‘I don’t like it when someone talks bad about my country, but I try to remain calm because I know, I’m just coming here because of my studies, I’m not coming here to be a citizen. So when people ask me: I just tell them, I’m here from my studies, and I’m not studying for free to be frank! I’m investing money – my fees which I’m paying, my rent, my food – am I not paying for it?… I will go, I’m not here to stay permanently.’
A Sudanese student in Uganda. But hearing the news that the UK government has chosen torevoke London Metropolitan University’s “highly trusted sponsor”status, I couldn’t help but think back to the Sudanese students I interviewed this Summer in a dusty Kampala cafe. Those words could have easily as been spoken by a Nigerian or an Indian student at London Met, now facing arbitrary deportation at the whim of a government chasing magic figures. The UK government would do well to listen to them.
Much has been said about the lunacy of this migration numbers game. This excellent blogpoints out how the ‘serious’ infractions of immigration rules at LMU may well in many cases have amounted to missing paperwork and over-generous admissions policies. Back in January I wrote about how I, like many academics – and university administrators – were effectively being forcibly co-opted into policing these new hard-line immigration policies. Somewhere between absent-minded professors and deliberate protest at being asked to distinguish between students on the basis of nationality, there are now a lot of half-filled in attendance records. But over-worked academics do not an immigration scam make. No wonder that amid the furious outrage that’s characterised colleagues emails in the past forty-eight hours, there are also fearful whispers: who’s next on the list?
How ironic that Government so ideologically in thrall to the market – so determined to remake higher education in privatised, free-market terms by cutting subsidies and raising the ceiling on prices – is now intervening to prevent customers accessing services offered (and in many cases paid for). Don’t mistake me: there are many things wrong with this model. There are many students sold over-priced and underwhelming degrees, all the while treated with disdain. But that’s a question of educational values: it’s not a matter for UKBA.
Only the ugly, unthinking politics of popular anti-migration can explain this decision. For a government that believes in market provision of goods and services and claims its priority is returning the UK to growth, there’s no economic logic to barring foreign students from LMU and making it increasingly difficult to obtain study visas. LMU will lose £30m in fees. London as a whole may lost £75m. International students are UK investors. They pay rent, they buy food, they take trains and buses. Even Migration Watch would find it hard to deny that – for the three or four years these students spend here – they are net contributors. The rhyme and the reason of student deportation isn’t economic: it’s the nastiest sort of illogical nationalism.
Worst of all, here’s a case where throwing out the international students may well do untold damage to British interests. Stripped of a third of its income, the general consensus among academics yesterday was that LMU may way struggle to stay afloat. And if the University is forced into drastic scale-back or closure, those who will arguably lose most are not the international students, mobile enough to move their financial capital elsewhere and to continue studying, but the immobile. The single parents, the mature students, those from “non-traditional” often socially-deprived backgrounds who can’t afford to leave East London to study elsewhere. London Metropolitan has played a key role in opening up access to higher education for these people.
So in this case it’s more obvious that usual. This anti-migration mindset – this conviction that once net migration hits 99,000 our socio-economic anxieties will disappear – is likely to have a severely detrimental impact on the lives of thousands of ordinary working-class Britons who are trying to engage in exactly the sort of progressive behaviour this government claims to applaud. In the long run, cheap nationalist votes may come at a very high national cost.
In the past week, the Australian government has announced new plans to resume “offshore processing” of asylum-seekers who arrive by sea. This blog is a response to this article written by Amanda Vanstone, who was once Australian Minister for Immigration under the Howard Government.
Now for the disclaimer: I’m not Australian. I’m not even particularly knowledgable about Australian politics, so the details may well have escaped me. But, having been sent Vanstone’s piece by a friend, I’m disturbed enough to want to write something now.
This is because the arguments being made go well beyond Australia. It seems to me that the claims underpinning Vanstone’s writings reflect a broader truth about how many Western politicians – and a lot of the Western public – understand asylum. Here in Europe, Australia’s immigration policies are often viewed as a touchstone – or arguably an ominous foretelling – of what pragmatic refugee protection should look like in “over-burdened” Western democracies. Might look like soon. The arguments Vanstone makes are dangerous: their claims are found on fallacy not fact. What follows may be ostensibly about the Australian debates now: but the arguments are really about global — or at least Western — attitudes to refugee protection.
Essentially, Vanstone makes three claims. First, that those that oppose the Houston Plan outright are crippled by a ‘ smug sense of sanctimony ’ that means they fail to recognise their must be some limit to the number of asylum seekers Australia can ‘afford’ to support. Second, that all refugees must be given a fair opportunity to reach Australia: the boat-people are queue jumpers, buying their way to freedom at the expense of those in camps. Third, that – because ‘hope is the last thing to die’– boat arrivals should also be denied any opportunity for permanent residency or family reunification. This formula would mean ‘the flood will become a trickle almost overnight’.
So then: limits. Is there a finite limit to the number of people any given place, any community, can support? Sure. Malthus worked that one out a while back. But Australia, I don’t think you’re there quite yet. So that ‘limit to what we can afford’ is a political one, another contrived migration figure (net UK migration down to tens of thousands anyone?) It’s fairly clear that Australia, in purely economic terms, could absolutely ‘afford’ to take in quite a few more refugees (presumably why the sugar coating to this policy was an announcement that Australia will increase its humanitarian intake to 20,000).
Add to this a language which assumes that all refugees bring are costs not benefits and buys into the lump-of-labour myth, and Vanstone’s insistence that a numerical limit somehow justifies offshore processing begins to look shaky. Yes, it would be disingenuous to claim that Australia could – or should – support all 26 million displaced people in the world today. But it is equally dishonest to suggest that – when no more than 8000 asylum seekers arrived by boat into acountry of 22 million last year – this the number game is dictated by anything other than politics. Australia is in this to burden-shift, not burden-share. All migration policies, after all, are ultimately a form of protectionism.
