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They come over here, take our marmalade … Michael Perry

What Paddington Bear can teach us about the politics of migration

Downing Street has withheld the publication of a cross-governmental report on immigration impact. Home Secretary Theresa May has repeatedly cited research by the Migration Advisory Committee that found that for every 100 additional immigrants, 23 British workers are left unemployed. The report is thought to assert that the true impact is much less than this level, and so withholding it has caused the immigration debate to take a front seat, once again.

Sometimes it is good to look somewhere a little out of the ordinary for a fresh angle on current affairs. And seeing as March 6 is World Book Day, and it is also National Marmalade Week, today we need look no further than Paddington Bear.

These marvellous tales, written about the little bear from “deepest darkest Peru” and the Browns – his adoptive family – provide the reader with far more than light entertainment. As a migrant who reads them to members of my family, many of the challenges experienced by Paddington, from occasionally misinterpreting cultural mores, to routinely being required to demonstrate that one is worthy of residing in a new homeland, are very familiar.

In my view, these beloved children’s books shine a light on liberalism and migration. Paddington tells us important things about how migration issues are used for political ends. He also demonstrates how the “tolerance” emblematic of liberalism can mask an ugly underbelly. So how does this little bear, with his duffle coat, wellies, and marmalade sandwiches, accomplish this?

Misconceptions about migrants and their impact on society have captured the British political imagination. David Cameron has called for a policy of “muscular liberalism”, under the belief that some migrants are culturally unsuitable for the United Kingdom. While abandoning old forms of xenophobia that relied on ideas of racial superiority, muscular liberalism continues to tap into old fears about immigrants being poor, unhealthy and uneducated.

While descriptions of Paddington share these negative connotations, it is also made clear how these stereotypes miss the mark. For example, Paddington’s constant misspellings of basic words, including his own name (PADINGTUN) may lead the reader to perceive him as uneducated. Never mind that Paddington is at least bilingual. And never mind that Paddington does his best to communicate in English. Meanwhile, British characters show no interest in learning anything about his own language or cultural customs.

In fact, Paddington’s perceived shortcomings assert the superiority of the Browns in hygiene, wealth, and education, just like current negative stereotypes about migrants and their home countries reinforce perceptions that Britain is a more advanced society than others.

Yet those things said to make Britain so desirable – such as wages, benefits, public housing, and living standards – have deteriorated due to government cuts and failures to regulate businesses, not from an increase in migrants.

The various adventures experienced by Paddington in part stem from how negative preconceptions make him vulnerable to being perceived as less than equal. From his first encounter with the Browns where they refer to him as an “it”, to key decisions about his status in Browns’ household being made without his input, Paddington is treated as an object to be talked at and acted upon rather than as an equal partner. Paddington even capitulates to the process, letting the Browns rename him Paddington, rather than keeping his Peruvian name “Pastuso”.

But any chance for the recognition of Paddington’s formal equality is most endangered by the misadventures that arise from his troubles with British cultural mores. The Browns do very little to help him, apart from admonishing his behaviour after the fact. Paddington’s sole cultural compass is provided by Mr Gruber, a fellow migrant who is the proprietor of a shop in Portobello Market.

Paddington’s honest mistakes significantly disrupt his everyday life and make it possible for him to be perceived by other characters as potentially criminal. Sympathetic children’s characters who have quite as many encounters with the police – and in later story collections, immigration officials – with the frequency of Paddington Bear are not the most common occurrences.

Paddington Bear also draws our attention to how migrants are unfairly identified as the primary source for complex problems. While Paddington’s madcap antics may cause disruptions, he is never their sole author. Yet he is always given the largest dollop of blame.

This is a pattern that is replicated in our society. Unemployment? Blame migration. Wages too low? Blame migration. Crime? Blame migration. Housing crisis? Blame migration. The time spent in school on sports is diminishing? Blame migration.

It is easy to condemn Paddington. But doing so detracts from other issues that may be at stake. We should learn from this. Attention should not taken away from other social inequalities.

A new look at Paddington can show us that projecting problems onto migrants is a means of avoiding the hard graft that is required to tackle the many disparities based on race, gender, and class that continue to fester in Britain.

Until the British public is prepared to come to terms with the lessons revealed by Paddington Bear, the prospect for an approach to migration based on fairness, rather than fear, will remain elusive. So too, will the realisation of a more just society for all. This year Paddington Bear is broadening his horizons by taking his first outing on to the big screen. Let’s also try and take a wider perspective – on immigration.

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