Contemporary Europe is a product of human migration. A century ago there were no passports; half a century ago, there were no visas. This does not mean that there were no confrontations between local and immigrant communities. Sometimes those confrontations were violent. However, there was no direct intervention by sovereign authorities to control and shape human mobility to the extent we witness today.
Now migration, particularly from the global south, is perceived as one of the biggest political problems and security risks Europe faces. Billions are spent annually on migration control. Detention centres are in operation and naval operations are launched to stop migrant boats before they enter the territorial waters of European states.
Given the excessive political focus on immigration and the militarised approach to targeting human mobility, one wonders whether there has been a mass migratory movement towards Europe in recent decades. The numbers are telling. Non-EU migrants constitute only 4 per cent of the EU’s population. An estimated 84 per cent of refugees and asylum seekers are hosted in the developing world rather than Europe. The proportion of refugees in the UK population is just 0.24 per cent.
Yet Europe has shifted from a social and political atmosphere in which immigration was addressed as an administrative issue to one characterised by fear, insecurity and violence, with major political issues at stake. Thousands die in the Mediterranean on their way to Europe. But the Mediterranean was not always a mass migrant graveyard; it has been transformed into one.
The European approach to migration revolves around targeting one particular type of migrant: the poor immigrant. To give a coherent answer to why some immigrants have been victimised more than others, it is necessary to shift the discussion from humanitarian concerns about the human cost in the Mediterranean or Sahara to the political and economic structures that consistently engender this human cost. It is also necessary to look beyond the superficial narratives of the high priests of racism and xenophobia towards immigrants.
There is, indeed, something structurally rotten in Europe.
Historically, the industrial revolution produced a type of capitalism and a corresponding sovereign authority that governed the populace according to their roles in the economy. In the 19th century, while political interventions to manage immigration were limited, the idea that immigration could be used as a source of cheap labour emerged in relation to immigrants from Ireland, India, Turkey, Morocco and Egypt. The instrumentalisation of immigrants as economic assets dominated the economistic view on migration at the expense of understanding it as a social process.
In the post-war era, European economies needed a labour force, so they created several work schemes. Immigrants became instrumental in rebuilding European economies. However, after the oil crisis in the early 1970s, which led to economic crises in oil-dependent capitalist Europe, their economic use had ‘expired’ from the perspective of the market: they increasingly became more of a liability than an asset.
There was a problem, however. Migration has its own autonomous dynamics that often challenge policies. The immigrants of the post-war era were in Europe to stay and had brought their families over. Thus, they deepened the immigration networks they had inherited from the previous decades.
The instrumentalisation of immigration led to a process of criminalisation. After the oil crisis, and with the accelerated neoliberalisation of European economies, sovereign intervention to manage human mobility also increased. Legal immigration channels for working and residing in Europe, partly legacies of the colonial period, were gradually removed; expensive visas were introduced. Their aim was to allow the mobility of only high-skilled immigrants who could afford to ‘purchase’ a visa. Asylum seeking and family unification remained as the only legal, permanent migration path for poor immigrants – those the European neoliberal economies did not wish to have. The use of these channels by poor immigrants facing infeasible ‘legal’ migration paths has led to the pervasive discourse of ‘bogus asylum-seekers’ and ‘sham marriages’.
As immigration becomes criminalised, it gives birth to a new market: migration control, which involves running detention centres, introducing new border technologies, selling them to the countries neighbouring Europe, offering risk analyses. The migration control industry has become privatised all over Europe. As long as insecurity in relation to immigration continues, the profits of this private industry will soar.
Make no mistake: when neoliberal capitalism needs a low-skilled labour force, particularly in the agricultural and service sectors, this need is often met by ‘illegal immigrants’, or immigrants whose legal status is precarious. Their precariousness is generated by the process of criminalisation of immigration of the poor, which renders them a docile labour force without rights or security. And this is the point where race enters the picture.
European policy-makers sometimes defend harsh border policies on the grounds of protecting European ‘civilisation’. We should not underestimate this discourse around the historic and colonial rhetoric of ‘barbarians at the gate’, nor the speed at which a racialised rhetoric is invoked when it comes to immigration from the global south. The colonised black (wo)man is now on the move towards Europe and a racial, nativist discourse has mobilised the low‑skilled European ‘white’ labour force against low-skilled immigration. It has fuelled populist right wing parties in Europe and made Donald Trump US president.
So is migrant justice possible? The answer is yes – but only if it is understood as a process that requires daring steps.
In the past few decades we have seen a growing emphasis on ‘border security’. Walls have been erected and barbwired; military missions have been deployed to stop ‘illegal’ border crossings; harsher and harsher policies have been introduced to control immigration. Looking deeper, we see a sinister interaction between European authorities and neoliberal market forces.
Under these circumstances, there is no instant fix for migrant justice. Rather, it is imperative to persistently attack and weaken the violent ideological and economic structures in order to crack them.
The first step is to acknowledge the importance of the discourse constructed around immigration. In public, media and policy circles, different concepts are used interchangeably and uncritically, without noting their differences. However, there one in particular that is tainting the entire discourse of migration: ‘illegal immigrant’. This is used to justify all the draconian political measures that convert poor immigrants into a docile labour force and boast the profits of the migration control industry. There is almost no discussion about the role of European authorities or neoliberal market forces in creating ‘illegal immigration’.
A change of discourse does not mean adopting the neoliberal line that ‘immigration is good for our economy’. It means destabilising and demystifying its core, starting from the very notion of an ‘illegal’ immigrant. It means adopting a commitment to migrant justice into the left’s economic policies, and active solidarity with resistance by migrants.
Migrant resistance has been growing in Europe. In the UK, it started to attract attention with the hunger strike at the Yarl’s Wood detention centre. These communities do not enjoy the same protection – legal or political – as other resistance groups. They need support.