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When ethics get personal: visas in the classroom

As an academic, I often write about the ethics of migration policy. But this week, the UK’s migration policy has presented me with an unexpectedly personal ethical dilemma.
I have discovered that I am expected to report all overseas students (those on what’s known as a Tier 4 visa) who have not attended their first two weeks of seminar classes. If I fail to make the report, these students may be put at risk of deportation. But in ticking the boxes, I’m effectively being co-opted into administrating a migration policy that I firmly believe to be unfair and ill-judged. I’ve expended huge amounts of energy over the past two years arguing that we need more, not less, global mobility if we’re to seriously address development: if I accept my role as a migration monitor in practice, what does this mean for my integrity as a researcher and teacher?
This isn’t a new debate: but it’s the first time I’ve been personally asked to participate in confirming student attendance. At first glance, perhaps, the request seems innocuous and my angst unnecessary. After all, these are all students with a legal status: confirming that they’re fulfilling the conditions attached to their stay in the UK shouldn’t lead to ethical crisis. And in fact, my seminars have had 100% attendance: so there’s no need to worry that actually answering this specific query will lead directly to a struggling student being shipped back home.
But in fact, the implications are serious, particularly once you start considering basic principle of equality in education. I have no problem taking a weekly register recording students’ attendance in my seminars. I do so in every seminar. But I take this record for purposes of education, not visa control. If someone is persistently absent from my classes, I will be concerned and I will follow this up: but I do so as their teacher, not as border control. I am not interested in the visa status of my students: why should I even be allowed to know it? I am interested in their capacity to learn. I believe that every student is of equal status the moment they walk into the classroom. Yet this policy implies I should care more if a “foreign” student is absent than a British one: not for reasons of education, but for reasons of migration.
By demanding that I fill in my registers and hand them over – via a series of middle-men – to the UKBA, I’m also required to act as a proxy agent for a state policy I believe is wrong. The state out-sources its work and I become a policeman monitoring our bureaucratic borders. Bravo. Efficiency savings and the Big Society in one. Yet this entire system is premised on a climate of migration mistrust. Surely an alert to UKBA should only follow the (exceptionally rare) decision by a university that a student is failing their course and cannot possibly complete their course of study? Surely the measure of a student visa’s “legitimacy” is in the student passing the course, not sitting in a specified number of seminars for a small number of hours per week?
And every outsourcing comes with a cost. Somebody always pays, somewhere. Universities have lost much of their state funding and limits on student visa numbers will only exacerbate this financial crisis. So why are university staff now being expected to administer these same damaging migration policies? It’s a cheap trick – for UKBA, at least.
In the end, faced with the pleas from my over-worked departmental administrator, who had spent a full day trying to trace these “missing” students. I confirmed that my students on the list were all still “good” students. She was sympathetic to the obvious reluctance that I and many of my colleagues felt in being asked to hand over this information: but she was powerless to waive the request.
So mini-drama over, we’ll all continue much as normal, students and staff. But it reminded me just how simply the structures of state bureaucracy can make uneasy collaborators of us all.

    Migrants: foreign foes or equal citizens?

