Vol. 34 No. 3 · 9 February 2012

Europe at Bay

Jeremy Harding on migrants and the battle for borders

9900 words

Listen to this piece read by the author

In this podcast, Jeremy Harding reads extracts from his essay about migration. The full article is below.


A young, personable man who speaks fair English, Hamraz had been in Dunkirk for about a month when we met. He was a member of the Afghan National Army, from the district of Azra, south-east of Kabul. Early in 2011, going home on leave, he was called to account by local Taliban as a collaborator and told he would have to take part in a car-bomb attack on a nearby hospital if he wanted to redeem himself. He couldn’t return to his regiment without putting his family at risk and he couldn’t stay in Azra, so he left the country. The bomb attack on the hospital went ahead, reducing it to rubble. More than thirty people were killed. He had been on the road for quite a while; his heart was set on the UK, where his cousin had already arrived. The cousin, he explained, had been one of Vice-President Haji Abdul Qadr’s bodyguards at the time of his assassination in 2002, and had gone into exile in Pakistan, but started to receive death threats on his mobile phone eight years later. So now he was in Birmingham, and it made sense for Hamraz to join him if he could steal a ride in a lorry and hop the Channel. The West’s exertions on far-off battlefields, shaping a world in its likeness, are among the reasons Europe is the place of choice for thousands of people like Hamraz. In ways we fail to acknowledge, we issue the invitation and map their journeys towards us.

In Calais, a group of Eritrean asylum seekers talks about the war for independence from Ethiopia. They have a good sense of the history though the oldest would have been ten when the war ended in 1991. Their destination is the UK, but nobody seems to be making a connection for the Channel crossing. They’ve got this far by dodging the Eurodac identification system, which means that they avoided fingerprinting in the first EU country they entered (probably Greece or Italy). The Cool Britannia eat-by date is long expired, and they know it, but they cling to the lingering hope of a deregulated country where they can link up with other Eritreans – there are 40,000 in Britain – and find a way of life.

A thin Ethiopian, spooning up a charity risotto, admits very cautiously to a ‘political problem’ in Addis Ababa, and goes on to explain that his passion is long-distance running. He competed in Serbia, then went on to run in Greece, where he spent several months and won seven races – ‘Google me in Greek alphabet if you know it’ – but for reasons he won’t explain he’s burned his bridges at home. His distance is 10k. ‘Running,’ he says, ‘is all about this.’ He taps his forehead with his finger. England will do more for his mental attitude than Serbia or Greece, and 2012 is Britain’s Olympic year: sports psychologists will be queuing to receive him. All that remains is to slip across the Channel.

Hundreds of thousands attempt to enter Europe without permission every year, or stay on when their visas have expired. Calls to tighten European immigration policy go hand in hand with the project of strengthening its borders, yet it is still a desirable place to be, despite the fact that a majority of Europeans would prefer a deserter from Afghanistan or an athlete from Ethiopia to go away. There are also some who worry about the migrants who are already here: in the vast majority, their papers are in order, they pay taxes and draw benefits, but there’s a nagging suspicion that they are a net drain on European exchequers. In recession country, that makes it easy to cast them as the enemy within.

European attitudes to immigration have hardened. An early warning sign was the growing impatience, in the 1990s, with the notion of multiculturalism. It was a puzzling argument to follow, because the offending element seemed to take many forms. On the face of it, multiculturalism celebrated the ethnic diversity of a changing world: people had different values and cultural markers, even though they lived together in the same societies. Whether or not these differences were welcome was a test of liberal tolerance and the answer, it turned out, was a qualified yes. Europeans took part in the experiment with enthusiasm, even if minorities were alert to any whiff of condescension and said as much. You had to commit to the new environment and learn to inhabit it. Swaying like a blanched orchid at a Peter Tosh concert was not good enough. Painful reprimands from minorities, in the workplace, the faculty, the televised debate were the stuff of our re-education as Europeans. By the 1980s, in theory at least, minorities and majorities were on an equal footing. It was the new conversation. It opened a pathway to equal opportunities in the job market and local government. And it felt right, for blacks, Asians, women, gays and any number of straight white men.

But not for everybody. There were those who saw the point of diversity, and even equal rights, but who objected to equality-in-diversity, a fatal combination in their view, with its suggestion that the case for homegrown, European values must now be heard on its relative merits, as one idiom among others. This in turn cast doubt on the long story that held us together, with its passage through the Enlightenment to liberal democracy, Europe’s unique discovery, which it meant to hand down across the generations. Identity too was an issue, if people could move fluently between one and another – ‘British’ and ‘Asian’, say – or simply hyphenate: it called belonging into question. Who were you really? Along with these misgivings came a feeling that minorities could customise the social contract, opting in and out according to which bits made sense in their microcultures and which bits didn’t. Ethnicity and religion, opponents of multiculturalism began to argue, were blurring an older, consensual version of citizenship, based on rights and duties.

But there was never a debate about multiculturalism without a looming argument about immigration. It’s possible to have reservations about multiculturalism while favouring immigration (or the other way about), but on the whole objections to the first turn out to be objections to the second. And the objection to immigration, as globalisation moves ahead, requires even more strenuous entry restrictions than Europe has in place already. So the question is whether pressure from migrants who overstay their visas or come in undetected will lead to the kind of policies – on border control, detention and deportation – that will turn Europe into a federation of police states. The analogy would be a low-level military conflict going on at a remove from most people’s lives, at Europe’s frontiers, with captives piling up in holding centres, round-the-clock ‘removals’ and raids on workplaces. Will Europe after multiculturalism look like Europe at bay? Perhaps it looks that way in any case.

In the 1990s, the quarrel about immigration was focused on asylum seekers, as Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and France were locked in a battle of conscience over their duties as signatory states to the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. There were ‘floods’ of asylum seekers; they would require housing, healthcare, education and more. Most countries fell back on the notion of ‘bogus’ asylum seekers. Governments felt they could spot economic migrants, pure and simple, among the high number of uninvited people clambering onto beaches or piling into refrigerated trailers, but it was a delicate issue. In the years of optimism and deregulation that followed the Cold War, a gale of prosperity was meant to sweep through the world’s economies. Yet if anything globalisation showed how great the disparities were between wealthy democracies and the rest: developing countries to the south, the debris of the Soviet bloc, large parts of the Middle East, where poverty and joblessness were indeed forms of persecution, or tyrannical mismanagement.

