Call them irregular migrants, not refugees. Call them reception centres, not camps. And it’s true that a problem out of sight is a problem out of mind. But more money for camps – whether in Turkey and Lebanon or on the north shores of Africa – is not a problem solved. It is responsibility abdicated.
On Monday, Europe’s leaders failed – yet again – to agree on a formula to relocate 120,000 refugees from the borders of Greece, Italy and Hungary, prolonging a refugee crisis of their own making. Meanwhile, UK Prime Minister David Cameron toured refugee camps in Lebanon, explaining how £1 billion in development aid is the right way for Britain to show it cares about Syrians.
Such words may have been cloaked in humanitarian concern, but it was with a veil so transparently thin that even Cameron could hardly disguise that £1 billion was really a price worth paying to make sure refugees stay put, as ‘part of our comprehensive approach to tackle migration from the region’.
The UK is not alone. Canada – another country with a government apparently intent on dismantling any humanitarian legacy – has recently promised $75 million in lieu of any additional resettlement places. Too many states now appear to believe that more money is an effective substitute for asylum, and that solving their immediate crisis – refugees arriving at their border begging for sanctuary – is equivalent to solving the refugee crisis.
More money will make things better. It is clear that there is an urgent need for more humanitarian funding in the Syrian region – a multi-billion dollar shortfall has led to refugees’ monthly food budgets being halved. Beyond Syria and the newspaper headlines, other crises are suffering acute neglect, and still worse funding cuts. So let us not fool ourselves that we are generous with our cash, when it is past failures to respond adequately that let politicians ride to the rescue in a blaze of PR glory to fix humanitarian crises once more of their own making.
But in the end, money is a salve: it is not a cure. For containment is not an answer. It is never an answer. At best, it offers a temporary pause. At worst, it facilitates a dangerous political amnesia. For good, orderly, well-run camps let us reframe the refugee story in familiar and comforting terms: a distant tragedy, where poor victims are ministered to by white heroes. Yet even in the best camps, refugees’ lives are left in limbo – unless there are real solutions on offer.
We know this. We have known this for sixty years. In 1955, the first UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Gerrit van Heuven Goedhart accepted the Nobel Peace Prize. He chose to speak not of UNHCR’s humanitarian accomplishments, but the global community’s political failings. Ten years after World War II had ended, 100,000 refugees were still living in camps: ‘black-spots on the map of Europe [that] should burn holes in the consciences of those who are privileged to live in better conditions. Everything possible must be done to close them.’
Five years later, the camps had closed. States opened their borders to admit the last of the “hard core” – in so doing establishing the modern refugee resettlement programme over which today’s political leaders squabble.
Now, eyes wide open, we talk of building new camps. And as a logistical response to emergency, camps have their place. But it is a temporary place. Stretch a camp into a city, and unless you can also make refugees into citizens, you are simply administering human misery.
Caught up in the drama and the urgency of immediate crisis, we cannot afford to forget that many of Syria’s refugees will not go “home”. Even were peace to come tomorrow, Syria is in ruins. So pinning our hopes on return alone offers no solution. Return – when the time is right – must be accompanied with opportunities for safe and legal migration, both to fund reconstruction and to offer those families brave enough to return in the first days of peace a safety net.
It is an unwelcome, inconvenient truth. But it is a truth none the less. Sixty years on from Goedhart’s refugee camps, and refugee camps still don’t work.
So where now? Well, in the past two weeks I’ve found myself turning back to read about responses to refugee crises in other kinder and more optimistic ages. In 1955, Goedhart urged the international community to be creative — “[we] should not be afraid of a bold experiment. It is better to develop one new method through a number of failures than at all times to follow the beaten track.” And creativity worked. So we also need to think beyond tired calls for more aid, more resettlement. We need to bring in new actors – entrepreneurs, civil society, private citizens – to remake a better humanitarian protection.
And we need to start now. For Goedhart also offered his audience a warning: “if we wait too long, the uprooted are bound to become easy prey for political adventurers, from whom the world has suffered too much already.” These portentous words – echoing sixty years into the future – are still a call to replace moral cowardice with courage. Europe’s leaders should not be building refugee camps. They should be welcoming refugees. We must persuade them to do so.
An ex-colleague once admitted to me that he sometimes thought his job as a lecturer was to recommend books he hadn’t yet managed to read to students who were never going to read them either. And so the wheels of post-graduate education kept turning.
I see where he’s coming from. An ever-multiplying number of scholars and authors are writing about migration – not to mention politicians and journalists. I’m not sure that has necessarily led to there being more worth reading, but there is certainly more to read. And it can feel impossible to carve out the time to do so.
That was why I had grand plans for maternity leave: visions of myself catching up on papers I’d skimmed, deep in the middle of books rather than speed-reading introductions and conclusions.
Ha. Hormones and sleep-deprivation make you cry when you read investigative journalism about dead children and heartless politicians. Meanwhile, any paper containing the word ‘nexus’ is still a powerful cure for insomnia. And now any book I open is as likely to be chewed and spat upon as read.
Recently, I’ve also been asked by a few different friends for some recommendations about where to begin reading about migration. Immigration and asylum are clearly too important as topics to restrict readings to the classroom. So my own wonderful writing aside, where is the (next) best place to start cutting through the political spin?
