Some of you may have seen this piece for OUP.
Refugee identity is often shrouded in suspicion, speculation and rumour. Of course everyone wants to protect “real” refugees, but it often seems – upon reading the papers – that the real challenge is to find them among the interlopers: the “bogus asylum seekers”, the “queue jumpers”, the “illegals”.Yet these distinctions and definitions shatter the moment we subject them to critical scrutiny. In Syria, no one would deny a terrible refugee crisis is unfolding. Western journalists report from camps in Jordan and Turkey documenting human misery and occasionally commenting on political manoeuvring, but never doubting the refugees’ veracity.
But once these same Syrians leave the overcrowded camps to cross the Mediterranean, a spell transforms these objects of pity into objects of fear. They are no longer “refugees”, but “illegal migrants” and “terrorists”. However data on migrants rescued in the Mediterranean show that up to 80% of those intercepted by the Italian Navy are in fact deserving of asylum, not detention.Other myths perpetuate suspicion and xenophobia. Every year in the UK, refugee charity and advocacy groups spend precious resources trying to counter tabloid images of a Britain “swamped” by itinerant swan-eaters and Islamic extremists. The truth – that Britain is home to just 1% of refugees while 86% are hosted in developing countries, including some of the poorest on earth, and that one-third of refugees in the UK hold University degrees – is simply less convenient for politicians pushing an anti-migration agenda.We are increasingly skilled in crafting complacent fictions intended not so much to demonise refugees as exculpate our own consciences. In Australia, for instance, ever-more restrictive asylum policies – which have seen all those arriving by boat transferred off-shore and, even when granted refugee status, refused the right to settle in Australia – have been presented by supporters as merely intended to prevent the nefarious practice of “queue-jumping”. In this universe, the border patrols become the guardians ensuring “fair” asylum hearings, while asylum-seekers are condemned for cheating the system.That the system itself now contravenes international law is forgotten. Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan asylum-seeking mothers recently placed on suicide watch – threatening to kill themselves in the hope that their orphaned, Australian-born children might then be saved from detention – are judged guilty of “moral blackmail”.
Such stories foster complacency by encouraging an extraordinary degree of confidence in our ability to sort the deserving from the undeserving. The public remain convinced that “real” refugees wait in camps far beyond Europe’s borders, and that they do not take their fate into their own hands but wait to be rescued. But this “truth” too is hypocritical. It conveniently obscures the fact that the West will not resettle one-tenth of the refugees who have been identified by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as in need of resettlement.In fact, only one refugee in a hundred will ever be resettled from a camp to a third country in the West. In January 2014 the UK Government announced it would offer 500 additional refugee resettlement places for the “most vulnerable” refugees as a humanitarian gesture: but it’s better understood as political rationing. Research shows us that undue self-congratulation when it comes to “helping” refugees is no new habit. Politicians are fond of remarking that Britain has a “long and proud” tradition of welcoming refugees, and NGOs and charities reiterate the same claim in the hope of grounding asylum in British cultural values.
But while the Huguenots found sanctuary in the seventeenth century, and Russia’s dissidents sought exile in the nineteenth, closer examination exposes the extent to which asylees’ ‘warm welcome’ has long rested upon the convictions of the few prepared to defy the popular prejudices of the many. Poor migrants fleeing oppression have always been more feared than applauded in the UK. In 1905, the British Brothers’ League agitated for legislation to restrict (primarily Jewish) immigration from Eastern Europe because of populist fears that Britain was becoming ‘the dumping ground for the scum of Europe’. Similarly, the bravery of individual campaigners who fought to secure German Jews’ visas in the 1930s must be measured against the groundswell of public anti-semitism that resisted mass refugee admissions.
British MPs in 1938 were insistent that ‘it is impossible for us to absorb any large number of refugees here’, and as late as August 1938 the Daily Mail warned against large number of German Jews ‘flooding’ the country. In the US, polls showed that 94% of Americans disapproved of Kristallnacht, 77% thought immigration quotas should not be raised to allow additional Jewish migration from Germany.
All this suggests that Western commitment after 1951 to uphold a new Refugee Convention should not be read as a marker of some innate Western generosity of spirit. Even in 1947, Britain was forcibly returning Soviet POWs to Stalin’s Russia. Many committed suicide en route rather than face the Gulags or execution. When in 1972, Idi Amin expelled Ugandan’s Asians – many of whom were British citizens – the UK government tried desperately to persuade other Commonwealth countries to admit the refugees, before begrudgingly agreeing to act as a refuge of “last resort”. If forty years on the 40,000 Ugandan Asians who settled in the UK are often pointed to as a model refugee success story, this is not because but in spite of the welcome they received.