Vanstone then sets up a false choice: it’s either that free-spending, smuggler-befriending asylum-seeker on the High Seas or the poor, honest refugee waiting in the camps. Really? I’m not sure where to begin. Good refugee, bad refugee: this type of crude dichotomy says more about the paternalism of refugee protection and humanitarian “angels” than it bears any resemblance to the realities of refugee life. Treating refugees as passive objects, making vulnerability the key qualification for a resettlement place: it just makes vulnerability valuable. Last month I interviewed many refugees waiting for resettlement who insisted that their most valuable possession was their story of rape or torture, because that might be the ticket to leave to the West. Follow this logic, and the only “good” refugee is a dependent refugee.
But don’t fool yourself that refugee resettlement exists outside of the market economy. As long as it’s a rare commodity (and remember only 1 in 10 of every refugee who is identified as needing – that’s needing, not wanting – resettlement actually gets a place), it will be bought, and sold, and middlemen will make profits from queue-jumpers. Policy-makers (as well as many NGOs) need to acknowledge that – much like our own societies – there is often huge inequality within refugee communities. But to fix that, we would need to take a much closer look at capitalism than most Western governments would like to. In the meantime – as Vanstone herself comes close to admitting as she circles around her own argument – it’s wrong to pretend that that this latest policy intervention will do anything more than change market dynamics.
This is why she comes to the conclusion that the only way to really stop those capitalist boat-people is to deny them permanent residence and deny their families permission to join them. Which is basically an argument for second class refugee status, based on your mode of arrival. Because all asylum-seekers must prove their claim to be granted the right to remain. And after that – well, surely the focus should be on integration? On making Australian citizens from these refugees? Not only because it is both inhumane and in contravention of international law to deny someone a family life and security of residence, but precisely because hope isthe last thing to die. For many of the refugees I speak to, family separation is already a reality. Desperate people make desperate choices. If you deny family reunification and you offer only temporary visas, you may have fewer refugee families. But instead you’ll have young male overstayers living on the edge of your economy. Just what all migration policies aim to achieve.
So let’s not pretend this is about humanitarian charity. Let’s not pretend its about Australia collapsing under the weight of its refugee burden. This isn’t about protection: it’s about protectionism.
Summertime in London. Sun. Smiles. And so – what the hell, everyone else is doing it – I’m going to jump on the Olympic bandwagon.
Because, in an unexpected turn of events, immigration – multiculturalism – is suddenly fashionable. This isn’t just Danny Boyle’s homage toWindrush on the opening night – although immigration rightly permeated his British history. No, even those stalwart Defenders of the British Faith, The Sun and The Express are on this bandwagon. Forget Plastic Brits: the last few days have been a remarkably mainstream celebration of a ‘really fantastic advert for multicultural, multi-ethnic Britain.’ Suddenly, we’re all pro-immigration now (well, except the Daily Mail.). This is ‘Marvellous Britain’, where Somali refugees win Gold Medals and then fall to the ground ‘to embrace the land that gave him succour when he needed help as a little boy.’
Except, of course, that this is the same Britain that continues to tighten its immigration laws, turning away students and skilled migrants. And, perhaps that’s why, among many of those who earn a living campaigning for refugees’ protection or migrants’ rights, these sudden conversions seem a little suspect. Sure, it’s a feel-good story, multi-ethnic Britain painted glittering gold, but what happens next week? So in fact, many of the most passionate and committed defenders of migrants and refugees have been reluctant to join in with all the migration-focused merriment, preferring to focus on the shortfalls and prophesising a swift return to immigration-bashing-business-as-usual once the Olympic holiday ends next week.
But this creates a dilemma, familiar to any advocate who discovers their cause has suddenly (and probably only temporarily) gone mainstream. It was a dilemma I faced last week when I was asked at short notice to contribute to an ITV documentary on the contribution of the Ugandan Asians in the forty years since their arrival here which was looking for an upbeat ending. I found myself in the unfamiliar situation of sounding the cautionary note against a relentlessly positive message. But do you continue to point out the wrongs still being suffered, or do you encourage your new allies’ change of heart?
Of course, the critics have a point. There’s a self-satisfied smugness in these column inches that demonstrates impressive doublethink on migration. Most seriously, Marvellous Britain’s governments sure haven’t been keen on letting in many more Somalis recently. Jessica Ennis’ dad arrived before the UK moved to close off Commonwealth migration. There are destitute asylum seekers who sleep in the streets and we resettle a grand total of 700 refugees a year, while Pakistan hosts over 700 refugees for every dollar per capita GDP. Let’s not fool ourselves that we are a generous nation now, or that we welcome migrants. Especially in the last two years, the UK’s done pretty much everything it can to make it crystal clear that very few are welcome here. And while Rupert Murdoch – like many on the business right – is actually more liberal about immigration than youmight imagine – I’m sure it won’t be long before The Sun is complaining about the migrants receiving unfairly favourable treatment, or accusing them of eating Swans etc.
But here’s the rub. Cynics may keep the moral high ground, but they win few friends. And over the past two years, I’ve been increasingly convinced that the key to securing refugees’ protection and migrants’ freedom lies in engaging with public opinion. Persuading people that migration can be an opportunity, not just for the migrants, but for the whole community. That it’s not migration, but entrenched inequalities, we should be angry about. As long as public opinion remains convinced that migration is a problem, all the well-reasoned, carefully-researched, economically sound arguments in the world won’t win the policy debate.
So I’ll take The Sun’s editorialwith a pinch of salt, but I’m also going to tell people about it, because it’s The Sunsaying something positive about immigration. I’ll drink to that. Not because that’s the battle won, but because it isa door opening. A public space to discuss immigration, and the contribution it’s made to the UK, in positive terms. The absence of which has been hugely damaging in the past few years. Now the job is to use that space to engage the public and to explain why that multi-cultural, multi-ethnic place is under threat from narrow-minded politicians hellbent on chasing made-up and meaningless net migration targets. And to try and ensure that space doesn’t close down once the Olympic circus moves on.