The temptation – short on time – is to digest migration in soundbites, blogposts and policy reports. And there is certainly something to be said for staring asylum numbers in the face. If what you want are facts and figures, read UNHCR’s Global Trends; read the UK Parliament’s Asylum Inquiry Report. Here are enough hard facts and numbers to make you weep. But what about when weeping is not enough? Where do you find inspiration? In the past few months, I’ve found myself returning to the first books I read about refugees and migrants, the writings that first compelled me to work on refugee issues.
So what follows is a refugee Summer reading list. This is not my “Introduction to Refugee Studies” reading list: it’s not a comprehensive overview of policy or academic research. But it’s a list of five books I would happily read on the beach: five books that make you think. They’re not new: in fact, two could definitely be described as “vintage” classics. Others on the list are memoir and fiction. It’s a subjective and brief collection. But I think that in a world where politicians can still claim that ‘the lifeboat is full’ in the face of terrible human suffering, these books are all more relevant than ever.
And I promise you, I’ve read them all.
This was the book that captured my imagination and made me decide to start writing about refugees. Yes, as a history book it’s far from perfect – Arendt’s account of Europe’s turbulent twentieth-century history glosses over details and occasionally sacrifices accuracy in pursuit of big ideas – but the central truth at the heart of the book, the extent to which refugees are inevitable “collateral damage” in a world ruled by nationalisms – is a revelation.
On Jewish refugees in 1938: ‘the incredible plight of an ever-growing group of innocent people was like a practical demonstration of the totalitarian movements’ cynical claims that no such thing as inalienable human rights existed and the affirmations of the democracies to the contrary were mere prejudice, hypocrisy and cowardice’
One of the things that always strikes me when I talk to refugees is how their life stories blend the extraordinary with the mundane. Years waiting in camps, then – if they are lucky – new lives on the margins of the West’s working class. And yet before all that, incredible, terrible, epic histories of flight and survival. This is the story of one Sudanese refugee. Read it. Cry. And try to decide whether it’s a story about the worst excesses of human cruelty, or the resilience of the human spirit.
A refugees’ voice: “I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don’t want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.”
Yes, it’s an obscure choice. But this little pamphlet – outlining Europe’s twenty-year protracted refugee crisis in 1938 — speaks to politicians’ folly in believing they can “solve” refugee “problems” as readily now as it did then. Reading knowing that worse refugee crises were just around the corner, is immeasurably poignant.
On the dead-end politics of hoping they’ll all just “go home”: ‘repatriation belongs to the realm of political prophecy and aspiration and a programme of action cannot be based on uncontrollable speculation’
This is not a book about migration. It’s a novel about London (and capitalism). Except, of course, that means it is all about migration: because how can you write about London (or capitalism) without writing about immigrants? It does weight in at nearly 600 pages, but the story of the Zimbabwean traffic warden – enforcing no-parking zones while battling for the right to stay – is one of the most vivid accounts I’ve read of the Kafkaesque regulations that govern asylum, and the lives that slip slowly out of sight between bureaucratic cracks.
In a detention centre for failed asylum seekers: ‘The immigration centre was a prison, with the twist that when people were discharged from prison they went somewhere better, but when they were discharged from here they were sent back to the place they had risked everything to escape… everybody was obsessed with the food. One of the fifteen demands of the inmates on hunger strike was ‘for edible food we can eat’. This was no joke.
The voices of refugees are rarely heard. Usually, we talk about refugees: we do not listen to them. This book – an account of two years across many countries spent listening to refugees’ stories as they search for a place to call home – is a story of exile understood from the inside-out. In many places it is bleak: but it is also – implicitly – a call to action, a reminder that individuals can make a difference. I read it over a single weekend several years ago: the stories it tells have stayed with me since.
On the failure of the humanitarian system: ‘despairing, beyond endurance, he pulled from his pocket the blue refugee card he had fought so long and so hard to obtain, and tore it in shreds. ‘Now I am…’ he cried out, trying to explain an act so symbolic and so momentous in words that could never be strong enough ‘… I am ashamed to be a refugee’.
Next up for me: The Warmth of Other Suns – given to me by a friend and half-read before certain life events interrupted me… What would you add to my must-read list?
Sometimes you have to sacrifice your sacred cows. I believe in public goods; in collective action and in solidarity. I don’t think charity – dependency on the benevolence of others – is an adequate substitute for welfare that recognizes the rights of the citizen. I want to #savethenhs, and keep the market out of our universities. And when it comes to migration – well, migration is all about the state.
But what happens when the state fails to act, and in doing so condemns thousands of men, women and children to poverty, persecution, and death? Should that state have the right to stop others stepping in to fill the ethical void left by their realpolitik? Faced with the EU’s political paralysis over the Mediterranean migrant crisis, I find myself wondering whether private refugee resettlement might offer a possible answer.
This isn’t a radical idea: Canada already has a private refugee sponsorship programme. Since 1979, this initiative has helped to resettle over 200,000 cases in addition to those supported by the government. This programme permits individuals and groups to sponsor refugees from places like Syria, Afghanistan or Somalia, putting up the financial capital necessary to underwrite refugee resettlement. Many sponsorship agreement holders are religious organizations and charities – but groups of five private citizens can also come together to sponsor a refugee directly. Sponsors commit to supporting a newly resettled refugee for the first year of their stay, or until they are financially independent.
