Why the defenders of immigration are so annoying

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Across the developed world, in the UK, France, Spain, Switzerland, Australia and the US (to name only a few), fierce debates about immigration are ongoing. There’s always one side that points out there are already too many people, that they steal jobs, they don’t share the values of the host nation and they’d be better off back home. And then there are other people, equally passionate, who say this is racism, bigotry, even fascism and that it’s the duty of every moral and good person to embrace strangers from all over the world’s trouble spots.

Let’s consider Australia in particular. A lot of very high profile, well-educated and kind people in Australia believe that their government’s very tough policy on refugees is far too strict. Some consider it illegal; some think it morally wrong. They have a case. Australia could – in principle – easily accept 13,500 more refugees than it currently admits each year on humanitarian grounds. It’s a wealthy country with a robust economy and a lot of land.

Nevertheless, the pro-refugee lobby has failed to convince the rest of the nation. At the last election, almost 80% of the electorate voted for parties which share the current Liberal government’s very tough approach to the matter. The opposition Labour party used to take a more welcoming and generous stance. But their policy has become more stern and protectionist in recent years, in the hope of attracting more votes. The party strategists of the left simply acknowledged that the pro-refugee case had not resonated with the wider public.

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Most Australians want their sleek Royal navy to turn away the dangerous fragile boats overladen with refugees

Pro-refugee advocates tend to be very passionate in making their case. They are hugely convinced of the moral rightness of their views. But, it seems, most Australians find pro-refugee advocates extremely annoying.

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What are supporters of immigration doing wrong (in Australia and elsewhere)? Why can’t they convince their opponents? Because they make three mistakes: firstly, they make people feel counter-productively guilty, secondly, they talk in the language of the ‘rights’ of immigrants and thirdly, they forget to stress how grateful they and the new immigrants would be if government policy were ever to be relaxed.

© Sophie Peer

We must end the Australian Government’s discriminatory offshore processing policy, which not only undermines sustainable, human rights-based solutions to asylum seeker arrivals, but diminishes Australia’s reputation as a human rights leader on the world stage.

The pro-immigration lobby tries to overcome the prejudices of their opponents by inducing a persistent feeling of guilt. There could only be a single conclusion were you not to want to open the borders: you are a bit mean, rather callous and quietly complicit with repression and cruelty.

The urge to nag is very understandable. The problem is it’s not terribly effective. It will work for a small number of people but for most of us it is off-putting. We instinctively resent being told we are heartless when we are already doing our best to be decent people.

So though their approach might make sense in a court tribunal, it is not calculated to melt the hearts or change the minds of strangers. Constant talk of refugees’ ‘rights’ suggests that Australia should welcome more refugees just in order to toe the line of a bureaucratic demand drawn up on the 34th floor of the United Nations building in New York City. If not, Australia is going to come in for scolding by the Secretary General.

The problem is that going on about rights leaves out any idea that the Australian population actually has a choice about what to do (UN rules could be flouted without too much trouble – they already are in so many areas). The key thing about being recognised to have a choice about whether or not to do something nice, is that if you go for the nice option, you become deserving of a lot gratitude. People have to say a huge thank you to you, rather than complain that you haven’t done your duty earlier.

It’s entirely normal and natural to be worried about strangers and to feel very anxious that people from places that look pretty awful might themselves be a bit dangerous too. The negative response needs to be fully acknowledged and explored. If you don’t sympathise with your opponents’ fears, you will never be able to reassure them and therefore help them to reach the stage of confidence which would allow them to go with your proposal. This is a given of the classroom. If a child is nervous around maths, no decent teacher is going to shout at them and call them evil. You start by recognising the fear and trying to boost confidence.

But this acknowledgement is completely missing from the pro-refugee case.

© ROB GRIFFITH/AP/Press Association Images

A misguided attempt to get those suspicious of immigrants to change their minds: unfurling scary banners and shouting a lot

If you give someone something (like shelter from their enemies) you are being extremely generous. Allowing people into one’s country is an act of immense kindness. Pro-refugee advocates should spend a lot more time making Australians feel kind for letting anyone into their nation rather than scolding them for not having done more of this already. They should thank all Australians for their remarkable and very real largesse in allowing new people to benefit from the hospitals, schools, social security and opportunities for employment that have been built up over the decades by the existing inhabitants.

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Not reassuring to anyone

Refugee supporters get exasperated with what they call ‘racism’ and tend to blast away at what a terribly bigoted nation Australia seems to be.

They’re right in a sense, but they’re also desperately ineffective when they say such things.

The real need is to encourage more people to feel safe about letting immigrants in, and kind for even thinking of doing so. The focus of the strategy should be on generating gratitude and confidence, not on berating and hence increasing anxiety.