I’d have laughed a month ago if you’d told me I’d be writing about Olympic legacy. But in fact, migration should always have been at the heart of an East End games. And the London I know, the London I love, is that multicultural, multiethnic mix that is overdue a celebration. And that ITV documentary? Remarkably thoughtful and uplifting (not that’s not just cos I’m in it, honest!).
Yes, we must challenge the smug, complacent narrative that says “game over” on the back of a few individual achievements that fit with the news cycle, and glosses over continuing prejudice and exclusion. But just occasionally, I think it is worth pausing to recognise just how far we’ve come, and to realise just what we’ll come to lose if the intolerant push to restrict migration further and further continues. One brash, black-and-white Sun editorial doesn’t change anything. But it does give us a public place to start.
What does it take to make a real citizen? For most of us, nothing at all. Our citizenship is arbitrarily assigned at birth by virtue of place or parentage. But immigrants have to earn their citizenship through naturalisation: there’s a competency test, an entrance exam.
Reading about the furore over May’s planned overhaul of the citizenship test brought back memories of my own citizenship ceremony. Born in Britain, I am also a Canadian. I was too young to take the test, but sometime back in 1993 I was asked to swear allegiance to the Queen (I remember thinking that this particular requirement hardly felt like much of a way to mark my“new” Canadian identity) and sing O Canada. I have a Canadian citizenship card I keep by my desk, a permanent reminder that my gap-toothed eleven-year old self spoke with a Canadian accent.
My parents were the classic middle-class transnationals who saw citizenship in largely pragmatic terms as a way of expanding our choices (which actually meant that in 1994 we returned to the UK). But what I also remember from that citizenship ceremony were the many other families for whom it was far a more significant marker of inclusion: Russians who’d left before the Iron curtain collapsed, Sri Lankans who had left behind civil war and poverty. So actually, I quite like the idea of holding ceremonies to welcome new citizens, as long as we can recognise all that pomp and circumstance says very little about the content of everyday citizenship. The real problem lies with how you determine who has the right to belong.
May’s proposed changes will see human rights and advice on employment law and welfare replaced with questions on the Great Historical Narrative of British Progress. This historical focus raises many questions in itself – not least about how those arriving from ex-British colonies (including Scotland and Ireland?) will now be expected to remember Empire. Citizenship isn’t a history book, a set of regurgitated learnt-by-rote facts (and history is nothing if not subjective selection of those “facts”). Plus there’s the issue of how useful a working knowledge of the Battle of Waterloo or Holst’s Planets will prove when trying to fill out a tax return.
But what these tests actually remind us above all is that these barriers faced by the immigrants who must “prove” their citizenship worth are in stark contrast to the entitlements of inherited privilege. British by birth and parentage, I consider myself a well-integrated citizen since my return in 1994 (despite a black hole when it comes to early 1990s UK pop culture). So I set out to take the UK Official Practice Citizenship test: does it really cover materials relevant to my life in the UK? And if I couldn’t pass it, how can it be considered a fair measure of integration?
I begin with immigration: were the largest groups arriving in the UK in the 1980s from the West Indies, Ireland, India and Pakistan? The Irish part seems reasonable – I tick true. But question 3 is tricky: how many parliamentary constituencies are there? All I can remember is that they’ve been talking for the past year about how to have fewer MPs. I plump for 646: though I’m not clear why it would really matter if I thought there were 664 instead. Does British democracy turn on having 646 MPs (clearly not, given Cameron et al.’s attempts to remove a few dozen)?
I can do the one on paying for school uniforms pretty easily (we lost a lot of gym kit between the four of us at school and my mother was not happy), and sail through the next few. But then we hit Question 7: In which year did married women get the right to divorce their husband? a. 1837 b.1857 c.1875 and d. 1882. I have no idea. I’m left wondering why it would matter if that answer is b or c? Surely the really important point is that married women do have the right to divorce their husband?
Question 8 is on Europe – I know the Parliament meets in Brussels and Strasbourg, though I do smile at the thought that quite a lot of the present regime would arguably seeing getting that one wrong as a sign of real British integration.
A little later, I am asked a series of questions about demographic statistics. How many children live in the UK – 13, 14, 15 or 16 million? I guess. I do not know because no one I know has ever needed to know this outside of a GCSE geography project. Similarly, guessing the percentage of Muslims in the UK (from 1.6% to 4.2%) may reassure those who think we’re being flooded by potential terrorists, but they’re hardly likely to be the ones taking the test. Plus, percentages do not cultural sensitivity make.
Question 16, and we’re on to where you can find out about training opportunities. I suspect one of the correct options is ‘your local library’, but reflect that given that many of these are now closed, this is not useful advice in practice. The next one asks me about who can vote in UK elections – I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that actually, Commonwealth citizens can do this anyway. Though if you’re going to become a UK citizen (surely the whole point of this delightful exercise) it does beg the question: why would you need to know? I have the same complaint about the next question, which asks me how many days per year schools must remain open. I am not a parent. I am not a teacher. And are any of them counting?
Question 19, and I detect an ideological bias: ‘if you have a problem at work and need to take further action?’, why can’t you go see your union rep (though you can go and see your employer)? Hmm. The final question is another EU one: What’s the EU’s governing body called?
The results are in. 17/24: I’ve failed (the pass mark is 80%). I’m embarrassed I got the immigration question wrong: in the 1980s, the largest immigrant groups were from the United States, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand (something which a lot of British citizens could do with learning). But I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that you can be unemployed for 18 months before having to join the New Deal, although I can’t help feeling that’s painting a rosy picture given recent welfare reforms…
Oh well. There’s always Canada.
The serious verdict? This is the very worst kind of test: one in which you can memorise the answers, because they haven’t figured out the point of the question. There are far more intelligent multi-choice exam formats out there, which don’t lose all nuance, remove all context or reduce knowledge to pub quiz level. This asks would-be citizens to learn by rote fact and figures they’ll quickly forget because the communities they live in have never needed them in the first place.