Despite a recent upward trend, the 21st century has seen a decline in the number of asylum seekers in Europe: around 260,000 applications in the 27 member states in 2009 compared with 400,000 among the 15 members in 2001. But the number of migrants in the EU is now greater. Before 2004, roughly 4 per cent of the population of the 15 member states came from outside the Union. Regularisation programmes in Spain and Italy made 2004 the peak year. Today in the enlarged union the proportion of foreign residents is closer to 7 per cent, an increase of about 18 million people in six or seven years. But many of these are non-EU citizens living in new EU states: Russians in Baltic countries, for example. Net inward migration was about 1.7 million a year from 2004 to 2008 and is now falling. Misgivings about asylum seekers have abated, partly because the Balkan wars have come to an end, but partly too as a result of invidious strategies by individual governments, aimed precisely at reducing the numbers. At the same time, the debate on immigration has become sharper and its terms more insular: an energetic, can-do discourse assures us, in spite of growing evidence to the contrary, that states really are in a position to modulate the flow of human beings across their borders, to the nearest ten thousand, in line with their own priorities.

In France in 2011, 180,000 new migrants were allowed in and, as the minister of immigration boasted last month, nearly 33,000 irregular migrants were expelled. For some, the first figure is an outrage, for others the second; both are minor details in a far bigger story. While more and more people are crossing national borders, figures for those who migrate within their own countries – large countries such as China, Mexico, Brazil, Congo DRC – are anywhere between four and seven times higher. In scale alone, they earn their status as canonical migrations. Arrivals in Western Europe since the 1950s are a minor appendix to the canon, but stir up strong feelings among voters opposed to the steady influx of outsiders, especially when a government promises and then fails to hold down numbers, or vaunts expulsion targets (the French target announced for 2012 is 35,000).

September 11 dealt a blow to freedom of movement. Like a front-end collision in a car, it triggered a dramatic security response. Immigration policy was still on the road, but the airbags had been released and remained inflated, making it hard to manoeuvre in traffic or glance at the map. The answer was to apply the brakes, even at the risk of veering away from managed immigration to anti-immigration. Hard on the heels of the attacks – and an announcement by the leader of the Danish People’s Party that there could be no clash of civilisations because Muslims didn’t have one – Denmark brought in a round of laws making it difficult for citizens to marry partners from outside the EU and impossible if they were under 24. In 2004, a bold proposal in Germany to widen the selective recruitment of migrants was struck down and the 1973 ban on foreign labour was left intact. In France in 2006, new laws on family reunification prolonged the waiting time for a spouse’s residency permit from two years to three and required incomers to endorse ‘French’ values. The following year the minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, began hounding down schoolchildren whose papers were not in order.

Unease was not just to do with fresh migrant intakes: politicians and the popular press were deeply concerned about the people already inside their countries, and host cultures now felt freer to speak critically about their minorities. That’s what Frits Bolkestein, then the leader of the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy in the Netherlands, had in mind when he called for more frankness and ‘guts’ on the subject of immigrants. His position was a direct challenge to the etiquette of multiculturalism. Once 9/11 seemed to confirm that the moment for discretion had passed, it was taken up with gusto by Geert Wilders, Pym Fortuyn, Theo van Gogh and others. The Dutch philosopher Baukje Prins (‘The Nerve to Break Taboos’) called this turn in the conversation the ‘new realism’, even if she questioned its basis in reality: its force, she suspected, lay in its appeal to an ‘ordinary’ Dutch person, steeped in native common sense, whose worries had been ignored for years by left-liberal elites. In the UK too, there were ‘new realist’ voices, led by Trevor Phillips, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who feared that the British would look back on half a century of multiculturalism as a slippery road to segregation. France, always averse to identity politics, tended to agree.

Caribbean, Asian, Turkish or North African were no longer the descriptions that mattered. The defining term was ‘Muslim’: what Muslims did and thought was suddenly central to the immigration debate. Increasingly, the debate was about protecting European values by trying to bring existing minorities into line. In 2004 France banned the hijab in schools and hospitals (and last year the burqa in public, anywhere). In 2005, in a moment of national delirium, riots in the banlieues were blamed on the mosque. When the country returned to its senses, joblessness and segregation in the country’s larger cities came starkly into view. But a series of Islamist atrocities – in Madrid in 2004, the Netherlands (the murder of Theo van Gogh) in the same year, and London in 2005 – kept Muslims under deep suspicion.

In 2006 a controversy erupted in Spain when Muslims asked for the right to pray in the Mezquita at Córdoba, which had been reconsecrated in the 13th century and become a site of Christian worship: the idea was not well received and in 2010 the Bishop of Córdoba launched a plea for the site to be rebranded as a cathedral. In 2007 a tussle began in Cologne over the building of a new mosque in the district of Ehrenfeld. One of the protests against the mosque was attended by delegates from Belgium’s right-wing Vlaams Belang and the Austrian Freedom Party. In 2009 the Swiss voted in a referendum to ban the construction of minarets and the following year it was Angela Merkel’s turn to announce that multiculturalism in Germany had ‘utterly failed’. She was thinking about Germany’s Muslim communities. ‘Muslim identity,’ the social scientist Tariq Modood has remarked, ‘is the illegitimate child of … multiculturalism,’ largely because of its stress on religion, which is difficult for nativists and secular multiculturalists alike. At least with the parent in the grave, it would be easier to tackle the offspring.

But as Europe tumbled into recession and insolvency, its concerns about Islam were subsumed within a general anxiety about all new arrivals, whatever their origins or faith. In 2008 the Federation of Poles in Great Britain registered a 20 per cent increase in hate crimes over the previous year, mostly in the English provinces: they attributed the rise to the economic crisis. The same year Italy declared a state of emergency after a round of confrontations between Roma and mobs of Italians; the army was deployed to keep order and filter out Roma (and Romanians) at the borders. After a decade of openness, Spain was involved in a crackdown on irregular migrants while offering a lump sum to legal migrants, mostly Latin American, to go away if they weren’t in jobs. In 2010 France embarked on a spectacular eviction programme – Roma again – and David Cameron pledged to bring down annual net migration to the UK from hundreds to ‘tens of thousands’, a fantastic notion unless Britain left the European Union and refused entry to ever growing numbers of British returnees – 80,000 plus in 2008 – rethinking their options in Dubai or on the Costa Brava. In 2011 the Dutch labour minister, Henk Kamp, announced that unemployed Eastern Europeans should be sent home – he meant unemployed Poles – but was forced to back down.

