Imagine a Country Without Migrants

It’s nearly three months since the idea of a national protest by and in support of migrants in the UK on Feb 20 next year went viral on social media. In that time what began as a Facebook discussion has morphed into the national campaign One Day Without Us. We now have more than two dozen groups across the country. We have received support from various organisations, including Hope Not Hate, War on Want, and the Migrants Rights Network.

When I first suggested this possibility back in early October, I asked what people would think of a national migrant strike/boycott on the lines of two similar protests in the US in 2006 and in Italy in 2010. In the course of the many discussions that have taken place since then, this concept has evolved into a National Day of Action to highlight the contribution that migrants make to British society, in which taking time off work is one of a wide spectrum of actions that people can take to highlight the contribution that migrants make to British society and show solidarity with them.

Launching an organic grassroots campaign without any financial support or the backing of any political party has not been easy. Throughout this process I have been inspired by the many people who have rallied to this idea, and by the courage and commitment shown by migrants and British citizens across the country who have given their time entirely voluntarily to help organise what is an unprecedented protest in the history of the UK.

Along the way I have constantly been reminded of why an event like this necessary: the Belgian told to ‘go home’ when walking his dogs on the beach; a Greek who has had his windows broken; a Portuguese woman chased down a London street by a racist gang; a British Asian woman racially abused with her mum and two cousins on a bus; the desperation and insecurity of men and women who have lived in this country for decades and are told that their right to remain is in jeopardy.

This has been a year in which the national ‘debate’ about immigration has more than ever been saturated with hatred, fear and anti-migrant hostility; when migrants are blamed for problems they didn’t cause; when politicians too often lack the courage to speak out against these tendencies and prefer to pander to them instead.

In this climate it has been heartening and deeply moving to be reminded of the many people in this country – both migrants and British citizens – who do not accept the alarming victimisation and scapegoating of migrants, and are determined to try and counter it with a more positive and inclusive vision of what British society could be.

Many people have given not just their time, but their creativity to our campaign. This week we have launched a remarkable campaign video, that was shot and produced by Emigrant Beard productions, a Bristol-based company of mostly Spanish nationals which specialises in internet documentaries on ’emigration in the UK from the emigrant perspective.’

Emigrant Beard approached us at a very early stage in the campaign and offered to make the video for free. We asked the company to come up with a concept based on the idea of disappearing people – and particularly disappearing workers – that would invite people to imagine what the UK would be like if there were no migrants in the country for one day.

Having agreed on this basic concept, Emigrant Beard asked us to give them a script that would be poetic and evocative. We then approached the playwright Steve Waters, author of Temple and the forthcoming Limehouse. Waters welcomed the opportunity to participate in what he calls ‘ a wake-up to all of us to celebrate the diversity of our country and the vital role people of all nations play in the way we live and work.’

In little more than a day,Waters came up with a beautifully-turned rhymed script written as a short question and answer dialogue, in which migrants from various professions – baristas, surgeons, teachers, cleaners – tell their interlocutors that Feb 20 will be ‘ a day without us.’ The ‘questions’ are spoken by the professional actors Linus Roache and Lee Ross, who generously – and in the current climate – courageously – offered their services for free.

For Roache, this was a philosophical decision, in keeping with his belief that ‘we are living in a globalizing world. There is no going back, we need to be fearless in our embrace of diversity. This is the march of human evolution toward greater unity.’

The rest of the script was spoken by migrant ‘actors’ from Bristol. Carlos Blanco, who is also one of the cameramen and editors,appears in the film because ‘ I felt it was important first of all because I am a migrant and I don’t feel that bad about it. I think all of us should be proud of it; to be a migrant is to be brave. I hope people realize that.’

For Nadia Castilla, the video was an opportunity ‘ to be part of a project that includes everyone and that sends such a positive message’. To Emigrant Beard’s sound engineer Gerardo Pastor Ruiz, even the sound was part of the film’s attempt to give ‘ a voice to people who needed to be heard.’

