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Relative deprivation and the debate about refugees

Posted By on October 6, 2017 @ 12:30

In his much-acclaimed 1970 book, Why men rebel, Ted R. Gurr postulated that political violence could be explained by looking at social psychological factors. Gurr’s theory about political activism, and specifically political violence, centred on what people think their living conditions should be as opposed to what those conditions are. He called this ‘relative deprivation’: people’s perceptions of their status and what they believe they’re entitled to are fundamental to contemporary political activism and public discontent.

A statement [1] by former US House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich in 2016 exemplified the phenomenon. When it was pointed out to him that violent crime in the US was down, he retorted, ‘The average American, I will bet you this morning, does not think that crime is down, does not think that we are safer … People feel more threatened. As a political candidate, I’ll go with what people feel.’ In another example, Michael Gove, Britain’s former education minister, famously declared [2] during the Brexit debate that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’. Gove’s aim was to emphasise that, even though most experts believed that a British withdrawal from the EU was a mistake, the experts were either wrong or didn’t reflect what the people wanted and needed—or felt that they wanted and needed.

Relative deprivation lies at the heart of the discourse on migration. Nigel Farage, exploiting fear and opposition to the wave of migration from the Middle East and North Africa, was able to claim [3] that Sweden’s liberal immigration policy has facilitated a massive increase in the number of refugees, which has led to Sweden becoming the ‘rape capital’ of Europe. Others have referred to asylum seekers as ‘economic refugees’—a term that doesn’t exist in law, but that fosters a perception that most refugees are ‘queue jumpers [4]’, are ‘taking the system for a ride [5]’, and pose [6] a security threat, even though most terrorist acts are carried out by nationals not migrants.

Relative deprivation also feeds into the perception that the West is being inundated [7] by migrants, as Pauline Hanson claimed [8] in a speech to the Australian parliament in 2016: ‘We are in danger of being swamped by Muslims, who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own.’

Out of 24 million Australians, 7 million were born overseas. We’re a nation of immigrants [9], especially if we count the 40% of Australians who have at least one parent who was born overseas (20% of Europeans are foreign born [10]). And yet, despite these figures, there’s tremendous opposition to Australia taking in migrants—especially if they’re Muslim, as there’s an assumption [8] that such migrants won’t integrate.

Hard data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics [11] shows that migrants are far from a drain. They participate in and contribute to society, especially when we take declining birthrates into account. Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management, links economic growth to population growth. He points out [12] that population growth, especially in the West, has been in decline since the 1960s, and argues that population growth is the key to ensuring American economic power (over the past decade, population growth in the US has averaged 0.8%). Sharma adds, ‘In the past decade, population growth, including immigration, has accounted for roughly half of the potential economic growth rate in the US, compared with just one-sixth in Europe, and none in Japan.’

The goal of Gingrich, Gove, Farage, Hanson and others is to heighten perceptions of relative deprivation in order to sustain their own positions. Mainstream politicians who fail to challenge such views are not leading but being led. As well as making our society more intolerant, those attitudes undermine the economic development of the West, which is increasingly being defined by its ageing population [13], declining birthrates and failure to look after the elderly. There’s also an ethical problem: by rejecting those who seek refuge from violence and insecurity, we’re undermining our own moral values.

Policymakers should remember that Australia has played a key role in shaping the UN and international law. When we served on the Security Council, we showed great leadership in building consensus on key issues relating to Afghanistan and the Islamic State, as well as demanding action over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. We’re now hoping to join [14] the Human Rights Council for the 2018–2020 term and re-join the Security Council for the 2029–2030 term. This requires us to be leaders, which means that instead of supporting and advancing misconceptions, we should emulate Angela Merkel, who has declared [15] that she stands by her 2015 decision to admit a million refugees to Germany despite the political cost that came with that decision.

Policymakers have a simple choice when it comes to the discourse on migrants. They can either be on the right side of history or be on the wrong side. They can help advance a dignified discourse on migration that’s based on fact and not on xenophobia, jingoism and distrust of the ‘other’.

We should remember that migrants could also strengthen Australia’s economy and society. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual Global Liveability Index [16] rated Melbourne as the world’s most liveable city (for the seventh time), followed by Vienna and Vancouver. It might be no coincidence that Melbourne is also Australia’s most culturally diverse city, suggesting that multiculturalism helps to make cities more liveable [17].

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URLs in this post:

[1] statement: https://www.forbes.com/sites/startswithabang/2016/08/05/newt-gingrich-exemplifies-just-how-unscientific-america-is/#5af64a865e47

[2] declared: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GGgiGtJk7MA

[3] claim: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/nigel-farage-sweden-donald-trump-rape-capital-of-europe-refugees-malmo-why-wrong-debunked-claim-a7591636.html

[4] queue jumpers: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/15/theres-no-legal-queue-and-three-other-facts-australians-get-wrong-about-asylum-seekers

[5] taking the system for a ride: http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-news/he-wants-them-to-fail-lawyers-furious-over-peter-duttons-fake-refugees-deadline-20170521-gw9moc.html

[6] pose: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/hungarian-pm-viktor-orb-n-says-all-the-terrorists-are-basically-migrants-in-response-to-paris-a6746356.html

[7] inundated: https://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/getfacts/mythbusters/queue-jumpers/

[8] claimed: http://www.abc.net.au/triplej/programs/hack/half-of-australia-wants-muslim-ban/7865630

[9] immigrants: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/opinion/bernard-salt-demographer/australia-is-worlds-most-successful-immigrant-nation/news-story/1b07d0d672e5eb6ba5e8b6630e5e55af

[10] 20% of Europeans are foreign born: http://www.foreurope.eu/fileadmin/documents/pdf/Policybriefs/WWWforEurope_PB_no07_D103.2.pdf

[11] Australian Bureau of Statistics: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/mf/6250.0

[12] points out: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/06/opinion/sunday/to-be-great-again-america-needs-immigrants.html

[13] ageing population: https://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2015/06/02/dealing-with-the-influx-of-migrants-and-refugees/emphasize-the-value-of-migrant-workers

[14] join: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2015/sep/30/australia-to-seek-seat-on-un-security-council-in-2029-30-julie-bishop-says

[15] declared: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-germany-election/merkel-has-no-regrets-over-refugee-policy-despite-political-cost-idUSKCN1B70F2

[16] Global Liveability Index: http://www.smh.com.au/cqstatic/gxx1l4/LiveabilityReport2017.pdf

[17] liveable: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2014/08/23/does-multiculturalism-make-city-more-liveable

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