There’s much for a neo-liberal, small state, “strivers not skivers” politician to like in the idea. Under such a scheme the state does not relinquish the power to police its borders: the government still vets the applicants, assesses the credentials of potential sponsors, sets the rules. But private refugee resettlement transfers the financial risk involved from the public purse to the private sector. In this it echoes the “big society” rhetoric beloved of David Cameron, substituting philanthropy for state responsibility.
Of course, there are inherent dangers in promoting ideas that sit uneasily with a commitment to public action. After all, once states outsource humanitarian rescue, what next? And what starts as a complement to government efforts can quickly become a substitute – Canada’s current government, for instance, has made changes to its private sponsorship programme that have attracted ferocious criticism from many refugee sponsors.
think there are also minds that could be won by turning resettlement from a distant government programme into something more tangible and immediate. When resettlement is a private action, community groups and individual citizens make a commitment to engage directly with refugees, and an explicit promise to protect the state from any related costs. The evidence shows that refugees and asylum seekers in the abstract are feared; made into flesh and bone they are frequently offered a warmer welcome by the communities they live in. Private refugee sponsorship would allow refugee advocacy to move from words to action, from defensive reaction to proactive engagement.
All the stranger, then, that there has been so little discussion of the potential role private refugee sponsorship could play in building an adequate response to the Mediterranean crisis. Perhaps it’s because so many of those who fight for refugee rights are the same activists who are leading the protest against austerity cuts, and are inherently uneasy about how to approach private sector incolvement. Can you fight privatization and call for private involvement in refugee resettlement at the same time? Perhaps it’s because such programmes would inevitably be limited in numbers – so they can’t possibly hope to offer a solution to the millions of wretched souls waiting in exile. But the idea of that “total solution” is somewhere between a pipedream and an excuse. Refugee crises like Syria will only be solved piecemeal.
This is not my ideal. I would like to live in a world where the right to seek asylum is not in doubt. I would like to live in a world in which my government, faced with the human misery of millions who are prepared to drown in the Mediterranean in search of freedom, makes no mutterings about net migration figures, but simply offers up 10,000 resettlement places, and then 10,000 more.
But that is not the world I live in. The world I live in is narrow, mean-spirited and anxious when it comes to many things, including migration. Meanwhile, migrants drown and refugees flee for the lives. So we need new ideas, and we need them now. Sometimes these can come from unexpected places. Privatized refugee resettlement is not the ideal answer: but asking European governments the question would at least strip away the excuse that helping refugees is just too expensive in an age of austerity. So is it time to stop arguing that states should do more to help refugees, and instead start persuading them to simply open up refugee resettlement to the private sector? Surely that’s better than no humanitarian rescue at all?
Read more on why I think business has a role to play in solving refugee crises here
He is just six weeks old. The limits of his world extend to just a few feet beyond his crib. He still lives in a universe where objects you cannot see do not exist, where hands are not attached to your body, where purple elephants compete with blue monkeys for your attention. So what possibly meaning can borders or patriotism or politics have here? It would be meaningless right now to say my son is American or British. He’s a baby. Culture comes later.
But bureaucracy waits for no baby. So today we took his first set of passport photos, to file alongside his social security card and the birth certificate that mark his official identity. For in The System, my son is already a number. As I watch him squirming across a white canvas board, two Walgreens employees trying to persuade him to look at least vaguely in the direction of the camera, this collision of babies and paperwork seems especially absurd. Because how can a baby need a passport? Or a better question still: how can a baby have a passport, when 12 million other human beings have no state at all?
Modern living. I’m reminded of a line in Auden’s Refugee Blues – ‘if you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead’. But in fact, my son will not just have one passport. He’ll have three. Two – British and Canadian – are inherited. The third a happy – but accidental – consequence of his American birthplace. British. Canadian. American. An embarrassment of riches.
When we tell people that our baby is a triple-national, they are impressed. “Wow! He’ll be able to work anywhere.” (A British passport, note well, mostly mattering because it’s an EU one) “That’s so lucky!” And they’re right. It is luck. For these privileges, these entitlements certainly weren’t earned.
For despite being lost in the fog of new motherhood, having a baby illuminates some truths with surprising force. First: equality. Never has it been so obvious that “all men are created equal” as when I hold my baby in my arms. Because he is – right now – the same as every other baby: he is just a beginning. And like that, in a heartbeat, believing in some fundamental human equality moves from being something rational, something intellectual, to a tenet of faith.
But cutting through all that new-parent sentiment, a second obvious and contradictory truth: inequality. Because inequality is writ large in the world-class medical care we received at the delivery; in the presents and cards arriving in the post, wrapping him in organic cotton. In those three passports. Here is a new member of the 1%. I know that your citizenship alone accounts for over half of your lifetime income, the consequence of the arbitrary inequality of borders. So what does it mean when you have three citizenships – permanently opening the doors of some of the richest countries in the world to you, while migrants less fortunate at birth regularly die trying to climb their fences?