What gives the video its power and its visual poetry are the close-up shots of eyes, mouths and parts of faces, which powerfully highlight the humanity of people who too often are not regarded as people at all, but as intruders, usurpers and outsider.

The result is a not just a campaign video, but a short film of real beauty and emotional power, which we are proud to associate with our campaign. For the film’s director Jacobo GF, the message of this video is: ‘Lets make the United Kingdom an amazing place to live, a paradise for everyone who really appreciates it. It does not matter where are you from or what is your background as long as you contribute to the cause of making this place better day after day.’

This is not a perspective we are used to hearing in these bleak times, but we feel that nowadays it needs to be heard more than ever. As the film reminds us, migrants are not invaders and strangers, but part of society in which all have a place:

We live with you and work with you
We’re part of this place we’ve travelled to
We’re part of your today and your tomorrow too

February 20 is an opportunity to recognize that reality – and also to celebrate it, anyway you can.

Europe’s Porous Borders: Leonidas Cheliotis and the logic of ‘punitive inclusion’

Think of borders in the 21st century and you immediately think of walls, barbed wire fences, razor wire, checkpoints, quasi-military border patrols on land and sea, surveillance cameras, sensors and a panoply of high-tech paraphernalia whose essential purpose is to keep unwanted people out.   This is the kind of imagery that we tend – rightly – to associate with ‘Fortress Europe’ and other border regimes that have begun to proliferate across the world, and on the Western borders in particular.

These reinforced barriers, we are told, are intended to protect us from Islamic State and other enemies that want to kill us; or from other morbid consequences of the ‘dark side of globalisation’ such as human traffickers, drugs, organized crime or sexual exploitation. We take it for granted that  such barriers are necessary to protect our labour markets, our welfare systems, our cultures and our lifestyles against unwanted ‘illegal immigrants’,  whether they come in the form of despised ‘economic migrants’ or ‘bogus asylum seekers’ or simply refugees who we don’t want to find room for.

Governments routinely attempt to draw political capital by demonstrating their ability to exclude unwanted ‘illegal’ people at the border and deport those who make it through these barriers.   The European Union has attempted – with catastrophic consequences – to ‘manage’ and control the new 21st century migratory movements that are generally deemed to be harmful and threatening.

But there is also another dimension to the ‘ Fortress’ model which tends to receive less attention; namely that these barriers are not impermeable, and are not even intended to be. Every year tens of thousands of ‘illegal immigrants’ succeed in crossing Europe’s borders, and some of them succeed in finding work. Usually the jobs they do are unskilled, low-paid,  and off the books.  They might work in construction, fruit-picking, agriculture, food production, or cockle-picking.   They might be found in the rural economies of peripheral European countries such as Greece, Spain or Italy, in Morecombe Bay, Madrid, Brescia or Athens.

These are the workers who inhabit the Sheffield  in Sanjeev Sahota’s powerful novel The Year of the Runaways; .men and women without rights, who can expect no holidays, no sickness or unemployment benefits, or pensions.    Legally they don’t exist, but their illegality means that  they are constantly visible to police and immigration officials, and liable to  immigration raids, detention and deportation.

This is the grim reality for hundreds of thousands of men and women across Europe, who illegality makes it possible for them to work and yet also traps them in a permanent legal limbo where they can never access the rights of the ‘legal’ indigenous workforce, let alone the rights of national citizens.

Governments occasionally acknowledge this phenomenon, and shake their heads or wring their hands about it.  Some countries issue periodic amnesties which allow illegal workers to step out of their invisibility; others promise to crack down on the gangmasters and employers who make use of such labour – even if these efforts tend to be half-hearted and generally driven by the desire to deport undocumented migrants rather than protect workers from exploitation.