This is testing as a form of bureaucratic exclusion. The reforms proposed are a further step backwards: navigating the NHS’ bureaucratic labyrinth is more useful than knowing about Florence Nightingale. It’s worth remembering that in 2006, Sir Bernard Crick refused to include history questions ‘both in principle and on grounds of practicality: could any test for immigrants be devised that 80% of our fellow citizens would not fail?’ Testing would-be citizens on a historical narrative many Britons either don’t know or would reject is an absurdity: but surely the real question is, should we try to test citizenship in this way at all?
This — on my favourite theme of refugee migration — is shortly to appear on LSE’s Africa blog: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/africaatlse/
There is a poster in my office at LSE. A shot of subway graffiti reading “Refugee go home”. The slogan is a rejoinder from UNHCR: “He would if he could”. It’s a simple mantra. Refugees can’t go home, but they want to go home. And as soon as peace breaks out, huge sums of money and slick PR campaigns will shift the machinery of repatriation into gear, so refugees will go home.
Except that for many cases, that misses a crucial question, especially when your time as a refugee is measured in decades or generations, not months or years. How can you return “home” if you never left in the first place?
Today, 71% of refugees are trapped in protracted exile – the average displacement lasting twenty years. The traditional approach to “solving” refugee crises – waiting for repatriation – isn’t working. Nowhere is this more evident than Africa, where continuing insecurity and resource crises in the Great Lakes and Horn Regions continues to drive mass displacement and prevent secure return.
But if Africa is the setting for some of the world’s longest refugee crises, in recent years it has seen some of the most innovative attempts to broker novel solutions for long-term refugees. Many of these solutions depend upon recognising the value of movement, both as an economic coping strategy and a vehicle for development. While no one should be forced to move, being free to move can offer a means of solving displacement..
This need for new solutions to refugee crises frames my research. How can the international community can better help refugees build their own sustainable solutions at the end of exile? One of the most interesting initiatives has been the use of existing regional citizenship frameworks in West Africa – primarily designed to facilitate economic integration – to allow refugees to become migrants, ending their displacement without requiring their return.
The Economic Community of West African States – ECOWAS – grants all West African citizens freedom of movement and settlement rights (its not unlike EU protocols). Vicious civil wars during the 1990s saw thousands of Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees seek asylum in neighbouring states: twenty years later when the conflict came to an end, many did indeed return home. But many others had established businesses, were attending school, had married locals – or been born in exile. Many wanted to retain their identity as Sierra Leoneans or Liberians: but they did not want to return permanently.
What emerged was a solution that fitted between the spaces of two citizenships. There was no prospect of formal naturalisation by host states, but refugees could stay as migrant West African citizens. Under agreements signed by Nigeriaand the Gambiain 2007 and 2008, Sierra Leonean and Liberian refugees remaining in these states received both a passport from their country of origin – a form of “political” repatriation – and a workers’ visa.
There have been signs that this model may be adopted within the East African Community to help resolve the difficult and controversial Rwandan refugee problem. As cessation of status looms for Rwandan refugees who fled prior to 1998, it is evident that many are reluctant to return and have developed significant social and economic ties in Uganda. Facilitating their continued residency in Uganda as East African citizens might provide one alternative legal status, although unless used as part of a pathway to eventual citizenship, it will leave Rwandans still claiming to fear the current Rwandan government indefinitely dependent on it for consular protection.
It is important not to overstate the impact of these regional citizenship. Implementation has been imperfect, and numbers limited. There remains an insistence that repatriation must come first, with migration viewed only as a last resort for the stubborn. In countries like Zambia– where 20,000 Angolan refugees will lose their status on 30 June – the government has been reluctant to endorse local integration, leading to the risk that those who do not “voluntarily” repatriate as refugees now may later be deported as illegal immigrants.
But regional citizenship solutions and freedom of movement protocols nevertheless help to offer a glimpse of how we might start to solve refugee crises by seeing movement as part of the solution, not part of the problem. They offer a means of recognising that many of us live between multiple identities and multiple communities. Citizenship, residency and family life do not always neatly align with the arbitrary assignments of birth and that migration is not abnormal.
It will be a while before UNHCR changes its slogans. But if we want to start unlocking protracted refugee situations, we made need to accept that sometimes, the answer to the challenge “refugee go home” may be “she’s already there”.
If the UK’s coalition government has a single theme it likes to spin its policies around, it’s solidarity. And like the forgotten language of the ‘big society’ and the faux-austerity practices of Cabinet millionaires, the UK Government’s relentless pursuit of a reduction in net migration to that magic (and meaningless) ‘tens of thousands’ figure is supposed to make us believe that We’re All In This Together. This week, we’ve seen the Home Office unveil its latest set of plans, this time focusing on cutting family migration.
But if the cracks between the classes are increasingly wide on domestic policy – pasty tax or granny levy anyone? – on the migration question the public-at-large appear to be persuaded. Keep the foreigners away from our fast-disappearing benefits! Protect Britain from welfare scroungers!
This nasty anti-migrant discourse relies on the same fictions of national unity that saw a million people stand in the rain last weekend to celebrate hereditary monarchy. Proof – if proof were needed – that the political persuasions of crowds are rarely rational. This isn’t to suggest that there’s no value in a shared culture, a common identity. But it’s equally wrong and just as dangerous – at least if you care about social inequality – to ignore that those building blocks are riven with class cracks. My cultural British identity is glued together with marmite and radio 4 and gin and tonic and Waitrose and Michael Palin. Ah, yes, that’s right – I’m not just British, I’m middle class. Pretending We Are All In This Together – when we quite clearly are not – is a deliberate deceit.