Islam remained a worry. In Germany the maverick polemicist and banker Thilo Sarrazin set out a long list of accusations against his country’s Muslim communities. His book Deutschland schafft sich ab was published just ahead of Merkel’s funeral speech for multikulti. But Sarrazin was also alarmed about welfare dependency and idle intruders, wherever they came from, whatever their human rights, and anxious that the suppressed emotions of long-suffering Germans might boil over in the face of these obtuse visitors. The book sold more than a million copies. It seemed that even the Germans, who had received so many asylum seekers in the 1990s, relished the new Alpine chill in the discussion. In 2011, the principle of free movement between Schengen states came under frantic review after pressure from the Elysée. Too many exiles from Tunisia wished to go north to France via Italy, where they’d scrambled ashore in the first place. Last year, the Danish People’s Party forced the country’s government to reinforce the frontiers with Sweden and Germany that no longer existed under the terms of the Schengen agreement.

Perhaps none of this is surprising. It even seems to make sense that the threat of terrorism followed by the reality of a banking meltdown and a recession should have forced Europe to rethink immigration – and welfare budgets – in a landscape of joblessness and debt. But Europe has been wrestling with its doubts about immigration since the 1970s, and the vision of an open, flourishing continent – welcoming refugees, proposing freedom of movement as a momentous objective, even for people beyond its common borders – was already clouding over before the millennium, as wealthier nations drew a line under right of asylum and began to fret about identity politics. Now the hopes of continental prosperity have been dampened. Offshore Britain is no longer confident it can become an Atlantic Hong Kong, leveraged on property values and a powerful financial service sector. Across the ocean, the US wishes to play host to itself and nobody else for the first time in more than half a century. Immigrants in these places are desperately needed, but they are not welcome.

Its aversion to migrants casts Europe’s project in a cold light. In what way do EU member-states differ from nations on other continents which they once regarded with a condescending eye? For example South Africa, plagued by xenophobia in the long aftermath of apartheid, as it struggles to put its house in order. At first, minority rights advocates suspected that ‘aggressive nation-building’ was the reason citizens of the new South Africa favoured heavy restrictions on foreign nationals, or no foreign nationals at all. In 2008 anti-immigrant riots left dozens dead and hundreds injured – and led to voluntary repatriation for many terrified Malawians, Mozambicans and Zimbabweans. Poverty and rabble-rousing in the townships were blamed. Even so, there was still a nagging feeling that citizenship, denied to millions for so long, had been grasped with a fervour that could quickly run to violence against foreigners. Mandela was a stickler for the indivisible nature of citizenship, something he shared with the founders of the republic in France. And with their successors. Apartheid, after all, was the ugly sister of multiculturalism. The rioters in France in 2005 were outsiders, corralled in the banlieues, hungry for inclusion. In South Africa three years later, they were insiders calling for the exclusion of the other.

Electorates in the older EU member-states know they’re stuck with the immigrants they’ve got – the legal ones in any case – and governments have turned with a vengeance to the issues of post-immigration. Here, the key word is ‘integration’, a rearguard policy to ensure that migrants aren’t left to sink their roots in the exotic turf of multiculturalism. Fifteen years ago at the Commission for Racial Equality offices in Bradford, I was told that ‘integration’ was a bad word, like ‘assimilation’. But things have moved on and Europeans are becoming bossy about this. Not only are we sure that fewer migrants should cross our borders – an ideal we shall never achieve without becoming poorer, more decadent and highly militarised – but we’re certain that the ones who are already here should be thoroughly patrolled, to make sure they speak our languages and grasp the way we like to do things.

The new arrangements have a few ragged edges. In Britain, for example, we don’t believe we can invigilate or educate our most troubling minority, flourishing in the upper echelons of the financial sector, or even drop them a hint that, like multiculturalism, the supra-culturalism of the money markets, and the extraterrestrial salaries of managers and traders, can be very divisive. More modest migrants cotton on to this exemption fast, as they toil away at their integration studies. And there’s another curiosity. The path to citizenship, or indefinite leave to remain, is littered with tricky questions. Applicants for settlement in Britain who sit the ‘Life in the UK’ test – compulsory for most – will have to know how many people in Britain are 19 or under, whether a quango is ‘an arm of the judiciary’, or a Methodist a member of the Church of England. But if they pass, they will be well informed about duties, rights and the benefits system. And they will have a reasonable level of English. (Acquiring the language of a host country in Europe carries less of a political charge than the issue of Spanish in US schools.) Learning the ropes is empowering. Language, above all, is the sign and the means of belonging.

It’s not as though migrants dig in, rank and file, against integration. Paul Scheffer, professor of European studies at Tilburg, makes this point in Immigrant Nations, a judicious account of what migrants and European hosts still have to sort out about their long and ambivalent encounter. He cites the case of Fouad Laroui, a Moroccan economist and writer, with a good grasp of the Dutch language, who worked hard to pass his Dutch nationality test after several years as a migrant intellectual. Laroui mugged up the ‘genealogy of the House of Orange’; he spent hours in the public library and the corridors of the Amsterdam Historical Museum. He cast a cursory eye over the postwar Dutch novelists. When the day came, he explains, ‘the procedure took less than five minutes and there were no questions.’ Laroui was unimpressed: this was not a real encounter, merely a formality. Not every immigrant is an assiduous swot with a PhD in economics. Nonetheless Scheffer believes that host countries must be more robust – and ceremonious – as they welcome newcomers into societies that are now ‘so diverse that they are left wondering what holds them together’. The ceremony, in other words, is crucial not only for the migrant acceding to a new identity but for the host trying to recover a sense of coherence. Scheffer would like to see more ritual, and more frankness.

