From Far Away

One of the reasons why I’ve struggled to write in the past few months is that this has been a year of transitions. A transatlantic, transcontinental move form London to San Francisco, and a career shift from full-time academic to something as yet undetermined but best summed up as “freelancer” have left me wondering both who I’m writing as and where I’m writing from – both crucial questions when it comes to thinking about migration.
Geography first. In the past six months I’ve acquired new identities. I’m now immigrant and emigrant.  I’m still a British citizen, but one separated by five thousand miles of space and eight hours of time from current affairs. The result is a disconnection. Among the most disconcerting experiences I’ve had is that of listening to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme from California at 10pm and realizing that tomorrow is already happening. By the time I wake up the next morning, it has happened. At first you race to catch up: but very quickly you become a spectator, watching politics at home unfold with an eight hour broadcast delay.  It can leave you powerless, watching with freeze-framed slow-motion horror from the other side of the glass as voters elect UKIP’s first MP.  It can leave you without a sense of perspective, detached from reality by the extremes of medial coverage. You find yourself asking would you, could you, should you ever return to live in a country that now seems to be largely populated by bigots and xenophobes, chasing migrants’ shadows, where UKIP might win not one but 30 seats?
More practically, it’s hard to know how to engage in long-distance debate.  Without those conversations over coffee or in the pub, without everyday exchanges in shops and buses, you’re left with nothing but your own convictions and the thin truths repeated in the media.  What can you add from afar?  Perhaps the answer is to switch focus, to write about the politics of immigration here.  After all, there are plenty of migration stories to tell in San Francisco too, about DREAMers and DACA and rent controls.  And I am undoubtedly part of at least the last of those stories.  But I can’t quite shake the feeling that I’m an observer, a supporter from the sidelines at best. These are not my fights. This is not – not yet – my political community.  And somehow it feels less desperate, less urgent, than the news I read that makes me feeling England is slipping away.  Humanitarian crises on the border in Texas and Arizona leave me outraged: but they belong to another America a thousand miles away, and I am not a citizen there either. I’m an outsider, with neither the power nor the right to demand change. But nor can I be charged with responsibility for the failures of today’s American immigration policies.
And so I turn back to Britain. But Britain is still 5000 miles and a working day apart.
If that’s geography, what about occupation? I’ve long wrestled with the question of what academia’s for.  Oh, I believe in learning as liberation and the power of knowledge – of course I do.  But when increasingly our migration battles are being fought not on the power of facts but the strength of feelings – in blind disregard of existing empirical evidence – I can’t help but think that what we need are not more university researchers, but more advocates. The two need not be mutually exclusive: in the end the most powerful and persuasive arguments that build the foundations in fact.   But I’m not convinced we need more theory-heavy, technocratic, data-driven conclusions on the minutiae of migration as thousands drown in the Mediterranean or collapse in the Sonoran desert. Peer-reviewed journals are not a substitute for action. And so I’ve reached at least one conclusion: whatever academia’s for, I do know that – in its purest form – it’s not for me.   
The plan is still to write about migration – but over the next two years, to move slowly towards developing something akin to investigative reporting: a campaigning organization built on solid research. Ambitious? Yes. Vague? Maybe. Exciting? I think so.  But the real challenge is to work out what comes in between:  how to keep the authority of academic expertise without spending my hours jumping through the wrong hoops.  How to make sure I’ve still got something to say that’s worth more than an opinion.  And however certain I am that I want to leave my lecturing days behind, choice can be paralyzing.  Too many times in the past month I’ve thought about writing a blog, only to hesitate, uncertain about exactly who I’m writing as.
But that’s enough in the way of self-reflection masquerading as apology.  After all this over-thinking (all that academic training dies hard) I’ve come to the conclusion that if I want to be a part of the British migration debate – however dark its current direction – then the only real trick is to just keep writing.  Because once you refocus your gaze, you begin to appreciate the new perspective you can gain from a long-distance view, and from living migration yourself.  I can be emigrant, immigrant and local, activist and academic. 
So, to end: a paragraph on politics, with the promise of more to come.  That, after all, is what you’re here for. 
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has found themselves reading this blog that I’m no UKIP voter.  But there are members of my own family who are sympathetic to Farage, who like being told who to blame for austerity and alienation.  They are undoubtedly wrong to buy UKIP’s arguments. Xenophobia’s a cheap answer, and it’s an easy answer, but that doesn’t make it the right answer.
But here’s the thing: defending migration is not about denying UKIP voters the right to be angry. They are right to be angry. But they are being taught to be angry about the wrong things, and that is dangerous. We all should be angry: not about migration, but about the slow dismantling of the NHS, about the exploitation of low-paid workers (whether local or foreign), about growing inequality and stagnant poverty in our communities. But please, don’t believe for a second that banning immigrants will rescue you from this grim future.  UKIP may provide a temporary hit, the brief high of mob righteousness.  But if it is ever able to exercise real power, UKIP’s policies would leave Britain with the worst hangover of its collective national life.  In my next post, I’ll explain why.


    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.

      On Elections

       From 5000 miles away, the EU elections being held today seem unreal. Much like the antics of the Tea Party observed from Britain, the surge of support for UKIP and Nigel Farage plays out like a pantomime farce: except the consequences will be deadly serious. I wonder daily whether I’ll ever be willing to return home to a Little England shrinking further daily into self-regarding conviction that it’s not really racist to blame immigrants: that it’s not really the same as blaming blacks.

      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.