One thing’s for certain: such multiple passport holding makes a mockery of the idea that nationhood is anything other than political construction. That’s not to say culture doesn’t matter. Friends ask us how we’ll respond if – when he learns to talk – he says “mom”, and not “mummy”, if when he learns to run he plays soccer and not football. But in middle class San Francisco, no one is foolish enough to think that identity has got anything much to do with paper citizenships. Passports are just things you have to give you options. All the babies are collecting them nowadays.
We talk a lot about inequality nowadays. The widening chasm between rich and poor. The decline of social mobility, so the children of poor parents are more likely to remain poor than in previous decades. But we rarely talk about inequality and citizenship. However if citizenship is ‘the right to have rights’, this accumulation of multiple passports by the super-mobile must be balanced against the increasing determination of states to make it more difficult for poor migrants to move at all, let alone become members. Yet giving up any one of his passports wouldn’t mean it went to someone else with greater need. That’s not to mention the continuing plight of the Bedoun, the Rohingya, the Sahrawi and the other stateless populations, excluded altogether from the system of citizenship. Another inequality of our own making.
Still, he is just six weeks old. And like most new mothers, I think he’s perfect. But I also know that those three passports – and the freedoms they offer – are not deserved: they were not earned. Spin fortune’s wheel: in some other universe he could as easily be without a passport at all. It was luck. And of this much I am certain: no baby should have to depend on luck for their life chances.
In my professional life, I spend a lot of time thinking about “integration”, partly because discussions about integration are an inevitable partner of debates about immigration. And on the one hand, these conversations are easier part of the equation: after all, regardless what you think about immigration, everyone agrees on the desirability of integration.
But on the other hand, very few of us seem really sure what this “integration” we’re so desirous of means. Is it belonging? Co-existence? The capacity to translate between cultures? To successfully negotiate public spaces and use public services without assistance? Is it about neighbourhoods, or nationalism? Integration is very clearly something more than segregation. It is also very clearly less than assimilation. Integration, it would seem, is not about losing yourself as much as it is about understanding others. And – as the best academic framework for understanding integration I know of stresses – successful integration is always a two-way process, an exchange between natives and newcomers.
However, in the past year, integration has gone from being just a professional curiosity. It’s now also personal experience. Nearly a year after moving to San Francisco, I’ll catch my vocabulary changing and intonation shifting, the subtle signs of my own “integration” into a place 5000 miles away from “home”.
So what has integrating into San Francisco taught me so far? First, if integration in San Francisco can teach me anything, it’s that we should never measure integration gaps in miles. Culture is not geography. I’ve enjoyed the obvious advantages of a (mostly) shared language. But there are subtler ties too: power and wealth and education. San Francisco’s Mission is, in the end, not so far from Shoreditch. If you’re seeking a liberal middle-class lifestyle, in many ways Islington is far closer to Duboce Triangle than it is to Leytonstone. Sometimes I wonder how far I’ve really travelled
This is underlined in San Francisco both because it is a city of full of immigrants like me – young, educated, well-off – and because it is a city full of immigrants utterly unlike me, whose worlds are almost entirely separate from mine: elderly Chinese women, Mexican day labourers. Just like our immigrations, our integrations are distinct: and the measure by which they are judged “successful” has a lot to do with power and privilege.
Yet for all of us, this process of integration is a local one. It has very little to do with “America”, which in any case is more of an idea than a geographical place. San Francisco is, notoriously, an enigma to most of America. Most San Franciscans I’ve met take a particular pride in asserting that they live in the most un-American of all American cities. A year in, and my new familiarity with American bureaucracy and commerce – my bank account, drivers’ licence, health insurance – would undoubtedly make it far easier to stay awhile in Illinois or Idaho. But I don’t think for a second that it would add up to integration
There’s a strange contradiction in this, because it’s the national government that controls your right to stay and provides the documents and the papers that give you status. But this year has reinforced a sense that integration is ultimately about neighbourhoods, not nationalism. It’s about the street you live on, the conversations you have, the building of the fabric of an everyday shared life. Perhaps it shouldn’t surprise me that the least integrated British-American migrants I know are all working in Washington D.C.
So here’s a third and final thought. In the past year, I’ve come to believe that integration is not only a two-way process, it’s also one that works best when it celebrates not the patriotic but the absurd. For the first few months of living in a new country, you are a bemused voyeur. The strange habits of your new neighbours and colleague are to be laughed at, and to be scorned. But if you keep laughing, integration creeps up on you unexpectedly, until you realize one day you are no longer laughing at them: you’re laughing at yourself. Yes, life is still absurd here: but now it’s your life too.
And that’s why kale — and yoga mats — are such good metaphors for my own San Franciscan integration.
10 Signs you may be becoming “integrated” in San Francisco:
- You accept that kale is no longer something you eat with roast potatoes and gravy. It’s a salad ingredient. And it’s everywhere.
- You complain about the cold because you had to put a sweater on to go outside. In January.
(2b. You call it a sweater).
(2c. You also complain about San Francisco having terrible weather compared to the rest of California. When it’s sunny. In January.)
- You no longer think it is strange that even though the US economy is the largest in the world, you still have to write “checks”, and no one’s heard of chip-and-pin.