This new flexible ‘reserve army of labour’ is not simply an accidental consequence of Europe’s ‘hard’ borders, however.    When I was researching my book Fortress Europe, I met African workers in the greenhouses of Almeria in southern Spain who lived in shacks and were paid well below the minimum wage; and workers in the city of Brescia in northern Italy who staged a spectacular protest on a crane because they had been conned into paying for legal permits that they were never going to receive.

Nowadays, the indigenous European workforce is often encouraged to see migrant workers as competitors stealing ‘their’ jobs, but it was clear in these and in other cases, that the undocumented workers who made it through Europe’s lethal gauntlet were generally doing jobs that Europeans did not want to do, and that their illegality had left them stranded in a permanent zone of exploitation that they could not change or escape from.

This is the argument that the LSE criminologist Dr Leonidas Cheliotis has made in a compelling new paper Punitive Inclusion. A Political Economy of Irregular Migration in the Margins of Europe,  which is due to be published in the European Journal of Criminology.

Basing his research mostly on his native Greece, Cheliotis argues that the lethal Greek borders that have claimed so many migrant lives in recent years are actually more permeable than they appear, and that as a result, ‘  large flows of irregular immigration have effectively been channelled towards Greece’s perilous though still porous borders by ever-tightening restrictions imposed across Europe upon irregular immigration from other parts of the world, in the form, for example, of stricter policing of national borders and narrowed opportunities for accessing asylum and visa procedures.’

This combination has left nearly 400,000 undocumented migrants trapped inside Greece, on the desperate margins of a society in crisis, working in the largest shadow economy in Europe.  Not only have the border controls established by the European Union and successive Greek governments failed to prevent the exploitation of the undocumented migrant workforce, but they have actually facilitated it, since:

‘The massive swathes of irregular migrants who keep crossing the porous Greek borders in search of a better future lend themselves ideally both as exploitable workers and amenable reserves. For one, their numbers help ensure that a sufficiently large pool of ‘surplus’ labourers is always at hand, whilst their desperate predicament as a result of poverty and attendant needs (e.g., to earn a living) further inclines them to exploitability if and when a job becomes available. ‘

The ‘exploitability’ of migrant workers in Greece, Cheliotis suggests, is facilitated by a dysfunctional and protracted asylum system and an inadequate and cumbersome regularisation process that generally issues only temporary work permits, when it issues them at all, and which has transformed migrant workers in emblematic members of the new 21st century precariat living ‘in limbo, shifting between regular and irregular status with long breaks filled with uncertainty and anxiety in between, when their chances of falling victim to unscrupulous lawyers, mafia operators and corrupt state officials are also greater.’

All this is bad enough, but migrant workers are also subject to racist attacks by Golden Dawn fascists and to ‘ intimidatory practices of over-policing, including a greater likelihood of being stopped and searched, alongside so-called ‘sweep’ or ‘cleaning operations’ launched in the name of fighting illegal immigration and associated crimes.’

Unscrupulous employers have found this marginalisation and vulnerability extremely useful.  In some cases Greek employers have actually threatened to call in Golden Dawn to deal with workers who have protested their wages and conditions. The violence directed at migrants, Cheliotis argues, is exacerbated by ‘mainstream political discourse [which] appears to have had an appreciable degree of influence on public attitudes, either inciting or sustaining and exacerbating concern about the impact of immigration on Greek society, fear of crime by immigrants, and punitiveness towards them.’

All these components are part of a process that Cheliotis calls ‘punitive inclusion’ in which

‘ apparently unrelated policies on matters of immigration, welfare, employment and punishment, together with practices of anti-migrant brutality and intimidation by state and non-state actors, have effectively formed a continuum of violence that forces irregular migrants either to submit to any available condition of work or to await for their chance in a disciplined fashion.’

The same could be said of many of the estimated four million undocumented workers in Europe.  In his incisive analysis of  the relationship between illegality and exploitation in Greece,  Cheliotis has also drawn much-needed attention to a generally unacknowledged consequence of our world of proliferating borders.