          Let 500 in.  2.3 million Syrian refugees, and Britain can find room for 500.  Not any refugees, of course – only the ‘most vulnerable’; the ‘most traumatised’; the rape victims; the children who need medical support.  And on our own terms – no UN quota that might collide with net migration targets.
          Of course we could argue numbers all day.  How many is too many, when 2.3 million Syrians have been uprooted? But the fact is, while the Syrian emergency may have concentrated minds, there is a chronic shortage of resettlement places and has been for years. UNHCR estimates that, worldwide, around 800,000 refugees are in need of resettlement: there are about 80,000 resettlement places made available every year – and three-quarters of those are in the US.  Only 1 in every 10 recognised refugees who have been identified as needing resettlement will get resettled.  So here’s another number for you: the average refugee now spends 17 years in a camp.
          So let’s debunk one resettlement myth right now: resettlement is not a heroic act and resettlement states are – with rare exceptions – not particularly generous.  When it comes to Syria, Hungary is taking 10.  Spain is taking 30. Switzerland 50.  So are we in the UK now 10 times more generous than Switzerland, or 20 times less generous than Germany? Of course lives are saved with such token gestures too, but the danger in praising states for doing very little is that in the long run, very little begins to look like enough.
          This is a real problem when it comes to resettlement. There’s an unspoken code among those working on refugee and asylum issues that almost all resettlement is to be welcomed, that every newly promised place is to be greeted with praise, all criticism to be tempered. Resettlement is an industry as well as an act of charity: many NGOs are reluctant to bit the hands that feed them.  Others point to the fragility of states’ commitments to refugees and asylum seekers. In this light, every grudging concession is re-spun as a generous gesture.  But does this really protect the space left? Or simply allow states to claim kudos for doing very little at all? Is 500 really enough to claim that we are among the ‘most open-hearted countries’?  A press release from the Refugee Council has just landed in my inbox, telling me that ‘Britain has a proud tradition of protecting and welcoming refugees and we will continue to lead the way in offering refuge to people in their greatest hour of need’. Is that what 500 means?
          It rings hollow. So it’s to be welcomed that Yvette Cooper is already arguing for the UK to match Germany, offering 10,000 places. That would certainly go some way from turning a token gesture into a significant contribution. Yet while Cooper is right to question the numbers, she’s fully on board with the idea that offering resettlement places demands exceptional suffering.  In many ways, it’s this trend that worries me most, for it carries with it the implication that a normal crisis is no longer enough. To qualify for resettlement, you must now be the most vulnerable. It is not enough to just be a refugee. This is an insidious logic, one that has already poisoned the Australian government’s asylum policy as the public are told repeatedly that “real” refugees wait in camps, that “deserving” victims don’t skip to the front of the queue.
          Of course, given the gap between supply and demand, resettlement has to be rationed.  But it’s also worth remembering that economies that trade in vulnerability encourage new vulnerabilities. Refugees are often desperate: they are rarely stupid. Time and time again, refugees will explain that they cannot get a job, that they cannot support themselves: because then they will never get resettlement.  Arbitrary lines are drawn too, so that some vulnerabilities become more valuable than others. I still vividly remember one woman in Uganda asking me to explain why single women were being prioritised for resettlement. In her view, it was the women who still had husbands who were really worse off – because they were the ones who were still being beaten. How do you define fair in that context? Or explain to the bright ambitious young English-speaking engineer that he will never get resettled through official channels, because he just isn’t vulnerable enough – and he will never be able to migrate anywhere either, because he doesn’t have a passport.  In the end, there are just too many to choose from.
          500 lives are 500 lives. When I wrote the first draft of this blog last night, I wrote that I could not imagine how anyone reading could needs persuading of the scale of the Syrian crisis, nor of the needs of Syrian refugees to find a sanctuary beyond bare survival. After all, when even Nigel Farage is fighting the refugees’ corner, you’d think not much room would be left for moral ambiguity. Yet reading below the line today, it seems there are plenty who think 500 is far too many, convinced that it’s the UK that’s shouldering an unfair burden.  So let me be clear.  Resettlement matters.  But resettlement needs to be the beginning of a conversation, not the end. And to be truly meaningful, this conversation needs to go beyond tired humanitarian tropes: beyond the languages of desert and purity. There are bold gestures that could be made beyond the language of victimhood and vulnerability. Why not, for instance, allow suitably qualified UNHCR-recognised refugees to apply for high-skilled work alongside EU nationals? Why not empower the ambitious, as well as save the needy?
          The answer, of course, is that we cling to the insistence that refugees aren’t migrants: that they are victims, not workers. And in the end, that’s why we cling to the familiar humanitarian tropes about refugee resettlement — because it lets us believe, despite so much evidence to the contrary, that the borders we’ve built are humane.  So let the 500 in.  But let’s be clear: this is gesture politics.  It is not generosity.

