Citizen London (or what is forced migration?)

What isforced migration? That’s a time-honoured question every lecturer teaching. An Introduction to Refugee Studies asks.  And as the students who try and answer that first-week question quickly realise, the answer is deceptively complex. We can identify the black and white with ease – the American banker choosing his tax regime; the Somali mother fleeing starvation.  But we struggle with the grey.  In particular, when does poverty force someone to move? 
Now, this question has rebounded with added urgency, and landed very close to home indeed. I’ve wanted to write about London’s housing crisis for a few weeks now.  Newsthat some councils in Londonhave been asking tenants to consider alternative provisions in the North has an obvious resonance with questions about choice, freedom and movement.  But Boris’ blustering accusations about “Kosovo-style social cleansing” seemed so obviously overblown – the coalition may be very wrong indeed on many many things, but it has not yet resorted to early morning eviction calls by ultra-right nationalist paramilitaries – that I found it difficult to start writing.
However earlier today, I experienced one of those rare moments when my academic readings seem relevant to real life.  My thanks to Matthew Gibney’s writings for making me realise that asking “What is forced migration?” only gets us halfway there. Really, should be asking a much more provocative question: When is it legitimate for the state to sanction the forced movement of their citizens? In other words: What kinds of forced migration are we prepared to accept?
There is, of course, a name for the process by which a population is forced to move in the name of progress: development-induced displacement. Millions have been left homeless as a result of grand state-building infrastructure projects in Indian and China.  These have usually been justified as instances when the collective interests of “the people” trumped individual costs.  While these utilitarian reckonings have many critics  (not least in terms of the real access of those affected to resettlement and compensation), the fact remains that, in broad terms, these forced migrations are viewed as legitimate.  Desirable, no.  But acceptable, even necessary.
But of course, those governing elites who decide what qualifies as a legitimate displacement often have a rather self-interested view of what constitutes “the collective interests of the people”.  And this is what brings me to Londonand its housing crisis, apparently necessary to secure our children’s debt (or at least deficit) free future.
No one suggests that everyone should be able to live in palatial splendour (however many stories the Daily Mail may dredge up about asylum-seekers living in Westend mansions).  But there is something grotesque about a society in which millionaires compete for luxury flats a few streets away from families facing eviction. However in a capitalist market, money equals choice. And the removal of the poor from inner London reflects that value system: a forced migration that capitalism insists we accept as “fair”.
I love London, and one of the things I value is the sense that all its citizens – rich and poor – must live side by side.  I walk from Angel to the Strand most days: I pass the deeply impoverished and the extraordinarily wealthy and privileged. In London – unlike the airy hills of Oxfordshire where I spend the other part of my week — I cannot ignore the inequalities that permeate our society.
In a city where today even professional couples whose joint incomes comfortably reach six figures struggle to imagine renting more than a one-bed flat (and here I speak from personal experience), the choice is a now simple one: do free property markets rule, or should the state step in to ensure that inner London doesn’t become a gated community?  Geographical proximity  and social cohesion aren’t separate concepts.  I think the cost of supporting poor families to live in Londonis one society should gladly pay, a small smoothing out of one injustice.
So no, this isn’t Kosovo. But it will be a forced migration. It will be a forced migration made legitimate by the premise that discrimination based upon wealth is fair.  However, we should not pretend that wealth – and poverty – aren’t also statuses which are very often determined arbitrarily at birth.  Society – collective community – demands that we think in terms of people, not rental profits.  So yes, we tolerate the forced migration of the poor. But we shouldn’t.