But how does this lead back to migration? After all, migration is about the difference between foreigners and citizens, not rich and poor Britons. But what’s actually most worrying about this new set of migration regulations is not that they exclude yet more migrants (although they do), but that they also undermine citizenship. These new proposals make the right to a family life in the UK a commodity, rather than a citizens’ right. Because now, if you – a UK citizen – earn less than £18600 a year, your non-EU partner will be refused a visa to settle in the UK. If you have a child, you’ll need £22,400. For every extra child, the threshold will rise by £2,400. The richest can bring their wives to Mayfair and accelerate permanent settlement by depositing their cash in a UK bank. The poor – or in this case 40% of UK citizens – can live apart.
All this brings the draconian implications of immigration law much closer to home for a young middle-class Brit. I remember being shocked a few years ago when a Danish friend told me how anti-immigration laws meant he and his new Turkish wife were forced to live in Sweden, driving across the bridge to commute for work. Now, I can think of at least three young, professional couples – on British, one foreign – who would have been forced to live apart for several years under these new rules. Or emigrate.
So this is how migration and citizenship collide. Citizenship is supposed to be about equal rights, equal status. It’s supposed to replace flag-waving fictions with a meaningful shared community. And sure, in practice that’s an aspiration rather than a reality: many Old Etonians are still born to rule. But the alternative – an alternative that seems to be rapidly taking shape – is far bleaker: the commodification of citizenship and its rights, so it’s how much you can earn which determines your political and not just your economic freedoms.
So keeping migrants out – sold as an act of national solidarity – is now actually undermining our own citizens’ rights. Cloaking migrants’ exclusion in Red, White and Blue perpetuates a double injustice, helping to hide the hollowing out of that much-vaunted British state, so that the rich pay and the poor do without, while also directing anger at the huddled masses outside not the pampered elite. And if the workers of the world won’t unite, how very much easier to keep them in chains.
Personal confession time. Perhaps it’s the heat. Or maybe it’s the students, spilling out of exam halls, the “real world” (with all its unpaid internships) just weeks away. But I’m restless. It’s a regular occupational hazard for many, but as an academic, trying to justify your own relevance is hard. At least every six months I find myself asking: what’s the point?
Let me be clear. This isn’t self-doubt. I know I can have perceptive thoughts about citizenship, about refugees and migrants, about conflict and inequality. Nor is it loss of interest. I can become entirely absorbed, fascinated, by Nansen Passports or Uganda’s citizenship laws, and there’s at least a small group of people who also find this interesting enough to pay me for it. No, it’s my own summer-day riff on a much wider question. Not just where do I fit in academia, but what’s my academia for?
This is a question politicians, policy-makers and the public love debating, though the answer usually appears to be a messy variation on the theme of markete conomics and customer service. The professorial voices we hear raised in protest tend to be Heads of Department and other senior figures, often stressing the joy of academic research and the discovery of knowledge. They’re right, but in doing so I can’t help feeling they frequently create ivory scaffolding which aims to protect research by disentangling it from reality. Scholarship for scholarship’s sake: It’s a worthy cry, but I’m not sure that’s why I want to do this.
I’m an accidental academic you see. In fact, I still cringe a little at the word “academic”. Maybe it’s just playground reflex, but call me a researcher, a lecturer: words that don’t conjure up images (in my mind at least) of inert scholarly wisdom. I never intended to do a Ph.D., or a post-doc, or become a full-time lecturer. And yet somehow that’s what I’ve become. I have a job that – taken day by day – I love, in a department full of interesting, lively people. The day-to-day really is fulfilling, but when I pause, I realise I still haven’t worked out what this is for. Why do I do this?
Of course, I’m hardly the first to ask these questions. International Development is a field which often seeks to confront inequalities and change power structures. I don’t know many academics (though I suspect I do know some) who write about refugees without being motivated in some way to help them. So maybe this existential angst is normal.
Or maybe it’s heresy. Young academics are ten-a-penny. Jobs are few and far between, and I know many good – many outstanding – would-be academics who display dazzling professionalism in the pursuit of the prize of a permanent post, who are certain of why they want it and measure their progression in publications. But they’ve found themselves measured against similar over-achievers with multiple monographs, “REFable” peer-reviewed journal articles and starry teaching evaluations, and so are stuck on the post-doc ad-hoc teaching merry-go-round. This is Higher Education’s dirty little secret: the expansion of university education has been enabled by the exploitation of underpaid and overworked post-graduates desperate for their big break. There’s another blog post in that, but there’s also a certain amount of guilt knowing you’ve got something pretty close to someone else’s dream job, and not being sure how much you believe in it.
But where to? The grass isn’t always greener. Policymakers and NGOs are often dependent upon the whims of the powerful who make funding fall from the sky, constrained by diplomatic protocol and organisational politics. Used properly, academic freedom is far more radical than any consensus-building campaign. The trouble is, I’m not sure tenure-track academic, with its “publish or perish” culture leaves much room for rocking the boat. It often seems to prefer to suggest incremental technocratic change.
This latest round of introspection came to a close earlier today when I realised that I need to stop thinking of academia – whatever the pressures to do so – as a treadmill, a hierarchy. It’s only half-true and it’s a terrifying freedom, but academia ultimately has the capacity to become what you make of it.
For me, that comes down to the fact it’s not enough to interpret the world – the point is to change it. And – to borrow from Joseph Carens as well as Marx– fighting inequality and injustice requires us not only to see what is possible, but also to recognise what is right. Maybe I can make peace with my academic status by recognising what an enormous privilege it is to have the freedom to think. But with that freedom, I would argue, comes a responsibility to engage and persuade the wider public. Four-star journal articles aren’t enough of a reason why.
Ok. Therapy over. Now back to the funding application. Even accidental academics need to pay the rent…
We all know the story of Israel and the Palestinian refugees. And certainly, even in this most politicized of conflicts, no one should dispute the continuing human suffering of the civilian Palestinian population. There should be shame that this is what “national” security looks like, with the price paid by the Others, locked inside high walls.
But there’s another migration “crisis” in Israel too, albeit one we’ve heard little about here in the UK before this week. A flow of African asylum-seekers, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan – some 60,000 in total. Who, according to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu,‘threaten our existence as a Jewish and democratic state’. So the migrants must go. New laws allow these ‘infiltrators’ to be detained for up to three years: in the Sinai desert, Israel is now building thelargest detention centre in the world, capable of holding 11,000 asylum-seekers and migrants.