Many of his conclusions can be applied not only to Fortress Europe, but to the US-Mexico border and other barriers across the world that seek to keep certain categories of  ‘illegal’ people out, even as they ensure that others are trapped inside them,   at the very bottom of the great pyramid of precarious ‘flexible’ labour that our unequal and grossly unjust world increasingly relies on.

For a copy of the paper, contact Joanna Bale, LSE Press Office, [email protected].   

 

Europe’s ‘Migration Crisis’ : Repression with a human face

 

Many years ago Franco Solinas, the scriptwriter for Gillo Pontecorvo’s masterpiece The Battle of Algiers, was asked by an interviewer why the French colonel Mathieu – a pragmatic exponent of torture –  was portrayed as ‘ too much of a gentleman in fatigues, excessively noble.  He is elegant, cultured….’  Solinas replied that ‘ There is no intention to create nobility.  Mathieu is elegant and cultured because Western civilization is neither inelegant nor stupid.’

I’ve often found myself thinking of Solinas’ s observation, while watching the way that European politicians have responded to the continent’s ‘migration crisis’ during the last weeks.  Listening to these politicians one would easily be forgiven for thinking that European governments mulling over the crisis are motivated by nothing more than the noblest humanitarian principles.

Last week I watched the French prefect Fabienne Buccio and other officials justifying the demolition of the Calais ‘jungle’ as ‘the most humane option’.  Buccio was photographed, looking earnest and concerned, as police demolished the shacks and tents that have gone up since the summer.  On Channel 4 News I watched the French ambassador to the UK similarly describing the demolitions as a humane act intended to improve the living conditions of the migrants stranded there.

Similarly humanitarian arguments have been put forward again and again by European politicians to justify actions that often have a very different purpose.  But while politicians talk of destroying smugglers’ ‘ business models’, saving lives and preventing dangerous journeys, the unstated objective of the European Union and most of its member states remains the same as it has always been: to prevent people from coming to Europe by an unacknowledged policy of deterrence and repression.

In recent weeks, this policy of repression has intensified up and down Europe’s borders, as men, women and even children have been teargassed and attacked by police, in migration ‘hot spots’ up and down the continent’s frontiers.   Consider the list of requests for border protection equiptment from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia to a meeting attended by Austria and a group of nine Balkan states on 24 February to discuss how to close the ‘Western Balkan’ route for undocumented migrants.

The list was leaked by the excellent EurActiv website, and its requests give an indication of Macedonia’s priorities – and those of the states to whom the requests were sent.  In addition to engineering equipment to build a 300 kilometer security fence and a 400 person capacity camp, vehicles, and expenses to cover the ‘technical capability of an army’,  its demands for ‘equipment for crowd control’ include

  • Crowd control dispenser
  • OS spray (pepper spray)
  • “TASER” X26 – an electrical device
  • Weapon with rubber bullets
  • Special bomb (shock, with rubber balls)
  • Acoustic device to break the mob
  • Launcher (grenade with rubber balls)

According to EurActiv, the only objection from the states that received these requests was that this equipment  might be used for ‘internal repression’ in the lead-up to Macedonia’s snap elections in June.  ‘External’  repression, against migrants and refugees, it seems, is not a problem.

There is a grim logic to these developments.  For years, Europe’s policy of deterrence has been based on the belief that the worst things get for migrants, the more likely they are to stop coming.   The events of the last 12 months have made it glaringly obvious that this is not happening.  In these circumstances, Europe must either reconsider this policy and consider more humane solutions – or escalate the level of deterrence still further.

Despite the brief shift towards the former by Germany and other states last summer, Europe as a whole has remained firmly committed to deterrence, and last night’s breakthrough deal with Turkey is no exception.   Europe now proposes to send all refugees back to Turkey, and it has even sent NATO to the Aegean to make sure that this happens.