- You don’t just join in conversations with perfect strangers on the bus. You start them.
- You get annoyed when the waiter/sale assistant doesn’t want to chat.
- You do a double-take when you see a man in a suit. Because, well, why?
- You no longer do a double-take when you realize everyone at brunch is wearing yoga gear. Because you are wearing yoga gear too.
- You don’t criticize: you provide feedback. And when you do provide feedback, you are not afraid to tell someone that their idea is ‘not-so-great’.
- You realize that as well as over-using italics when you write, you now over-use them when you speak.
(9b. And your new favourite prefix? ‘Super’ As in… super-great, super-fun, super-awesome. Because just ‘great’ just isn’t good enough.)
- You give in and admit it: all that sunshine (and kale) has turned you into an optimist.
This first appeared at Open Democracy
In May 2014, the victory of UKIP (the UK Independence Party) in topping European Election polls was marred only by its evident failure to make inroads in London: its candidates there secured only a 10% share of the vote. UKIP attributed this failure to the fact Londoners were “more media-savvy (and) well-educated”, continuing to insist that this population “cannot really understand the heartache and the pain that many people around the country are feeling.”
The comments were essentially an appeal two ideas that have become increasingly central in our fraught British immigration debate: first, the notion that a wealthy and disconnected metropolitan elite are oblivious to the concerns of “the people”, and second a belief that when it comes to immigration, choosing to trust in facts and figures – rather than embracing emotion and spin – somehow represents a rejection of democratic principle itself.
The result – as witnessed over the past six months – has been a UK migration debate increasingly dominated by populist proposals to limit immigration. These policies’ targets are above all low-skilled and low-wage migrants. And despite Cameron, Miliband, Farage et al. fighting viciously over the details, there is in fact wide consensus that the real issue is how best to protect our poorest and most marginalised citizens from the competition that poor migrants represent. In these terms, our immigration “problem” is fundamentally an inequality problem. The solution that follows seems logical. If we want less inequality, we need less immigration.
It seems simple. But what if the assumptions underpinning this consensus are wrong? What if the drive to restrict migration isn’t reducing poverty here, but creating a migration system that is actually exacerbating local inequality?
Like many other migration researchers who spend their working lives – and stake their professional credibility – on refuting over-simplistic lines on migration, I’ve watched frustrated as this media storm gather around the immigration issue, replete with commentators full of sound and fury, but whose words often signify nothing. And I’ve repeatedly asked the question of how – in the run-up to next May’s General Election – we can have a real conversation about migration.
So when I was sent British Future’s new publication, How to Talk About Immigration, I began reading with interest. Could this report– the culmination of three years’ work – offer some insight into how to shift towards a more positive and progressive discussion about immigration in the UK?
How to Talk About Immigration underlines some important dynamics in the UK migration debate. It reminds us that “when they talk about immigration, the public is moderate, not mad”. It finds that the numbers of “rejectionists” are actually roughly equivalent to the numbers of “migration liberals”. And it points to a silent majority that the report labels the ‘anxious middle’ – the 50% of the British population who want neither closed nor open borders, but a ‘sensible conversation’ about the impacts of immigration in their communities. In other words, there is far greater cause to hope that public debate can find its way back to the ‘moderate middle’ than is to be found in Tabloid headlines and UKIP stump speeches.
British Future is also undoubtedly right to identify the public’s fundamental distrust of politicians as arguably the major impediment to beginning a new and more constructive public conversation about migration. While policy analysts and researchers may have been predicting the implosion of net migration targets since they were introduced in 2010, it’s important to acknowledge that many segments of the public don’t see the inevitable failure of a cheap gimmick, but a broken promise. And its final set of 10 recommendations is reasoned and realistic – even if it is hardly revolutionary to call for a more humane asylum system or greater investment in integration services.
Yet I finished How to Talk About Immigration with a mounting sense of disquiet. For while British Future’s conclusion that the public space exists to craft a more measured migration conversation is to be welcomed, their advice about how we should do this is disturbing. For How to Talk About Immigration dismisses the idea that “Migration Liberals” should deal in facts when talking to the public. It instead urges that we should “stop looking for the killer fact that will prove that the whole debate is a mistake” because “even if it did [exist], people may not believe it”.
In nearly a decade of migration research, I’ve yet to meet any pro-migration advocate who has been searching for a “killer fact”with which to end the immigration debate. Framing the migration debate in these terms – suggesting that what we need isn’t more evidence, but more emotion – is at best a clumsy attempt to remind us that migration is not just about technocratic fixes, but about values and principles. But at worst, it reinforces UKIP’s view that facts and figures matter far less than feelings when it comes to framing immigration.
There is also an odd disjuncture between How to Talk About Immigration’s recognition that “facts should be important in policy-making”, and its parallel recommendation that when it comes to public opinion, we need to “find out what kind of conversation people want to have” and stick to this script. Yet it is precisely this gap between the rhetoric of immigration and the reality of evidence-based policy making that has alienated the public in the past. A further omission is the report’s almost total silence regarding the role of the British media, whose reporting on immigration has been found to often distort and deliberately misinform.