    370,000 Migrants on the dole’ shouts the normally restrained Daily Telegraph’s front page today. A claim that – as the Today programme pointed out – stands up to little scrutiny.  These are ‘migrants’ that in many cases are now British citizens.  Only two percent of the group were found to be claiming benefits illegally.  Of course, as Chris Grayling reminded the British public, a minority of this 370,000 remain (ominously) ‘unaccounted for’. His main claim appears to be that the current Government have redressed a grievous gap by successfully attempting to cross-check benefit claimants’ nationalities.
    In fact, the past week has seen a flurry of migration data released.  We have the particularly illuminating contributions of Migrationwatch. Their figures released last week correlating (that’s correlation, not causation) EU migration and UK unemployment were comprehensively and immediately discredited by IPPR.   If only the Daily Mail could follow Zoe Williams advice that The first thing to do in any discussion about the impact of migration on employmentis to disregard Migration Watch’.  The other two reports – one from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, one from the Migration Advisory Committee – are more credible.  The first found no correlation between migration and unemployment.  The second, released on the same day grabbed the headlines, calculating that for every 100 non-EU migrants, 23 British workers were ‘displaced’.
    I have no reason to question the methodologies used in either report.  But I think the way in which these migration statistics have been publicly reported speaks to a very dangerous narrowing of the UK migration debate.  Not because the MAC report – with its positive result – overshadowed the other.  But because the MAC report was far more ambiguous than this headline figure of  ’23 displaced’ suggests.
    I’ve read the report.  All 146 pages.  The authors are fully aware of the ambiguities – and in the case of migrants’ use of public services or impact on crime rates the near impossibility – involved in trying to carry out an “impact assessment”.  Their figures are presented cautiously, with caveats.  The 23 ‘fewer native people employed’ figure is referred to from the beginning (page 2) as a ‘ballpark estimate’.  This is not to suggest that we should not try to measure impact: but simply to acknowledge that measuring social and economic impacts is a process fraught with assumptions and questions of methodology.  Our media gatekeepers, however, narrow this down into a single line.
    But why that line, when there are some other, equally tentative and equally startling figures in the report?  For instance ‘there is some evidence to suggest that positive net migration through the [points based system] may in fact reduce overall rates of crime in the UK’.   More migrants, fewer criminals?  How’s that for a tabloid headline?  Or perhaps the assessment – first released in June, but repeated again in the report – that the impact of new student visa restrictions will be a cost of £2.4bn to the economy?  And that assumes an 80% replacement rate from UK and EU students, which is quite a significant leap of faith.
    More seriously, this fixation on statistics turns our migration conversation into one circling around numbers not values. This is dangerous, because it deflects attention away from far more fundamental shifts in government thinking, in two ways.
    First, focusing on migration and the impact of foreign labour and “benefit tourists” encourages the public to direct their energy towards keeping migrants out, rather than questioning social policies that will see all access to social welfare greatly reduced in the coming years.  It also provides an “easy” solution to the employment problem: fewer migrants.  Yet even if 23 British workers are displaced with every hundred non-EU migrants, this figure is an association.  There is no proven causal link.  And it only holds in times of economic recession, not in times of economic growth, making the relationship between general unemployment levels and migration still more complex. Those likely to be affected – as the report discusses – are most likely to be low-skilled and poorly-educated workers.  Given the realities of global economics, we should be focusing on this skills gap, this failure of the state to provide for its citizens the opportunities to move beyond low-skill work.  An unwritten implication of this report is that it is not of great account if the UK’s low-paid low-skilled workers remain low-paid and low-skilled.
    This leads to a further question. Who qualifies as a (privileged) “UK worker”?  The report is premised on the notion that in measuring the impact of migration we must measure only the benefits that accrue to the total benefit of the UK resident population. Perhaps that in itself is not controversial: but it opens up a Pandora’s Box of questions relating to belonging, citizenship and identity.  When does a migrant become a resident?  The Daily Telegraph’s story is a nastier example of the same question, but reframed with the clear implication that migrants – even newly naturalized British citizens – do not deserve the full entitlements of citizenship.
    But how slippery a slope.  In focusing on numbers and not on labels, we run the risk of tacitly endorsing a rationale of permanent segregation between “foreigner” and “native”.  In fact, this is exactly where government thinking is heading. A recent government consultation paper proposes to make not only migration – but also permanent settlement – much harder.   Even if we allow them to come, we will not permit them to belong.  Quite apart from questions of global justice, how can such a tactic of separation – removing incentives for social and cultural interaction – address the British public’s anxieties about integration?
    The migration debate will roll on, no doubt, trading statistics.  But it seems to me that in setting the contours for debate so narrowly, we risk accepting without much meaningful debate at all a citizenship vastly diminished in terms of both equity and entitlements. This – not the number of foreign-born citizens exercising their right to the support of their state – is the real scandal.

