The Henley Visa Restriction Index ranks countries across the world according to their citizens’ ability to cross border and enter freely into other states’ territories. Ever since a graph in the Economist based on its 2010 findings caught my eye a couple of months ago, I keep returning to the list. Its rankings confirm that money certainly can by you freedom: the top ten (whose citizens face the fewest visa restrictions) reads like a who’s who of Western Europe, North America and Australasia. The bottom of the list reads like a roll-call of human misery: Somalia, Sudan , Iraq, Afghanistan.
This massive inequality in humanity’s freedom to move is depressingly predictable. Weak, conflict-ridden and impoverished states and their citizens have few international friends. But thinking more deeply about the numbers involved, I think they hint at a few other truths that migration and asylum policy-makers would do well to remember.
First, asylum-seekers who use smuggling routes to enter states of refuge are often greeted with suspicion – irregular entry being taken as near-proof of “bogus” illegal intentions. But take a look at those figures for Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Iraq – these citizens can not move easily and legally across borders in search of sanctuary. It’s no coincidence either that these are the countries with the highest number of restrictions: plenty of research shows that states deliberately impose visa restrictions in order to make it harder for refugees – those fleeing persecution and in need of international protection – to arrive and claim asylum.
By making it more difficult for the citizens of conflict states to leave, countries who impose visa restrictions don’t break their obligation under international law not to “refoul”, or turn back, those asylum-seekers whose lives and freedoms may be threatened in their country of origin. But it’s a cynical adherence to the letter and not the spirit of the law, because it denies their right to seek asylum in the first place.
Second, citizens’ freedom of movement – human mobility – is clearly a measure of development. We’ve long recognized that internal freedom of movement is a fundamental human right, but international mobility clearly correlates with wealth and democratic government. The trouble is, these “liberal” democratic governments’ doublethink means that even as we become ever more connected to the “haves”, we’re intent on shutting out the “have nots”. But if we’re serious about development, expanding human mobility has to be part of the answer.
And a final, speculative thought. The UK actually tops the list for 2010. Every British citizen can visit 166 states visa-free. This means that few of us have any personal experience of the bureaucratic application processes, anxious waiting and frequent humiliations that are involved in asking for the visa that might allow us to visit relatives, attend a conference – or just experience the joys of travel. Let alone any real comprehension of what it means to not be able to move freely. And I suspect that this lack of awareness – this lack of thought – feeds into our lack of empathy for those citizens in other corners of the world who have to endure such expensive, time-consuming and arbitrary processes. We just don’t realise how lucky we are.
Today I read the Institute for Public Policy Research’s Migration Review for 2010/2011. In general, IPPR’s migration reports are carefully researched, well-balanced analyses of UK migration trends, providing a welcome antidote to the dubious statistics and rhetorical manipulation that Migration Watch engages in (we’ll come back to Migration Watch later).
The IPPR briefing concentrates on presenting the migration numbers. These paint a clear picture: less UK emigration, lower but constant levels of Eastern European immigration, more foreign students and less foreign workers. This adds up to a net migration flow into the UK of around 200,000 a year.
These are the numbers that have promoted the Conservative-led coalition to promise to drastically reduce migration levels by capping skilled non-EEA migration at 21,700 from April 2011. What the IPPR report underlines is that these policies are utterly misguided.
Highly skilled migrants fill skills shortages. They pay taxes, they’re highly educated, they’re net contributors to the economy – and they take up jobs British and EU citizens can’t (not won’t) do. The UK has failed to produce sufficient numbers of financially literate, technologically innovative, scientifically creative workers. We should be debating the failures of our education: we should also be grateful that international migration allows us to plug a gap of our own making.
And if you’re playing the numbers game, this category is tiny anyway. It’s EU numbers – which are most likely to increase, particularly given the relative state of the UK and Irish, Spanish, Portuguese and Greek economies – that drive this “migration flood”. As hard-line politicians remind us, EU Freedom of Movement is beyond UK control.
