The only certainty is that migration in a world of unprecedented border controls remains shrouded in myth
Europe’s ‘Refugee Crisis’ has triggered progressive changes in public mood towards the forced movement of people from war-torn countries. In an age of austerity that renders expenditure on the welfare of ‘indigenous’ citizens a luxury, the willingness of Germany’s Angela Merkel to take a principled position on an issue as politically sensitive as immigration was an unusually bold assertion of moral conviction.
For now at least, Merkel’s gesture has helped foster a discourse of legitimacy around the asylum claims of families displaced by the conflict in Syria, reflected and reinforced by sympathetic sentiment expressed within the press and social media. Widely shared images of a drowned Syrian toddler shocked many into questioning a border control regime that routinely drives those displaced by the havoc of war into the perverse position of risking death to protect their lives. Al Jazeera dropped the word ‘migrant’ altogether from its coverage as part of a conscious bid to support the claims to residency of Syrians in Europe.
And yet, despite these apparently heartening developments, discussion surrounding international human mobility remains shrouded in myths and misconceptions. A number of these hinder sustainable, ethical responses to the challenges facing Europe and humanity in a world of unprecedented border controls.
Whether voluntary or forced, migration is a complex issue, frequently misrepresented by its various stakeholders. Receiving and sending societies, right-wing media and even migrants themselves tend not to speak openly about the realities of their experience. These rarely lend themselves to comprehension through the clunky bureaucratic lexicon of immigration law or even well-intentioned advocacy on behalf of migrants and their families. The latter, in recent months, may have succeeded in establishing some limited support for populations affected by the fighting in Syria. But in doing so, it has relied on creating its own mythology — that of the ‘good’ refugee, deserving of acceptance, implicitly opposed to an imaginary ‘bad’ ‘economic’ migrant, whose situation is purportedly incomparably different. This dichotomy may serve the strategic imperative of ensuring justice for a select few; but it delays confrontation of the broader questions posed by international migration — questions that will haunt Europe with increasing frequency as global inequality and environmental crises intensify.
To begin with, characterising the causes of mobility as either economic or political does not capture the social reality of how emigration ‘push’ factors work. Al Jazeera’s insistence that Syrian ‘refugees’ be classified as such and not as ‘migrants’ sets up refugee status an entitlement accessible only through proof of some kind of pure, authentic experience of victimhood. Apart from inadvertently marginalising the claims to residency of those deemed to be mere ‘migrants’, it seems quite possible some of those we would all insist are ‘genuine’ refugees are in fact also motivated by a mixture of factors, despite their initial displacement by conflict. Some of their concerns are little different to those of ‘economic migrants’. This is evident in their firm sense of entitlement to employment and housing in specific European countries; a small number of Uruguay’s small intake has reportedly asked to be relocated.
The drawing of neat lines around genuine refugees deserving of resettlement in Europe is thus a complicated business. And although it is arguably unavoidable within the current set-up, Europe’s experience since the 1990s has shown it generates extensive bureaucratic processes and new forms of injustice for those who do not qualify. It also forges new inequalities between those selected for absorption and those left behind in source countries, where the violence continues.
Indeed, despite eliciting an outburst of sentiment and some welcome policy concessions, the plight of Syrian refugees in Europe has done disappointingly little to highlight the global issues surrounding forced migration. The majority of this takes place within the global South. A good deal occurs within the borders of individual countries and barely registers internationally within the media. Pakistan, where close to a million have been displaced due to military operations in recent years, is a case in point. Syrian victims of war have themselves experienced immeasurable suffering in recent years before their visibility as participants in a European ‘crisis’. The latter have become identified as such precisely because of their decision to migrate to Europe through irregular channels.
In doing so, they have joined the ranks of many thousands of travellers from around the world whose strategies and experiences of migration are comparable, whatever the initial push factors behind their respective departures. The morbid reality we are witnessing at the gates of Fortress Europe is not unprecedented. Rather, it is one manifestation of an older migratory phenomenon that has developed over decades in conjunction with the rise in restrictionist immigration regimes. These took their current shape towards the end of the 20th century, and cannot be understood without reference to the recent history of human smuggling.
Despite the polarised nature of the debates around immigration, most participants tend to agree on one thing: human smugglers are evil. Their characterisation as mafias is routine. So too their representation as threats to the sovereignty of nation-states, whose border regimes they are generally assumed to undermine. Rarely do we consider the ways in which human smuggling is in fact dictated by state policies and the economic context in which many rich countries continue to rely upon a steady supply of cheap migrant labour. In reality, the rise of human smuggling is not a measure of state weakness; it is an indication of how very effective borders have become. In conjunction with smugglers (and indeed venal state officials), borders filter complex streams of humanity into a singular channel of irregular entrants without residential rights, ensuring the diverse motivations for their departure are rendered irrelevant in a journey that does not distinguish between authentic ‘refugees’ and so-called economic migrants.
Pathways of travel are segmented not by the legal categories we tend to use, but by social class: those with access to sufficient financial resources might avail relatively safe passage at considerable financial cost. The rest risk a watery grave in the Mediterranean, suffocation in containers and even live ammunition as they negotiate multiple overland crossings and checkpoints en route to Greece or Italy via Turkey and North Africa respectively.
We are often told human smuggling to Europe from countries as diverse as Pakistan and China is an index of ‘globalisation’, the rise of cheap travel, better communications and so on. Rarely is it acknowledged that the journeys many migrants are compelled to make on foot and by boat are closer to those endured by armies of the ancient world than those enjoyed by anyone lucky enough to travel internationally for leisure, professional development or study, from Europe to other continents. Nor is it the case that illegal travel is ‘cheap’. Quite apart from potentially costing migrants their lives, those who embark do so after making considerable investments — selling land or property and continuing to spend large sums of money in the process of regularising their residential statuses.
When one looks in detail at their trajectories, one has to question whether the search for security in the case of refugees, and upward social mobility for so-called economic migrants actually pays off. In some cases, it does; in others in plainly does not. Here we get to the heart of what migration is all about. Migration belies the technocratic assumption that populations of the global South are purely rational actors, pushed or pulled by one of two forces, political or economic. At least one aspect of the drives which motivate them is a powerful utopian mythology — a dream of arrival. Arrival not just at some specific geographic location, but at a secure and prosperous place in life, where they might experience the dignity and freedom taken for granted by so many Europeans.
Like many myths, this one is rooted in material realities — in this case that of global inequality. So long as the system that sustains it remains in place, refugees, migrants — call them what you will — will keep coming. Large-hearted responses to the current crisis should be welcomed. Not, however, at the cost of deferring more intractable ethical conundrums for subsequent generations.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 29th, 2015.
Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.