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Migrants are helped ashore from a Border Force vessel after crossing the Straits of Dover from France to Dover on the south east coast of England, on September 14, 2020. (Photo by BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)

Migrants are helped ashore from a Border Force vessel after crossing the Straits of Dover from France to Dover on the south east coast of England, on September 14, 2020. (Photo by BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images)

What Is a Migrant Worth?

Communicating the value of people and nature in financial terms comes at a cost.

Elsie Roderiques

In early February, a study was published that claims that UK towns with more immigrants do much better economically. Commissioned by anti-racism charity Hope Not Hate, the study attempts to challenge negative perceptions of immigration and concludes that "growing diversity is an inevitable part of increasing prosperity—and, potentially, a contributor to it." The claim that migration is economically valuable and contributes to productivity isn’t new; it’s one that’s repeated every couple of years (see here and here and here). 

The root cause of our social and environmental challenges is neoliberalism and the fetish of the market, which values profit over people and sees nature simply as a commodity. 

With refugees and migrants left to make perilous journeys across the seas to reach the UK, often dying in the process, and with our global measure of progress GDP and profit and growth at all costs, it might seem to make logical sense to justify the presence of marginalised people in society based on their economic worth. It’s a phenomenon that we’re well versed in when talking about nature; so much so in fact, that we might not realise we’re doing it—we talk of fish ‘stocks’ and ‘trading’ carbon. Many mainstream conservation organisations have actively campaigned for the financialisation of nature for many years in order to justify its protection—in an article published earlier this month, Tom Oliver wrote that proponents of the economic approach argue that if we don’t give nature a price then we essentially treat it as having zero value, which leaves it vulnerable to government and business decisions based on profit maximisation. This language might feel more jarring when applied to people and migrants (although it has been seen as widely acceptable when referring to enslaved peoples), but that’s because mainstream acceptability is further down the route of thinking of butterflies as fungible commodities in a way that it might baulk at when applied to humans. There’s nothing inevitable about this - it’s a reflection of a discourse which has become dominant in some Western cultures—many indigenous cultures would find this way of speaking about nature abhorrent.

Communicating the value of people, and indeed nature, in financial terms does come at a cost. At Common Cause Foundation we work to rebalance mainstream cultural values where, for too long, greater emphasis has been put on what we call extrinsic values such as wealth, power and social status, to our collective detriment and the expense of enabling intrinsic values to flourish, such as compassion, benevolence and unity with nature. There’s an extensive body of research that shows that when transactional values are invoked, such as the economic value of migrants, people’s intrinsic values are suppressed and they are left feeling less compassionate towards others and less supportive of action to redress inequalities or social injustices. Conversely, we know that when people act on social or environmental concern as an expression of their intrinsic values, this is found to lead to a deeper commitment to action (one action is more likely to propagate into other, more ambitious and effective actions) and their motivation is more likely to persist over time. In other words, framing things transactionally is corrosive to our intrinsic values, and risks undermining concern for social and environmental justice.

The root cause of our social and environmental challenges is neoliberalism and the fetish of the market, which values profit over people and sees nature simply as a commodity. Until this dominant worldview is superseded we will not achieve lasting and proportionate responses to the multiple crises we face. Unfortunately, as communicators continue to use extrinsic values such as wealth and power to motivate and justify, they inadvertently continue to perpetuate a world out of balance, aiding the neoliberal worldview in its drive to colonise ever more areas of public debate; such as a love of nature, or compassion for people as migrants. Instead, we could all benefit from being mindful of the values we espouse in our lives and work. And rather than accepting, and tacitly reinforcing, the prioritisation of economic considerations in discussions about migrants, it would be better to insist that this is one area of public debate in which the needs of the market have no legitimate role to play.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Elsie Roderiques

Elsie Roderiques is part of the team at Common Cause Foundation, an organisation working to rebalance cultural values, creating a more equitable, sustainable and democratic society.

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