So far, so perceptive. But what I find disturbing about the IPPR report is its discussions of the politics of migration. In focusing on public reaction to government policy, and stressing the real risk that the public will become disillusioned with the government’s promises to reduce net migration levels if numbers don’t fall. ’ IPPR seems to be implicitly critiquing the means employed but accepting then aims of UK migration policy: that ‘bringing down the level of immigration… is a legitimate policy goal.’
It’s this that makes me angry – another example of the apparently universal consensus that UK migration levels are “too high”. A consensus which is largely driven by politicians’ rush to prove their anti-migration credentials to voters fed a diet of populist press reports and angry at their own economic and social disempowerment (a legacy of British elitism rather than migration).
I’ve yet to see a single report which makes a credible link between the numbers that map these complex migration flows and the blanket – and largely meaningless statement that migration is “too high”. This leads to a double irony, and a double denial of choice. Politicians have closed down the debate on migration. Everyone agrees migration is “too high” – leaving us only to discuss of how you reduce it.
One false “choice”. But despite this consensus, it’s equally clear that politics can’t turn back the tide. Migration is here to stay. And offering a frightened and under-prepared population meaningless platitudes, rather than accepting the reality of global interconnection and working to ensure UK citizens can join this economy is a second false “choice”.
Politicians are fond of calling for a “real debate” on migration, and in this they should be heard. But a “real debate” doesn’t begin after accepting that migration is “too high”. If we want to expand freedom for everyone, we need first to break this migration consensus.
An article in The Guardian catches my attention: `43 African migrants drown in heavy seas off Yemen coast’. Somalis and Ethiopians looking for a way out of persecution and poverty. So familiar an event it’s hardly a news story – the Gulf of Aden is a notoriously dangerous crossing. Despite massive public information campaigns in recent years, 309 refugees and migrants died in 2009 while journeying from Somalia to Yemen. But yet they keep coming. At least 77 000 migrants arrived by sea from Somali in the same year, a fact not unconnected to the increasing impenetrability of the Mediterranean borders of “Fortress Europe”.
These 43 deaths will be swiftly forgotten: unlikely to merit even a footnote in migration policy. Yet the manner of their reporting strikes me, because it underlines the extent to which we can conveniently label their deaths – and our responsibilities – away. The dead were “migrants” looking for `a gateway to wealthier parts of the Middle East and the west.’ The implication seems to be that their journey was a choice, an economic calculation – and their deaths a sad consequence but the result of their own, voluntary movement.
But at least some of those dead weren’t “just” migrants, but refugees, like the three Somali survivors rescued from the wreckage. And even if the majority of those who drowned were Ethiopian migrants moving in hope of a better life, why our obsession with drawing this moral distinction between all “refugees” and all “migrants” ? If you flee extreme poverty in search of a means of survival, is this less worthy of protection than those seeking sanctuary from persecution? Is it really more of a choice? Is Yemen really a promised land of opportunity?
Many might ask what the drowning of 43 Somalis and Ethiopians off the Yemeni coast has to do with the UK’s refugee and migration policies. And sure, there’s not direct line of responsibility. But I think this language of this small, almost unnoticed article – above all the absence of that word “refugee” – reflects a wider cultural willingness to insist that human movement is a choice. If we can believe migration is a choice, we don’t need to examine the morality of our own restrictions on migration – or our deportation of `illegal migrants’ from Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and other desperate places.
These migrations aren’t a “choice”. Given the reality of huge global inequality, migrants won’t stop trying to come to our developed, rich economies. Legislation can only push these migrants into irregular, risky, clandestine routes beyond the reach of states – and without safety. If we really want to “manage migration” we need above all to admit that migration is inevitable, but irregular and unsafe movement that ends with children screaming is not.
There was a second boat in the Gulf of Aden. The words of the coastguard on the search for its passengers catch something of their invisibility, their relative powerlessness and the world’s lack of interest in their story. “It’s not known in which direction the wind took them, and their fate is unknown”.