      Academic publishing – ours is not to reason why

      Why do researchers publish their work in academic journals? The answers might seem obvious: to present and explain findings, contribute to debate, establish a reputation. But if these answers are obvious, then why is academic journal publishing so ill-equipped to meet these needs?
      Academic journal publishing has been called the ‘market that digital disruption forgot’. In the Summer, George Monbiot wrote powerfully about the inability of the general public to access the published findings of (often) publicly funded research, thanks to the ‘economic parasitism’ of academic journal publishers. He was undoubtedly right to focus on the segregation at the heart of the system, which means that only a small elite with the right pass keys can access this cutting-edge knowledge economy.
      But while Monbiot’s main concern was with readers and exploitative economics, having submitted three articles in as many weeks to as many social science journals, I’ve been reminded yet again of how poorly this system serves would-be writers.
      These three articles are now sitting in various inboxes across Europe. And there, I suspect, they shall sit for some time. In fact, there’s a fourth article I submitted somewhere else again, six months ago. I haven’t heard anything about it since, despite repeatedly emailing for an update. That’s no record: I am now reliably informed that another piece will be published in early 2013. It was accepted for publication in 2008. While there’s a certain comic value in these endless delays, there’s a serious consequence. By the time material is published it is – far from being cutting-edge – out of date. Ideas have moved on, but the written repository lags behind. In a digital age, this delay is surely inexcusable.
      Unpaid reviewing and editing – so manuscripts sit on desks (mine included) for months – are only part of the problem. The endless delays have been exacerbated by the push to publish in time for the dreaded  Research Excellence Framework (REF), at the end of 2013. Awash with submissions, even those articles that do get accepted are now looking in some journals at a 2014 publication date.
      I’d argue these trends have both been complicated by and contributed to the rise of the “Special Issue”: effectively an outsourced journal which includes a selection of articles from a workshop, seminar series or conference. The bonus is that acceptance is both swift and (usually) a sure thing. Yet it means academic networks become an even more important part of the publication process, even before peer-review starts, arguable making it even harder for young, unknown and unconnected researchers to find an outlet for their work.
      These problems become even more acute when you work, as I do, in a field where the value of your research can be measured in terms of its policy and political impacts, not just its pure academic value. If you’re a researcher seeking to combat human suffering, poverty, disease, injustice, you can’t wait three years for “peer” validation. This is where working papers come into their own – usually free and instantly available online, normally vetted by reputable institutions.  Where comment is of the moment, and when many of those most concerned with your research will not be working in a university, a working paper like these offers an opportunity for discussion that goes far beyond any exchange I’ve ever had as a result of a journal publication.
      Yet choosing to engage with working paper audiences comes at a price. Increasingly, the publication of a working paper is cited as justification for rejecting a submission in an overcrowded market, even when the paper isn’t a mere replica but builds substantially on earlier materials, or offers a far more refined conceptual and theoretical argument. So it becomes a choice: academic reputation or policy audience? Given the insistence that research should be evaluated in terms of its social “impact”, this trend in academic publishing is particularly frustrating.
      So why publish in an academic journal at all? Here, I think we have not the publishers but the universities – and their grey-haired guardians – to blame. It’s all about prestige. Professors continue to insist that print is best – worth more than an online publication – despite in the same breath recognising the system’s failure and the dubious nature of “impact factors”. Peer-review? Oh yes, it can be immensely valuable, but it’s also wildly variable – and sometimes hugely prejudiced. In a world where a single post-doc post can see 700 applications the young can’t risk rocking the boat.
      Most of you who are reading this are probably researchers of one form or other. But while this may seem a narrow set of concerns, it should matter to everyone, because a broken academic publishing system exacerbates inequalities in higher education – not just among the students, but also among the staff. Patience is a luxury that many newly qualified PhD graduates can’t afford: I know dozens of my peers who – faced with a 200:1 shot at a junior lectureship – are burdened by enormous temporary teaching commitments or have left research altogether. Their research disappears with them, while for others patronage (never absent from the academic job market) takes the place of publications. But I’m not sure indentured labour is the best way to be hiring in twenty-first century universities.
      I’ve been extraordinarily lucky in 2011. I got a great job; I’ve walked the tightrope between policy working papers and free-thinking conceptual academic work without falling off. But just because you’ve benefitted from a system doesn’t mean it doesn’t need fixing. And a great way to start in 2012 would be to rethink the sacred cow of academic journal publishing.

        A history lesson

        I spent Monday in the archives. Most of the time I’m an ex-historian now, busy arguing about what should happen, not what did happen. But occasionally a day of detecting in old files brings the two together.
        History holds many warnings. I’m often struck by just how often our anxieties our simply the latest iterations of dilemmas past. Reading parliamentary briefing papers for 1938, I was struck by the extent to which rhetoric around migration, immigration and refugees in that decade of disaster is echoed today.
        Except, of course, the official indifference then reads more terribly in hindsight. We all know what happened next, in 1939. And we shouldn’t forget that the refugee protections we have today – the battered 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees – are atonement for the paralysis of the asylum system in the 1930s which condemned many to death at the hands of the Nazis.
        Some of the archival file shock because they could almost be headlines from today. The headline ‘Screaming Aliens in Air Liner’, for instance, detailing the ‘extraordinary scenes’ which occurred when an attempt was made to send 12 Jews back to Warsaw in 1938. How far have we come: as far as Jimmy Mubenga? As far as the Kurd who sewed his mouth together in an attempt to avoid return to Iraq, some of his 49 companions in leg irons?
        And who wouldn’t shudder now at the Daily Mail’s 1938 headline: “German Jews pouring into this country”? But what about today’s news?  After all:  “Asylum: you’re right to worry”; “Bombers are all spongeing asylum seekers”; “Asylum gets even softer”. History has a way of reframing our moral absolutes.
        Even parliamentary arguments see the same rhetoric, the same cadences. Britain is ‘too crowded’ for the admission of more European migrants in 2011, just as it was ‘overcrowded’ in 1938, when German Jews were desperate for admission to escape economic poverty as well as persecution. And the counter-arguments remain as impressive, and as ignored. Noel-Baker repeatedly insisted that ‘the Labour party should pursue a generous policy with regard to immigration not merely on moral grounds but because of its actual benefit to the country as a whole’. 11,000 refugees had provided 15,000 jobs for British employees, at a time of an economic depression even worse than the one faced today.
        Many of the answers were there in the 1930s: popular anti-immigration sentiment ‘is only an aspect of the great paradox of unemployment in the midst of plenty; and unless we face up to it, we shall certainly fail to deal with our own unemployment problem’ (Noel-Baker again). Immigration, inequality, prejudice: the answers to all these remain the same: poverty is the enemy, not movement. But as in 1938 and 1939, when Jewish migration remained heavily restricted across the globe, the answers are largely ignored. We continue to believe in the idea that we can draw a fine line between the “genuine refugee” and the “bogus asylum seeker”.
        The past few weeks have seen a flurry of reflections on the 60th Anniversary of the Convention: pledges from states that may or may not amount to concrete commitments. Yet I wonder whether we focus too much on celebrating the achievements of 1951, on praising our own progressive politics, when in fact states’ intentions today arguably lie far closer to the institutional isolation of 1938.
        History can teach us many lessons, but only if we remember them. It’s very easy to dismiss any parallels with migration policy in the 1930s hyperbole, as irrelevant to our modern economics. But for me, the distance between then and now – in terms of the dignity afforded to migrants – is the thin wedge of papers that make up the Convention. Understanding why 1951 matters requires some understandings of the terrible failures of the 1930s, and some recognition of just how close we may be to replicating these same policies now. We may think we condemn the politicians of the 1930s who insisted ‘the lifeboat [was] full’. But let’s not point too smugly at our own twenty-first century lifeboat, given how often we seem to insist that very few of those who are drowning deserve to be rescued.