Yet my real objection to British Future’s report is its apparent willingness to hold up the importance of public opinion as proof of its necessary veracity. Simply saying that the majority of people believe something does not make it right. Of course democratic accountability is important – but that needs to be accompanied by political responsibility. And public opinion does not exist in a vacuum: it is shaped by those with power. What How to Talk About Immigrationsignally fails to talk about is what powerful interests shaping our existing conversations about immigration, and how we might begin to change that conversation. If the public do not trust facts and figures when it comes to migration, the right response is not to simply avoid talking about them altogether.
Yet I do think How to Talk About Immigration is right to remind us that the immigration debate won’t be won by technocratic calculations of migrants’ contributions to GDP per capita. Too often, migration advocates have argued for minor policy adjustments while allowing the “Rejectionists” to play for hearts and minds. But there is a powerful case – both emotional and empirical – to be made for migration, a case that can be made in the language of freedom and rights, showing how migration is a means of securing progress and social justice.
My own new book, Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality, sets out to do just this. It’s clear that the fear and anxiety that many people feel when it comes to migration are real: but the evidence shows it is inequality, not immigration, which is the root cause of this unrest. In Huddled Masses, I explain why we’re wrong to assume immigration exacerbates inequality, and explore how it’s the policies we pursue in the name of protecting locals that are actually widening the gap between wealthy corporations and ordinary citizens. Carefully sifting through the data, I show how companies like G4S and Serco profit from a billion-dollar migration industry while locking their own workers into a low-wage, low-skill economy. How stringent minimum income requirements mean half of Britons no longer have the right to marry a foreigner and bring their spouse to live with them in the UK. How the UK Government – despite being a vocal opponent of EU freedom of movement – has repeatedly refused to assist the EU in efforts to crack down on the exploitation of cheap ‘posted’ migrant labour, citing the need to protect British ‘competitiveness’.
“Migration Liberals” do need to work out how to contribute more to the British migration debate. In the past twelve months, they have been very effectively portrayed as a disconnected, wealthy, metropolitan elite. But How to Talk About Immigration falls short not only because it largely suggests that “migration liberals” have only themselves to blame for this, ignoring the mathematics of electoral politics and the power of the press. A fundamental failure is the reluctance to question the assumptions that underpin our current immigration debate – that we only need high skilled workers, that immigration adds to inequality, that poor locals and poor migrants are on different sides of a zero-sum equation. The result is an “inclusive conversation” of sorts – but only within very narrow parameters.
The Huddled Masses makes clear that this isn’t enough. We need to start talking about immigration in the context of a wider conversation about the Britain we want to build, for immigration can’t be debated in a vacuum. If Britain is to be a socially just place, in which citizens have real equality of opportunity, a positive and progressive migration policy has to be part of that future. We have the empirical evidence that migration works; British Future’s report shows we also have the evidence that there is more room for public discussion than some of us might have feared. Now, to really start talking about immigration, we need only the courage of our convictions.
The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality is published as an Amazon Kindle Single in conjunction with Thistle Publishing and is available for download priced at £1.99.
How to Talk About Immigration is available for download.
All gifts come with strings attached: but some have more strings attached than others.
In 2008, Tanzania announced it was prepared to offer naturalisation 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.
Naturalisation – 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. 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. A nice new airport (see above). 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 naturalised 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 protracted refugee population arguably left in far greater limbo than they were before they were offered such a double-edged solution.
Today is International Migrants’ Day. To mark it, I could easily write you a thousand words on the injustices suffered by refugees and asylum-seekers; on the fears that have seen anti-immigration parties rise across Europe; on the everyday struggles of the often undocumented, and nearly always low-paid migrant men and women who clean our houses and our streets.
Yet it seems to me that too often on both sides of the migration debate, appeals to our emotions are crowding out the evidence. So instead, I want to talk numbers. Because if we’re going to have a migration debate that’s dominated by facts and not by fear, the numbers are a good place to start. Of course numbers offer no objective “truth” in and of themselves. If the last four years of sensationalist headlines about “net migration” can teach us anything, it’s that. But I think careful scrutiny of the numbers can tell us a surprising story about migration, and offer a check against the worst distortions of politicians’ weasel words.
So, without further ado: here are 10 numbers we should all remember on International Migrants’ Day.
1. 3%. In 2013, according to the World Bank, there were 232 million people living outside the country of their birth. This is a significant number: but it isn’t overwhelming. It means that just 3% of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants are international migrants. The real puzzle about the age of global mobility is arguably not why so many people are moving across borders, but why so many are not.
2. 740 million. Most of us, if we move at all, do so within the borders of our own country – from Manchester to London, or from New York to California. In fact, we are at least six times more likely to migrate across a country (from one region to another) than we are to move across a border. There are at least 740 million domestic migrants. Few today would suggest we should restrict these migrations – in fact, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly prohibits such restrictions. But however obvious this may seem to us, your right to move within the borders of your own is relatively recent. The US Supreme Court, for instance, only definitely confirmed US citizens’ ‘fundamental’ right to ‘move at will from place to place’ across state lines in 1920.