Security threats are often conjured out of shadows. Let’s hope the rational voice of Police Chief Yohanan Danino – who has pointed out not only that crime rates are lower among foreigners than Israelis, but also that these rates would be lower still if asylum-seekers were allowed to work – soars above the scaremongers’ din. But I won’t be holding my breath.
But this is not just a familiar debate about crime rates and migrants. There is something more chilling about the Israeli state’s language, the emphasis on fundamental identity politics. Discussing events with colleagues and friends this week I’ve been surprised how even the usually pragmatic UN realists privately find these statements of bald nationalist intent unsettling and distressing. Why?
The immediate answer is obvious: it’s to do with that other refugee crisis, the Holocaust, the ghosts of the 1930s. Jewish identity is so closely associated with a history exile, loss and suffering that it seems we expect a natural sympathy for the dispossessed. As Hannah Arendt argued, the Jewish population was left ‘the scum of the earth’ when in twentieth century Europe the rights of man were substituted for the rights of the national citizen. So Israel, a Jewish nation-state, was created. This solved the immediate problem, but did nothing to challenge the exclusionary logic of ethnic nationalism. There’s a bitter irony that it should be the people whose history offers the starkest warning against nation-states who now appear intent upon building one with rigid boundaries. This, I think, is why so many refugee advocates have reacted so strongly to the stark words of the Israeli Prime Minister.
But then I began to wonder. Should we expect an Israeli state to show additional compassion simply because of a history of suffering? The Hebrew Bible may implore Jews to ‘hide the fugitives, do not betray the refugees… The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt’. But those verses are part of the EU’s Christian tradition too. States aren’t compassionate beings: realpolitik will out.
And all democracies demands a demos. Substitute “British” or “Danish” or “Dutch” for Jewish in Netenyahu’s comments, and its not hard to imagine a surprising degree of mainstream political consensus around the idea of a “migration crisis” demanding immediate action. Arguably, there’s actually a hypocrisy in expecting the Israeli state to behave better than other Western gated communities, when in fact it’s simply carrying national sentiment to its logical conclusion. This doesn’t make Israel right: but it reminds us that many of our own migration policies are pretty shameful too. Liberal nation states are more convincing in paper than in practice.
But no longer focusing on the exceptional history of Israel and its Jewish citizens – either as excuse or castigation – would mean we would judge a modern state by modern norms. The old defences of historical trauma would provide no cloak for what is — stripped of its collective nationalist political stripes – a nasty case of racism. For if all Israeli citizens must be part of a Jewish nation, there is, effectively, no real possibility of any full integration for African migrants. Their incarceration should neither be defended as the necessary cost of the politics of Jewish survival; nor should it be condemned as uncharitable. It should be, however, identified for what it is: illiberal and – by token of those same values that Israel still claims to uphold – unjustifiable.
What isforced migration? That’s a time-honoured question every lecturer teaching. An Introduction to Refugee Studies asks. And as the students who try and answer that first-week question quickly realise, the answer is deceptively complex. We can identify the black and white with ease – the American banker choosing his tax regime; the Somali mother fleeing starvation. But we struggle with the grey. In particular, when does poverty force someone to move?
Now, this question has rebounded with added urgency, and landed very close to home indeed. I’ve wanted to write about London’s housing crisis for a few weeks now. Newsthat some councils in Londonhave been asking tenants to consider alternative provisions in the North has an obvious resonance with questions about choice, freedom and movement. But Boris’ blustering accusations about “Kosovo-style social cleansing” seemed so obviously overblown – the coalition may be very wrong indeed on many many things, but it has not yet resorted to early morning eviction calls by ultra-right nationalist paramilitaries – that I found it difficult to start writing.
However earlier today, I experienced one of those rare moments when my academic readings seem relevant to real life. My thanks to Matthew Gibney’s writings for making me realise that asking “What is forced migration?” only gets us halfway there. Really, should be asking a much more provocative question: When is it legitimate for the state to sanction the forced movement of their citizens? In other words: What kinds of forced migration are we prepared to accept?
There is, of course, a name for the process by which a population is forced to move in the name of progress: development-induced displacement. Millions have been left homeless as a result of grand state-building infrastructure projects in Indian and China. These have usually been justified as instances when the collective interests of “the people” trumped individual costs. While these utilitarian reckonings have many critics (not least in terms of the real access of those affected to resettlement and compensation), the fact remains that, in broad terms, these forced migrations are viewed as legitimate. Desirable, no. But acceptable, even necessary.
But of course, those governing elites who decide what qualifies as a legitimate displacement often have a rather self-interested view of what constitutes “the collective interests of the people”. And this is what brings me to Londonand its housing crisis, apparently necessary to secure our children’s debt (or at least deficit) free future.
No one suggests that everyone should be able to live in palatial splendour (however many stories the Daily Mail may dredge up about asylum-seekers living in Westend mansions). But there is something grotesque about a society in which millionaires compete for luxury flats a few streets away from families facing eviction. However in a capitalist market, money equals choice. And the removal of the poor from inner London reflects that value system: a forced migration that capitalism insists we accept as “fair”.
I love London, and one of the things I value is the sense that all its citizens – rich and poor – must live side by side. I walk from Angel to the Strand most days: I pass the deeply impoverished and the extraordinarily wealthy and privileged. In London – unlike the airy hills of Oxfordshire where I spend the other part of my week — I cannot ignore the inequalities that permeate our society.
In a city where today even professional couples whose joint incomes comfortably reach six figures struggle to imagine renting more than a one-bed flat (and here I speak from personal experience), the choice is a now simple one: do free property markets rule, or should the state step in to ensure that inner London doesn’t become a gated community? Geographical proximity and social cohesion aren’t separate concepts. I think the cost of supporting poor families to live in Londonis one society should gladly pay, a small smoothing out of one injustice.
