In the spring of 1999, British Home Office Minister Barbara Roche described the "aggressive" begging-with-baby techniques of asylum-seeking Eastern European Romani women in London as "vile." This was just one outburst in a prolonged and unsettling outbreak of near-xenophobic hysteria which flooded British tabloid newspapers and the mainstream of the political debate, with both Labour and Conservatives competing to out-tough each other with measures including locking up asylum applicants.
In September of this year, the same minister surprised many pundits with a speech in which she extolled the social, economic and cultural benefits of inward migration and called for an increased intake of new foreign workers. "Aspiring economic migrants to Britain must be scratching their heads," commented The Economist (9 September 2000, p 43).
Recently, there has been a great deal of short-sighted or just plain intolerant thinking on the issue of migration and a crying need for sane and humane policy-making. Jeremy Harding's highly-recommended contribution to the debate is this extended essay (a revised version of one he published in February 2000 in the London Review of Books, the literary newspaper where he is a senior editor), which is now available in a slim and very readable 120-page paperback. The Uninvited: Refugees at the Rich Man's Gate combines excellent reportage and incisive analysis, drawing always on the historical perspective and exhibiting a confident feel for current and future trends.
Post-Cold War migration
Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a sharp rise in the number of migrants arriving in the European Union (EU). Asylum applications in Western Europe rose from 104,000 in 1984 to 692,000 in 1992, and they were still running at 400,000 in 1999. This period has constituted the twentieth century's second period of great migration, after the one which peaked between the 1920s and 1940s, when most European countries opened their borders to refugees with commendable generosity. Harding's historical and global perspective is convincing, though he could be criticised for giving insufficient weight to the mass deportations of Germans in 1945.
Despite important primary migration at the end of the European empires, there was actually a relatively low level of movement in the Cold War era. But this gave way to new uprootings, provoked by the unfreezing of numerous conflicts worldwide, coinciding with the rapid growth in cheap global travel and the worldwide projection of images of rich Western society. By now, he notes, "the idea of sanctuary had withered" (p 33), and migrants were received with much less warmth in West European countries. Indeed, humanitarianism has become a commodity the UK exports, using it to justify its actions in Kosovo while it remains in short supply at home in Britain.
Though the conflicts in former Yugoslavia have created the continent's biggest movements of people since the late 1940s, these new migrations have not affected Europe alone. Half of the world's refugees are in Africa, while Iran and Pakistan, for example, each hold around two million in temporary camps.
But Fortress Europe, as Harding terms it, is the main focus of The Uninvited. The western end of the continent has all but pulled up the drawbridge around itself to create "Europe's dreary pastoral fantasy, in which the EU resembles an Alpine valley, surrounded by impregnable, snow-capped mountains" (p 24).
Restrictions on primary immigration have been in force across the EU for years (which is a big reason why asylum applications have soared: other routes are closed). Boris Johnson, editor of The Spectator, has described this vision of homogeneity as a "racist stockade." In a shrinking world in which we increasingly like to think of ourselves as global citizens, rich Europeans seem bewilderingly afraid of new blood.
The roots of this attitude go back a long way. Harding cites a Daily Mail article from October 1999, entitled "The Good Life on Asylum Alley," which has echoes of a Daily Mail piece from 1900, when a shipload of Jewish refugees from South Africa met with a vitriolic reception upon arrival in Britain (pp 48-49). Harding notes that in their attitudes and language, receiving countries often take their lead from the persecuting governments who have driven out the migrants: in 1998, the Dover Express described the Kosovan and Kurdish refugees in its midst as "human sewage" (p 37) or "the scum of the earth" (p 56). And, as in the 1930s with the Jews, today there is a particular vitriol reserved for Romani immigrants who are all too often stateless, unwanted everywhere.
Harding's analysis is structured around some fascinating reportage. He visits the Puglia coast of Italy, where he follows the efforts of Italian authorities to prevent illegal immigrants from streaming across the Otranto Channel on inflatable boats from Albania, and talks to the new arrivals and the authorities who look after them.
