A tale of two Eastleighs…

The people of Eastleigh go to the polls today, to cast their verdict on coalition government and disgraced politicians. Watching with the rest of the political chorus, it looks like an ill-tempered campaign to fit with the bitter grey February skies: rows over education, Europe and an ‘infestation’ of immigrants.  Only UKIP can apparently save us from moral catastrophe: this despite the fact that the 2011 census shows that Eastleigh is 91.8% White British, and that the greatest area of population growth in the past decade has been among the over-65s.  92.6% of Eastleigh’s residents were born in the UK: 3% in Europe.
Many would argue that the result is moot: that it gossip for the Westminster village, yes, but – whether the victor is yellow or blue –  the result will change nothing. Yet in reading about the daily manufactured dramas of the by-election campaign, my thoughts keep turning to another Eastleigh.  In this Eastleigh, there’s another tale of migration and electoral politics unfolding. And here the election result may matter hugely, and the politics around migration foretell a serious humanitarian crisis.
Welcome to Eastleigh, Nairobi.  This Eastleigh is roughly same size as the one in Hampshire (population 2011: 125,200). Yet, unlike its UK namesake, here the migration is very real.  This Eastleigh is home to tens of thousands of Somali refugees (as well as some Ethiopians and Rwandas): objects of police exploitation and public suspicion.  Are Somalis terrorists? A fifth-column inside Kenya? Or just extraordinarily effective businessmen and traders?
Eastleigh is certainly sometimes a place of crime, chaos and poverty: but studies would suggest that economic livelihoods for the majority of the population here are far less fragile than in many other Kenyan neighbourhoods.  For the real story here is one of extraordinary economic dynamism. For ‘Little Mogadishu’ is the centre of global trade network and has seen investment of at least $1.5 billion annually, the commercial realisation of transnational commerce fuelled by remittances.  The twenty-first century’s future lies here, not in the greying Eastleigh of Southern England.
But on 18 December 2012, Kenya ordered all refugees to leave the city.  Somalis were told to return to Dadaab: the overcrowded refugee camp, beloved of TV news reports, which already holds 500,000 Somali refugees. Although the Kenyan High Court has since issued a temporary staying order upon plans for forced evictions from Nairobi, fear is rife that this is the first step in a plan to push Somalis from Kenya altogether.  Many Somalis – up to 20,000 – have already left, many gathering the financial capital to move to other more tranquil settings in the region, particularly Kampala.  Rents have dropped in Eastleigh as Somalis relocate and the economy is dismantled.
Why dismantle this business hub? Electoral politics are certainly part of the answer here too. On Monday, Eastleigh Nairobi – like the rest of Kenya– will also go to the polls.  Immigrants – especially the sort that undercut Kikuyu businessmen. and may include a terrorist or two in their numbers – are easy prey for politicians concerned with short-term race for nationals votes.  The result – if the Kenyan government forces through its plans in the run up or the aftermath of the election – is a potential humanitarian crisis and an economic disaster. As Refugees International’s report on the consequences of this uncertainty notes, the only undoubted beneficiaries are the Nairobi police, whose own Eastleigh economy – extracting bribes from the Somalis without strict legal right to be there – has just received an enormous boost.  Which informal economy would you prefer?
It is clear – it has been for many years – that corralling refugees in camps is not an answer except in the language of short-term politics.  It ignores the fact of integration, the virtues of self-reliance and practises the expensive economics of dependency.  The fact of migration cannot be undone: national security will not be served by creating an underground population forced to live beneath the state or face potential encampment and an early return to Somalia.  This is not just a humanitarian crisis though: it makes no sense in the language of economics to hollow out Eastleigh and its transnational commerce.
But is there anything that connects the Eastleigh of Middle England to the Eastleigh of Middle Kenya’s imagination beyond a shared name? At surface level, no. The Somali refugee crisis in all its multiple dramatic acts unfold far away from Hampshire.  We do not encamp Romanians, however much we may resent them.  Yet look more closely, and you begin to see how the narrow parochial interests that paint migration as a bogeyman translate from one Eastleigh to another: a shared language of suspicion that points the finger at foreigners and that ignores the economic contributions made by real migrants – not those we imagine.
We need to see these linguistic connections: global hostility reinforces itself, legitimises actions that are contrary to law or common sense.  We know Dadaab isoverstretched, under-resourced, insecure. The UK should be condemning Kenya’s assault on asylum: but it’s hard to do that when you’re running on a similar ticket yourself. Better to send aid to a refugee camp.  But in the long run, it is the voters of both Eastleighs who will be the losers: for if you focus on migration, make that the policy problem, poor governance can go unnoticed, declines in service provision unchecked. Keeping out or kicking out the migrants may win votes: but oh, what small-minded, anxious votes, and at what cost.