Many refugee advocates and NGOs are nevertheless wary of picking apart the public belief that a “generous welcome” exists for “real” refugees. The public, after all, are much more likely to be flattered than chastised into donating much needed funds to care for those left destitute – sometime by the deliberate workings of the asylum system itself. But it is important to recognise the more complex and less complacent truths that researchers’ work reveals.
For if we scratch the surface of our asylum policies beneath a shiny humanitarian veneer lies the most cynical kind of politics. Myth making sustains false dichotomies between deserving “refugees” there and undeserving “illegal migrants” here – and conveniently lets us forget that both are fleeing the same wars in the same leaking boats.
I’m tired of calls to “respect” the public’s hostility. I’m not sure where the blurred lines lie between listening and pandering, between democracy and populism, but I think we’ve crossed them. Yet writing the latest chapter for my book today (first draft to be complete in about six weeks time), I was reminded that this is not the first time that migration policy has been dictated by the politics of prejudice and not the principles of progress. Mending Migration is a book that tries to untangle the messy politics of immigration and inequality – and in doing so, it traces some of the miserable compromises made in the name of the electorate:
Between 1948 and 1981, all those born or naturalised in the UK or its colonies held UK and Commonwealth citizenship – and it was this status that facilitated the significant post-war migration waves from the West Indies, India and Pakistan to Britain. We have all heard – and many times condemned – Enoch Powell’s foretelling of ‘the River Tiber foaming with much blood’, an England overrun with ‘wide-grinning piccaninnies’. Yet what is less remembered is that as early as 1962, the UK Government had already begun to curb non-white migration, imposing new and tougher entry restrictions in the face of public hostility. These controls would be tightened still further in the decades to come, as anxieties over levels of immigration reached fever pitch.
From the 1960s, migration policies were successively tightened – and citizenship “renationalised” in order to prevent further waves of non-white immigration. Yet these migration and citizenship policies were driven by the weight of public opinion and electoral arithmetic – and flew in the face of both principle and economic evidence. As Richard Crossman, Labour Minister for Housing and Local Government, wrote in his diaries at the time, after his government voted to impose further immigration restrictions in 1965:
‘We have become illiberal and lowered the quota at a time when we have an acute shortage of labour… nevertheless, I am convinced that if we hadn’t done this, we would have been faced with certain electoral defeat… Politically, fear of immigration is the most powerful undertow today’.
My hope is that in forty years time, UKIP’s rhetoric will be considered as taboo as Powell’s chilling words are now. But I fear there may be Government ministers writing those same words in their diaries today – and announcing a new raft of “tough” immigration measures tomorrow.
Long before I saw America, I recognised America. America’s skylines, suburbs and cities were known quantities, reflected in a thousand Hollywood movies and syndicated sitcoms. This familiarity is disconcerting: it encourages a false sense of security. Arriving in San Francisco ready to start my own American adventure, I half expected the immigration official to beam “Welcome to America!” as if I’d arrived not in an airport, but a 1980s Eddie Murphy comedy.
Real life isn’t like the movies. I could tell as soon as I arrived at the front of the queue and heard the officer shout ‘next’ that I’d drawn a Grumpy Guard. There were no smiles: this was the sort of official that measures bureaucratic effectiveness in increasing degrees of administrative officiousness. Still, my papers were in order. I stepped forward confident in the belief that – while this conversation was unlikely to win any awards for human warmth – it would be a straightforward administrative exchange, and I’d soon be waiting for my suitcases to turn up in baggage reclaim.
I knew from previous experiences that Canadian passports often perplex US immigration officials. Although there’s nothing approaching EU citizens’ rights of residence across member states, Canadians also don’t need to apply in advance for a visa – so provided they meet the criteria, they can simply get the necessary stamp at the border. I smile apologetically as I put my passport and my papers down, “I’d like to apply for L2 status please”* But the man who stares back isn’t confused. He is actively hostile. “You want to do what? Did you seriously think you could just turn up and apply for status here? Er, yes. I checked. Multiple times. “Who told you that?” Well, my immigration lawyers. The US Government’s own website. I have all the right documents, look: here are copies of my husband’s visa, my marriage certificate. (Never mind how strange it is that my right to come is entirely dependent upon providing public proof of a private relationship). But ask whatever questions you choose: you know I will have to answer politely. Right now, I am the Supplicant: you are the Administrator. The officer shakes his head slowly, an exaggerated gesture. This is dramatic performance, although I’m not sure for whose benefit. “These lawyers, they mess with peoples’ lives”. The sympathy is synthetic: the next moment he returns to an aggressive bark: “you do have a return ticket?”
Well, no. That’s the point: I’m emigrating.
