Leverhulme ECR Fellow
School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Glasgow
Professor in Geography
Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University
Migration crises are never far from newspaper headlines and the public imagination. And yet, these crises are constructed around long-standing, predictable patterns of mobility and exacerbated by government policies, especially in the Global North. For instance, the predictable “regime change refugee” flows after Western military interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya were all constructed as unexpected and uncontrollable. More recently, Donald Trump has defended separating thousands of children, including many infants and toddlers, from their families on the US-Mexico border in the name of a migration crisis. Here, long standing US foreign policy has contributed to the destabilization of South and Central America. For decades, people from these regions have sought to escape the resultant violence and poverty. We addressed a number of these issues in a workshop we held in 2015: ‘Governing Migration from the Margins’. Some of the papers that emerged from the workshop are included in a special issue recently published in Social and Legal Studies.
Migration has become central to contemporary politics, an easy scapegoat for our 21st century ills and an issue on which even more progressive politicians feel pressure to appear ‘tough’. More draconian migration controls are imagined as a panacea to the rising far-right. As our neoliberal economic system frays, migrants have become the patsy. Indeed, frenzied ‘migration crisis’ rhetoric intensified following the financial crisis, which created austerity in Europe and financial insecurity in North America: incomes have polarized, working and middle class wages have stagnated, financial risk was socialized and profits privatized. In the United States, self-dealing plutocrats hold office and are moving to cut the social safety net while further enriching the 1%. Migrants become an important distraction that can unite those unsatisfied with their lot, looking for someone to blame, and happy to support politicians with simple ‘solutions’.
The resultant migration ‘crises’ are politically useful, used as a diversion from the systemic failures in democratic and economic governance. They distract from government policies that increase inequality and marginalize large swathes of the population, often in the name of austerity. They simultaneously provide a useful, if superficial, explanation for the inequalities and violence caused by these very measures, including the lack of economic opportunities and upward mobility. In this way, the rhetoric that declares a crisis – whether in response to people travelling by boat across the Mediterranean, to a caravan of Central Americans arriving at the US border, or to people camping in Calais waiting for an opportunity to cross to the UK – fuels xenophobia and neo-nationalism, while also giving cover to violent, exclusionary policies.
In the US, UK, and elsewhere, migration ‘crises’ distract from the government’s policy of creating a ‘hostile environment’ for those at the edge of society – migrants and citizens alike. The violence inherent in policies that detain indefinitely, divide families, and deport people to dangerous places, usually goes unremarked and unnoticed by the general public. Occasionally these come to the fore, as happened with Trump’s family separation policy or the UK’s Windrush scandal in 2018. In this latter case, Commonwealth citizens were invited to work in the UK in the 1950s. Fast forward to the age of Brexit and Theresa May’s government was marking their racialized bodies as ‘other’, deporting them despite their legal right to stay after more than sixty years in the UK. The state pointed to their lack of documentation to explain their deportation, until it was revealed that the Home Office had destroyed their landing cards under Theresa May’s leadership as Home Secretary. As such violence and arbitrariness is revealed, so is the shallow celebration of countries as diverse and multicultural.
Nevertheless, migration ‘crises’ can be profound moments that mobilize the public and engender new, creative forms of activism. The arrival of Syrian refugees in Europe has prompted many people to open their doors and their hearts to these newcomers, to volunteer their time and energy. Others have taken risks in the face of Europe’s criminalization of acts of solidarity, continuing to provide shelter and transportation. In the Mediterranean, people have taken to the seas to engage in much needed search and rescue activity that states are failing to provide.
