.

In the meantime, however, anti-immigration sentiment on the putative left of the small country is a real thing. So for instance over the weekend the co-leader of the local Green Party went on television to inform the nation that net migration should be capped at 1% of the population every year including returning nationals. He said so in the name of a ‘sustainable immigration policy’, so that the country has time to build houses and roads and the other things that people need to live. ‘They are coming over here, and they are taking our infrastructure,’ he all but said. And it still might have been a half sensible argument, or at least I might have found it less surreal, were it not for the fact that the world is on fire.

Thousands of migrants die every year trying to cross the small bit of sea that separates Northern Africa from Southern Europe. Many of them would be classed not as refugees but as economic migrants, and of course none would come close to qualifying for the number of points necessary in order to ‘express interest’ in moving to the small country at the bottom of the world. They die because, in the words of Warshan Shire, that sea is safer than their land. Why else would you attempt a crossing that kills so many? And that is saying nothing of the five million people who have had to flee Syria to date, of which the small country is slated this year to take seven hundred and fifty, or the six million Syrians who are ‘internally displaced’. Or the over 15 million refugees from other countries and regions of the world awaiting resettlement.

The co-leader of the Green Party of Aotearoa thinks net immigration should be capped at 1% because, he says, that is the historical average, or the rate at which people could be peacefully accommodated by the small country. His 1% edict applies to voluntary migrants, but his party’s policy makes the same argument with regard to refugees, insisting that any increases of the paltry quota must be gradual ‘and the size of [the] total intake keyed to the provision of resources to provide adequate services for them’. We’re no longer talking single digits here, but fractions of a digit. Zero point zero one six per cent: that’s how much 750 people is to four and a half million. A number the Greens are willing to double now, and then subsume to the general principle that immigration policy should be sustainable.

The thing about historical averages is that we need to forget about them. And while we’re at it, fuck ‘sustainable’. The world is on fire, and nobody should know this better than the Greens, who are willing to extend the status of refugees to people fleeing the consequences of climate change. We are a developed country blessed by geography and whose political class is aware and accepting of what is about to happen. It is unconscionable that we should be having any conversation other than how best to prepare over the coming years and decades for the arrival of people – so many it scares us, so many we may have to learn all over again how to live in this place.

In other, painfully familiar topics, I wrote a piece for the Spinoff on the abuse of disabled children at Miramar Central School and what it says about our education system.