Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

Whose Crisis is it Anyway?

by Gareth Mulvey


‘I’m a refugee and I don’t like being described as a crisis’. This was a voice from the floor at a conference jointly organised by Bemis, Gramnet and the Swansea European Institute of Identities. The conference was called ‘Diversity, Citizenship and Identity in the UK 2015 and beyond’. It was based around the incredible political mobilisation in the Scottish independence referendum, and how to maintain it. However, the shadow of the current crisis in the Mediterranean loomed large, and was the topic raised by all of the individuals on panels and most questions and comments from the floor.

There has been a history of labelling things as migrant crises in this country, and as some of the theorists on crises point out, if you are able to determine that a ‘thing’ is a crisis, you are also often able to suggest the solution. Historically a migration ‘crisis’ has usually been presented as a numerical one, with the obvious solution presented being to shut up the borders, at least to the most unwanted movement. The understandable demand from our conference participant not to be seen as being part of the cause of a crisis, however, couldn’t dissuade myself and others of thinking of the current migratory flight from North Africa and the Middle East as a crisis. However, the crisis is not one for the UK. Indeed the crisis should at least in part be seen as one created by European border regimes. If people could move more freely it is likely that most would still remain in their homelands, as Europeans under free movement do, indeed as Scots in the UK do too, but the movement that did occur would not be seen in these crisis terms. Add to that Europe’s complicity in the push factors of this crisis, supporting despotic regimes through selling arms to these regimes which are then used to repress, and subsequently create more flight. In economic terms also, Europe maintains its own wealth only at the expense of others. A crisis does exist, but it is not one being caused by migrants themselves.

The UK Governments ‘response’, to this crisis, if response is a term that can be used, has rightly been the subject of a huge amount of criticism both in Britain and elsewhere. The direction of travel was evident in the early responses to a refugee camp in Calais. The Jungle in Calais, where a few thousand people intent on finding their way to Britain are massed in horrendous conditions, is presented as a crisis of control for the British state. The solution then presented is to reinforce control, using fences and dogs primarily. The UK Government obsesses about pull factors, where the supposed generosity of the British welfare state and asylum process (Currently £36 a week and no choice dispersal around the UK) highlighted, despite little or no evidence of pull factors. Meanwhile the push factors, the things that actually make people flee, are all but ignored by policy-makers. The Jungle, however, should be placed in its context, one where geographical and class distinctions make it all but impossible for many people to even visit never mind migrate to the UK. Like Sangatte before it, the Jungle is an inevitable result of ever stricter border regimes alongside an assumption that the reason that ‘they’ want to move is purely work and access to social services, for an ‘easy life’.

It bears recollection that this psychology was also evident in the UK Governments’ response to Mare Nostrum in 2014, focussed entirely on the alleged pull. The argument was essentially that saving lives in the Mediterranean was a pull factor, the solution to which was letting people drown as a disincentive to getting in boats on route to Europe. While this proved factually wrong, with more people fleeing after the end of Mare Nostrum than in the year before, and more people subsequently drowning, the main criticism of the pulling of search and rescue is a moral one. Death or continued hardship and persecution was/is effectively the ‘choice’ being presented to many migrants by wealthy European states. Has there ever been a better example of Hobsons choice? This issue should also be placed in relation to the supposed naturalness of things as they are. Contrary to primordialists, nation states are not natural but created and constructed. However, which of these constructs you happen to be born into, and to who determines your life chances. Even in wealthy Britain the greatest determinant of being an adult living in poverty is being a child born into poverty. This is all chance. We haven’t done anything to make us more deserving of being born in the rich countries of the world, just as the rich of this country have not done anything deserving of the privilege into which they are born.