He also spends time in Spain's North African enclave of Ceuta, the target of increasing numbers of extremely determined people fleeing conflicts, poverty and lack of opportunity in West Africa. The EU has responded by providing GBP 25 million in funding to surround the enclave with an eight-kilometre-long double-security fence complete with razor wire, watchtowers, infrared cameras and 24-hour patrols with dogs and guns. Evidence of a slight siege mentality?
One of the strengths of Harding's narrative is that it shows how many popular attitudes are rooted in myth. For example, he confronts the popular division between "genuine" asylum applicants and "bogus" economic migrants. It is absurd that the catch-all term "economic migrant" is becoming one of abuse. As he puts it, "the banker from Seattle who signs a five-year contract for a post in Berlin is a migrant," and we have no problem with him (p 7).
Britons should know better: in their time they have been the world's champion migrants. In fact, the suffering of an economic migrant from, for example, sub-Saharan Africa may be just as unbearable as that of a political refugee from Algeria. In a bitter irony, the perilous desert trek that has to be made to reach Ceuta from south of the Sahara serves to sieve out the applicants: those job-seekers who make it "are among the most highly motivated in Europe" (p 118).
A Europe that is rapidly ageing and facing a worsening dependency ratio needs new workers who tend to be motivated and self-reliant, net contributors to societies. The American economy continues to thrive on migrant labour. Yet, to date Britain has chosen to restrict economically motivated immigration and makes asylum applicants live off paltry handouts in the humiliating form of vouchers.
Hardliners who argue for dispersing asylum applicants evenly between EU countries, and inside the UK between different regions, often reason that "genuine" refugees will be grateful wherever they are sent: those who wish to choose exactly where to live are guilty of "asylum shopping." This is counterproductive. It makes sense for new arrivals to settle where they already have friends or family who can help them find work; and this must be better for the country as a whole, which otherwise may grudgingly have to support another benefit claimant.
Harding even tackles the popular image of human traffickers as, without exception, evil. This is lucrative work, and the cost in human misery can be appalling: consider the 80 or 90 migrants drowned in a collision between coastguard and trafficker off the Italian coast in 1997; or the 58 Chinese migrants discovered suffocated in a lorry at Dover this summer; or the estimated 3000 who have perished crossing the Straits of Gibraltar in the past five years.
Though Harding admits there are "few Schindlers" among this breed (p 20), he is struck by one report of the care taken by Albanian traffickers to deliver their charges safely onto the Italian shore, despite the close attention of a chasing coastguard boat. A conversation with a drug trafficker in Tangier revealed that for him, drugs paid far better than human trafficking (contrary to many public pronouncements in the West) and are less risky: "If things go wrong for a migrants' agent, he can't heave his passengers overboard as you would a consignment of drugs. If they go badly wrong, he has other deaths to consider, along with his own, in the final prayer" (pp 104-105).
Yet in the terminology of global capitalism, these human traffickers are providing a service that is in demand. "All the while, governments strenuously resist the conclusion about the free movement of people that they reached with equanimity about the free movement of capital: that it may be an expensive waste of time to try to fend it off" (p 86).
As Europe contemplates with varying levels of enthusiasm its planned enlargement to the east, this contradiction lies at the heart of some current tensions on the issue. Poland, for example, is concerned that joining the EU's free market will allow wealthy Germans to buy up Polish property at knock-down prices, and yet at the same time Germans and other West Europeans are pressing for transitional restrictions on the migration of Poles into existing EU states.
No measures, however draconian, will stop the demand for migration. We would do better to get used to that now and allow all to enjoy the many benefits there are to be had. Perhaps that is the British government's belated realisation.
Oliver Craske, 16 October 2000
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1. "Comment: This Is a Demented Way to Treat Our Kith and Kin,"The Daily Telegraph, 20 April 2000.