          What’s humanitarian?

          I gave £20 to a destitute asylum seeker yesterday. An Afghan I would guess, although he had almost no English so I could not ask. It was an encounter which left me feeling hopelessly inadequate and extraordinarily angry that, in a country as rich as Britain – for all its economic woes – men should still be sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes in the streets.
          There are perhaps 20,000 destitute asylum seekers in the UK. Most have had their claims refused, but are caught in a Kafkaesque world in which they are judged not to be refugees, but the same authorities recognise that it’s not safe for them to be returned “home”. There are many excellent reports detailing the suffering of these men and women, although given the hostility of the British public, stoked by the tabloid press, towards such “illegal immigrants”, it’s a scandal which receives limited public attention. These individuals – who fled poverty, war, persecution – now live like ghosts on the street of a democracy that claims ‘a proud tradition of providing a place of safety’.
          Such injustices must be fought with politics. But how should we respond when the evidence of the human misery suffered seeps through the insulation of our everyday lives, shocking us into a raw emotional response. I have listened to homeless charities and I know the advice: do not give money directly. This was no heroin addict – I’m pretty certain of that – but does the same apply? Even if my £20 buys food, a bed for the night, it will not last for long, and it will not change the system. No, this was about me, an urgent need to “do something”.
          Yet on a daily basis, I sit in my 8th floor office and I talk and I write aboutthe dangers of humanitarianism, how it obscures politics and lets us believe that relief is enough. In its worst all-singing all-dancing excesses, our cash can indemnify us against our own guilt. Donate: you’ve “made a difference”: you can stop thinking. This is humanitarianism reduced to crude emotional manipulation and cash transactions. A bad humanitarianism. So should I have kept my money, and set up a direct debit this morning to an asylum charity instead?
          Perhaps not. Because in fact, last night made me wonder about the good humanitarian action can do. Not its monetary value – I’m not fool enough to imagine such ad-hoc giving is the way forward – but because of its power to shock, to strip away the platitudes of policy and politics and “shock themoral conscience of mankind”. It was the inadequacy of the relief I could offer that kept me awake into the early hours. It was the futility of the gesture – apart perhaps from short-term comfort – that made me angry. It was the immediacy of the suffering.
          Maybe that’s all good humanitarianism can be in the end. A powerful emotional connection, an instinctive response to human suffering, but above all a gesture painfully aware of the shortcomings of relief. I will remember last night, and it will enrage me. It reminds me why we need to fight for migrant and asylum-seekers’ rights, and why the politics of migration and asylum need to change. Why I will set up the direct debit.
          So perhaps my short encounter really did have some lasting value, if only for reminding me that while there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems, sometimes a raw human reaction provides a powerful reason to keep fighting.

