Faith & Reason: The place for foreigners is not always overseas

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The Independent Culture
THE PROSPECT, at last, of the Kosovo Albanians returning to their valleys and villages inspires a mix of emotions: satisfaction that some kind of justice is being done, relief that a larger conflict - or more damaging compromise - has been averted, apprehension that danger and horror still lie ahead.

Perhaps we feel, too, a measure of relief for our own sakes. The flood of refugees worldwide continues unabated, but at least it seems to be receding from our door. Britain may aspire still to be a great world power, but it never feels so small and its health so fragile as when there are foreigners desperate to come in. Nor do we like being looked down on from the moral high ground by the Germans and the Turks, who have been taking in Kosovars by the tens of thousands while we have been "welcoming" them in tens.

Meanwhile, Jack Straw is manoeuvring through Parliament an Immigration and Asylum Bill which will discourage even many genuine victims of persecution from seeking sanctuary in this country. The bill's remarkable lack of generosity is probably intended to be populist - which begs the question: Why, when we think of ourselves as decent and kindly people, are we seemingly so mean?

If nations, no less than individuals, have personalities shaped by their circumstances, perhaps we can recognise in Britain the type of character who is able to play a prominent public role precisely because they have the security of a sheltered private life. This is, famously, a country where everyone aspires to live on their own property, in semi-detached seclusion. Our generals are quiet men with clipped moustaches and names like Mike and Bob. Our politicians we expect to lead happy family lives, free of "irregularity" and excess. Our inventors are supposed to make their breakthroughs in their garden sheds.

In our collective imagination, if not in fact, the secret of Britain's success lies in its balance of the respectable and the eccentric: throwing it open to the fugitives of five continents would only ruin it for us all. We like the idea of a place for everyone and everyone in their place: and the place for foreigners, even those in distress, is generally overseas.

Perhaps one of the reasons we resent immigration of any kind - even of people from Vietnam or Somalia or Iraq, whose sufferings have been sympathetically documented on British television - is our perception that these islands are already overcrowded. Though our population is actually static, if not declining, the pressure is mounting as our society grows both more affluent and more fragmented, demanding more houses, more cars and more jobs to pay for them. Day by day, our media remind us that our welfare state is failing even as our countryside is disappearing under concrete. We could be pardoned for thinking that Britain is full.

But understanding why people may be fearful is not the same as giving way to their fears; and people of good will are right to insist that we must be more generous. Never mind that Britain is in any event not the magnet for foreigners we like to think. Never mind that immigrants, even traumatised refugees, have proved in the past to enrich, not impoverish, those countries that make room for them. In the end, hospitality to strangers in need is a moral duty.

We need here to address two quite different perceptions of our birthright as citizens of this country. One sees us as entitled to the privileges of being British by virtue of inheritance. Though we ourselves may not have fought to defend this country or struggled to build up its common wealth, our ancestors did. We owe it to them, and to our own descendants, to protect their legacy. Foreigners have no more moral claim to enter our country and share our welfare than they have to take up residence in our individual homes.

But, by the same logic, we inherit our parents' debts and duties as well as their assets. It will not do to argue that we have no obligations to the people of the Balkans, or the Middle East, or Indochina, or southern or central Africa: their present turmoil has its roots in history and, at least in part, that history has been misshaped by Britain. For several centuries, this country has punched above its weight, and across the world it has broken a lot of bones.

There is another line that is commonly taken, which ducks out from under that inherited burden of responsibility. Our excessive individualism allows us to see our personal circumstances in isolation - not as the fruit of other people's sacrifice - or slavery - but as just our good luck. Life is a lottery, and its winnings come without strings attached.

Yet that perspective only makes it more incumbent on us to be generous to people we now see as simply the unlucky. After all, but for the grace of God, it could have been you who was begging for asylum.

No one is asking us to make room for all of the 22 million people worldwide whose homes have been stolen from them. No one is asking us even to accept a fair share. And certainly, we must hope, no one will be asking us to welcome any more Kosovars. But we have to open our doors. A country that shuts out the suffering of the rest of the world only makes itself meaner and shabbier. Greatness is, you might say, as greatness does.

Huw Spanner is publisher of `Third Way' magazine