In effect, the EU has bribed Turkey – a country with a population of 75 million people – to take primary responsibility for absorbing the refugees that Europe – a continent with a population of 500 million – regards as a ‘crisis.’  Not only will Turkey accept all refugees ‘readmitted’ from Europe, but it will also take on responsibility for ‘readmitting’ them to their countries of origin.

To achieve this, the EU has empowered the gangster government of Recep Tayib Erdogan to take on the role once played by Colonel Gaddafi, and turn Turkey into a migrant holding ground and dumping ground for Europe’s unwanted refugees, even as Erdogan’s government is engaged in a reckless and headlong assault on Turkishcivil society and democracy.  No wonder Erdogan’s crony Ahmet Davutoğlu can’t stop smiling – you can’t blame him really.

This sleazy deal should be shameful and disgraceful, but Europe’s leaders, it seems, no longer feel any shame when it comes to migration.  They no longer appear willing even to uphold the principles on which the European Union was founded.  The treatment of refugees in Idomeni, Calais, Dunkerque and so many other places suggests that they are no longer even concerned to uphold elementary principles of civilized behaviour.

But even as they depart from these standards in practice, European governments continue to proclaim their commitment to refugee protection in principle.  So no one should be surprised to hear Donald Tusk, Cameron and others, boasting that they have ‘solved’ the migration crisis, even as Europe’s governments squirt migrants with tear gas and ask for tasers and rubber bullets.

Because no matter how thin and threadbare Europe’s civilized mask becomes, there will always be politicians who will never stop wearing it, and who, like Colonel Mathieu, remain ‘elegant and cultured’ even as they oversee the ongoing barbarity taking place at Europe’s borders .

 

A Bunch of Migrants

No one should be surprised that our prime minister should have marked Holocaust Day to regale the nation with a contemptuous joke about how Jeremy Corbyn met with a ‘bunch of migrants in Calais’ and ‘told them that they could all come to Britain..  Contrary to Jonathan Freedland’s schoolmasterish suggestion that this jocularity was ‘beneath him’, Cameron’s remark was in fact perfectly in character  and pitched at exactly the level – somewhere in the lower levels of the political and moral gutter – that he and his government naturally inhabit.

After all, we are talking about  a politician who has long since shed the flimsy veneer of compassionate conservative/green bicycle man that the Tory PR department invented for him, back in the days when it was politically convenient to do so.  In power, Cameron has shown exactly what kind of man he is and what kind of politician he is.  He has rarely missed an opportunity to portray immigrants as parasitic and dangerous intruders and enemies of the taxpayer whether they come from Eastern Europe or from outside it.

So it is entirely natural  that he would say something like this in parliament, and that he would think that in doing so he was being funny and hilarious in a blokish Mock the Week/Jeremy Clarkson kind of way, and those who have accused him of demeaning his office or failing to pay due spirit to Holocaust Day are trying to give this hollow chancer a gravitas and integrity that he just doesn’t have.

Some of Cameron’s critics have highlighted the callousness of his ‘bunch of migrants’ remark; others have criticized him for diminishing and dehumanising the men, women and children it refers to.   Both accusations are entirely correct, but there is another dimension to Cameron’s jocular banter that goes beyond the question of character or the suggestion of bad taste.

His choice of words wasn’t just intended to get his own backbenchers rolling in the aisles, it was aimed at a wider gallery that already shares the same contempt and loathing that his formulation expressed so glibly.  The Oxford Dictionary contains the following definition of ‘migrant’:

  1. A person who moves from one place to another in order to find work or better living conditions.
  2. An animal that migrates.

The dictionary also defines the adjective ‘migrant’ as ‘tending to migrate or having migrated: “migrant birds”.’  Merriam Webster echoes the same definition, though it also has an older and more specific variant of migrant as ‘a person who moves regularly in order to find work especially in harvesting crops.’

