The Ease of Righteous Causes: What to Feel About Undocumented Migration

November 27, 2009 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

It was easier when one could talk about asylum as a benevolent offering to virtuous people downtrodden in their own countries. It was easier when the category of refugee seemed transparent, when we knew about fewer armed conflicts and less, perhaps, about who was Right and who was Wrong. It was easier to be a country that could openly say Come here. We care. We are a civilised people and will help you.

Now that there are too many people asking for asylum and calling themselves refugees – ‘too many’ being an unquantifiable number – it is not so easy. One can still try to limit the talk to the most egregious armed conflicts, the biggest ones, or the ones where the good guys can more easily be distinguished from the bad. But one has the sense of the ground slipping away beneath the conversation.

The other day I saw Welcome, Philippe Lioret’s film about the miserable situation in and near Calais, where French police tear down wretched shelters whilst young men cry. It’s a good film but takes the easy path as far as the protagonist’s reason for wanting to reach Britain: he is in love with a girl in London. This romance allows anyone who watches the film to identify with his quest and root for him as he swims the Channel. But what if the romantic motive were missing?

Anti-immigration voices use the term ‘economic migrants’ as a pejorative, an accusation against people who don’t qualify as refugees from officially (and arbitrarily) designated conflicts. In the current climate, a migrant is actually more likely to be sympathised with if he or she presents as a victim than as an able-bodied person willing to take almost any sort of paid job available. Or, in the case of Welcome, if he is in love.

Many looking at the images of smashed camps around Calais would like to know why those sad young men insist, against every obstacle, on remaining there and continuing to try to get into Britain. One said, in response to a reporter’s question, that there is respect for human rights in the UK. He may really believe that, but the same sort of ‘respect’, for what it’s worth, exists in other European countries. Given the extreme difficulty now of getting through the Channel Tunnel and into non-Schengen Britain, it’s logical to wonder why they don’t turn left to Spain or right to Belgium or almost anywhere else in Europe.

Rather than believe that the UK is a human-rights paradise, we should understand that such migrants are trying to get here simply because that’s where their networks led them. When these men were thinking about leaving home they talked to everyone they could about the possibilities. If family, friends or paid smugglers had led them to another European capital, that’s where they would be. And that’s where they’d now be facing different problems, less interesting to media cameras than those in Calais. But their networks brought them to the north of France, and the same networks cannot now provide an alternate plan – particularly not from far away, back in Afghanistan or Iran.

At this point – the point experienced by Welcome‘s hero – to find that it’s near impossible to get across the Channel is staggering. One got this far on information that was paid for. Now the last few stages turn out to be much harder than promised. Those unable to swim for ten hours in cold water face options of paying an unknown local smuggler, hanging on in place, despite French police actions, or changing life-plans drastically without good advice. Even an environment as hostile as Calais can seem better than a complete unknown.

The story is similar for many women migrants described as trafficked in the mainstream media. When thinking about leaving home, they, too, talked to everyone they could about the possible options. They also followed routes known to family, friends and smugglers. If they passed the Schengen barrier and the water surrounding the UK, it helped that their methods were different – they didn’t try to hitch a ride through the tunnel. Now, of course, they can also be described as economic migrants, and, as such, be deported if caught – unless they can prove egregious enough treatment to qualify as victims of trafficking. But the prospects for being allowed to stay with a normal residence permit are slim.

Migration is now a phenomenon that governments want to manage. A 2002 White Paper describes five techniques used to combat illegal immigration: ‘strategic enforcement measures, identity management, increasing employer compliance, greater policy co-ordination both within and between governments and regularisation.’ Other proposals refer to ‘earned regularisation’, by which illegals able to prove their social worthiness would be granted amnesty, and ‘open borders’, which would focus on getting people jobs and integrating them socially.

All are more complicated and less easy to understand than No Borders, the dream of many that has no chance of success in a Europe combining more united and centralised policies with intensified nationalisms. In this climate, things are unlikely to improve for migrants who only want to come, work and be left alone. But many on the left resist taking a pragmatic stance that would accept the current political climate. There is also a tendency to hold onto the victim-categories – the ones that show the men’s tears in Calais and talk about sexual slavery for women.

It’s harder to face up to the fact that many migrants are complicit with the dodgy enterprises that help them get new lives. Why? Because they know that there are opportunities for getting paid jobs, even if they are in the ill-named informal economy, which means they cannot be used to get work permits and visas. The jobs are there, in construction and agriculture, or as a nanny, sex worker or restaurant employee. The fact that one’s status will be illegal once one arrives recedes in importance; the fact that one will be unable to convert from illegality to legality without leaving the country can’t be expected to sink in beforehand. The object is to arrive.

In the harder context we see today, whether in London or Calais or Copenhagen or Amsterdam, the question is whether the availability of paid jobs couldn’t mean, in and of itself, that migrants can be employed legally. Forget governmental concepts like formal-informal economies for a moment. If a legal employer offers paid employment to a migrant, should that employment not allow him legal status? Why not? If he or she is paid a normal amount and taxes are paid by all, what’s the problem?

Laura Agustín is the author of
Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets
(Zed Books, 2007). Her website is Border Thinking on Migration and Trafficking.

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This post was written by Laura Agustín

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