            Collier, Refugees and The Point of No Return

             Paul Collier’s Exodus: Immigration and Multicultursim in the 21st century has quickly gathered headlines and attention in the months since it’s been published. Two pages in The Economist; 8 in the New Statesman (and a front cover). Op-eds on both sides of the Atlantic. Here, after all, is a renowned Oxford Professor with a message that’s attractive to both public and politicians.  In Collier’s view, worrying about the migration of the poor isn’t just the self-interest of the rich.  In fact, it’s not a right so much as a duty to restrict migration, because the poor should be stopped from moving for their own good ­– or at least the good of their community.
            Collier tells us that in cutting adrift the ‘chain of lifeboats headed for the developing world’, and restricting migration from the poorest societies, we’re really doing the poor a favour, saving their struggling societies from a future without the ‘fairy godmothers’ who would otherwise escape beyond the borders – the educated, the young, and the ambitious seeking a life beyond conflict and poverty.  In essence, it’s protectionism resurrected: with visas guarding human capital, in place of cars and steel tariffs shielding nascent industrial capacity.
            This troubles me, although for weeks I’ve struggled to work out where to begin to unpick Collier’s assertions.  This is not for a lack but a surfeit of entry points. For all the heavyweight intellectual reputation on which Exodus rests, there’s often not a lot of expertise on migration underpinning it – and this leads Collier to some seriously flawed conclusions.
            Some of my unease, in the end, is about the fundamentals, the values that underpin Collier’s work. Should people be tied to nations not of their choosing, when the World Bank estimates 50% of our wealth is determined not by any conscious action we take, but by the citizenship we’re assigned arbitrarily at birth?  Another part of my concern is probably the disquiet of someone who works on the complex, messy realities that are lived between and beneath migration policies, rather than economist’s models. That’s not to say I think policy doesn’t matter – it really does – but some of the policy prescriptions that follow from Collier’s observations are startlingly naïve, the product of neat laboratory hypotheses in which it’s imagined that governments’ string-pulling and fence-raising can really control immigration.
            In some places this is disappointing: in others settings, it’s dangerous.  And none more so than when Collier deals with refugees and repatriation, something I spent five years researching. Collier considers the subject almost as an afterthought, on pages 262-3 of his 273 page book, but the arguments were reproduced much more prominently in Sunday’s New York Times. In Collier’s own words, the essential claim is that ‘the right to refuge need not imply the right to residency’.  In short, ‘a fit-for-purpose migration policy would target asylum on those few countries in the throes of civil war, brutal dictatorship, minority persecution or equivalent severe social disturbance’.  Asylum would be granted ‘swiftly and generously’: but ‘when peace is restored, people would be required to return’, so that ‘the right to refuge could include sunset rules linked to peace settlements and the monitored efforts of post-conflict governments’.
            How neat it sounds: what a pity that the facts don’t fit.
            In fact, this is exactly the same type of thinking that Sir John Hope-Simpson warned fellow statesmen against in the 1930s, when Europe dreamed of repatriating the Jews, writing again and again that ‘a programme of action cannot be based on uncontrollable speculation’. For here’s the truth: refugees rarely get to ride off into the sunset.  Today, the average refugee spends 17 years in exile. Two decades ago they spent nine.Cycles of conflicts in places like Somalia, Congo and Afghanistan haven’t been broken in decades.  We should all hope for peace: rejoice in the rare cases when swift return proves practicable, or when war ends.  But to suggest that we should deny the right to residency in the interim two decades? That’s to place lives in legal limbo.  To suggest the children of refugees should be required to return to a home they’ve never visited, a community whose language they do not speak?  That’s to ignore the inevitability of integration and social transformation in spite of the prohibitions of the law. This is policy in no one’s interest, even if it chimes with political wishes.
            What’s more, our politicians are poor prophets. In 2003, then-UK Home-Secretary David Blunkett asserted that ‘when you are no longer threatened… there is a moral obligation to return and assist in the rebuilding of [your]country’.  He was talking about Iraqi refugees who had fled Saddam’s now-toppled dictatorship – but speaking just months before the bombing of the UN compound in Baghdad heralded the descent of Iraqi into vicious civil war. There are already legal provisions – known as the cessation clauses – that allow for an end to refugee status.  Governments already often engage in linguistic gymnastics in order to escape the weight of the “refugee” label. As early as 1996, Germany chose to deport Bosnians provided with ‘temporary protection’ during the Balkan conflicts.  But peace and war are not binaries: the very South Sudanese officials who Collier reports bemoaning their educated citizens’ expat tendencies are ignoring the fact that peace has been a long time coming to South Sudan, and that it is still not certain.  It also ignores the uncomfortable fact that quite a few post-conflict governments tend to be run by previously expat elites with rather autocratic leanings.  Rwanda and Afghanistan, in different ways, are reminders that elites are rarely united, and “peace dividends” are rarely shared equitably.
            Yet what makes me most angry about Collier’s high-minded view that ‘the duty of rescue does not absolve high-income society from the duty to think through the implications of their policies’ is that his own reasoning doesn’t stand up to this scrutiny.  We can all agree that, when peace comes, we should want to encourage sustainable returns of refugees, including elites.  But in all the conversations I’ve had with refugees and policy-makers, no-one has suggested that the best way to achieve this is to turn repatriation into an obligatory burden.  In fact, quite the opposite is true: it’s often in having that second passport that refugees find the courage to return.  Exit strategies make return a possibility. Safety nets are essential for refugee returns to succeed as state-building. We should be granting more refugees dual citizenship: do this, and we’d see more returns.
            Collier writes about refugees in the black-and-white of classroom print, but there are just too many gaps to justify such confidence on his part.  Last Friday, at a debate in Oxford, Collier was asked by an M.Sc. student what he thought his argument meant for non-refoulement – the prohibition against forced return which, as anyone who’s ever worked on refugee issues knows, is the basic building block of our refugee protection regime. Collier did not recognise the term.
            Given the power Collier has to speak and be heard, such a failure to learn the basic contours of what we already know about refugee return is not just careless, it’s irresponsible. For there are plenty out there who would gladly work non-refoulement into something less absolute: who would happily insist on revoking all refugees’ rights to remain at the first sign of a fragile peace. Collier’s reasoning allows them to claim this is all done in the interest of refugees’ themselves, a benign exercise of imperial power.  I doubt this is Collier’s intention. But in the end it’s refugees, not us, who have to make such journeys: and good intentions if poorly conceived can pave long roads to hell.

