What does a bear do when hostility towards immigrants increases?


Paddington is a migrant, arriving in the UK long before we joined the European Union.  He understands the feelings of loss and rootlessness experienced by many who, through necessity or circumstance, must move to another country and make a new life for themselves.  Having left family and friends behind many arrive in a new culture that operates under different social norms and rules without any support network.  Migrants may be visibly different from the larger population or difficult to tell apart, but what is not seen is the internal conflict that takes place, migrants are torn between the desire to integrate into their newly adopted culture and the need to maintain a sense of personal identity.  To be a migrant is to always feel slightly apart, always to feel slightly uneasy, to resist as well as wanting to embrace the new culture, to be accepted but also to have one’s differences acknowledged.  The need to hang on to customs and traditions that remind a person of who they are, and where they have come from, can be overwhelming when surrounded by a strange language, social behaviour, and way of living. 

Paddington was lucky, he was adopted by a relatively well-off family (the Browns) who could afford to take in a Peruvian bear and provide for his needs.  In the post-war years of the mid-20th century such an action did not seem unreasonable.  London during the Second World War was awash with immigrants and displaced people from all over Europe and from even further afield.  English people had adopted Jewish children arriving on the Kindertransport from Germany, while those in rural areas took in and looked after children sent out of the London to escape the Blitz.  That does not mean there wasn’t prejudice and inequality, but there was clearly a generosity, openness, and acceptance, driven partly perhaps by a sense of involvement in a much larger struggle.

Today, the situation is different, and Paddington faces a dilemma.  Rather than support Europe the government is turning its back on its nearest neighbours and creating a ‘hostile environment’ for migrants, however long they have lived and worked in their adopted country.  Paddington’s dilemma is not a decision about whether he should return to Peru or stay.  He cannot leave the country he has been brought up in and calls home, he literally has nowhere else to go.  His dilemma is how to deal with a situation where social and economic inequalities in society are generating more violent reactions against anyone who is different.  Being a sensible bear, he is not going to make any rash judgements but look for the causal mechanisms and possible solutions.

Back in Peru Paddington is aware of the almost 800,000 new migrants (and possibly more who have arrived informally) who have arrived to escape the political and economic collapse in Venezuela[1].  Just as in the UK, those recent migrants are facing potential hostility from a local population concerned about loss of employment or being undercut by someone who will work for less money, while also recognising that these people are victims of political chaos and economic breakdown in their home country.  Across Europe we face similar issues with large numbers escaping the impact of the Syrian war and political or lack of economic opportunity in Africa, and all desperate to get into the EU[2]

In the short-term migration can be disruptive, even violent[3], and requires sensitive handling in order to avoid social and economic consequences for the country taking in migrants.  In the long-term it can be beneficial bringing new ideas, enriching the cultural heritage of a country, or increasing economic prosperity[4].  Peru, for example, is a multi-racial country made up of indigenous peoples, Spanish settlers, and waves of immigration, principally from China and Japan.  Much of the dynamic energy in the country comes from the mix of ideas contributed by different cultures.  In a similar manner, the British Isles have long been washed over by waves of people even before the Romans came, initially through conquest, in more recent centuries by invitation.

Statue of Paddington in Miraflores,
Lima, Peru

The movement of people has been around for a long time and immigration into the UK is not going to stop if we leave the European Union.  Migration is driven by many factors, including deliberate political action that forces people to move, in order to create chaos and problems for other countries, as well as to win political support from extremist groups at home.  The UK is not immune to such action, where the Conservative government created:

“…a ‘hostile environment policy’ designed by Theresa May to…appeal to the right-wing of the electorate. The effect was to dehumanise, demonise and victimise British citizens in a race to the bottom. It is this policy that barred British citizens from accessing the public services and benefits from a welfare system that they themselves built with their own hands, and that they staffed and paid for through tax and National Insurance contributions.”[5] 