So no, this isn’t Kosovo. But it will be a forced migration. It will be a forced migration made legitimate by the premise that discrimination based upon wealth is fair. However, we should not pretend that wealth – and poverty – aren’t also statuses which are very often determined arbitrarily at birth. Society – collective community – demands that we think in terms of people, not rental profits. So yes, we tolerate the forced migration of the poor. But we shouldn’t.
The UK would claim to be on the side of the angels in Syria. Who could dispute David Cameron’s claim, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Barack Obama, that he condemns the ‘horrific violence against innocent civilians’ in Syria? Yes, we ‘stand with those brave citizens across the Middle East and North Africa who are demanding their universal rights’. That is, as long as they don’t try and exercise one of those universal rights over here, and try to claim asylum.
Today, as ‘a direct response to emerging security and immigration threats to the UK’ Teresa May announced that nationals of Syria, Libya and Egypt will now be required to apply for a transit visa if they are travelling through British airports. This is, apparently, a ‘necessary measure to protect the security of our borders’. Yes, that’s right. Our security is threatened by those tanks in Homs. After all, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s asylum-seeker.
Make no mistake: this is a cynical bureaucratic ploy to ensure that no Arab Spring refugees will find their way here. Transit visas don’t grant a right of entry to the UK: they won’t even get you out of the airport. What they will do, however, is make it impossible to board the plane without one, thus nicely excluding all those brave, innocent citizens who might just have a pretty plausible claim to asylum. That is, “all” those brave, innocent citizens who can make it to an airport in Syria, acquire a plane ticket and a visa for their end destination. Amazing what “threats” we see, jumping at refugees’ shadows.
The Refugee Council’s condemnation of May’s policy makes clear its consequences: if the persecuted and those caught in civil conflict cannot obtain the necessary visa, they cannot leave. The UK border is effectively closed. Oh, we’ll talk a good talk on humanitarian assistance, but let it be delivered on the mountain-side in Turkey. Asylum – the right not to be returned to a place where your life or freedoms may be threatened – is a right we’re only prepared to defend at long-distance. Burden-sharing and international solidarity are nice words, but we’ll meet these obligations with our chequebook.
This government hypocrisy is disgraceful. But it is hardly unexpected. I spend a lot of my time these days writing about the economic of movement, and how the West has constructed new paper borders to keep out the poor and the persecuted. I wrote last year about the use of visa regime to keep Somalis and Afghans from moving legally. We did it in the 1930s. I suspect states will still be doing it in the 2030s.
So why write with such urgency and such anger? I think ultimately because this goes beyond critiquing government policy and demands all of us to ask hard questions about our own complicity in keeping suffering beyond our borders. Sure, watch Kony 2012; donate to the Red Cross; feel outraged at the television news reports. But do not believe for one instant that any of these gestures will change much. In these cases, our humanitarian instincts extend to pity, not solidarity.
Some who read this blog may argue that the proper place for humanitarianism is beyond our borders; that Syrians don’t need to come to the UK to save their lives. That is, as a bare fact, true: the vast majority of those displaced will remain in Syria, or travel by land to neighbouring states. But surely there is something deeply troubling in May’s gesture of inhumanity, that will make it more difficult for Syrians under threat to leave their persecutors, and implies that the only “real” refugees are those in camps in poor states?
We talk of universal rights: we’re on the side of the angels. Many humanitarian and human rights actors play a vital role in relieving suffering and shining a light on the worst of global inequalities. But when I read about the policies of organisations like the UKBA, inventing imagined ‘security and immigration threats’ everywhere, without much interest in the impact on those ‘innocent civilians’ who just happen to have the wrong colour passport, I can’t help but feel we’re missing the point. Perhaps we might have more power as citizens than as global activists: so while it might not be glamorous, and the injustices more bureaucratic, maybe humanitarianism actually needs to start at home.
I’ve been meaning to post this for a couple of weeks now: it appeared earlier on the [email protected] blog:
Last week’s London Somalia summit began with bold proclamations. It ended in a whisper. The anticlimactic end was not altogether unexpected given that the conference conclusions had been widely leaked ten days previously.
The summit, however, wasn’t about talking: it was about international leaders being seen to talk. David Cameron and Hilary Clinton may have talked of turning points and ‘an unprecedented opportunity to change’ Somalia. Yet it’s impossible to escape the sense that for the West, intervention in Somalia remains an exercise in state-making.
Twenty years of crises suggest that this focus is shaped to Western interests rather than Somali needs. Bolstering the number of AMISOM troops or setting up a piracy task forces is unlikely to meet either of these objectives in the long-term. The instant verdict from most observers was one of disappointment: the ‘rhetoric of Somali inclusion’ amounting to little more than another round of ‘externally driven solutions’.
So where now? I think we need to start asking far more radical questions about the nature of state-making in the Horn. As Ken Menkhaus, a leading Somali scholar, has argued, ‘attempts to revive the failed state in Somalia without addressing the causes of that failure have proven again and again to be a recipe for failure’ . So before “fixing” it, we need first to ask: what is the Somali state for?
Modern Western liberal theories of the state neatly bind together the exercise of state power – Weber’s famous definition of the state as the authority able to exercise a ‘legitimate monopoly on violence’ – with the notion that legitimacy derives from governing in the name of “the people”, who are citizens with ‘the right to have rights’.
Clinton, Cameron et al. have therefore ended to focus on this need for a Somali-owned state, insisting that the Somalis must find their own solutions to their political chaos. Yet their end aim is a secure Somali state able to monopolise violence and eradicate the terrorism and piracy that threaten Western state interests. Are these two interests really compatible?
Under Siad Barre, a central Somali state did exist, but it hardly offered democratic participation. This is what AMISOM may achieve: an occupied Somalia. However the conundrum of state-making in the “humanitarian” R2P age is that states – particularly those states dependent upon the international aid community for funding – must not only monopolise “legitimate” violence, but effectively suppress all violence. Insecurity and impunity are expected to end at the ballot box.