Two other terms in the post-immigration lexicon: ‘detention’ and ‘removal’. The figures for detention in the EU as a whole are hard to establish, but at least 100,000 people are being detained at any given moment in the 27 member-states in connection with unauthorised immigration. As for deportations, the annual figure is closer to 140,000. As Europe thins the numbers down, deportation and incarceration come into play as policy instruments. There cannot be rules without sanctions: even Amnesty International and the British Refugee Council agree that an applicant who fails to win the right to remain should leave. But this principle is weakened in reality by the fact that hunting people down and sticking them on charter flights, as states drum their fingers in the last stages of the appeal process, is prohibitively expensive: recent calculations by the National Audit Office suggested that removing a family of failed asylum seekers costs at least £28,000 and so the bill for deporting all unauthorised migrants and their children could be as high as £8 billion. Time is another factor: to remove every unauthorised migrant in Britain would probably take between fifteen and thirty years at current deportation rates. But parliamentary politics, too, erodes the principle, forever invoked on the hustings and then abandoned, as parties of government that promised to move against unauthorised migrants, or immigration in general, fail to achieve their targets. At the end of their term, they return to opposition without having to explain that they made an impossible commitment in the first place.

Migrants have always been vulnerable to political careers in the making, but they are also becoming the objects of a new, obsessive field of inquiry, like bird watching, based on research and mapping, by an array of interested parties: interstate bodies, interior ministries, lobby groups, border control authorities, private security companies, think tanks, NGOs and contract demographers. The vigilance to which indigenous citizens are subjected by homeland security, corporate marketing and ISPs may be equally intense, but it is surely less insidious. Europeans now take an invasive interest in newcomers: their itinerary, their abilities and disabilities, their faith, their criminal tendencies, their likely mendacity and, of course, their loose-footed relatives (partners, spouses, cousins, offspring) waiting patiently beyond the border.

In the UK the key point to establish is whether a migrant will turn out to be a net asset or a net drain. The British pursue this inquiry with an actuarial passion. Start with irregular migration: in Britain there are maybe 600,000 to 700,000 visa over-stayers, refused asylum seekers and smuggled individuals from outside the country. Reframe this as a healthcare cost, as the IPPR has done, and you emerge with a figure of £123 million per annum spent on tending people who are off the books and unable to contribute, even if they wanted to. Next, imagine the cost of education for children who belong to ‘irregular parents’, somewhere in ‘the tens of thousands’. Assume it takes £4000 per annum to have a pupil in the UK state system and posit a low figure of 60,000 irregular children, to produce £240 million.

Nonetheless, there is a demand in the UK for irregular migrant labour which, if it weren’t met, would result in social costs – absence of care for the elderly for example – and real falls in turnover for businesses that need low-wage, exploitable labour. Typically, jobs (and sectors) that don’t appeal to the British bulldog spirit include care work (23,000 vacancies in 2008), sales and retail assistance, customer service, cleaning and warehouse work, agriculture, construction and food processing. We know that legal migrants are strongly represented in these sectors and can take a safe guess – even without reliable figures – that irregular migrants are plentiful. On the economic benefits of irregular migrant labour minus the unrequited costs in health and education, there is not much convincing arithmetic. But in 2009, in a report commissioned by the Mayor of London, researchers at the LSE suggested that an amnesty programme for irregular immigrants would produce £846 million a year in tax and insurance revenues. Britain could think of its illegal, foreign underclass as a support operation fulfilling real needs, as the country struggles with turbulence in its cloud economy. In sectors where labour shortages are long-term and acute, irregular migrants don’t seem to be taking jobs from British or authorised migrant workers, but there’s a price to pay: visa overstays, which account for most irregular migration, are an abuse of trust; unauthorised entry is a systems breach; migrants may have overwhelming reasons in either case, but both subvert our belief in transparency.

The balance sheet on authorised immigration is also filling up with figures. So what is it we want to know? Well, for instance: surely inward migration puts pressure on the housing sector? Migration Watch UK, which advocates deep reductions in immigration, finds that it does and projects that ‘we will need to build over two hundred houses every day over the next 25 years to house the extra population arising from immigration.’ The Migration Observatory in Oxford cites research from Miami after the Mariel boatlift from Cuba in 1980, when a sudden rise in the population drove up rents by 8-10 per cent. In Spain, as the foreign-born population increased tenfold to nearly five million between 1998 and 2008, housing prices rose by more than 50 per cent. In Britain over the next twenty years, net migration could produce about 40 per cent of the 250,000 new households that will form each year. But the UK is not dealing with a sudden rise, and the Spanish statistic shows a correlation, not a cause and effect. And we cannot predict migration figures in a time of economic uncertainty. The key indicator in the UK – the ratio of house prices to income – suggests that the housing shortage would worsen even if no newcomers entered the country. In any given year only 7 per cent of new lettings in social housing go to foreign nationals.

What of the public purse? The best way to ascertain whether authorised migrants are worth their fiscal salt is to pit their tax and social security contributions against services received. This has been done in several studies. The findings, on the whole, are that disbursements to migrants are marginally lower than their contributions. The exception is the year 2002-3, when costs of services received were higher than contributions. Even so, in the same year the migrant’s deficit was slightly less than that of a person born in the UK.

Then again, a 2009 study by Migrant Watch UK finds that immigrants are a fiscal drain: it contrives this by including services to any child born to a migrant and a non-migrant and splitting the difference between the two groups, where other analyses attribute these costs entirely to non-migrants. MWUK is gloomy about the pressures on the educational system: between 2010 and 2020 immigration looks likely to require an additional one million school places at a cost of more than £100 billion. On health services in England, it notes 605,000 patients from overseas registering with GPs in 2007-8: a figure higher by 100,000 than at least one international estimate of the inflow to the UK, which the think tank takes to mean that large numbers of unauthorised migrants are on the books at health centres.

Migrant studies is not a field for simple-minded Gradgrinds: the data are never quite stable and methods and measures used in the field tend to reinforce the suspicions of the particular research team. Migration Watch is a good example of a team with a mission to curtail net migration. IPPR’s migration experts and the Migration Observatory in Oxford admit that some of the findings they present are little more than pointers. The advantage, in their eyes, of discussing immigration purely as a resource issue is that attitudes struck by politicians and the press, quite often negative, can be answered quite simply with the facts, as part of a common-sense debate about how societies create or squander wealth.