              An Apology

               Saying sorry when you’re English is habitual.  But in the last year, I’ve found myself saying sorry more often than I used to. Saying sorry to my long-time Bulgarian friend (she with the M.Phil from Cambridge).  Saying sorry to my Romanian cleaner (who doesn’t see her husband all that often, because when she’s finished work at the end of the day, he’s about to start the nightshift).
              Why? Because it’s increasingly hard for me to understand why they stay here, contributing to our economy – in some case doing jobs few Britons are qualified to do, in other cases doing jobs for low wages that few Britons want to do – when the public and the politicians are so convinced they’re to blame for our discordant communities.  Eastern European migrants are not welcome here: that’s obvious to me as well as them.  Yet it’s a hostility that makes no sense to me in either intellectual or emotional terms.
              Some might say I should “check my privilege” – that I don’t understand the white working poor and their anxieties.  Fear not: it hasn’t escaped my notice that I’m wealthy and I’m well-educated, and that means I have far less to fear about the future than many others, whose livelihoods and cultural identities are precariously balanced on the edge of a retreating welfare state. There is, absolutely, a hell of a lot to be angry about:  we live in an increasingly unequal and increasingly socially immobile country. Equality of opportunity? We should be so lucky.
              But while fear of immigration may well reflect the season of our discontent, immigration isn’t the cause of these ills. By far the worst thing about David Cameron’s announcement today that new EU migrants will face vastly restricted access to benefits is not so much the content of the policy itself, but the fact it claims to offer a “solution” to a problem that doesn’t exist in the first place. 
              Others like Jonathan Portes have already pointed out that this is political pandering to tabloid-induced hysteria, not evidence-based policy.  The number of EU migrants claiming benefits is small: the numbers doing so maliciously or dishonestly tiny. But as a funder told me in a telephone call last week, immigration policy is increasingly no longer about evidence or research. It’s just politics.
              So convincing a fairytale has been spun around immigration, with immigrants as the villains, that the truth doesn’t matter anymore, as all the political parties rush to insist that they’ll do the best job of protecting “our” poor by keeping the bastards out. At the Guardian reported this afternoon, it now seems ‘as if there is no one left in the Commons willing to defend immigration from Eastern Europe’. 
              When Teresa May waves the Daily Mail in the House of Parliament to “prove” her point, it’s not just political theatre. It’s dangerous.  For this is a stampede of rhetoric, trampling those much-trumpted “British” values like tolerance and fair-play into ground refashioned to fit a new mean-spirited nationalism. There’s irony, then, in the fact that it’s these Westminster politicos, who are so desperate to preserve the Union, that are pursuing the small-minded and nasty politics of xenophobic hysteria, while in Scotland it’s the Nationalists who are trying to build a more open, progressive, migration policy.
              The White Paper published yesterday by the Scottish government outlined what an independent Scottish immigration policy would look like. There are few surprises: but there’s a welcome relief in the recognition that UK immigration policy is driven by the politics of marginal seats in the South-East, and that immigration has a compelling – even a crucial – role to play in a Scottish future, not least because of the essential demographic contribution migrants have and will continue to make. 
              As commentators have pointed out, it’s important not to assume that such plans carry with them the support of the nation: Scots as a whole are only marginally less opposed to immigration than their English neighbours.  But it is proof that it is possible to open up a space where you can talk about immigration in progressive political terms: that the contours of the immigration “debate” don’t have to be restricted to working out how to be toughest on immigration.
              Of course public opinion, north and south of the border, matters. Yet some way beyond democracy lies demagogy.  Just because 85% of Daily Mail readers think that migrants are putting huge pressure on the NHS and schools doesn’t mean it’s true.  It’s a convenient distraction from the choices that have been made to strip back our welfare state, to let the rich loose from social responsibility.
              I’ve long known the Tories are the “nasty party”. But I don’t want to believe England is – yet – a “nasty country”.  However, I think it is in danger of succumbing to a self-righteous `anti-migration frenzy, and that is self-defeating, for it will leave the UK much poorer, in both monetary and moral terms.

              So to all the European migrants reading this: sorry, once again. It’s not much consolation, I know – but for my own sake, I want to say once more: this is not being done in my name.

