In 2015, police confrontations in Macedonia, Calais and Lesbos, alongside suffocation, drowning and shootings at borders and in the Mediterranean Sea, confronted European publics with the horrors of the 'refugee crisis'. These were epitomised in a photograph of the body of a Syrian toddler washed up on the shores of Turkey. The crisis brought into question the principles of asylum and of free movement within the European Union, and with it Europe's very idea of itself as a space of liberalism and human rights. As Sam Kriss put it in his riposte to Slavoj Zizek, perhaps rather than a migration crisis confronting Europe, what is unfolding is a European crisis confronting migrants. Like the apocryphal story that the Haitian slave revolutionaries greeted the repressive French army by singing the Marseillaise, so some of the people walking along the motorways of Hungary and Austria were carrying the European flag. We share your respect for justice, freedom and human rights and here we are! What do you think of that?
The headlines only months before had been about a different European crisis: the crisis of austerity and a confrontation between the European Central Bank, European Commission and the IMF, who required harsh austerity measures as a condition of bailout funds, and the Greek population, who had voted 'No' to their proposals. Exit, not only from the Eurozone but from the European Union, seemed a real possibility.
The connection drawn between these two crises of increasing European poverty and associated popular anger and resentment on the one hand, and the deaths and desperation battering at Europe's borders on the other, has a simple message: 'we' must look after our own first. We must first attend to the housing, benefit and health needs of the British/European population. Not only are they also in distress, but they have also paid into the system. The sad and tough decision is that the problems of others, however extreme, must take second place as they are not 'our' principal responsibility. This is the logic of the UK's extremely limited response to the refugee crisis. It also underpins ever tighter restrictions on welfare benefits for EU nationals, and even calls to divert aid money to British flood defences. There is not enough to go around.
Challenging this logic--one that sets up citizens and migrants/foreigners as engaged in an unfortunate but necessary competition for scarce resources--should be of critical concern to those advocating progressive politics. The build up to the Greek elections in September 2015 saw the conservative New Democracy party accusing Syriza of 'drowning central Athens in immigrants', while the fascist Golden Dawn increased its share of the votes on the islands of Kos and Lesbos, both of which were receiving significant numbers of refugees. In mainstream political discourse, the presence of migrants has become emblematic of waning state power, and in some cases of mainstream politicians' disengagement from everyday problems. Promises of strong control over immigration appeal to the hope of a national labour market and economy, a stable, cohesive national society, and representative democratic politics. These hopes are eminently understandable, but they will not be attained by exerting ever tighter control over immigration. Indeed, the risk is that the obsession engendered by immigration only increases exploitation in labour markets, destabilises neighbourly relations and distorts democratic politics.
Migration has, in short, become a key means of stifling progressive political potential. But who is 'the migrant'? Is it possible to find or build connections between citizens and migrants, rather than assuming that they are competitors for resources?
Who is a migrant?
Although people use the terms 'migrant' and 'migration' very freely, their meaning is hard to pin down. Headlines asserting that, for example, 'Foreigners now make up one in six of UK workers' are usually using data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). (1) This defines migrants as 'foreign born'. However, many of these 'foreign born' people are in fact British citizens, including people who have acquired citizenship after long-term residence, or British people born abroad. In 2014, while 16.7 per cent of people in the UK labour market were 'foreign born', 10.5 per cent were 'foreign nationals'. (2) The figure varies significantly depending on the data used.
Of particular importance in the UK context is that the ONS data on migrants as 'foreign born' is not compatible with the government definition of 'migrants' for the purposes of the policy to reduce net migration. Net migration numbers are derived from the International Passenger Survey that uses the Long Term International Migrant (LTIM) definition adopted by the United Nations. This counts as a migrant anyone who says that they are moving outside their country of usual residence and planning to stay for longer than one year. A UK citizen...