But there are disadvantages too. One is that strong feelings aren’t always susceptible to sound economic arguments. The demography of European states suggests that they need skilled and unskilled migrants, and that every successful attempt to curtail migration comes at a price that someone else – citizens reaching retirement in 2050, say – will eventually have to pay. The European Commission, the OECD and the two great champions of liberal market capitalism, the Economist and the Financial Times, are in favour of freer borders and fewer curbs on immigration. The OECD applauds the fact that since 2008, the drop in immigration to member-states has not been as sharp as it feared. Opponents of liberal immigration policy do not buy into this upbeat perspective on globalisation and their objections cannot be changed by an appeal to good sense.

Another disadvantage is that in an earnings/expenditure analysis of immigration, migrants remain a matter of objective interest only; they cannot really have a point of view. This takes us back with a jolt to Frantz Fanon’s work on the invisibility of colonial subjects and puts us in mind of broader, more generous questions we might have asked about people who move from one place to another, because of their ambition or their desperation, or a combination of the two. In Britain especially, when migrants can be shown to produce immediate social, fiscal and market benefits for the host, it is right to defend immigration against its detractors; when they don’t, it is wrong. If migrants have needs, they are obscure to us, and their subjectivity is only grudgingly acknowledged when we transpose it to the domain of rights, charters and conventions, for the courts to deliberate.

In their book about ‘the ethics of immigration’, two philosophers, Christopher Heath Wellman and Phillip Cole, ask whether anyone should be able, in principle, to prevent another person from crossing a border. To have this discussion at all is to restore a degree of intention to migrants, as both writers do, even though they disagree about the answer. For Wellman, freedom to associate also implies freedom not to associate, and legitimate states should be free to exercise both. He accepts the need for a global redistribution of wealth and opportunity – migrants remit vast sums of money to their countries of origin – but argues that ‘whatever duties of distributive justice wealthy states have to those abroad, they need not be paid in the currency of open borders.’ Cole, on the contrary, wants to sketch ‘an egalitarian theory of global justice’ and sees borders as an obstacle to fairness: freedom of movement is undoubtedly a right, like the right to freedom of speech, or religious and sexual preference. But only a framework of global governance can found it, manage it and try to ensure that it’s respected. Borders, in other words, have to wither away.

The frontier, for the purposes of this debate, is the place of negotiation between insiders and outsiders. The terms are set by the insiders and approved internationally. But it is also a divide between ‘communitarian’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ models of rights and obligations. The former proposes a bounded, particular set of priorities and interests, modest at best, narrow-minded at worst: the echoes here are from the political theorist David Miller. The latter envisages a kind of global ethics, ambitious and unwieldy: the echoes here are from Michael Dummett and Onora O’Neill and might be dismissed as utopian, were it not for the fact that human movement across borders is set to continue, with or without an international consensus about how it’s regulated.

In Europe, the most startling communitarian defence of the border is Régis Debray’s Eloge des frontières (2010), a grumpy, spirited attack on the liberal vogue for anything ‘sans frontières’. In France the list is long. It includes doctors, pharmacy staff, architects, librarians, lawyers, journalists and firemen. For Debray firemen without borders is an absurdity. The frontier, he argues, constitutes an indispensable limit, like the outer limit of the body. The deepest thing about mankind, Valéry said, is its skin. In this sense, globalisation is a kind of flaying, driving us to a frenzy of one-world generalities that have no grounding in the circumscribed realm of nations and peoples, whose members have to cross a threshold each time they transact with their counterparts. Debray’s is not a crude organic description of the nation, more a plea for the specific and the sacred: a plea made by an erstwhile internationalist who doubts the cosmopolitan case. The book is based on a lecture he delivered in Tokyo in 2010, a few months before France began the most flamboyant of its regular campaigns against Eastern European Roma. More than eight thousand were deported in that year. Every disappointed global citizen received €300 for the privilege of being hustled onto a plane. The Roma, who were never multicultural, will continue to be puzzled by the rituals Debray wants them to observe, but the Front National gets the point.

The difficulty with integration remains that for every existing immigrant who might learn the ‘Marseillaise’ or plough through the history of Dutch fiction, there are a dozen more trying to access the EU. Integration, in the view of sceptics and diehards, is a losers’ game unless the pass is cut off and the communitarian model is allowed to flourish. Which is to say that secure borders and symbolic expulsions are essential to underpin the policy of integration. Yet rationed access expresses a deep contradiction in European values, as set out in a range of declarations that pertain to citizens of member-states, and human beings in general. We are universal or we are not. On the one hand, gated communities are anathema to the egalitarian ideal. On the other, gating and exclusion are the preconditions of a new civilising mission Europe now feels obliged to carry out at home, as it reconciles itself to earlier intakes of newcomers.

Border abolitionists like to quote George Kennan’s realpolitik memo to George Marshall, the US secretary of state, in 1948, with its call for America ‘to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming’ about the fact that it had some 6 per cent of the world’s population and 50 per cent of its wealth. Kennan is the counter-model for the sans-frontières. ‘Our real task in the coming period,’ he wrote, ‘is to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security.’ And later in the memo, as he reviewed the fate of subject peoples in distant countries: ‘We should cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratisation.’ The same hard-headedness, as migrant rights groups are quick to point out, now obtains with regard to Europe’s frontiers. Ambition, education and wealth send tens of thousands of people from the global south to the global north, yet disparity is the real driver, and it is more marked than it was when Kennan was at the State Department.

The anthropologist Gregory Feldman, author of The Migration Apparatus, cites a well-known study of 2006 from the UN University’s World Institute for Development Economics Research, which found that the richest 2 per cent of the world’s adults owned half its wealth. The figure gives a good sense of how acute the situation is for the have-nots in a world where resources are stretched. The basic needs of most migrants are access to work and sufficient healthcare to ensure that they can earn and remit money to families at home who might otherwise go hungry. Europe is resource-rich by these standards. Whatever happens to the single currency, the EU will still contain five of the world’s most powerful economies; it remains the world’s wealthiest continental bloc, with GDP per capita of roughly €25,000. When you run the figures through purchasing power parity, a relative measure of living costs and inflation in different countries, GDP (PPP) per capita in Germany is about three times higher than in Turkey, 13 times higher than in Pakistan and a hundred times higher than in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Mediterranean peoples of Europe moved north in the 20th century to confront this disparity and the Portuguese – still France’s largest foreign population in 2006 – went through epic hardships on their way. The pain barrier is higher now, but others will continue to cross it, with or without an invitation. Europe is still somewhere to be.