                On striking

                I am on strike today.  
                I’m striking — like most others I know — without much hope or expectation that it will effect change. After all, in the past four years UCU’s ballot papers asking me to support industrial action have landed so regularly on my doorstep they’re more ritual than revolution. I’ve also yet to manage to withdraw my labour in a way that inconveniences anyone other than myself. Unless a strike can be called between 2 and 4 on a Tuesday, the work I won’t get done on any one day is the work I want to do, not the work other people need me to do.  Flexibility and independence are my greatest joys as an academic: but they rather dilute the impact of one-day industrial action on other people.
                So why strike?  Why strike, if it will change little and perhaps not even be noticed beyond an out-of-office email reply? In part it’s because it’s a question of principle: there are well-reasoned, persuasive arguments that pay agreements in higher education are not fair. It’s also, of course, because strikes are a collective action. But this is not simply some automatic union-member reflex.  Choosing to join a strike demands personal conviction – especially when there’s no personal injury involved.
                As in this case. For this strike – over the need for fair pay in higher education – is not really about me. I earn more than 75% of the UK population: I have a permanent job. I have a final salary pension (just) and sick pay and paid holiday.  Equally important is the freedom I have to pursue my own research — and research funding.
                Yet higher education in the UK has become a pyramid scheme, and even if I’ve climbed up beyond the precipice, it gives me no right to forget that the structure supporting me is one propped up by casualised labour.  More and more poorly paid teaching fellows and temporary lecturers are dependent upon the precarious favours of patron-professors for their continued employment. I was there not so long ago: many friends are still stuck in the cycle.  Yet these cycles of exploitation are increasingly integral to University strategy, as expansions into new student markets – especially at the graduate level – are built on cheap labour underpinning the expensive glamour of a few crowd-pleasing “superstars”, whose pay is increasingly untied from any kind of national pay agreement at all.  Superstars, unfortunately, who often appear like shooting stars: blink, and you’ll miss them, as they head out on another research buyout/sabbatical/book tour.
                This growing inequality within higher education’s hierarchies mirrors the widening inequality gap in British society as a whole. An elite enjoys disproportionate spoils: the majority are left only with less power and more uncertainty.  This makes me angry: this enough is reason to strike.
                But the casualization of academic labour is just one part of a much broader search for profit in higher education. In my more cynical moments, I can’t shake the feeling that I’m sometimes selling students a bulk-buy product that can’t possibly deliver on its marketing claims.  Qualifications are more than the paper they’re written on. Yet too often I wonder whether the real value of a degree, often taught in the harried margins of professors’ and tutors’ time – equates to the months of time and effort and tens of thousands of pounds in money it has cost the student.
                All this leaves me disquieted, unsettled. Fair pay in higher education is certainly a just cause. But a meaningful end to the dispute – one that isn’t simply negotiation and counter-negotiation over numbers – depends on all of us asking bigger questions about the chances in Higher Education.  Who should research – and who should teach? Who do we want them to educate – and why? What – ultimately – do we want universities to be for?  


                Of course the business of higher education can’t take place in an economic vacuum. But nor need it be driven by profit over principle.  So I’m on strike today not just for pay or pension – though neither fair wages nor security of tenure are excessive demands. I’m also striking today because I believe that if we don’t stand up now, the Universities I still love – the universities that taught me about power and politics and justice and aspiration, and still often astonish me as places of extraordinary creativity and learning – may well disappear, hidden behind a thousand paywalls, accessible only to the few.


                  A piece written for Edinburgh University’s Global Justice Academy Blog
                  The counsul banged the table and said,
                  “If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:
                  But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.
                  It is easy to be outraged at the injustices suffered by refugees at the hands of their tormentors – arbitrary arrest; torture; forced conscription; rape. Horrors unimaginable in our cosseted lives bring easy waves of sympathy – but too little self-reflection.   The drowning of 359 migrants off Lampedusa’s shores on 3 October should shatter our complacency: not because it is a shocking tragedy, but because it is a cruelly predictable one.
                  We know already that migrants die crossing the Mediterranean: just as we know they die of dehydration crossing the Arizona desert and of asphyxiation in the back of lorries.  Who would disagree that the smugglers who rake in billions a year selling a shoddy, dangerous, black market service to their customers are profiteering from human misery? Of course such crooks should not be in business. All this we know.
                  But we know too that migrants’ journeys are fuelled by a potent combination of desperation and aspiration, and that underpinning the whole irregular migrant economy is a consumer economy addicted to cheap labour. However, you can still only solve the problems you choose to see.   And far from coming up with the right answers, we are – quite deliberately – not even asking the right questions. In fact, when it comes to immigration, we are masters of doublethink. We weep at the waterlogged graves of Lampedusa’s dead, and then turn almost immediately to consider how “hostile” an environment we can craft for the UK’s “illegal immigrants”.
                  These new immigration laws will – as UK home secretary Teresa May has already admitted – appeal not to evidence, but to perception(or prejudice). For the idea that we can stop undocumented migration at all (let along through this set of nasty prohibitions) is selfish fantasy, built upon fragments of political hysteria.
                  For there is a simple truth underpinning irregular migration. The poor and the oppressed will try and move in search of work and freedom as long as world so suffused with inequalities as this one. After Lampedusa’s shipwreck, we have already seen Malta’s. More will follow. And yet still they come.  Yes, a leaking boat on the high seas is a high-stakes, desperate gamble: but when GDP per capita is $504in Eritrea and $38,514in the UK, when the alternative is forced marriage, forced conscription or slow starvation, wouldn’t you play on?
                  This is why the dead of Lampedusa are not just the victims who suffered in lands beyond the sea.  They are our victims too. In the twenty-first century, an age of unprecedented global mobility, it has never been more difficult to move legally if you are poor.  Low-skilled migrants are shut out as Western economies clamour to attract “the brightest and best”. Freedom of movement is something you have to buy, unless by fortunate accident of birth you ended up with a “good” citizenship.
                  This does not mean our middle class lives do not depend on cheap, foreign workers to clean our houses and paint our nails.  But it does mean we would prefer instead to draw over-simplified lines between local unemployment and immigration, rather than scrutinise the economics of exploitation that explain why many migrants will take jobs citizens won’t. And to continue to comfort ourselves with the platitude that “real” refugees aren’t economic migrants, and don’t have to sail in sinking ships. Such lines have the inconvenience of being untrue: but the advantage of allowing us to castigate both smugglers as demons and would-be migrants as “queue jumpers” and frauds, victims of their own rule breaking.

                  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.