            Kenya, Jubaland and Somalia’s refugees: no quick fixes

            In recent days, Kenya has launched a military incursion into Somalia, to push back the Al-Shabbab militants responsible for the recent murder and abduction of Western tourists and aid-workers from Kenyan territory. Framed as a necessary security response to counter creeping extremist Islamist expansion, British commentators have largely applauded ‘a brave move’, painting as Kenya as a state willing to ‘step up to tackle an African problem, rather than sitting back and then complaining when the west tries to do it for them’.
            Such praise is misguided. Kenya’s military advance into Jubaland is – far from a defensive response to border raids – the culmination of a long-incubated and self-interested political strategy. Wikileaks cables show that UK and US governments repeatedly warned Kenya’s against attempting to shore up an autonomous Somalia “buffer zone”, fearing likely failure. Yet even if successful, the Jubaland initiative is likely to have profound humanitarian consequences, above all for Somalia’s refugees.
            Kenya is – notoriously – host to the world’s largest refugee camp, Dadaab. Though recent attention has focused on the arrival of those fleeing devastating famine in Somalia, other residents have spent over twenty years in the camp, having left Somalia in earlier cycles of crisis. Unable now to repatriate safely to Somalia, they are also unable – at least officially – to leave Dadaab and seek work. The West resettles some 2000 refugees a year. It makes little difference when 10 000 more Somalis currently arrive each week.
            Kenya has long resented its “refugee burden”, despite the fact that recent reports have suggested that activities in Dadaab actually add some USD $14m to the North-eastern province’s economy. Security fears – closely related to the Kenyan government’s complex relationship with its own Kenyan Somali population – have also fed an encampment policy that has created irregular migration flows and exacerbated pressure on services and markets within the camp.
            The Kenyayn solution? Jubaland. Kenya has long been advocating the creation of a Somali “buffer zone”, and in April this year backed the creation of the semi-autonomous region of Azania. Kenya formally closed its border with Somalia in January 2007, with limited practical impact, but a loaded political message. Immediately following the border closure, the Kenyan government argued that it “is not a written rule that when there is fighting in Somalia, people should run to Kenya” and that “UNHCR has provisions… to set up camps anywhere, including inside Somalia”.
            This latest effort to secure Jubaland is therefore likely intended not just to provide Kenya with security from Islamist incursion, but also facilitate the future removal of Kenya’s unwanted refugees. Kenya has long declared repatriation to be the only solution for its Somali refugees. In attempting to secure Jubaland, the likelihood of an early return of newer Somali arrivals – who have also frequently been portrayed as victims of drought rather than refugees from persecution – has increased. Yet while a “safe zone” may provide access to food aid and an end to the immediate threat of famine, it is not a substitute for the absence of a functioning state.
            The longevity of Kenya’s Jubaland initiative is uncertain. But Kenya’s plans are the latest iteration of a worrying global trend to contain would-be refugee populations within their own border. “Safe zones” have been put in place by Western powers to facilitate repatriation before, while international borders were quietly closed at the same time. This happened in Northern Iraq in 1991 and in Afghanistan in 2000.
            States are anxious to avoid the obligations of asylum as laid out in the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees: the language of “home” and the invocation of a “right to remain” provide persuasive cover for what is ultimately political self-interest. Certainly, “safe zones” and militarised humanitarian aid delivery may offer some protection to internally displaced people (IDPs), but in cases like Somalia – where borders are closed as internal space opens up – their construction is also deliberately intended to prevent these same IDPs from becoming refugees.
            This is because refugees, unlike IDPs, hold a recognized claim to international protection. Though the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement stress that protecting IDPs must not become a means of preventing refugees claiming asylum, protection and containment can elide in practice. Similarly, presenting the recent influx of Somalis as solely in flight from ecological disaster ignores the fact that many may also hold valid convention claims to refugee status, and that a ‘well-founded fear of persecution’ will not disappear even when rains return.
            In 1991, a UNHCR official protested that returning Kurds to Northern Iraq from the Turkish border was ‘ a false repatriation… people did not return because it is safe in their country of origin: they returned because they were protected from the government of their country of origin’. The same sentiments could be applied to the Jubaland advance today.
            There are no quick fixes to an absence of adequate governance. Returning refugees under such conditions to Somalia would require unprecedented international engagement, not disengagement. It would mark only the beginning of a process of “solution”, not the end of a refugee crisis. It would also represent a fundamental blow to the basic right to be a refugee.
            For these reasons, it is to be hoped that international actors publicly commit – as Human Rights Watch has urged – to protecting Somalis’ continued access to asylum space, and ensure that Kenya’s advance into Jubaland does not become anything more than the security pushback it ostensibly claims to be.

              You can stay, but you have to go…

              All gifts come with strings attached: but some have more strings attached than others.
              In 2008, Tanzania announced it was prepared to offer naturalization to 162,000 Burundian refugees. Known as the “1972” caseload (to distinguish them from the later influx of Burundians arriving from 1993 onwards), 85% of this population inherited their refugee status, being born in the settlements in Western Tanzania. UNHCR withdrew from the camps in 1985 and for the past twenty-five years, the 1972 Burundian have been self-sufficient, even producing a small surplus – and paying tax revenue on that profit. A model population for local integration, no?
              Cue much praise from governments, the United Nations and NGOs for Tanzania’s “unprecedented generosity and courageous decision”. It’s innovative, impressive, even inspiring. Oh, but just one catch: in order to receive their citizenship certificates, the Burundians have to relocate to new communities.
              Naturalization – a “solution” to forced migration – has been made dependent on a forced “relocation”. Which some might call displacement by any other name.
              This is where the trouble started. Fast forward 18 months from those celebratory statements, and less than half a percent of the refugees have actually received their certificates. Unbelievably these new Tanzanian citizens – offered a choice between returning to Burundi or taking up naturalization – aren’t particularly keen to uproot themselves from home, trading in de facto citizenship for a de jure piece of paper and experiencing a second displacement. As one remarked to a local journalist
              “I have known no other place in Tanzania since 1972; the furthest I have gone is Tabora town. I own more than 200 herd of cattle and have a family of 12 children but I am being asked to go to a strange place in Tanga Region”
              The result is messy. Anti-refugee sentiment is high. Local authorities are hostile, reluctant to receive these new residents. The Minister of Home Affairs who had pushed for the adoption of the policy lost his seat in the October 2010 general elections, partly as a result of his perceived “pro-refugee” politics. And the bill? Oh, it’s an expensive mess: USD $103 million for the refugees’ relocation and absorption.
              But it gets worse. Enter a bona fide cast of Hollywood villains: Agribusinesses AgriSol and Pharos Ag, the latter headed up by Republican donor and ethanol baron Bruce Rastetter . Their latest investment? A large agricultural development in Tanzania, on the site of three “abandoned” refugee camps. Two of which still house these Burundian refugees… or rather, “newly naturalized Tanzanians”. Though it does appear that the deal was signed after naturalization process began, the timing’s pretty damming.
              The Oakland institute has done some fantastic and courageous work on the issue of land grabs in Africa, exposing just how corrupt these deals are across the continent (If you really want to get angry, read the part about how Agrisol are going to bring in white South African farm managers). Reading their reports today has made me angry enough to write this.
              Tanzania’s “gift” of naturalisation was always going to be a political calculation. Such gifts always are. But so many humanitarian actors and refugee advocates have invested in promoting this naturalisation as a “solution” – in part because of the desperate need for more states to offer local integration to their long-term refugee populations – that many have been afraid to publicly condemn this ugly relocation, tainted by land grab.
              The result is a population arguably left in far greater limbo than they were before they were offered this “solution”. Citizens or refugees? Both deserve better.