Failure and solitude are common experiences for migrants settling in, and among unauthorised migrants, there are many casualties by the side of the road to prosperity. There is humiliation, illness and death. Migrants die in trucks, they drown, they are murdered in smuggling operations or ruthlessly exploited because their business is illegal and the police, in the many countries through which they have to travel, are the last people they would contact. These are the dangers that EU border security points up in its publicity campaigns against clandestine entry. They cast immigration control in heroic roles, saving lives in rough seas off the Canaries or in a first-aid tent in Puglia. And what sinner wouldn’t want to be pulled from the pit by a competent saviour? But clandestine migrants scarcely need reminding that there would be no need for rescue without a fatal prohibition in the first place. Besides, the image of humanitarian refoulement has been compromised by the harsh treatment of deportees on aeroplanes and a growing suspicion that migrants in extreme danger may, on occasion, be ignored; in March 2011 around sixty people, embarked in Libya, were left to die of thirst and hunger even after their disabled boat had been spotted from a helicopter and several ships, including an aircraft carrier.

As Europe recoils from the idea of inward migration, its border policy becomes more probing and adventurous. The motto: expand the better to contract. The EU’s boundaries are constantly being pushed beyond the physical extent of the union into forward positions from which member-states hope to defend themselves against further intrusion. This process began in 1999, at the Tampere summit, when it was agreed that the EU should co-operate with countries from which large numbers of migrants were entering, or trying to, in order to manage ‘migration flows’. It continued with the European Council meeting in Laeken three months after 9/11, which urged that readmission agreements should be drawn up between the EU and sender countries. It reached a watershed a few years later, as Frontex – the European Agency for the Management of External Borders – embarked on its first missions outside the EU. (Frontex gathers intelligence about border pressures and shares it with member-states; it also puts rapid deployment teams and advisers at their disposal.)

The meaning of co-operation, which emerged in Tampere, is to restrict migration to a trickle and set up holding camps outside the EU where unauthorised migrants can be detained and eventually returned to their place of origin. The most spectacular example was Gaddafi’s Libya, where bilateral arrangements with Italy and, later, a generous commitment from the EU, turned the country into a vast immigration and customs outpost with detention facilities for asylum seekers, and funds for charter flights to send ‘illegals’ back to sub-Saharan Africa (5000 or 6000 between mid-2003 and the end of 2004). In 2009 Human Rights Watch reported that the EU was offering €20 million to Gaddafi for new accommodation centres and €60 million for ‘migration management’ along his country’s southern borders. Apparently he was reluctant to sign up for anything less than a €300 million package, but in October 2010 he settled for €60 million and put his name to a ‘migration co-operation agenda’.

Libya is not the only example of a forward border post with a mission to intercept and detain. In 2006 a school in Nouadhibou, a seaboard city in Mauritania, became a detention centre for clandestine migrants. Seven months later Frontex deployed boats in the waters off the coast. The intention was to cut off migrants from Senegal, Cape Verde and Mauritania at the earliest possible stage in their journey. Spain had asked Frontex for help, but the agency could patrol in African waters only after the Spanish had concluded bilateral agreements with Mauritania and Senegal, as the Italians had done with Libya. The terms of these agreements are confidential and we can only guess what promises Spain made. In due course, however, the EU itself committed money, as it did in Libya: €8 million to Mauritania, for instance, in the tenth European Development Fund (2008-13), for border security and migration management.

Conditions for intercepted migrants in 2010 were harsh. The centre in Nouadhibou had cell-like rooms with up to thirty bunk beds, inadequate light and ventilation and minimal healthcare. ‘Over there,’ an expelled Malian recalled, ‘Mauritanian police officers beat people to death.’ But the statistical success of the project was astonishing. Around 31,000 clandestine migrants arriving by boat were detained in the Canaries in 2006. By 2009 that figure was lower than 2500. Corruption is an issue here. In roughly the same period, figures for people going through the detention centre remained stable, at about three hundred a month. The likeliest answer to this puzzle is that the Mauritanian authorities are massaging the numbers in order to stay in the way of European aid. A Malian chef in Nouadhibou was arrested and released twice, even though he was a legal migrant, increasing that month’s detention figures in the converted school by two.

As European immigration control forges south, it raises tensions between states in Africa. Mauritania’s new, indentured relationship with the EU is a source of friction with its neighbours Mali and Senegal. Neither likes to take non-nationals, shoved out of Mauritania, who are supposed to make their way back to Niger, Ghana, Nigeria. The result, according to a 2010 report by Migreurop, is that ‘the Mauritanian authorities often make migrants cross the border river at night, on makeshift canoes. On the other bank, the Senegalese Red Cross, funded by its Spanish counterpart, then takes charge of moving them on again.’ Clandestine movement across borders, the European bugbear, is now part of a refoulement programme in the global South, approved by Brussels. The forward border has adverse repercussions, too, for Cen-Sad, a tentative community of Sahel-Saharan states proposing freedom of movement for goods, money and people, despite war on the Chad/Sudan frontier and many other obstacles, to which the EU has added by sponsoring deportations between Cen-Sad member-states.

Finally there is the versatile character of irregular migration. Libya’s willingness to shut down clandestine routes in its jurisdiction meant that, until the uprising in Tunisia last year, many fewer people were entering Italy – just as the numbers in the Canaries dropped after Frontex deployed in 2006. The result, however, was that by 2009 by far the largest numbers of irregular migrants entering the EU were coming via Greece: tens of thousands a year, mostly by land, across the Evros River from Turkey, but also by sea. Increasingly they were rerouting from the Maghreb and even sub-Saharan Africa: last year, a West African fixer in Istanbul told Voice of America that people smuggling in the city was ‘big business’. But closing off one route and forcing migrants down another tends to expose them to even greater dangers, and the Evros can be as treacherous as the open sea. In 2010, 16 people drowned in the river in a single incident. UNHCR reported that most were thought to be Somalis. A Nigerian who set out in a party from Turkey in 2011 realised in short order that few of his fellow travellers could swim and no one else knew how to paddle an inflatable dinghy. The bedraggled group were arrested in Greece and sent back to Turkey.