Yet, even then, the spectacle of crisis narrows the possible response. Immigration policies that depend on suffering as deterrence do sometimes invite the ire of the electorate, and give rise to calls for the need to respect fundamental human rights alongside secure borders and law enforcement. The spectacular violence of Trump’s policy of separating families elicited widespread and impassioned condemnation. It did not lead, however, to a broader discussion of the inherent violence of borders and the ways in which they have always separated families in the US and elsewhere. Central American mothers have long left their children behind while they migrated to the US, in part due to the country’s border regime. In the UK, Home Office policies routinely separate families through deportation and family visa policies, yet these more routine, less spectacular forms of violence remain largely hidden. Moreover, although the domestic and international condemnation eventually led Trump to reverse his policy, this ‘reversal’ involved the expansion of family detention, and attempts to indefinitely detain children (with their families).
Even in these cases when the dragnet of hostile policies reveal the unabashed aggression of the state to marginalize and target racialized others, the battle lines between the deserving and undeserving migrants are redrawn and simultaneously reinforced. Migration ‘crises’ can thus serve to further re-inscribe inequalities by elevating particular groups over others. Syrian refugees have recently been seen as deserving, while Afghan refugees are now deported as Afghanistan is deemed a ‘safe country’ despite the continuing violence there. Windrush became a scandal because of revelations of how citizens were made ‘illegal’. Yet, the ways in which other people are illegalized by arbitrary migration controls remained largely absent in the ensuing debates. Rather than opening up a debate about how immigration controls always carve through families and communities, the rightful condemnation of the injustice dealt to the Windrush generation resulted in the re-inscription of the line between deserving and undeserving.
The West is not facing a migration crisis. It faces a political crisis in the form of growing inequality, the rise of far-right, and the associated splintering of the European Union. Migration crises, constructed regardless of the number of people arriving, are a convenient distraction from these challenges. However, the drivers of migration, the glaring economic, environmental, political and social inequality and insecurity that exist around the world, and the ineffectiveness of the global capitalist system to meaningfully address them, are not being examined. Rather, we are witnessing growing global economic inequality, the threat of trade wars, and governments refusing to invest in real social protection, instead brandishing border walls and draconian migration controls as false protection for their citizens.
This is a historical moment that calls for progressive, visionary leadership. Though there are glimmers of hope in the creative protests against anti-migrant policies and the election of young, progressive candidates such as Ocasio-Cortez in New York City, too often political elites run campaigns of fear, fear of migrants as well as fear of the rise of the far right. This moment calls for a creative re-imaging of borders and migration policies. After decades of militarizing our borders and pushing migration controls to countries of origin and transit, it is clear that these policies fail: they fail to deter migrants, they cause more people to die, and they cost enormous sums of money. Yet, at the moment when it seems obvious that this system is not working, we find ourselves returning to neo-nationalism and xenophobia in the form of Brexit, Trumpism, Israel’s new Nationality Bill, and Hungary’s ‘Stop Soros’ laws. These actions mark the impoverishment of democracy and imagination. We must continue to protest the inhumanity and ineffectiveness of these political acts.
As Hannah Arendt remarked in The Origins of Totalitarianism, ‘the last century has produced an abundance of ideologies that pretend to be keys to history but are actually nothing but desperate efforts to escape responsibility.’ Responsibility is the issue that is foregrounded in our special issue of Social and Legal Studies. How international law is responsible for ignoring Palestinian statelessness; how Australia, the US, and EU member states are responsible for diminishing spaces for asylum, and thereby precipitating the ‘migration crisis’; the responsibility of emerging Asian governments to seek necessary and appropriate laws that protect human rights; the responsibility of Brazil to accept that their desire for regional leadership also demands they develop necessary laws for asylum; the responsibility to acknowledge the enduring influence of colonialism in how state’s manage human migration and mobility; and the responsibility we all have to fight for a more just world where freedom of movement is not reserved for the global elite.
Cetta Mainwaring is a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow. Her recent publications can be found here.
Margaret Walton-Roberts is a professor in Geography and the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada. Her recent publications can be found here.
Together they are the co-editors of a special issue of Social & Legal Studies entitled ‘Governing Migration from the Margins’ and the co-authors an article in that issue of the same title (2018) 27(2) Social & Legal Studies 131-141. The article is available for free for a limited time only (correct at 15.10.2018)