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Issue #1718      February 10, 2016

The fear of not enough to go around

Police confrontations in Macedonia and Calais, suffocation in trucks, drowning at sea and shootings at borders, are, we are told, manifestations of a global migration problem. The “problem” is not confined to the Mediterranean and the Balkans: consider the Rohingya abandoned in the Andaman Sea in May last year or the swelling refugee camps of Jordan and Lebanon; the detention centres on the Pacific island of Nauru and Australian “pushbacks” of refugee boats, or deaths in the Sahara desert.

Migration is a “crisis”. Across the world, states are building walls and passing ever harsher immigration and asylum laws; violence and deaths at borders are increasing. But this idea that migration is a peculiarly contemporary problem does not chime with global history. Thousands of years of mobility for trade, exploration and colonialism – movement to marry, make war, convert or find resources – have shaped our world. The longstanding concern of rulers to control the mobility of the ruled has also played its part. The first immigration controls appeared towards the end of the 19th century, but their origins lie far earlier. In 1388, a labourer in England who strayed outside their area was required to carry an authorisation letter that bore the King’s seal. By Tudor times in the 15th century, these “passports” had developed into complex documents and false papers cost between two and four pennies.

Unstable borders

However, while people have indeed always moved, they have not always “migrated”. It is the spread of nation-states across the world – and the internationalisation of citizenship regimes – that has changed mobility into migration. This expansion dates from just after the Second World War – not even a human lifetime ago. Across the world, migration flows continue to fall and shift. Global capital, finance and new technology are also proving highly resistant to state regulation. Despite this instability, international borders are often imagined as natural and fixed.

The promise of strong control over immigration appeals to a desire for a national labour market and economy, a stable cohesive national society and representative democratic politics. The figure of the migrant exemplifies the fluidity of the relations between nation, people and state. In party politics, the presence of migrants has come to be represented as emblematic of waning state power and, in some cases, of mainstream politicians’ disengagement with everyday problems. Transatlantic Trends conducts an annual survey of the European Union (EU), US, Russia and Turkey, and consistently finds a core of hostility to immigration.

But who is the “migrant” that is the subject of such anxiety? All mobility is by no means equivalent, but is constructed and experienced differently. Some is forced and some prevented, while other journeys are encouraged. Not everyone who moves across an international border is considered a “migrant”: students, backpackers, au pairs and expats, for example. As far as public debate is concerned, the US banker working in Sydney or the British footballer coaching in New York does not count as a migrant – but their foreign domestic worker does. In the final analysis, the “migrant” is a figure that represents the global poor and the desperate.

A logical response

The fear of the “migrant” is, in part, the fear that “there is not enough to go around”. These fears should not be dismissed – they are understandable in an ever more unequal world. We are living at a time of unprecedented inequality when the poorest 50 percent of the world have 6.6 percent of total global income. The World Bank estimates that three-quarters of income inequality can be attributed to differences between countries. In this context, when wealth and opportunity are tied to birthplace, migration should not be surprising. It is a response to problems shaped by colonial histories – and post-colonial presents – that have led to civil war, violence, and economic systems that in turn render the lives of many people in the world unsustainable and impoverished.

While wealthy states see migration as the problem, from the perspective of those who move, migration is the solution. For migrants, the problem is the border. It follows people even when they are inside their new country, blocking access to work, hospitals, lecture halls and housing. People are checked for their legality of residence and to ensure that they have not broken their conditions of entry. The responsibility of policing these borders increasingly falls to citizens – employers, lorry drivers and public servants.

Creating difference

Take, for example, the use of immigration controls to “protect” labour markets. In early 2004, researchers from Oxford research institute COMPAS and the University of Sussex interviewed the agricultural employers of Polish workers. Before EU enlargement in May of that year, many of these workers were on tied visas, and employers were fulsome in their praise of their work ethic, often contrasting them with British citizens who, they said, were lazy and preferred to live on welfare benefits. One year later, when Poles had the same rights as national workers, those same employers complained that Polish people had lost their culture, and become like the British. The National Farmers’ Union told Parliament they needed migrants who were on permits, who could be guaranteed to stay in the fields at harvest time.

Immigration laws are typically imagined as a way to weed out unsuitable applicants, but they can also be a way to create differences in the first place. Thus the law and its practice are not neutral taps that turn labour supply on and off, but mechanisms that actively produce certain types of employment relations. Paradoxically, in this case, tied visas designed to protect British jobs in fact served to make those subject to immigration controls more desirable as employees than national workers.

Citizens fall foul

The consequences of immigration controls and enforcement can weigh heavily on migrants. They affect employment and living conditions and their personal lives, particularly those who are living under threat of deportation. Citizens are not immune to these consequences. US Law Professor Jacqueline Stevens has found that approximately 20,000 US citizens were detained or deported as aliens between 2003 and 2010. She noted that the group of illegally deported US citizens were overwhelmingly Black, with little education, and often with mental-health difficulties.

More routinely, citizens are directly affected by immigration controls when their parents, children and loved ones are taken from them by immigration powers – such as detention or deportation – or when they are prevented from living with them by immigration requirements. For example, in most EU states it is now necessary to be earning over a set income threshold before a partner can join you.

Anxiety about immigration can give rise to security measures which target not only migrants, but the population more generally. In Hungary it is now possible for state officers to enter any home where it is suspected a “migrant” might be sheltering, and most states punish citizens who harbour or employ undocumented workers, knowingly or unknowingly.

Yet there are discernible shifts. The contradictions between human rights and deaths at borders and between democracy and mass document checks are becoming more exposed – and untenable. In Melbourne, plans announced in August 2015 by the Australian Border Force to check visas on the streets prompted a public backlash and a large spontaneous demonstration, which resulted in their cancellation. In Europe, the “Refugees Welcome” mobilisations meant that some states, such as Britain, had to back-pedal on their hostility to Syrian refugees.

Trade unions worldwide are organising irrespective of immigration status, and health professionals in Spain are refusing to check their patients’ documents. Some social services departments are offering support to all children, not only those whose parents have papers. All these efforts suggest that a world where justice and equality is not bordered can be carved out, even in the most challenging conditions.

New Internationalist

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