Debunking migrant myths
Suketu Mehta in defence of migrationThird Quarter 2019
Populism is fuelling ill-feeling against immigrants according to prize-winning author, Suketu Mehta. With migrant numbers set to rise over the coming decades, he proposes actions to quell the hostility.
White-hot fury drove Suketu Mehta to produce his book on immigration, which started off as a magazine article but took on a life of its own.
“As I started writing the article, I found myself just getting angry”, he explains before summarising the background to This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto. “I began the book in response to the Trump election, but it’s not just a book about immigration in America. It’s a book about global migration, a topic that is very close to home for me. I am one of a quarter of a billion people today who are living in a country other than the one they were born in.
“The terminology used to describe immigrants as robbers and rapists and murderers and thieves is approaching incitement to genocide.”
He argues that the current issues rippling across a world riven by populism derive from colonial history. He offers statistics and economic numbers showing that countries were impoverished by settlers who stripped out assets and resources, and he suggests that those asked to justify why they have settled in a foreign country should answer, “We are here because you were there.”
The negativity and anger are caused not by immigrants, but by anxiety promoted by divisive politicians. He describes the debate as a contest of storytelling and points the finger at leaders such as Modi, Johnson, Trump, Bolsonaro and Orban who, he alleges, have stoked a fear of migrants.
Asked to propose solutions, he adds, “I’m not an economist, a politician, a demographer, I’m a rabble rouser. I do have some ideas though. One is the expansion of the earned income tax credit in the US. It helps the poorest of the poor and it also helps immigrants. High school drop outs is the one group that in the short term are negatively affected by immigrants. An expansion of the tax credits would help both high school drop outs and immigrants.
“Another that could be done is to take action in border areas which disproportionately bear the cost of immigrants in terms of overwhelmed schools or hospitals. They shouldn’t have to bear the burden on their own. There are companies, like US tech companies that tend to be pro skilled immigration. There could be a tax or levy or fee on these corporations, which would be earmarked for these border communities or those parts of the cities that have to bear the costs of immigration.
Mehta warns that current levels of displacement will not be the peak, saying, “Mass migration caused by climate change is going to redefine the human phenomenon of this century. Land that is home to 650 million people today will be underwater by 2050. One-third of the earth’s surface is going to be a desert or semi-desert by 2050, and that one-third holds 1.5 billion people.”
Displaying flashes of the anger that drove him to write the book, he points out that the blame lies squarely with the US and Europe, which are responsible for more than half of the excess carbon in the atmosphere.
“And the people who are being affected by it are overwhelmingly the poorest nations. Developing countries will bear 75% of the cost for the climate crisis, despite the poorest half of the world’s population causing just 10% of CO2 emissions historically.”
Then, having vented his rage, he relents sufficiently to focus on the positive aspects of his work.
“It’s an angry book with a happy ending because I point out that when people move everyone benefits. The countries that people move to do so because the rich countries aren’t making enough babies, and they need the vigour of the young immigrants to pay for their old age systems and social security systems. It benefits the migrants themselves because, for many of them, it is literally a case of life and death.”
Suketu Mehta was talking in a private event during Edinburgh International Book Festival. Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust sponsors the festival.
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Author: Colin Renton
Colin Renton is an investment writer at Baillie Gifford, having joined the firm in 2007. He is an experienced journalist and a prize-winning short story writer.
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