Words Matter


Fairness is a concept that is often used in human rights advocacy to campaign for the rights of those it represents. On the surface, it is supposed to mean treating someone equally in a way that is right or reasonable, or treating a group of people equally in a way that is not influenced by personal opinions. However, the concept of “fairness” is entirely subjective, and can be used in a way that restricts rights. 

The Government weaponises the language of “fairness” in order to repress human rights claims, particularly in the asylum system, and to push through increasingly repressive immigration laws. One example is the Government’s oppressive points-based system, self-described as “fair”, which only extends protection to those deemed “skilled” or able to “contribute”. Ultimately, the concept of “fairness” pits groups of migrants against each other on the basis of who the Government considers most “legitimate” or most “deserving”. It penalises those it deems to be “ungenuine” or “gaming/abusing the system”, under the guise of “fairness” for so-called “genuine” asylum seekers. 

We should not be co-opting terms and words that are already tinged and loaded so significantly. This is not a word we can reclaim or utilise while we have a Government that is using the language of ‘fairness’ to reform our systems to be even more repressive. 

Fairness is also a reformist measure that falls short of systemic change and allows oppressive systems to persist – it aims for small changes within a fundamentally flawed and anti-migrant system. This is because at the centre of “fairness” is the idea that it will offer “equal treatment”. Yet equal treatment does not consider the fact that some people have a different starting point and more hurdles than others based on aspects like their ethnic or racial background, or class. Fairness assumes that everyone receives the same boost, even though some people are more disadvantaged than others. 

On the other hand, equity recognises the unequal starting points and obstacle levels, and so it means distributing unequal levels of support in order to ensure everyone has the same starting point. Yet the barrier is still in place: this means that support is provided to try and mitigate the problem, but the cause of the problem- oppression- remains unaddressed. 

Instead of thinking about what is “fair” or equitable, which merely alleviates the effects of barriers, we should be looking to remove the barrier. We should be striving for liberation, and for tackling oppression at its root, which looks like an end to borders and the harmful ideologies, like White supremacy, that uphold them.  

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