Not all migrants are scruffy, dirty victims

Yes, the residents of the Calais ‘jungle’ have been treated badly, but the no borders case requires a defence of everyone’s right to move.

Nathalie Rothschild

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‘They are not Afghanis, right?’, asked a confused Indian man visiting the UK, as he passed by a group of 25 white and mostly female protesters outside the French Embassy in Knightsbridge, west London, on Tuesday evening.

With protesters holding up placards saying ‘Shame on you Sarkozy: 8-year-old Afghans sleeping under bridges’ and ‘Human Rights now’, the demonstration, organised by No Borders, was in solidarity with the migrants who are being rounded up in the ‘jungle’ outside Calais, France. The jungle is a stretch of wasteland where paperless migrants are sleeping rough, waiting for an opportunity to cross the channel and seek asylum in the UK.

In the past few weeks, as images of the French authorities’ clampdown on the jungle were beamed around the world, the 2,000 or so refugees living there suddenly had an unfortunate moment in the limelight. Many of them are from Afghanistan and Iraq, but people from across Africa and other parts of the world have also been living in slum-like conditions in the jungle since 2002, when the French, under pressure from Britain, shut down the Red Cross refugee centre at Sangatte near the French end of the Channel Tunnel.

Having been shuffled away from the French Embassy entrance by police and relegated to a small corner across the street, the No Borders group’s chant – ‘Say it loud, say it clear, all migrants welcome here!’ – was unlikely to reach the ears of the embassy staff. Nor was the message likely to register in the corridors of British power: New Labour’s immigration policies and its pressure on the French to clamp down on illegal border crossings were the direct cause of the current dire situation in the jungle. And as there were no journalists present (except me), Tuesday’s small gathering of committed No Borders supporters is likely to pass unnoticed by the general public, too.

That is a shame, because the idea of dismantling restrictions on free movement is both humanistic and realistic. Yet on the rare occasions that this idea is voiced, it is usually dismissed as cranky and unthinkable. The No Borders campaign expresses universal solidarity with anyone who wishes to leave the country they were accidentally born in. ‘Migration is NOT a crime’, said a leaflet distributed by campaigners on Tuesday. ‘We believe people should have freedom to move and live where they choose, whatever their reason for moving.’ Sadly, this is not a widely held sentiment.

The primary reason for Tuesday’s demo, however, was to stand up against the injustices committed against migrants in Calais. One protester, Rosa, told me she had just returned from Calais and is planning to go back next weekend to show solidarity with migrants who are having their hopes of making a better life in the UK crushed. ‘Yesterday, I met a group of Iranians and Pashtuns in Calais who had just had their camp removed by police. People are living in horrific conditions, sleeping under bridges and on the streets. Police are arresting migrants daily. There’s a lot of suffering.’

One French passer-by was not impressed: ‘You should be protesting against your own government’, he advised the demonstrators. He had a point. The jungle is a graphic illustration of the consequences of the UK’s stringent border controls.

It is understandable that urgent situations such as the one in Calais become flashpoints for protests. The images of migrants, including small children, in scruffy clothes living in a shantytown at the borders of two of the wealthiest nation’s on Earth and being treated like criminals just because they want to live in another country are shocking.

Yet it is also telling that support for migrants is rarely expressed beyond flashpoint events such as the one in Calais. There have been protests around urgent situations such as individual deportations or where migrants have suffered dehumanising treatment, such as when asylum seekers are forced to live on a meagre weekly government grant of £40 a week as they are not allowed to work in the UK. Pro-asylum groups tend to focus on these pressing or dire situations only, for example by picketing UK Border Agency offices during asylum seekers’ weekly compulsory sign-ins there.

And though No Borders supports the rights of economic migrants to move freely, that support exists mainly in principle rather than practice; it rarely informs any of the group’s direct actions. Instead, No Borders, too, focuses mainly on the most victimised asylum seekers and refugees.

Some activists are trying to change the focus. Richard, an Australian PhD candidate visiting the UK, told me he has been active in migrants’ rights campaigns for several years in Australia. He believes moving to a new country for economic reasons should not be frowned upon. In his opinion, you should not have to be able to prove that you are fleeing persecution in order to enjoy the right to move to a new place.

But in Richard’s experience, people within the migrants’ rights movement have found it difficult to make this case, or have even refused to support the unconditional free movement of those leaving home purely for financial reasons. And so that invalid distinction between ‘refugees’ and ‘economic migrants’ has often been entrenched by campaigners themselves. ‘But it is not so easy to draw the line between the two’, said Richard. Indeed, why should poverty or a lack of opportunities not be a good enough reason to ‘seek refuge’ in another country where you might have a better chance to realise your potential?

The ‘concerned citizens’ (as one protester referred to herself) who gathered outside the French Embassy on Tuesday were campaigning on behalf of and against nations whom they’ve placed on opposite ends of the victimised and victimising spectrum. On one side there are the refugees from Third World countries ravaged by war and poverty; on the other side are wealthy, Western nations who protesters told me are forcing people to flee their homes by waging wars and causing environmental destruction abroad, and then slamming the door when people from over there try to come over here.

In Calais, such tragedy and irony is clear to see. But the moralisation of the immigration debate is, in the end, detrimental to migrants themselves. By portraying the reasons behind, and the consequences of, migration almost as tragic and degrading by definition, campaigners end up diminishing migrants’ agency. Migrants are presented almost exclusively as tragic victims of circumstance, which ironically feeds into Western governments’ demand that only those who can demonstrate their extreme victimised circumstances – that is, only oppressed and endangered individuals seeking asylum – should be let across our borders.

By continually playing the victim card, pro-immigration protesters unwittingly bolster the idea that only the pathetic should be allowed to come over here, while the brave, the ambitious and the slightly better-off can presumably be kept at arm’s length. The truth is, very few migrants would willingly define themselves as ‘victims’; indeed, there is no clearer expression of agency than the decision to pack up your belongings and travel vast distances across the world to a new and strange country.

Yes, we should support the migrants currently suffering in Calais as a consequence of British and French clampdowns on free movement. We should oppose the absurdity of asylum seekers living in poverty in the UK while being denied the opportunity to work. We should support the right of people around the world being persecuted for their beliefs, opinions or cultural identities to seek refuge elsewhere.

But the measure of any pro-migrant campaign should be its willingness not only to support the right of free movement for those most easily recognised as victims. Instead, a truly pro-migrant standpoint is one that does not shy away from defending the right of filthy rich people to jet across the globe, of couples in long-distance relationships to get together for romantic weekends, of academics to teach and study in top-notch universities abroad, or of the highly-skilled, low-skilled and non-skilled to work wherever they want, whenever they want.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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