                  Yet in the end, smugglers are like dealers, pimps and backstreet abortionists: unsavoury characters, but ones who are simply meeting the laws of supply and demand. Declare war on them, and the prices may rise and the risks increase – but business will continue unless a safe, legal alternative is accessible. So save your scorn for a state that – like some twisted version of Auden’s poem – lauds Lampedusa’s dead as citizens, but incarcerates the living as illegal immigrants. For the British politicians who this Monday will waste their time debating the marginal costs of “health tourism” rather than fixing the UK’s asylum system.  And in the end, for all of those here who – safe in the comforts of their own homes – continue to want to believe that this humanitarian disaster has nothing to do with the narrow, mean politics of immigration that public opinion demands.

                    New Ideas, Old Politics and Real Progress

                    It wasn’t déjà vu when I turned on the radio on Sunday morning to hear Ed Miliband presenting Labour’s “new” immigration policies: more the discomfort of hearing discordant, distorted versions of new ideas sold short.
                    Over the past month, I’ve spent time talking to colleagues and friends – including at leading Labour-allied think-tank IPPR – about how to develop more positive migration policies.  I believe this will happen not by talking in broad national brush-strokes, but through carefully designing concrete migration policies that could contribute to the pursuit of some of the fundamental goals of progressive politics: social mobility, global development, equality of opportunity. 
                    Say, for instance, by linking the technology sector’s access to the international labour market with new training initiatives boroughs like Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Islington, where Tech City is booming but software engineers work alongside entrenched deprivation.  In fact, something very similar to the policy announced by Miliband yesterday, which will require large companies to fund an apprenticeship for every highly-skilled migrant they hire within the existing quota regime. Except with Labour the goals have been inverted: carrot has been turned into stick. 
                    Ideas of course are public property, best improved through discussion and debate. Yet it’s hard to escape the conclusion that in playing the old games, pursuing power and popular appeal, what’s been lost is the chance to make a real contribution to progressive politics.  Far from a bold new idea, this is still the empty politics of national numbers: it’s no challenge to the idea that migration, even if it is sometimes a necessary evil, is always a problem, not a solution.  But it’s precisely this failure of imagination which helps to explain why the policy is being dismissed just 72 hours after its unveiling.
                    Critics have pointed out that framing this initiative in terms of “British apprenticeships” is illegal: a lesson not learnt after Gordon Brown’s previous empty promises of “British jobs for British workers”.   The problem lies in framing immigration – and employment – in these national terms. What’s really needed is new opportunities for social mobility, especially in deprived areas. Scale back from the blanket imposition of a national rule; focus instead on building local programmes that work with specific local businesses to respond to the needs of local communities. Then you begin to have apprenticeships that make a real and concrete contribution to the progressive politics of social mobility, not the narrow politics of nationalism.
                    Businesses have also labelled the idea ‘unworkable’. It’s easy to see why. This policy has ostensibly been linked to the publication of the Husbands report on vocational skills training, but offers no real remedy for the problems with apprenticeship that the report identifies: too many low-quality, low-paid schemes that don’t lead to long-term employment. The crude politics of “one migrant, one apprentice” also pay scant attention to questions of labour substitutability or training requirements: it’s a far cry from the “employer-led” apprentice drive the Husband report urges.  Instead, by turning such commitments into obligations, apprenticeships risk becoming empty gestures, bureaucratic hoops. 
                    To unworkable should be added unhelpful. By keeping the quota cap in place, and focusing on large companies (many of whom already run apprenticeship schemes) it’s simply not clear how this proposal will add 125,000 additional apprenticeships over five years (let alone the jobs to follow). The policy effectively ignores the migration needs of the small and medium sized businesses, like those that are driving London’s start-up boom. It’s these businesses that often don’t have the capacity to negotiate the opaque rules governing visa sponsorship, but which –when the time is right for expansion – could play a real role in training up new, local software engineers on a small scale, in a dynamic high-wage industry that, with a culture of on-the-job training, is ideally placed to make apprenticeships meaningful. 
                    The Tech Stars apprenticeship scheme has just launched and may provide a model for just such a scheme, though for the moment it’s focusing on IT support and marketing rather than areas of real computing skill shortage. But technology start-ups are unlikely to fully invest in such training when so much of their time is spent searching for the qualified engineers they need now (and who usually aren’t British when they find them).  Businesses can’t train the next generation if they’re no longer solvent. Allowing small and medium sized companies who participate in recognised apprenticeship schemes an exemption from existing highly-skilled visa quotas could help both to ease the talent crunch that holds many back and encourage their investment in hands-on training.
                    Yet the most damning charge is that this new Labour policy amounts to nothing more than an “apprentice tax”. It’s also a tax on migration.  There’s no talk of lifting the quota, simplifying the bureaucracy and costs involved in hiring foreign workers, or rethinking the logic driving the push down on immigration. Apprenticeships are simply presented as another hurdle. And this is what really needs to change. We need to start seeing migration not as a problem, but first as an on-going reality – and then as an opportunity.