3. 5.6 million. Emigration is not a one-way flow: Western citizens leave their home countries too. Today, at least 5.6 million British citizens live permanently abroad. And while some of them may prefer to call themselves “expatriates”, 40% – an estimated 2.2 million UK citizens – are EU migrants by any other name. That balances neatly with the 2.3 millions other EU migrants who have come to the UK.
4. 31.8%. How many migrants live in the UK? If you ask the public, 31.8%. Problem is, that’s a gross overestimate. The UK’s 2011 census suggests that the proportion of foreign-born British residents is closer to 13%: this is the same as in the US (where respondents guessed 37.8%). Across the West, the public consistently overestimate the number of immigrants in their country by a factor of nearly three. Poll after poll shows that the average Briton or American clearly thinks that there are too many migrants. But the same polls show that they also believe there to be almost three times the number of immigrants than are actually here.
5. £18,600. Fallen in love with a foreign passport holder? If you want to live in Britain, you better have a well-paying job. In July 2012 the British government introduced new family migration rules, requiring anyone wanting to sponsor their non-EEA spouse’s visa for the UK to show that their annual income exceeds £18,600. This rises to £22,400 for a spouse and a child, with an additional £2,400 asked for every further child. Those affected aren’t paupers, just average families. In fact, it has been estimated 47% of the British public – and 60% of women – would fail to meet the minimum income required to sponsor a foreign relative into the country.
6. 86%. Ten years ago, developing countries hosted 70% of refugees. Today in 2014, they are home to 86% of the world’s refugees. The 49 least-developed countries – places like Chad, Malawi, and Yemen – provide asylum to 2.4 million exiles. By whatever measure you choose, the idea that the West is under siege from would-be refugees flies in the face of statistical evidence. In Pakistan, there are 552 refugees for every dollar per capita GDP; that number is 303 in Ethiopia, and 301 in Kenya. For the US, UK and Australia, the equivalent numbers are 5.4, 4.7 and 0.9.
7. 21p. In 2012, Serco, G4S and Tascor were awarded contracts to supply housing for asylum-seekers across six regions worth up to £1.1 billion in revenue. The main objective of the outsourcing was ‘to reduce the cost of asylum support’, saving the Home Office £140 million. In 2013, Serco Chief Executive claimed that it made just 21p per asylum seeker accommodated per day, but had chosen to enter the space because for Serco ‘accommodation management [is] an important development area’. Such low financial margins, however, come with human costs. Within months of these companies taking on the accommodation contracts, charities and local government associations began raising concerns about the poor quality of housing offered – providing evidence that tenants were suffering from pest infestations, a lack of heating and hot water, windows and doors that could not be locked, and a failure to provide basic amenities like cookers or sinks.
8. 10.5%. Until 2008, Swedish labour migration was among the most restrictive system in the developed world: trade unions ‘had, and used, an informal veto on recruitment’. Today, its labour migration system is one of the most liberal. Employers – having first advertised the job to the local EU market for 10 days – can effectively recruit any worker, for any job, from anywhere. The result? Swedish workers working for firms recruiting labour migrants earn on average 10.5% more than those working in firms that don’t. The recent rise of the far-right Swedish Democrats risks pulling apart this liberal – and successful – immigration model
9. 45%. That’s the drop in violent crime that the US has experienced since 1990. During the same period, the number of unauthorised migrants climbed from 3.5 to 11 million, and the percentage of the population who were foreign born rose from 8 to 13%. Correlation, of course, is not causation. But it is a good indication that more migration does not translate into more crime. And in fact, researchers from the US have similarly concluded that ‘broad reductions in violent crime during recent years are partially attributable to increases in immigration’. In the UK, immigrant “enclaves” – defined as neighbourhoods where at least 30% of the residents are immigrants – have lower levels of crime and victimisation than similar socio-economic areas without a large immigrant presence.
10. 1 000 000 years. We can all agree that the exploitation of migrant labour by unscrupulous employers should stop. But low-wage immigration is in part a reflection of broader societal inequalities and the consistent failure to adequately police exploitation. In one recent report on low-skilled immigration, for example, the Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee pointed out that ‘a firm can expect a visit from HMRC inspectors once in every 250 years and expect to be prosecuted once in a million years. Such enforcement effort hardly provides an incentive to abide by the national minimum wages’.
Think the numbers suggest its time to rethink immigration politics? Want more facts? Then download my new book – The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality. In numbers: just £1.99 for 100 pages. In words: why if we really want progressive politics, we need to think differently about migration.
Pantomime season began early this week, set to the beat of a calypso drum. And part of the soap-opera drama of UK immigration politics – all dodgy peerages and unpaid bills this week – surely stems from the ease with which the “truth” is bent to our own convenience. So Migration Watch has ‘improved public understanding’ of immigration; Sir Andrew Green has ‘no political axes to grind’. In this world-turned-upside down, this is Democracy in Action: not the loss of a measured, meaningful debate on migration in favour of prejudice.
