The following is an interview with Nick Evans, a member of Oxford University’s rs21.
More people around the world were forcibly displaced in 2014 than ever before in recorded history. Of those 59.5 million people, 19.5 million were classed by the UN as refugees. The overwhelming majority of those refugees were hosted in developing regions, but unprecedented numbers have also attempted to make the dangerous crossing into Europe. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees reports that over 219,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean last year, which is three times the previous recorded maximum in 2011. Over 3,500 women, men and children drowned or were lost making the crossing. All this before the start of this year.
The mass displacement is driven by wars, persecution and impoverishment with many different immediate causes. Nonetheless, the violence caused by resource stripping, military intervention and lethal competition between the imperial powers lies at the root of this human misery. Those fleeing poverty are responding to a situation created by capitalism and imperialism, just as those fleeing war are. “We are here because you were there”, in the words of the 1970s Asian Youth Movement.
Is Britain different from Germany?
Angel Merkel’s rhetoric has stood in sharp contrast to David Cameron’s response. Her denunciation of “those who question the dignity of other people” could apply as much to the British Prime Minister’s remarks about “a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life”, as to the far-right protesters in Germany itself. At an important moment this autumn, Merkel’s stance gave confidence to people across Europe wishing to challenge the anti-immigrant racism that has defined Europe’s politics for so long.
However, we should not be naïve about the opportunism of a politician who drove 14-year-old Palestinian refugee Reem Sahwil to tears in July telling her “some will need to go back”. Merkel has famously argued that multiculturalism in Europe has “failed, utterly failed”. The German state is an architect of Fortress Europe, a militarised system of controls that relies on states in Southern and Eastern Europe and North Africa to play the part of Europe’s border policemen. Meanwhile, the German economy faces a labour shortage, with the Institute for Employment in Nuremburg suggesting that Germany will need to add 400,000 skilled immigrants to its workforce every year to maintain economic power. We might point to Germany to shame Cameron and demand more, but we should not to whitewash Merkel’s own record.
Are immigration controls necessarily racist?
Yes. Some politicians argue that immigration controls are necessary to preserve good race relations. Others avoid such blatant dog-whistling and suggest it would be possible to impose controls without using racist criteria to distinguish between foreigners. But discrimination against foreigners is inherently racist. In Teresa Hayter’s words, “Immigration controls embody, legitimate and institutionalise racism”. Policing human beings’ access to resources on the basis of the country where they or their parents were born is racist.
Historically, the introduction of immigration controls has always been the product of explicitly racist agitation, from the influence of the far-right British Brothers’ League on the introduction of the first legislated immigration controls, the Aliens Act of 1905, to the Tories’ panic about UKIP and the Immigration Act of 2014. Until the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, there were no controls preventing subjects from the Commonwealth and colonies from entering the UK. Even Tory politicians were clear about the implications of revoking this right: “If we legislate on immigration, though we can draft it in non-discriminatory terms, we cannot conceal the obvious fact that the object is to keep out coloured people.” (Lord Swinton, 1954).
How do sexism and homophobia shape immigration policy?
Borders are not simply walls that keep people out; they are a form of state violence that enter our most intimate experiences. The violence is thoroughly gendered. Discussions of immigration return again and again to sex. Racists are obsessed with the fertility of non-white populations. Otherwise discredited biological racism constantly resurfaces in discussions of family sizes.
Sexist stereotypes alternate between emphasising the vulnerability of migrant women and slut-shaming them to legitimate repressive immigration policies. Racism and sexism combine to create images of Muslim men as a security threat, and women and children as passive victims. These notions not only serve to justify military interventions abroad, but to impose distinctions on those fleeing the same interventions, breaking up families, and sending children back when they reach 18.
Immigration laws give the state powers to adjudicate about sexualities and sexual relationships. Since April 2015 the Home Office has had the power to investigate “the genuineness of a relationship” if it believes a marriage is a “sham”. LGBT people seeking asylum in the UK on grounds of their sexuality are required to answer questions such as “What is it about men’s backsides that attracts you?” In the 1970s virginity tests were forcibly imposed on women wishing to enter Britain from the Indian subcontinent in order to marry their fiancés. This was rape. The sexual violence remains pervasive within the immigration system, as the brave women held at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre have revealed again and again.
How big a factor is climate change in the current “refugee crisis”?
Climate change is not a direct cause of the “refugee crisis” at Calais this summer. Most of the people trying to enter the UK from Calais are fleeing conflict and repression in countries such as Syria, Eritrea and Pakistan. Due to climate change, droughts are becoming more common in many parts of the world, including the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. A serious drought which destroyed agriculture in rural areas, leading several million people to move to Syria’s cities, preceded the revolution. The inability of the urban infrastructure to accommodate expanded populations may have sharpened determination to rise up against Assad’s brutal and increasingly neoliberal regime in the context of a region-wide revolt.
Migration does not automatically lead to conflict for scarce resources. This is a myth that is used to legitimise border controls. Whatever the reasons the people in Calais had for making the journey to enter the UK in the first place, their current suffering is the result of UK immigration policy. Climate change will force more people to move as drought and floods render parts of the globe uninhabitable; this summer has given us a terrible glimpse of the misery this will cause for people confronted by militarised border regimes, by fences, guard-dogs, detention centres, naval patrols and restricted rights when they decide to move as a result.
Is it utopian to call for no borders?
No. Comprehensive controls to stop immigration are new. They have only been part of British law since the introduction of the Aliens Act of 1905. Over the last thirty years in particular, there has been an unprecedented globalisation of capital accompanied by an ever more militarised and pervasive set of controls on the migration of human beings. This has been accompanied by expansion of the control that the 1 percent exerts over our working and resting lives. Politicians like to present border controls as necessary ways to “allay fears” and “prevent racial conflict”. In fact, they are designed to do the opposite. Getting rid of them would serve the interests of the vast majority of us.
This interview originally appeared in the Autumn 2015 issue of the rs21 magazine.