So for Somalia to function legitimately – so the theory goes – it needs a national identity, not a dictator or an occupying force. Yet Somalia is often described as a tribal, fractured society – and it is certainly true that the fashion for secession has been catching, often driven by the lure of donor cash.
But clan is not the only story: there are other bases for broader national identities, chief among them Islam and pan-Somali nationalism. Both are troubling for outsider observers. The West – as it demonstrated to its own cost in 2006 – finds it difficult to distinguish between the radicalised terror of Al-Quaeda aligned Al-Shabbab and other versions of Islamic governance. For neighbouring states – particularly Ethiopia – the prospect of a rising pan-Somali nationalism offers few comforts given historic tensions in the Ogaden. The obvious foundations for the sort of Somali state the West wants to build therefore make many of these same would-be state creators profoundly uneasy.
The result, to date, has been the creation of paper donor governments, like the current Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Though its demise is long-overdue, it is difficult to believe that any August successor will work on any principle other than elite clan power-brokering and resource-allocation. So where does this leave the London Summit, and more importantly, Somalia? The summit, I suspect, will be little more than a footnote in the long history of Western engagement in Somalia. Somalia itself will probably continue to defy attempts to mould it to a standardised, centralised nation-state model. De facto independent Somaliland offers both a promise and a warning to those who believe smaller states might offer a solution. Even as Somaliland citizens enjoy relative peace and security, the new bonds of citizenship have increasingly excluded IDPs from south-central Somalia, pushing them further into humanitarian crisis.
In fact – as other observers have also argued – the best hope for a Somali peace may lie not in rebuilding problematic state structures, but strengthening other forms of governance — in particular, the vibrant business and social networks that have an interest in securing peace. Poisonous regional border wars will only ultimately be reduced by making the state matter less, possibly by eventually building up supra-national regional citizenships as an alternative.
Help build society, and citizenship – even a well-ordered state — may follow. However, the London summit sadly reinforces the impression that this is prove far too radical a cure for Western states to prescribe. In the meantime, Somalia’s crisis continues.
What price citizenship? Last Thursday,Damien Green put a figure on it: £31,000 per year for five years. This salary floor should – apparently – ensure that only the ‘brightest and the best’ are able are able to settle in the UK ‘breaking the link between temporary and permanent migration’. Never mind that the current points-based migration system already means that it is virtually impossible for low-skilled workers to enter the UK legally (as the UKBA website tells us ‘This tier is suspended indefinitely’). Nor that the median UK salary last year hovered just under the £27,000 mark, meaning most existing UK citizens wouldn’t actually meet this criteria, were they asked to apply for the privilege of UK residency).
Designing policies in ‘relentless pursuit’ of an arbitrary number – in this case, that promise to reduce net migration to ‘tens of thousands’ – hardly leaves much room for justice, given that rational economic self-interest hasn’t persuaded the government to stop pushing for further migration restrictions. But as I’ve written elsewhere, protecting our ‘national interest’ by squeezing migrants does help to make us believe British identity is more than a convenient fiction. It obscures the extent to which everyone’s citizenship is being hollowed out — not by the pernicious demands of itinerant migrants, but the creeping privatisation of the state.
The joke, of course, is that there’s always been an economic market for citizenship, even as nation-states queue up to talk about values and history and belonging. A few states call a spade a spade, and sell you economic citizenship, residency not required. A St Kitts and Nevis passport will cost you around $400,000 in legal fees and investment cash. Dominica offers a $100,000 “family option”. And you have to pay once the application is approved. Thaksin Shinawatra – the former Thai Prime Minister – is a proud economic citizen of Montenegro (the programme has since been suspended due to concerns that Montenegro’s policy of not extraditing its citizens might prove a particular attraction to the wealthy crook. And there’s also that small matter of 60,000 (poor) stateless residents, including Kosovan Roma, who don’t qualify for citizenship).
It’s not just small states. In the US, $500,000 investment in a rural or high unemployment area will get you an EB-5 visa, and after 5 years the chance to swap your green card for a US passport. As the visa sites make clear ‘EB-5 investors are not required to work; therefore, some investors choose to travel throughout the United States without restriction, or they maintain dual residences in America and their native home’. In the UK, investment over a million can buy you permanent residency and new rules mean that you only have to stay here 185 days a year. Oh, and no English language test.
In other words, being rich allows you to turn citizenship into a monetary transaction. A financial contribution takes the place of participation in a shared community. Green’s new plans simply extends this logic, making citizenship and mobility the privilege of the rich while further ensuring the poor cannot join UK Plc.
But where does that leave the poor and the persecuted? Those for whom mobility isn’t a choice but a necessity? As Oxford research Nick Van Hear has made clear, there’s a (black)market at the bottom end of the migration business too. Profits rise for smugglers as legal pathways are blocked. As long as the costs associated with legal movements remain prohibitively high – from a $150 passport to move from Zimbabwe to South Africa to $500,000 for that investment visa – clandestine movements and purchased passports are rational choices. A good black-market US passport costs only $5000-10,000.
This isn’t a substitute for “real” citizenship: it’s precarious and risky. It comes with a terrible human cost: bodies along the Mediterranean coastline. It excludes many of these individuals from being able to integrate or contribute to the societies they have arrived in. But part of the myopia at the heart of government migration policy is the persistent notion that it’s easy to distinguish a “genuine refugee” from an “voluntary migrant”. Another part is the continued insistence that we can stop people – and above all poor people – moving. We can stop them moving legally, and we can shape their journeys, diverting flows and shifting the migration “burden”. But yet they keep moving. Inequality and crisis are powerful drivers.
And now, restricting legal migration isn’t even enough. The aim appears to be to stop all but middle-class professionals and wealthy businessmen from having the right to belong: even when they’ve lived and worked here legally for half a decade. An important reminder that however many times we may be assured that migration management is about protecting Britain’s national identity, migration and citizenship are ultimately all about money.