Another important contextual factor in the current crisis is that all UK Governments since the 1990s have wanted to keep refugees in their region of origin. It links back to the Labour Governments approach in the 1990s where they argued that allowing Kosovars access to the British asylum process would be aiding Milosovic’s ethnic cleansing. The clear approach taken was bombs and aid but no migration. It is also evident in Tony Blair’s desire to create Transit Processing Centres and Refugee Protection Areas, all with the prime aim of keeping people away from the UK. It is seen in David Blunkett’s creation of juxtaposed controls, immigration officers carrying out their duties on mainland Europe. This prevention of ease of arrival then creates the very smuggling that governments go on to bemoan. However, the Government focus on smuggling also has another consequence; it strips people of their refugee-ness. With illegal entry, and border regimes making entry illegal, individuals are then referred to as illegals, bogus, clandestines, criminals, or worse, swarms. We label people as criminals and enact laws that criminalise them, only to then react with fury that they are acting illegally. There are clear class and geographical dimensions to this process. In a brutally honest if immoral appraisal, the Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond talked of the need to keep ‘them’ away, not for security reasons, but because ‘they’ are poor. In this view the ‘marauders’ had to be stopped as a means of protecting our standard of living, regardless of what it meant for ‘them’. Thus, this is not simply a story of push and pull, of war and persecution. It is also one of global capitalism. Inequality must be maintained to ensure the continuation of the system. A more domestic rationale is also at play. In the age of austerity, ‘we’ must protect ‘our’ poor from ‘them’. We end in the grotesque position where the Government and the media, who never tire of attacking British people living in poverty, then attack migrants for threatening the ability of the British poor to get crumbs from the table. To paraphrase Wendy Bottero, we need to focus the discussion on what feast is on the table and who is getting to enjoy it rather than who will or should win in the fight for the scraps.

One important question in all of this is leadership at both the national and supra-national levels. Contrast the position taken by Angela Merkel or Nicola Sturgeon at the outset of the crisis to that of David Cameron or Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban and you see a different elite narrative and different popular discourse. There is no uni-directional causality here, the relationship between elite views and popular views is complex. However, it does perhaps suggest that the political debate can be impacted by elite discourse. Nevertheless, despite the dehumanising reduction of people to swarms, the public reaction in such an anti-immigration culture as the UK has been something of a surprise. Spontaneous support groups have been set up all over Europe, including in the UK. Given the public response the UK Government was forced into a change of approach. They now aim to accommodate 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next 5-years, taking them from refugee camps close to Syria. However, they will not contribute to helping to resettle those already in Europe, thus contributing nothing to the present European ‘crisis’. ‘We’ll help in our own way’ has been the government’s response, one lacking any conception of solidarity. However, there is also a major contradiction in the government’s approach. They claim that their focus is on working on the conditions that force people to flee (at last an acknowledgement of push factors). This is allegedly best done by targeted aid in the region of origin. However, they are simultaneously looking to re-focus aid currently spent in that region, presumably working to reduce the need to flee, on this resettling of 20,000 refugees in the UK. This, in their own language, means that the same level of support in the Middle East will be unavailable, pushing more people to flee to Europe, where the UK will continue to refuse to help them.

In a European sense we are also witnessing, at least temporarily, an end to free movement. Countries that for years have had no or limited border controls are re-instigating them as a way of slowing the march of the fleeing. There is also a major challenge to the Dublin Convention, where refugees were expected to apply for asylum in the first safe country that they reach, countries on the periphery who are struggling to cope with the numbers. Not only are many EU nations foregoing their right to remove applicants to those countries of first arrival, in the longer term there is also a challenge for nations like the UK. Why would countries at the periphery of the EU continue to take the ‘burden’ of processing asylum claims on behalf of countries like the UK who refuse to help at a time of great need?

Looking ahead, there is clearly no simple solution to this. My own view is that open borders across the globe should be considered but this view at present is clearly unlikely. There is some research that suggests that no borders would have a huge positive impact on global GDP, with the largest rises going to the poorest nations. However, bringing this back to global capitalism, the mobility of capital is such that national workforces are made to compete against one another, with the result that pay and conditions are always threatened by national workforces who will or can do things more cheaply. An organised international workforce is the only way I can envisage countering global capital. So the current migration crisis is certainly a crisis for the individuals involved, but is also a lens on the very nature of the system we live in. It’s imperative that we reconsider the nature of that system. This means the fight to take more refugees sits with not against the fight against austerity. The fight is for a better life for the majority no matter where they are born and to whom.


Gareth Mulvey is a Lord Kelvin Adam Smith Fellow in Social Sciences


This article is part of GRAMNet’s personal reflections blog series, where contributors offer short reflections on their personal, day-to-day interactions with migration issues. If you would like to contribute to this series, please get in touch using the contact form below. We welcome all contributions, whether sharing positive or negative experiences.


*Cover photo: ‘L’école, Calais Refugee Camp’ by Arno van den Tillaart is licensed under CC BY 2.0


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This entry was posted on October 11, 2015 by in Personal reflections series and tagged , , , , .