|The Grapes of Wrath- Large scale waves migration is a recurring phenomenon within the capitalist system.|
Europe’s shame fills the headlines today. The shame of our politicians who treat some lives as more important than others. The shame of a Tory government firefighting against UKIP and constantly embarrassed by its own inability to reduce migration during its last term. The shame of Labour’s decision to engage with this anti-immigration rhetoric at its own sordid level.
Now more than 800 migrants – otherwise known as human beings – have died, less than a hundred miles from Europe and following swiftly on the EU’s reprehensible decision not to finance a continuation of Mare Nostrum, Italy’s search and rescue policy. Italy is in the spotlight, having scaled down its operations considerably after Mare Nostrum was abandoned. But everyone is guilty. In particular Germany and the UK’s callous and illogical claim that migrants were encouraged to continue coming by search-and-rescue missions has led, directly, inevitably, horribly to these deaths. (see Parliamentarydebate from 30th October 2014)
So why do they keep coming? Maybe I have an unusual perspective: I grew up in an area where as much as 84% of the population comes from a migrant background, and has done so for all my life. The last census revealed that 53% of Newham is foreign-born, yet according to some estimates (based on school attendance) as many as one person in four in Newham is undocumented. However migration and its effects over the last twenty, fifty, two hundred years have become increasingly visible in every remote pocket of the country. There were 2.8 million foreign-born people in London in 2013, almost a third of the city’s population.
What is a migrant?
There are several ways to define a migrant, and in this article I will refer only to ‘migrant’ – a person born without UK citizenship rights outside of the UK – and person from a migrant background –anyone who has a parent, grandparent, great-grandparent who is/was a migrant. A migrant’s status can change in many ways and many migrants according to my classification now have full citizenship and are as British as chips and pitta. Of course these terms are obviously loaded and simplistic, but I chose a simple definition in order to navigate a complex issue. Probably you fall into one of the categories.
I’m not a migrant: I’m an ‘expat’. You’re an ‘expat’ if you’re white, if English is your mother-tongue, if you move from a rich country to a poorer one, particularly for financial gain, if you hold a British passport or any other near the top of this list helpfully devised by Arton Capital.
But even as an ‘expat’, (I know, it’s a horrible word, conjuring up gin and tonics brought by a brown-coloured boy on a silver platter in the Raj) the thing I hear most often when I say where I live is ‘You’re so brave! I would love to do something like that but I wouldn’t dare!’ Yes, I’m brave enough to borrow £700 I will never pay back from my financially-secure parents to buy flights for a guaranteed job in a country (Italy) where 29 percent of the population speaks English. I’m brave enough to take a year’s contract on a furnished flat exactly an hour and a half and £30 from home by Easyjet. I’m not saying it’s always easy, but come on!
What would it take for you to migrate?
There are migrants of every social class, level of education with every kind of financial means, linguistic capacities and family background. (The Movement Against Xenophobia has recently hammered this point home through a well-meaning if rather reductive poster campaign, crowdfunded and currently to be seen on a bus near you). Let’s take a look through an imaginary spectrum.
1. Would you migrate after suffering torture?
2. Would you migrate after your country had experienced two, five, ten years of war?
3. Would you migrate after your home and farm had been destroyed by natural disaster?
4. Would you migrate after your political activity has led to arrest and you have been beaten and mistreated by the police?
5. Would you migrate because it’s the only way you can enjoy a free and open love life?
6. Would you migrate because people of your sexual or gender identity are routinely attacked or beaten up in the place where you live?
7. Would you migrate because since you left school, there has been no work available in your town and your parents need you to contribute?
8. Would you migrate because the shack where you grew up has been torn down by developers and no other accommodation has been offered?
9. Would you migrate because you fear arrest for your political activity?
10. Would you migrate because you have lost your professional career due to sanctions against people of your gender, your ethnicity, your sexuality?
11. Would you migrate because you heard about a better place and the people you love offered to pay your passage?
12. Would you migrate because you need ongoing and vital medical care which simply isn’t available in your country?
13. Would you migrate because you’re a dreamer and the other country sounds like a fun new challenge?
14. Would you migrate because your country is undergoing a rapid transition process and you have excellent skills in your field, but fluency in English might make all the difference?
15. Would you migrate because your family have been killed?
16. Would you migrate because, six months after graduating, you haven’t been able to find even a bar job?
17. Would you migrate in the hope of saving £10,000 to open a shop in your home-town?
18. Would you migrate to avoid being stuck in a dead-end job for life?
19. Would you migrate to escape violent crime, gang-warfare, death threats, military oppression, regular searches of your home, addiction, sickness, drought, flood, military regimes, religious intolerance or oppression, homophobia, a poor harvest or any of the other things which might suddenly come to a person- any person- living in this fucked-up world?
20. Would you migrate to get a better life for your children?
21. Would you migrate to get a degree generally perceived as better than the educational opportunities available in your country?
22. Would you migrate to invest in an excellent new business opportunity?
23. Would you migrate to play as a striker for a top football league?
24. Would you migrate to try to pay off a huge debt owed by you or a member of your family?
And if you were to migrate, and just imagining your parents didn’t have a roomy cellar and a big car to help you with your boxes, how far would you go to do it? Would you sell everything you had and give most of the money to people-smugglers and desert guides? Would you be prepared to arrive in a strange place where you don’t speak the language with little more than the clothes you’re wearing? Would you risk deportation, deceit, danger, death? Before the outbreak of civil war in Syria, a typical route was by land through Turkey. Now the migrants- the human beings- waiting in lawless Libya for a hazardous fishing boat trip across 300km of dark, unpredictable sea, have come from as far afield as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, although many are from Sub-Saharan Africa, or victims of the Syrian conflict. They are coming, whether we save their lives or not- that’s the clearest evidence possible of the strength of their reasons for coming.
The above list has been compiled from personal stories told directly to me, newspaper articles, interviews and academic papers.
A migrant is a person. What would you do?
Jeremy Harding painted a terrifying picture in his investigation of undocumented migrants crossing the desert to the US from Mexico.Of great interest is the number of repeat attempts to cross, including by people born in the US without citizenship. Here, too, is the rhetoric of ‘If you help them to survive you will encourage them to come’, this time as attacks on church groups who leave water in the desert. Now the excellent Patrick Kingsley has begun a similar journalistic project in Libya and Egypt, including fascinating interviews with North African people smugglers .