In both dictionaries ‘migrant’ is distinct from ‘immigrant’, which the Oxford Dictionary describes as ‘ A person who comes to live permanently in a foreign country. ‘ Merriam-Webster also refers to ‘a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence.’

It’s worth revisiting these definitions in order to see how far we have moved from them, and how Cameron’s remark yesterday was removed from them.  In British political culture the word ‘migrant’ has become an almost entirely pejorative term.  If we applied its strict dictionary meanings, we would find that many of the people who have come to the UK are both ‘migrants’ and ‘immigrants’ rather than one or the other.  We would also have to refer to British citizens who live abroad as migrants and immigrants or both.

But these definitions don’t even begin to encapsulate the meanings that the word ‘migrant’ has acquired through decades of relentless misuse by politicians and newspapers.  Like ‘asylum seeker’, ‘migrant’ has become a word that automatically dehumanizes and demeans the people it refers to.

Both terms have acquired various sub-meanings that are automatically understood by those who use them and those who hear them.   Today ‘migrant’ has become a code word in British tabloidspeak which is synonymous with ‘invader’, ‘intruder’, ‘alien’, ‘parasite’, ‘criminal’, ‘job thief’, ‘fraud’ and a host of other assumptions.

These imagined and assumed characteristics routinely invite and enable the British public to freely fear and despise the men and women who come this country whether to ‘find work or better living conditions’ or in order to seek sanctuary and protection from war and persecution, without every having to express their xenophobic or racist sub-texts outright.

Let’s not pretend there are any other sentiments behind headlines like ‘Migrants take over idyllic British tourist hamlet’ (Daily Express), ‘ Migrants take our jobs’ (Daily Express again), ‘Migrant rape fears spread across Europe.’ (Daily Mail)

There is a lot more where this came from, and we have been digesting it for years.  Within this more general framework of fear and loathing there is always room for specific variants, whether it’s Poles who come here to take our benefits; Bulgarian or Romanian criminals; or the shadowy hooknosed invaders in the Daily Mail’s ‘rats’ cartoon, walking into Britain with rats scuttling around their sandalled feet.

The goalposts can also shift according to necessity.  When the Daily Mail claimed three days ago that ‘David Cameron rejects calls to take 3,000 migrant children’, it ignored the fact that most of these ‘migrant children’ in Calais are too young to be seeking work and are in fact seeking asylum, so they aren’t technically migrants at all.

But the purpose of this headline was the same as so many others: to fuel the bitterness, hatred and resentment that is steadily corroding British society, and present migrants of whatever age and origin as a threat to our jobs, security, culture and way of life.

Cameron’s ‘bunch of migrants’ joke yesterday was intended to have exactly the same effect.  Last year, Cameron – or one of his ghostwriters – wrote an introduction to a report on Holocaust remembrance,which pointed out ‘…The poisonous words and passive acceptance of discrimination which marked the beginning of the Holocaust can clearly be found in the ideology of extremism or in the hatred that underpins antisemitism, Islamophobia, racism and homophobia today.’

Yesterday Cameron delivered more ‘poisonous words’ with the casual insouciance that you would expect from Jeremy Clarkson.  He did so in the course of a debate about corporate tax avoidance,  in which he  variously depicted Corbyn as a defender of Argentinian claims to the Falklands, and a supporter of trade union rights – all of which supposedly defined  the Labour leader and his party as enemies of the ‘British people and the hard-working taxpayer’.

So let’s not pretend that it was a mistake or a throwaway remark.  Cameron knew exactly what he was doing and exactly which audience he wanted to reach.  It is certainly true, as so many of his critics have pointed out,  that language like this  ‘demeans his office’, but it is also extremely useful to his government that his audience should think about migrants and migration as a threat.

Cameron’s intervention was partly a cynical distraction.  But it was also a massive flashing green light to those who already see the ‘bunch of migrants’ in exactly the same way as he does, to continue what they are doing and thinking, which makes his remarks not only contemptible, but dangerous.