Because after all, who wouldn’t hold these truths to be self-evident: that immigration must be controlled, that Eastern Europeans have overwhelmed the UK, that low-skilled migrants steal British jobs. That we’re not against immigration: just the wrong sort of immigration. We don’t want the huddled masses: give us your brain surgeons and entrepreneurs.That, at least is how it’s presented by people like Anna Firth, who wanted to stand as the Conservative candidate in the upcoming Rochester by-election. Endorsing UKIP’s plans for a point-based system, Firth’s argument that ‘if you come to this country with skills we really need – say you’re a brain surgeon or something in Australia as opposed to someone who has no skills, a fruit picker in Romania – then we say yes… but otherwise we need to say we can’t support you’ speaks to the idea of “common sense” migration.
Few would find this unreasonable. High-skilled migration good: low-skilled migration bad. It’s not just an argument made by the right: there are shades of the same thinking in the writings of the left – such as John Harris’ opinion that the ‘shrill voices’ of the migrant-supporting metropolitan elite need to acknowledge the negative consequences of low-wage migration, and have a ‘real debate’ about freedom of movement. And – despite all the easy targets for outrage this week – it’s been this quiet, under-the-radar story, this idea that what we really need to do is “fix” low-skilled work by “fixing” (i.e. removing) low-skilled migrants, which has made me most angry.
Because here’s the problem. Sometimes you don’t want to admit what’s good for you. And there’s actually plenty of evidence to suggest that when it comes to migration, there’s an inconvenient truth. We need Romanian fruit-pickers.
British farmers rely on foreign labour. As the Government’s Migration Advisory Committee detailed in 2013, this isn’t to do with wages. Very, very few locals are willing to do the work. Picking crops is hard, physical labour: we are increasingly too fat and too unfit to work in the fields. We’re also over-qualified: who’d choose to break their back picking strawberries if they can sit in an office chair instead? The work is predominantly in isolated, rural locations and – thanks to the demands of 24-hour supermarkets – shifts can run all night to keep up with demand, so on-site accommodation is part of the job. Oh, and turns out agricultural work really is seasonal (who would have guessed) – so labour market needs fluctuate, and what you need really is a temporary, mobile work force. So far from being a drain on society, Romanian fruit-pickers are a crucial part of our British food chain: even more so since the sixty-year old Seasonal Agricultural Workers’ Scheme was closed in 2013.
This is not just a “British Problem”: it’s a Western one. Every developed economy relies upon poor, low-skilled migrant workers to bring in the harvest: Mexicans in California’s Central Valley; Jamaicans in the Canadian wheat fields; Pacific Islanders from Australia. Even recession-hit Catalonia hires Colombians, not Spaniards.
And be wary too of buying into any spinning of “lazy British welfare scroungers” versus “noble peasants”. As the MAC report details It’s fairly clear that most of the migrants who work in agriculture do so either because they lack other skills, or (more often) because they lack opportunities to work legally in other parts of the economy. Once Polish and other A8 migrants were allowed access to the whole of the UK labour market in 2004, they pretty soon stopped digging potatoes and found jobs that were not necessarily better paid (the average seasonal fruit-picker will make over £300/week), but offered more sociable hours, greater opportunities for integration and less dirt.
So the real worry isn’t that there are too many Romanian fruit-pickers flooding the UK: it’s that there soon won’t be enough. The result? Most likely, ever greater reliance on technology and upon gangmasters to supply workers, with all the attendant risks of migrant exploitation and a race to the bottom.
This underlines that it’s a knee-jerk reaction to assume that all low-skilled migration is bad migration: that letting the poor move always equates to a Migration Crisis. The truth is, when it comes to agriculture we should see the global development opportunity instead. One thing the developing world has lots of? Agricultural workers. The opportunities for mutual gain – for farmers to find workers, for migrant workers to send remittances home and even to learn new skills – are tangible. Australia, New Zealand and Spain already frame their agricultural workers’ schemes in precisely these global development terms.
Such programmes need to be well-run; to work with trade unions to ensure migrants are paid decent wages for decent work. And still there is something faintly Victorian about the spectre of tied labourers shipped onto farms in the English countryside: it’s hardly the heady stuff of free movement. But given our current fear of migration, this at least is an opening to rewrite low-skilled migration as something more than a scourge.
I think that too often the middle-class distaste that’s expressed for low-skilled migrants is really just general distaste for everyone poor: a poisonous reminder of how much Britain is still hung up on class distinction after a century of “meritocracy”. John Harris is wrong: it’s not low wage migration that’s the problem: it’s low wage work.
And in fact, migration can and should be a part of fighting against that stratified economic world. The relationship between immigration and inequality is more complicated than easy lines that talk about “low-skilled” and “high-skilled” as catch-all, easily-defined categories suggest. When borders become something that only the rich can cross, armed with degrees and corporate job offers, we all lose. Migration should offer a chance for not just spatial but social mobility: the old cliché of the beginning of a better life.
The real lesson? Migration policy deserves to be debated in something more than grand terms and vague patriotic statements. We need to talk in statistics and specifics: to avoid lazy assumptions about who’s a “good” and whose a “bad” migrant. Some kinds of low-skilled migration can further social justice and our own self-interest – while some kinds of highly-skilled migration do neither.
What makes me most angry is that this kind of reasonable, measured, progressive conversation is being lost in the noise of a calypso circus. And sure, it’s an impressive conjouring political trick. But when the show is over, there will one day be a hell of a mess to clean up. And it won’t just be the migrants who have lost out in the meantime.
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.