                    With some creative thinking, migration could become a lever used to persuade a whole range of actors – from technology companies to farmers to trade unions – to fully commit to a bold socially progressive political agenda, by aligning their private economic interests with public progress towards a more equal and fairer society. But this can only be done by opening up migration – slowly and strategically – not by closing it down. That’s why this is a missed opportunity. Successful 21st century governance requires innovation, and we undoubtedly need new ideas when it comes immigration policy. Yet instead it seems we’re just going to be offered the same old politics: numbers and nationalism on a road to nowhere.
                      (First published at The Conversation)
                      A new city rises up in the Jordanian desert. Zaatari is now “home” – at last count – to 144,000 Syrians. The numbers are scarcely credible. One million child refugees; two million exiles in total; another four million internally displaced within Syria’s borders. Syria is emptying itself. The parallels that experienced aid workers draw are with some of the blackest moments in recent human history: Rwanda, Kosovo, Iraq.
                      I am writing this as the US Congress debates plans for punitive intervention, finessing “red lines” and weapon inspectors’ reports. Yet one thing is already clear. Whenever this fratricidal war is finally exhausted, there will still be a refugee crisis. For if exile begins in emergency, it does not end when that emergency is over. That is why, as overwhelming as the immediate needs of Syria’s refugees are, it is important not to lose sight of the longer-term challenges.
                      It’s easy to focus on how the Syria crisis is different, its scaleunprecedented. However, it echoes many other displacements. Today, 15 million refugees and 29 million people are displaced worldwide. Three-quarters of Afghansaffected by conflict have been displaced during their lives; in 2011 one-third of Somalis were displaced. Analysing these crises can help to understand why it’s the decisions the international community takes now that may frame Syrian displacement for decades to come.
                      Refugee crises need not become protracted. The short duration of the Kosovan refugee crisis is often forgotten: but in just 11 weeks between April and June, 300,000 not only fled from but then returned to Kosovo. In 1991, the Kurdish refugee crisis in Northern Iraq was resolved almost as quickly. Yet in both cases, the commitment required was decade-long international intervention and the results uncertain. There is small appetite for such projects in Syria.

                      No quick fix


                      The likelihood – given the increasingly sectarian and vicious nature of Syrian civil war – is therefore that there will be no swift resolution to either conflict or the refugee crisis. International law draws neat lines between civilians and combatants: but in civil wars, soldiers are sons, brothers, and fathers. Refugee camps are fertile recruiting grounds for extremist causes.
                      Sometimes a temporary solution lasts for decades. UK Department for International Development

                      Click to enlarge
                      From Afghanistan to Rwanda to Sri Lanka, the dangers of blurring the lines between humanitarian space and insurgent forces are clear. One clear challenge in Syria is how to ensure the refugee camps remain apart from the conflict, while simultaneously acknowledging the close links between refugees and those fighting.
                      There is growing awareness among researchers that when displacement is protracted, lives can not just be fenced into the camp: mobility is crucial. Economic livelihoods and family communications often depend on moving back and forth across the border as war ebbs and flows. Helping refugees maintain links with their home communities also makes eventual return – if and when peace does arrive – far more likely.
                      Yet fear of protracted refugee crises has driven government policy in the opposite direction, towards exclusion andcontainment. Zaatari can only be understood in the long shadow of the 60-year old Palestinian refuge crisis. Along the Turkish border it’s the century-old Kurdish question that makes camps the compromise extracted for the border remaining open. Kenya and Pakistan are among the states who refuse to discuss local integration of their third-generation refugee populations, and continue to insist on encampment.
                      Such camps are intended to be temporary, emergency responses: but without peace, the refugees cannot “go home”. So over time, some de facto local integration is inevitable. This need not be a calamity: refugee networks can become development hubs. Dadaab camp in Kenya, home to half a million refugees, is estimated to make a annual net contribution of US$14m to the regional economy.
                      Dadaab camp in Kenya makes a significant contribution to local economy. US government

                      Click to enlarge

                      Need for long-term plan

                      The difficulty is that asking politicians and policymakers to plan for long-term exile requires explicit recognition that refugees are not just a temporary problem. For even if the Syrian war were to end tomorrow, there could be no instant return: the damage already done is enough.
                      Roads, public building, houses, power lines: all destroyed. There is overwhelming evidence from recent mass post-conflict repatriations to Afghanistan and South Sudan that premature returns are often not sustainable, and lead only to further waves of displacement.
                      This is not just about the crisis “over there”, aid to be paid for at a suitable distance from Western borders. If Syria shifts from emergency to entrenched crisis, industrialised states should not just be offering money, but also many more refugee resettlement places and opportunities for Syrian immigration – not least to demonstrate real solidarity with the Syrians’ regional hosts.
                      We should pray for swift resolution to Syria’s miseries: but we should also be pragmatic, and plan for protracted displacement. For this is the norm. Today, two-thirds of the world’s refugees spend five years or more in exile. Decades spent waiting in limbo are a second tragedy, a squandering of human capital that puts peace further out of reach. We may not be able to end the Syrian conflict: but in the meantime, we can and should lessen the poverties of exile.