Effective, radical border reinforcement might just be possible with enough money and personnel. It would boost European job creation by shifting thousands of unemployed people, from Finland to Hungary, into frontier security: maintenance crews for high-tech fences, coastguards, primary healthcare workers, paramilitaries, rendition squads, all-purpose janitors and bouncers, plus large numbers of low-skilled workers involved in the building of barracks for management and muscle on the frontline. Construction alone could generate an ambitious public works project, with funding and tenders awarded in Brussels. Greece might even receive special disbursements for a restaging of the Persian Wars on the banks of the Evros: it is already building a 12-kilometre fence in the area, where Frontex registered 40,000 irregular migrants in 2011. Yet the fully militarised model, which is underway on the US-Mexican frontier, is no use to the Europeans, whose land border, at nearly 9000 kilometres, is three times as long. Then there is the matter of the European coastal frontier: another 42,000 kilometres. Can a community intent on rekindling its family values at the hearthside really hope to succeed while in charge of such a rambling estate?

Where border enforcement fails, there is always the rearguard option of destroying migrant camps. Greece, Italy and France have seen most of the action here. For several years in Italy, the target has been the Roma, and last December, the wish to tear these places down – more an impulse than a policy – culminated in a mob attack on a camp in a suburb of Turin after an accusation of rape. In Greece, there have been recent raids in Patras, in the northern Peloponnese: one on a cardboard camp, destroyed by riot police and bulldozers; another on an old textile factory, where police made a round of arrests and then set fire to the migrants’ belongings, including clothes and temporary residence permits. Further north, near Igoumenitsa, between fifty and a hundred illegal migrants were arrested in a forest camp near the ferry terminal: the camp was destroyed.

The best-known closure of a migrant camp occurred in 2002, when Nicolas Sarkozy, then the interior minister, ordered the evacuation of the Red Cross facility at Sangatte near Calais, after pressure from the British. Some 67,000 migrants, most of them asylum seekers, had found shelter in the Eurotunnel warehouse in Sangatte between 1999 and the day it shut. The demolition was completed in 2003: numbers of new arrivals in the UK were already falling. The destruction of the centre was a relief for New Labour, whose support for high levels of immigration was only acceptable to the press in exchange for a hard line on would-be asylum seekers. But the rubble of Sangatte also offered symbolic respite for France. The numbers piling up at the Channel crossing had been an embarrassment: bound for Britain, none of them wanted to claim asylum in France and the French didn’t want to grant it.

Irregular migrants are no longer so conspicuous in northern France, but they are still a presence. If they congregate for too long in one place and numbers become too high, the bulldozers rumble out again with an infantry of riot police, as they did in 2009: the target on that occasion was the Jungle, an informal camp which, at the height of its notoriety, held more than six hundred people, sleeping under plastic sheeting. There were 278 arrests at the time of the demolition; at least half were of minors.

There is no proof that breaking up camps deters newcomers. If you have someone to show you, you can find around a dozen ‘squats’ and ‘jungles’ in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, where prospective Channel-crossers camp rough in sparse stands of trees on the edge of industrial estates, or slivers of woodland between a main road and a field. Further east, there are minimalist camps on the motorway, where migrants haunt the rest areas, watching trucks pull in. Numbers in the department, at any given time, would be between one hundred and three hundred.

Thousands of Kosovans still claim asylum in France every year, but at the end of the 1990s the figures were much higher and accounted for a good proportion of those in Sangatte. Nowadays along the Channel seaboard, you come across Iraqis, Afghans, Eritreans, Sudanese, Ethiopians and Somalis. The protagonists have changed and the statistics are less dramatic, but Mathieu Quinette, who runs the Médicins du Monde office in Dunkirk, believes that a decade of clandestine migration to Britain has seen ‘tens of thousands’ of successful crossings since the camp in Sangatte was razed.

Nonetheless, people can wait for a very long time and life has become harder for the migrants. Their camps are regularly destroyed, their sleeping bags and blankets burned by the police. People whose fingerprints were taken on their way into France through another EU country – French police can check this on the Eurodac fingerprint database – will often be deposited across the border. Sometimes they will be bused back to the country concerned (unless it was Greece, which the EU agrees has too much on its plate); sometimes released after a spell in local detention. Survivors return and rebuild, and the game begins again. Their little woodland refuges are isolated; in the absence of the Red Cross hangar, which gave structure and rhythm to their waiting game, there has been a rise in microwars between gangs of smugglers and groups of migrants. Lay-bys and rest areas have sometimes been in fierce contention, with Vietnamese groups fending off Russian and Chechen gangs, and Eritreans battling with Kurdish smugglers. The growth of parasitic crime, on the back of unauthorised entry, is a price that France may have to pay for ensuring that the sans papiers along the Channel coast are kept out of the public eye.

All the same, UNHCR figures show that in 2010 the highest number of asylum applications in Europe, around 50,000, was lodged in France. In 2011 that figure rose to 60,000. Most applicants are from Asia and the Balkans. But in Calais I met a group from Darfur who were in Libya at the time of the uprising and made a terrified exit to Europe. One of them, A., had just been evicted from what’s known as Africa House, a deserted industrial building near another deserted industrial building which the authorities smashed up in 2010 because it was the site of the previous incarnation of Africa House: the trials of statelessness in Calais tend to repeat themselves.

Matters could get no worse, A. felt, if he lodged his asylum claim in France. ‘How did you enter Libya in the first place?’ a retired accountant volunteering for Secours Catholique asked, as we filled out the young man’s application in a set of prefab huts a few hundred yards from a scruffy British booze emporium. He’d crossed the frontier on a camel, he told us. The congenial accountant, it seemed to me, could already hear the laughter at the sous-préfecture. ‘Right,’ he said, with a look of resolve, ‘I think we’ll just put “truck”.’ A. has no connections in France and doesn’t speak the language, but he has escaped from a country where to be black and foreign was a life-endangering condition and applied to live in another where it is simply a disadvantage, which is a step forward, even by Europe’s accounting.