                Africans, Arabs and Asylum (or the Daily Mail, part 2)

                The second Daily Mail story is more shameful. It underlines the nasty xenophobia that pervades UK attitudes to migration and asylum. A Senegalese football team is missing in France: the Mail reports that ‘It is possible that the missing footballers could have headed to England’. Though it has to admit that seeing as they’re, um, French-speaking, this is actually pretty unlikely.
                The Senegalese footballers are just a pretext for reiterating comments made by Teresa May the day before. May – along with her French counterpart – has insisted that she will do everything possible to keep African migrants out of the UK and France, especially those displaced by the ‘Arab Spring’ pro-democracy revolutions.
                This is staggering in its own right. Those fleeing violence, insecurity and persecution have a legal right and a moral claim to entry. Some of those displaced are refugees. To insist that political revolution should result only in preventing entry – which, as I’ve said before, are manufactured crises – rather than any offer of hospitality is a pretty damning indictment of our practice of our “liberal values”.
                Yet the extraordinarily narrow limits of our humanity are made even clear by May’s insistence that ‘we will not agree to so-called “burden sharing”.’ This so-called burden-sharing is one of the foundations of refugee protection. Yet Western states have been avoiding this responsibility for years. In 2009, there were 10.4 million refugees globally. 80 % – 8.3 million were hosted by developing countries. The UK? We take 0.02%.
                May’s policy is brutal. It is selfish. It is a reflection of the worst kind of populism. May’s apparent goal is ‘to ensure the border is impenetrable’. Yet this ignores the fact that illegal immigrants may be refugees too.
                I am beginning to seriously fear that one of the legacies of the Arab Spring may be the effective end of meaningful asylum space in Europe. This shift will have terrible consequences. A system of universal asylum was our penance for the horrors of World War II. Do we really want to slide back towards the paralysis of the 1930s?
                So I end up back at Hannah Arendt:
                Those whom the persecutor had singled out as scum of the earth — Jews, Trotskyites, etc. — actually were received as scum of the earth everywhere; those whom persecution had called undesirable became the indesirables of Europe…if the world was not yet convinced that the Jews were the scum of the earth, it soon would be when unidentifiable beggars, without nationality, without money, and without passports crossed their frontiers.
                History warns us. But somehow, I don’t think either May or the Mail are interested in learning these lessons.

                  The politics of strawberry-picking (or the Daily Mail, Part I)

                  Reading the Daily Mail is rarely good for my blood pressure. However, today there are two stories about refugees and migrants which underline the extent to which the Daily Mail’s view on refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants are propelled along by a general sense of moral outrage, rather than any logical argument.
                  First, we have a Race row after Labour MP Glenda Jackson suggests most immigrants are ‘fruit pickers’ and ‘potato diggers’. I’ve read this story three times now, and I still can’t work out exactly who the Mail is angry with and why. There’s a quote from Conservative MP Nadhim Zahawi, who insists ‘I was not born in Britain and I have never worked as a strawberry picker.’ But this unlikely idea that the Mail is championing the rights of migrants to aspire to a life beyond agricultural piece-work isn’t really followed through, as a different Conservative MP (and former strawberry farmer) – insists that there’s a mix of workers in the business: ‘some of them foreign, but many of them British.’ So the message seems to be that while some migrants are strawberry pickers, not all strawberry pickers are migrants.
                  Hardly a revelation, though it’s unusual to see Tory MPs rushing to migrants’ defence. But this, I suspect, is because that the real target of the Mail’s ire on this occasion seems to be the “undeserving” British poor, who have let migrants into the country by failing to pick enough strawberries or dig enough potatoes. The row began, after all, because the Works and Pensions minister, Chris Grayling, insisted that ‘migrants had snapped up UK jobs because millions of Britons were on benefits’. So migration is now a necessary evil (whether in the strawberry fields or not). And it’s poor people’s fault. What a relief: we’re back on solid Daily Mail territory after all.