I no longer know who’s right: the lawyers or the immigration officer in front of me. But right and wrong are irrelevant: all that matters is that the officer has all the power. Sociologists like David Graeber write about the threat of structural violence that lurks beneath all rigidly enforced bureaucracies. Face to face with the border guard, the threat of violence shimmers on the surface of every bureaucratic word, every arbitrary action. We will choose whether to let you in: or we will deport you. My interrogator sucks in his teeth, scrawls something on my papers and motions towards a small door in the wall marked Secondary Immigration. He exhales slowly, “Goooood Luuuck. And I mean it. Goooood Luuuck”.By now I am alarmed. I enter Secondary Immigration: a small, windowless waiting room. An officer staffs the reception desk: high on testosterone and administrative power, he refuses to answer any questions about anything. Exhausted after an 11 hour transatlantic flight, I’ve no idea what time it is: but when I pull out my mobile phone to check, he’s quick to call out “No Cells!”. I reflect how easy it would be for undesirables to be disappeared from this windowless room, as if they had never arrived at all. My husband is waiting for me in Arrivals. But no one knows I am here, in this room, in bureaucratic limbo.The room is mostly empty: an Indian family are waiting for their temporary Green Cards. A Nigerian woman is being questioned: a circular inquisition that seems to centre on why anyone in his or her right mind would want to live in Lagos. To the official interviewing her, this is simply incredible.
I’m not so much frightened as frustrated: I reason that in the worst case, I will buy a flight to Vancouver, and stay there overnight until the paperwork is cleared. I picture myself making angry phone calls. I consider how ironic it would be to be deported back to a country I haven’t visited since I was a teenager.
Thirty minutes later, my name is called. Perhaps it is simply that this third official is less concerned with exuding machismo. Perhaps it is just that she is kinder: she speaks to me. She is firm: the papers are not in order, there is no way they can admit me as an L2 without advance notice. But she is also conciliatory: they’re prepared to let me in as a visitor for six months. I seize the chance: within the hour, I’ve left the airport.As I thank her, I realise I am close to tears. Because when you are entirely powerless, you become grateful for the smallest of official kindnesses — even when those kindnesses mask continuing mistakes. For as I establish the next day, all the border guards were wrong. My papers were in order.
That’s why, one week later, I find myself in downtown San Francisco in the company of an immigration lawyer, applying to correct my immigration status so I can be admitted as an L2, and begin the process of applying for further bureaucratic permits – a driving licence, a social security number, authorisation to work. As we walk in the early Spring sunshine, the lawyer confides that while such mistakes aren’t frequent, they’re also not uncommon. US immigration codes are hugely complex: border guards are often poorly paid and poorly trained. The system is dysfunctional. The result is immigration officials messing with peoples’ lives.On the tenth floor of the office block, we enter another waiting room. This one has windows, with views that stretch down to the Bay. This immigration officer smiles: he apologises for his colleagues’ error. In just a few minutes, one entry in my passport is crossed out, a new one penned in. Now, I am welcome in America.
My immigration “detention” lasted less than hour – and was fixed in about as much time. Yet it was an uncomfortable reminder of how bureaucracies exercise power over the weak in arbitrary ways. As a well-educated, wealthy and white woman I rarely experience such powerlessness: this was an important reminder of how quickly injustice can be done, how impotent you can become, raging against the machine. But there is a clear political lesson alongside the personal. I might have the social and financial capital to beat the bureaucrats at their own game. But this isn’t proof of the system’s essential soundness: quite the opposite. When your immigration code is too complicated for your own officials to understand, when crossing a border becomes dependent upon bureaucratic whim and lawyers’ billable hours, the system isn’t fair: it’s broken. Sure, it’s just one minor incident: but it’s one further, personal confirmation that American immigration reform is long, long overdue.
*for those of you who haven’t yet needed to master the complicated language of US immigration, there are several dozen different visa categories. The “L” is for intra-company transfers – the “2” denotes I’m here as the dependent spouse of the transferee.
We know all this: and we know the solution too. Better asylum, long-term development – and legal migration routes. The past week has seen repeated calls – including from EU commissioner Cecilia Malmström – for coordinated action to open up legal migration routes, as well as to fix broken asylum systems stunted by institutional cultures of disbelief and long bureaucratic delays. Yet the likelihood of such reforms happening soon is so small as to be almost non-existent. Lampedusa is a momentary spasm of guilt. In the long run, we prefer our migration narratives with obvious villains, nationalist slogans and a healthy dose of EU scepticism. Secure our Borders; Keep Illegals Out; War on Smugglers. Politicians will happily parrot such phrases: after all, irregular immigrants don’t vote in marginal constituencies.
No quick fix