                        The Citizenship Market

                        (First published at Democracy in Africa)
                        Citizenship is an artifice. It’s a delicate political construction aiming to weave private freedom and public governance into social cohesion. At its most lofty, we can talk about citizenship as the foundation of entitlement, empowerment and equality: but as every good student of government knows, the inverse of such inclusion is the exclusion borne from arbitrary state control of the “right to have rights”.  And while the language of citizenship is poetic, the documents of citizenship are bureaucratic prose. Birth certificates; social security numbers; passports: all simultaneously confirming and circumscribing legal identity.
                        In the Western liberal democracies where national citizenship evolved, and states have the bureaucratic competency to control identity through documentation, the practice of citizenship is complex and contradictory enough. But what does citizenship mean in an African context, when the formal identity officially bestowed by the state so often competes with alternative ideas of belonging bound in blood or tied to the soil?
                        Thinking about this question, I often come back to Gerard Prunier’s observation – one of those piercing comments that in catching the truth stays with you years after the first reading, ‘The state is always somebody’s state, never the State in the legal abstract form beloved by Western constitutional law’.  In many parts of Africa, the state’s version of citizenship may be arbitrary, uneven, hollow, so that everyday security and social rights – making citizenship real– actually depends upon negotiating a host of other protections and appealing to other markers of identity that are anchored to genealogy or geography: tribe, religion, language.
                        Yet Africa is also continent on the move and nowhere more so than in regions of conflict. If citizenship is often precarious for locals, what does that mean for refugees and other migrants from conflict? These individuals cannot claim protections from their state (either because of active hostility or the absence of effective government).  The humanitarian community may offer immediate respite from persecution, but in the longer-term refugees’ freedoms are limited, not least because the documentary identities they are given mark them out as non-citizens, and as a result heavily restrict their ability to claim basic rights.
                        One such basic right is freedom of movement.  Camp passes are often needed to leave the humanitarian ‘spaces of exception’ that can blur the line between protection and imprisonment.  Convention Travel Documents (CTDs) were originally supposed to function in parallel with the international passport regime, but in practice access to these documents is rationed: Uganda had a quota of around 500 CTDs in 2011 for a total of 200,000 refugees.Two-thirds of refugees now spend five years or more in exile, in what the international community calls protracted refugee situations. What begins in emergency in effect becomes a form of precarious long-term international migration, without access to a passport. There’s little prospect of formal local integration, because in places like Uganda it’s extremely difficult to meet the criteria for naturalisation. Yet the majority of long-term refugees do not live in camps, but alongside locals, often in urban centres like Kampala.
                        Last Summer, I went to Uganda to try and write the story of how these refugees and irregular migrants negotiated their documents, identities and ability to travel beneath the ‘legal abstract form of citizenship’. Talking to both Congolese, Sudanese, South Sudanese, Rwandan and Somali refugees as well as Ugandan locals, I wanted to understand how poor and displaced Africans thought about citizenship and belonging: are these the same thing?  What about the connections between citizenship and the documents, like passports, that are its modern shorthand? Was it possible that citizenship – or at least some part of it – was for sale?
                        A year on, I’m still sifting the findings and trying to build a coherent narrative, but it’s clear that the relationship between passports, citizenship and ‘belonging’ is at least as complex as I speculated it might be.  That said, certain trends are clear.  Firstly, long-term exiles continue to move even after they are labelled refugees: journeys are made to trade, to check on lands, to visit family members. These border crossings are sometimes risky, but nearly always considered too important to postpone any longer, economically or emotionally. Secondly, because of the need to travel there is indeed a vibrant market in the identity documents needed to cross borders: citizenship—or at least its markers – are indeed for sale.  I met several refugees who held Ugandan passports, usually purchased for around $100 (three times the official cost for Ugandans). The general consensus – among both locals and migrants – was that ‘money is everything’, and for those with enough financial capital, the trappings of citizenship could be readily purchased.
                        However I also met many more long-term refugees who were priced out of the citizenship market, and had crossed Uganda’s borders using alternative forms of identity that combined monetary exchange with economies of trust.  Local Chairman – LC1 officials – issue local residency cards: for a price, some will list a refugees’ nationality as Ugandan, and write letters of recommendation to facilitate travel across borders. Institutes of Higher Education also issue ID cards, and are often willing to list a migrant student as a Ugandan – providing fees are paid on time. What was most interesting was that these were not new networks created by, or for, refugees. Rather, they were pre-existing local alternatives, developed to facilitate travel for the many Ugandans who also could not afford a passport.  Here was an informal, hybrid market that depended upon accepted social norms – in particular, the social status afforded to local officials and universities – to lower the costs associated with freedom of movement.
                        Yet both locals and refugees were emphatic: facilitating travel and providing the documentary evidence of a legal identity was not the same as belonging.  Both groups recoiled from idea that documents they exchanged for money were about identity or collective entitlement – a passport did not make you ‘one of us’.  Instead, what seemed to emerge was a bifurcated view of citizenship, in which the protections and entitlements of social belonging were separated off from individual, private freedoms. The attitude was often that trustworthy refugees should, at their own risk, be able to enjoy negative liberty. Building a system that circumvents state control of passports simply helped to facilitate that and avoid the inconvenient demands of a corrupt, inefficient state. But no simple document could entitle a stranger to positive freedoms like entitlement to land: that depended upon blood and brotherhood.
                        For these locals, the state did indeed appear as an abstraction: distant, irrelevant and largely unconnected to the poor.  This may help explain both the ready willingness of locals to bypass state control in issuing identity documents, and their clear understanding of the limits of the good they were selling: belonging and social rights were jealously guarded in part because of the very weaknesses of state – because this meant the poor had to rely on other forms of reciprocity.
                        This leads me to conclusions mired in ambiguity. If refugees are the victims of the nationalised distribution of basic rights, the poor are the victims when citizenship is monetized. While some refugees were able to purchase papers to escape refugee status and build social security, set free by market principles, the corrosive effect of market prices acted to diminish the claims of many poor citizens upon the state.  Corruption affected Ugandans too: when rights have a price, why should the state provide them for free?  As one women I interviewed reflected, ‘life is the same for poor Ugandans and Congolese refugees, the big difference is whether you are rich, or poor, not whether you are foreign or Muganda…’
                        In Uganda I saw how resourceful, energetic and ingenuous approaches to citizenship could overcome the bureaucratic failings of state and humanitarian regime, allowing refugees to build a tolerable life in exile. But in the end, I find myself needing to strike a sombre note. This self-crafted citizenship was in effect a privatised citizenship, not eliminating but simply re-fashioning the lines of inclusion and exclusion.  The stories of Uganda’s refugees warn us all that if the only choice we create is one between arbitrary exclusion based on nationality, and arbitrary exclusion based on poverty, the promised freedoms of citizenship will remain, instead, the rationed privileges of a few.