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Migration isn’t just for the birds

By Philippe Legrain - posted Monday, 19 February 2007

Migration is the oldest action against poverty. It selects those who most want help. It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come. What is the perversity in the human soul that causes people to resist so obvious a good? J. K. Galbraith

July 6, 2005 was a day for celebration in London. As the crowds in Trafalgar Square noisily cheered the news that the city would host the 2012 Olympics, a much smaller and more subdued ceremony was taking place a few miles away at the Westminster Register Office. Standing beside a framed photograph of Queen Elizabeth II and a large Union Jack, a grey-haired man in a bright red, fur-trimmed robe decked in white gloves and a big gold chain was addressing a room of some 40 people of all ages and colours.

“Today is a very important day in your lives,” said the Deputy Lord Mayor of Westminster, “You are now British citizens and are entitled to vote in this country. … We welcome you here today into this nation and into this community of Westminster. You are now full members of the British family. As British citizens, we hold dear the values of tolerance and respect to others. I trust you will be loyal subjects and observe the law.”


The new British citizens then swore - or affirmed, in the case of non-believers - their allegiance to the Queen. Understated yet momentous, it was all over in less than half an hour.

As we left, Adriano, my Brazilian - and now British - friend, was grinning from ear to ear. “I’m like you now,” he beamed.

On July 7, London’s joy turned to horror as four British Muslim suicide bombers blew themselves up on a bus and three Tube trains, killing 52 people. As Londoners reeled at this callous attack on their way of life, their mayor, Ken Livingstone, captured the public mood: “This was not a terrorist attack against the mighty and the powerful. It was not aimed at presidents or prime ministers. It was aimed at ordinary, working-class Londoners, black and white, Muslim and Christian, Hindu and Jew, young and old. It was an indiscriminate attempt to slaughter, irrespective of any considerations for age, for class, for religion, or whatever.”

The roll-call of the dead poignantly underscored Mayor Livingstone’s words. The 52 victims included many foreigners and Britons of foreign descent, whose varied backgrounds highlight London’s status as a cosmopolitan city of opportunity.

These immigrants were not the lazy, dishonest scroungers of tabloid fare; they were the lifeblood of a diverse and dynamic global city. Among them was Shahara Islam, described as “a thoroughly modern Muslim, a girl who loved her … fashionable clothes while at the same time respecting her family’s wishes that she sometimes wear traditional shalwar kameez at home. She went shopping in the West End of London … but would always be seen at the mosque for Friday prayers.”

Her short life was an eloquent answer to those on both sides of the divide who claim that Islamic immigrants cannot successfully integrate into Western societies.


A microcosm of the debate

It is a cruel irony that I began writing Immigrants Your Country Needs Them just as my city and everything it stands for came under attack from terrorists who were British-born but of foreign descent.

But at the same time, the London bombings have helped crystallise the debate that is at the heart of this book: should we welcome or seek to prevent the unprecedented wave of international migration that is bringing ever greater numbers of people from poor countries to rich countries like Britain, Spain and the United States? Fear of foreigners versus the dynamism of multicultural London: a microcosm of the wider debate about immigration that is raging around the world.

As our societies age and many businesses complain they are short of workers, the pressure to let in immigrants grows, but many people in rich countries remain unconvinced.

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This is an edited extract from Philippe Legrain’s new book IMMIGRANTS Your Country Needs Them, published by Little Brown, ($35). Philippe Legrain will be speaking on the topic of “Globalisation and why your country needs immigrants” at Sydney Ideas, the University of Sydney’s international public lecture series, on Tuesday, February 27, 2007 at the Seymour Theatre Centre.

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About the Author

Philippe Legrain is a journalist and writer, based in London. He studied economics and then politics of the world economy at the London School of Economics. His journalistic career started at The Economist, where he wrote about trade and economics. He has also written for the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal Europe, The Times, The Guardian, and many others

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