For the moment we mainly hear the din of battle, between the painstaking communitarian ideal and the forces of cosmopolitanism. Struggling up a Mediterranean beach to claim asylum after an epic journey is a powerful statement. So is the electric fence. But tens of thousands of prosperous, qualified people are also on this frontline, because byzantine visa regimes are denying them entry to EU countries. Managers who cannot hire the personnel they need are in the thick of it too. Last year a British Asian running a software engineering firm in the City told me he’d lost heart trying to apply to the Home Office for short-stay business visas for colleagues from abroad and given up completely on work permits for software geeks. He is now a regular outsourcer to India.

Europe’s tight immigration policy also brings its humanitarian pretensions into question: the holding camps, the charter flights with deportees in restraint positions, the virtual frontier creeping inexorably beyond the geographical border. All these, and the fact that more than 15,000 people have died in the last twenty years trying to circumvent European entry restrictions, cast doubt on the idea that European values, reinvigorated after World War Two, are synonymous with universal rights. The oddity is that many of the people who are refused entry have affirmed their faith in those values and championed those rights by making the journey in the first place. Can rights and values be universal if they seem, even after lengthy explanations of the communitarian case, to be rationed by a subset of rules about sovereign boundaries? Perhaps we should agree to think of rights and values as limited resources, and admit that Europe is now caught in a bitter struggle over who can or can’t access them.

The outcome of that struggle is less obvious than it seems. Plenty of people are disturbed by the consequences of European immigration policy, whatever they think of the principles. In France, when the Interior Ministry began detaining illegal immigrant children at the school gate in 2006, there was a surge in political fostering by indigenous families. Dozens of French children acquired temporary siblings, as their parents took in threatened minors. This radical solidarity prefers the moral case over any argument about national borders. In France, the deportation of Jews in the 1940s is still a vivid precedent.

A thin blue line of European technocrats and civil servants defends immigration as an answer to Europe’s ageing demographic profile, the doubtful future of pension provision and the shortage of indigenous unskilled labour. The door must be kept open, in this view, whatever politicians and the popular press have to say. For this group, principle is neither here nor there: outcomes are everything.

Libertarian elites firmly believe that the dust of protectionism should vanish behind vast columns of goods, services, capital and human beings moving freely around the world. This is both a principle and, it seems, a matter of expediency: they are quick to complain about the shortage of qualified labour on the nearest corner and go on to argue that a stream of unskilled, exploitable workers is necessary to maintain the local infrastructure on which they happen to depend if they’re to arrive at the office in functioning cabs on serviceable roads.

And so to the mystery of ordinary citizens. European views on immigration are mostly negative. According to an Ipsos poll of 17,000 respondents in 23 countries last summer, Europeans tend to feel that there are too many migrants and they congest public services. Many believe they are competing for jobs, despite evidence to the contrary. Migrants are not the enemy exactly, but they threaten to disrupt the orderly world we have struggled so hard to create, in which we stand a little lifelessly like the model citizens of a Lego village, everyone in his place, all of us transacting in our button currency. When asked to consider why human beings move in ever greater numbers, we shake our heads stiffly from side to side, as we did for the last research poll and the one before that. We grasp that migrants may be poor yet fail to see that more prosperity in the global south would probably mean more migration. And not necessarily to Europe: we might one day be competing for immigrants with countries such as Turkey or Brazil as patterns of human movement change. ‘In the future,’ the migration scholar Hein de Haas believes, ‘the question will no longer be how to prevent migrants from coming, but how to attract them.’

Still, from time to time we come to life and look around with a fresh eye. Another poll, conducted by Ipsos/Mori, commissioned by the Migration Observatory and published last September, suggests that British opposition to newcomers is lower, on the whole, in areas where immigrants have settled than it is elsewhere. The exception, oddly, is Scotland – a low immigration area – where 20 per cent of respondents would like to see more migrants. London thinks immigration should remain at current levels. In the Midlands and Wales, a narrow majority feels that immigration should be reduced ‘a lot’, and in the UK as a whole, 60 per cent or more believe the figures need to fall. But the point here is how much more widespread anti-immigration sentiment might have been, given this long moment of recession, and the strength of nativist sentiment, everywhere in Europe, in the face of globalisation. During the 1960s and 1970s, when immigration was a good deal lower than it is now, a series of surveys found a far greater percentage of Britons opposed to immigrants. Multiculturalism had something to teach us after all.


Among the recent books and websites consulted in the writing of this piece:

Debating the Ethics of Immigration: Is There a Right to Exclude? by Christopher Heath Wellman and Phillip Cole (Oxford, October 2011)
Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future by Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron and Meera Balarajan (Princeton, April 2011)
Immigrant Nations by Paul Scheffer (Polity, May 2011)
The Migration Apparatus: Security, Labour and Policymaking in the European Union by Gregory Feldman (Stanford, November 2011)
Centre on Migration, Policy and Society, Oxford University (www.compas.ox.ac.uk, and its data platform, www.migrationobservatory.ox.ac.uk)
Clandestina: Migration and Struggle in Greece (clandestinenglish.wordpress.com)
Eurostat (epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu)
Global Detention Project (www.globaldetentionproject.org)
Institute for Public Policy Research (www.ippr.org)
International Migration Institute (www.imi.ox.ac.uk)
Médecins du Monde (www.medecinsdumonde.org.uk)
Migrants’ Rights Network (www.migrantsrights.org.uk)
Migreurop (www.migreurop.org

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Vol. 34 No. 5 · 8 March 2012

I was dismayed by Jeremy Harding’s fantasy about the prospect of Britain refusing entry to ‘ever growing numbers of British returnees – 80,000 plus in 2008 – rethinking their options in Dubai or on the Costa Brava’ (LRB, 9 February). I am a retired EU official who elected to return to the UK after clocking up a quarter century of employment in Continental Europe. My family was among the ‘80,000 plus’ that year. However, the misgivings we felt about returning were a great deal more painful than my original decision had been, in 1981, to leave the UK for an indefinite period. There is a widespread tendency to stereotype all expatriates as over-privileged, tax-shirking cynics. In the same vein, Jeremy Harding is now content to portray expatriate ‘returnees’ as disappointed opportunists who fall back on their country of birth faute de mieux. This is grossly unfair to the thousands of Britons approaching the end of their careers abroad, as opposed to those simply disporting themselves in a sunnier climate.

Robin Charleston
Saxilby, Lincolnshire

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