Large-scale migration is a major global problem, and uncontrolled population growth along with demands for higher standards of living and resources consumption will only increase the scale of the problem, as identified at the recent IASC Global Conference[6] on commons, held in Peru.  Speakers at the conference identified extractivism, protectionism, and privatisation as three major issues having negative impacts on the social, economic, and environmental systems across the whole of South America, as well as other parts of the world, through destruction of resources and removal of access rights which drives poverty and creates economic migrants, increases inequality, and results in environmental damage.  A global and unregulated economic system based on narrow conceptions of social welfare and efficiency, a need for growth, and false assumptions about ‘rational actors’, will ultimately destroy the social systems, the resources, and the ecological systems on which our lives are based.  The current high levels of migration and environmental damage that are occurring are a symptom of the underlying economic structure. One part of the solution will require a reduction in inequality both within and between countries, in order to enhance innovation and creative adaptability to current problems[7].  A reduction in inequality, however, will only be achieved through much larger wealth re-distribution programmes in a free market system that is “…essentially a casino that you can never leave” [8].

Paddington’s dilemma is one that is not just relevant to migrants and ethnic minorities when faced with prejudice and hostility.  Paddington’s dilemma is one that faces all of us: what to do when elected politicians and elements of the media start to lay the blame for problems on migrants and minority groups rather than as an outcome of their own political actions and failure to address deeper structural problems that create inequalities and lack of opportunity among the wider community[9].  Do we stick our heads in the sand and hope it all goes away, or work out how to change our socio-economic system to make it fairer, more equitable, and provide more opportunity, not just at home but globally?  This is not a problem that will go away, and unless we find solutions it will get worse.  The current economic system, to which we all have access and in which we all share, is not going to save us from migration or from ecological disaster, it is the main cause of these problems.  Governments have the capacity to bring about such change, but in the absence of political will, and even a determination to maintain the status quo, we will have to start looking to develop bottom-up solutions based at the local community level.

The question all of us must answer, not just Paddington, is: what kind of a world do we want for ourselves and our children?  Do we want to live in an ecologically degraded world of uncontrollable climate change where economic and environmentally driven migration pressures will only get greater?  Or, do we want a more equitable world where all communities, and all regions are able to develop sustainably without destroying the socio-economic and ecological systems on which we all depend?  This is not a matter of utopian ideals versus ‘rational’ economic, it is a matter of survival.  The choice is ours but the time to choose is rapidly running out; young people know it, and Paddington knows it, but I don’t believe the current UK government is even aware there is a question.


[1] https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news/2019/07/09/peru-tougher-rules-venezuelan-migration

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34131911; https://www.unhcr.org/europe-emergency.html

[3] Pickett, K. and R. Wilkinson (2009) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Penguin Books.  The authors note the capacity for increased aggression in more unequal societies including situations where there is an influx of immigrants into a deprived community.  

[4] https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2019/11/26/migracion-venezolana-peru

[5]  Lammy, D. (2018) Perspectives on the Windrush generation scandal: A response from David Lammy MP.   https://www.bl.uk/windrush/articles/perspectives-on-the-windrush-generation-scandal-a-response-from-david-lammy

[6] ‘In Defense of the Commons: Challenges, Innovation, and Action’.  XVII Biennial IASC Conference, Lima, Peru, July 1-5, 2019.  https://www.iasc2019.org/

[7] Pickett, K. and R. Wilkinson (2009) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Penguin Books. 

[8] Boghosian, B. (2019)  The Inescapable Casino. Scientific American, Vol.321, No.5, pp.70-77.  Recent work by mathematician’s have demonstrated the inherent tendency of free market economies to move towards extremes of unequal wealth distribution, no matter how equitable the initial distribution of wealth.  The work suggests market forces do not create equilibrium but instability through supporting the gradual (or rapid where wealth is unequally distributed to start with) transfer of wealth from poor to rich.  The author suggests that only active market regulation through government programmes for re-distribution of wealth will resolve the inequality problem.

[9] Pickett, K. and R. Wilkinson (2009) The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone. Penguin Books. 

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