                    Ménage à trois

                    Every refugee researcher has an opinion on UNHCR and its role in providing refugees’ protection.
                    For some, UNHCR is the devil incarnate, responsible for many refugees’ imprisonment in camps and part of the problem, rather than the solution. Others – especially lawyers – point to its legal mandate and its institutional power, and join its staff. The vast majority of us, I think, see UNHCR as struggling to preserve its principles against states’ incessant clamour for immediate actions to remove – rather than protect – refugees. An imperfect organisation, certainly, but one which – in pragmatic terms – we’re unlikely to improve upon in the near future.
                    I often find myself defending UNHCR against that first group – who suspect UNHCR of every complacency and complicity. In my view it’s states – the donors UNHCR is dependent upon – who are primarily responsible for the evident failures of asylum protection across the world. Borders and citizenship are fiercely protected markers of state sovereignty: UNHCR has little power.
                    But UNHCR can persuade and it can advocate, and over the past two years I’ve had contact with many perceptive and thoughtful staff. I’ve tended to believe that the dark days of the 1990s – when UNHCR collaborated in the forcible return of Burmese and Rwandans – have been succeeded by more nuanced, careful policies and a recognition of refugees’ own agency.
                    And then something like the Malaysia deal appears.
                    The terrible flaws in the plan to swap 800 Australian asylum-seekers for 4000 recognised refugees from Malaysia are evident. The risk of human rights abuse,the possibility that unaccompanied children might be shipped away, the fact that Malaysia is not a signatory to the Refugee Convention or the Convention Against Torture, that asylum-seekers would be at risk of caning — all these are such clear violations of the basic principles of refugee protection that it is no surprise that the UN Human Rights Commissioner has condemned the plan as ‘inhumane’, while UNICEF Australia is ‘dismayed and shocked’.
                    These plans are shocking – but hardly surprising. Australia has a poor record of manufacturing refugee crises in order to evade its international responsibilities and stretch refugee law to breaking point. It’s pretty telling that the Opposition’s response to these plans isn’t to demand that the rights of asylum-seekers be respected, but to suggest a return to the “Pacific Solution” involving indefinite detention in off-shore processing centres. A practice stopped in 2007 after almost universal outrage at the conditions detained refugees faced.  The Labour Left are right — ”The Australian debate about asylum policy has now degenerated to the point where the central argument seems to be about which inhumane policy will cause the least suffering”
                    UNHCR spoke out against the Pacific Solution. But its current silence — even its tacit support — for the Malaysia plans is deeply troubling. Although UNHCR’s spokespeople may talk of ‘adequate protection safeguards’, and leaked emails provide enough space to engineer a possible U-turn on protection grounds, let no one pretend that this deal is about refugee protection. It’s about Australian electoral politics. And disturbingly, UNHCR is being used for cover. Steve Georganas, a Left MP who holds the marginal seat of Hindmarsh in South Australia, has commented in the media that he is ”quite comfortable” with the plan ‘so long as the UNHCR [is] involved’. UNHCR is thus potentially being used to legitimise Australia’s evasion of its international obligations with serious consequences for hard-won asylum principles.
                    Sadly, we’ve been here before. In the 1990s, UNHCR convinced itself that working with Bangladesh to promote returns to Burma would help to open up new space within Myanmar for refugee protection and genuine protection gains. Nearly twenty years on, and we’re still waiting (as are many of the refugees). A second ambitious claim along these lines – that the deal will improve the appalling conditions faced by Malaysia’s “illegal immigrants” – begins to look like carelessness.
                    UNHCR doesn’t have much power when faced with state intransigence. But it should have principles. And in choosing to acquiesce to state realpolitik, it risks making those principles — and its own protection role — meaningless. States will always resist as much as is possible any obligation based on universal principle rather than national interest. UNHCR shouldn’t help them to do this — even if it can not always stop them.
                    UNHCR should publicly walk away from the Malaysia deal. Two-thirds of Australians oppose the deal. Given the Australian Government’s need to at least present this deal as “humanitarian” (cover provided provided by UNHCR’s approval), UNHCR’s withdrawal of support might be enough to cause the deal to collapse. That would protect refugees — and UNHCR’s reputation.

                      Manufacturing Migration “Crises”

                      How many refugees make a crisis? 20 million? That was the number displaced in Europe after World War II. 170,000? That’s the number of Rwandans who crossed the Tanzanian border in one twenty-four hour period in 1994. 80,000? That’s the number of Kosovans who were moved from Macedonia in 1999 as part of a Humanitarian Evacuation Programme.
                      Or maybe just 250 – the number of Tunisians on the trains from Italy that Sarkozy stopped at the French border on 17 April.
                      In recent weeks, several experts on Mediterranean migration flows have argued that the numbers crossing from North Africa since the beginning of the Arab Spring aren’t much higher than normal seasonal migration patters would lead observers to expect. Even if numbers have grown, what is very clear is that from a quarter of a million who have left Libya since revolution – and counter-revolution – erupted, less than ten percent have attempted to make their way to Europe.
                      And yet the language of crisis is everywhere. In Italy, Berlusconi promises to empty Lampedusa. Sarkozy stops the trains, because France ‘can’t cope‘ with the consequences of such an influx. The principle of free movement in the Schengen Area is called into question. Denmark unilaterally closes its borders to prevent ‘illegal immigration’.
                       
                      But look at the numbers. Now look at the numbers again. There is no migration spectre haunting Europe. This is a manufacture crisis, politicians’ smoke and mirrors. As one colleague remarked at a seminar yesterday, it is perfectly clear that Europe is busy manufacturing a migration “crisis”. What we need to understand now is why.
                      Manufacturing a crisis around Libya provides justification for a sharp move towards the containment and return of all migration flows across the Mediterranean. European integration over free movement is, after all, only being unravelled to the extent that it might require burden sharing: European collaboration continues apace with Operation Hermes, which aims to prevent migrants arriving at all.
                      This is all about domestic politics and the rise of the xenophobic far-right in Europe. No one seriously imagines Denmark’s border is closed to prevent a sudden influx of Libyans. Today’s news that visas may once again be required for citizens travelling from the Balkans to the EU — because of Belgian complaints that 544 Serbians have claimed asylum in 2011 – is another example of a migration “crisis” manufacture to legitimise policy shifts to appease the populist anti-migrant right.
                      There is no migration crisis. There is, however, shameful humanitarian neglect. If there really is an influx of North Africans clawing their way into Europe, it’s an influx propelled by the conflict in Libya. So those arriving may be in need of international protection – as Malta claimed in submitting an application for the EU to activate its burden-sharing Temporary Protection scheme. But at the same time, by labelling all those arriving as migrants, rather than refugees, Europe circumvents its humanitarian obligations.
                      Ultimately Europe seems to be engaging in a particularly nasty form of double-think. On the one hand, this is a crisis, because crises justify extreme policy-making. On the other, it has to be business as normal in Tunisia, because otherwise how could these “illegal migrants” be removed from European soil and satisfy the political goals of those who have manufactured this crisis? Meanwhile, the idea that these could be in part refugee flows from North Africa to Europe – as a result of a Libyan crisis exacerbated in part by NATO involvement – is rarely raised. If we call them illegal migrants, they become illegal migrants.
                      There’s no crisis here — except a humanitarian one of our own making. Our lifeboat isn’t full. The fact remains that there are ten million refugees worldwide and eighty percent of them are hosted in developing countries. Which makes you wonder just when Europe – supposedly the cradle of humanitarianism – became quite so determined not to host any of them at all. 

                        Back to Blog

                        I haven’t blogged for months. Why not? The usual excuses, certainly: too much “real” work, too little time. But more that that: it was a crisis of confidence. What exactly was my blog for?
                        This isn’t unconnected to the similar doubts I’ve been having about my research work more generally. Academia is an odd place. Everyone’s an expert. But that expertise is defined so narrowly, it’s easy to feel like you know nothing at all. It’s partly a question of ownership: at the moment, my new research project, studying refugees’ continued migration after their initial flight, is very much in the incubation phase, meaning I don’t yet have findings of my own. And then there’s the question of who’s actually interested in your arguments. Academic panels can often outnumber academic audiences. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the work’s not interesting, but did make me ask: what’s the point?
                        All this raised more questions relating to blogging. How does commentary fit in with research – and when is it justified? Who was I writing for – cautious scholars or the public? What makes my noise worth listening to, when compared to colleagues I know very little indeed about the Arab Spring, or migrants arriving at Lampedusa, even if I do know much more than any Daily Mail – or even Guardian – columnist? I also had a sense I was speaking into silence: academics are notoriously bad at communication, so academic blogs often tend to be extensions of internal monologues, rather than the opening lines in conversations. I only discovered three of my colleagues had blogs when I joined twitter.
                        So why have I come back? Maybe because I’ve returned to the idea that the point is not just to interpret the world, but to change it. I can’t be happy being a researcher outside the real world. At heart I’m an advocate, even if I’m also an accidental academic. Certainly, I think the most persuasive arguments will always be those that are supported by fact not assertion – but someone also needs to make those arguments. And it seems impossible to remain on the sidelines when so many important battles over migration and mobility are being fought right now. Changing minds about migration and mobility is going to take a long time, and it will need many blogs to be written by many self-doubting experts.
                        There. That’s my battle-cry. Though on the subject of getting academic-bloggers to pool their efforts, so that they can really start influencing public discourse, watch this space….