At the International Social Forum organised by the UK Labour Party on the 13th and 14th of July, 2019 a host of international speakers attended to give talks on subjects from global economics, climate crisis, global finance and accountability, movement of people and trade protectionism. We publish here the transcript of the talk given at the plenary session on Movement of People by Rafeef Ziadah, a lecturer in Comparative Politics of the Middle East at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).
I should start by welcoming you to this University, a place that’s facing the brunt of the marketization of education and this is a fight we’re having currently here at SOAS and you’re going to hear a lot from our union in the coming year. So I hope you keep that in mind as we speak about migration and movement of people, today, that there are these fights happening all across in the academic sector and we can’t wait for a Labour government to stop those threats to our sector.
this is a question about how we as human beings treat each other, think of each other, and live and survive on this planet
Having said that, I want to be really honest about how difficult writing this talk was for me. I write this talk as somebody who’s a Palestinian refugee denied my right to return to my home, and as somebody who until very recently was undocumented, or what some people call illegal. So I know what it means that a piece of paper can dictate your entire life; whether you can see a dentist when you’re sick, whether you can see a doctor, but also who you can love, and you can marry, and how you can move. So for me this is not just a policy question, this is a question about how we as human beings treat each other, think of each other, and live and survive on this planet, because despite the borders it is actually one planet that we might be sending to hell and on fire at the moment.
The so-called international migration regime is a brutal and violent one. So called border management has really entailed securitisation, externalization and the criminalization of migrants and refugees and anyone who dares to support us. The overall larger objective has been to warehouse people somewhere else, to make sure they don’t reach the shores of Europe or North America. Of course there’s the common myth that Europe and North America can’t cope with the large numbers of migrants. The reality is the majority of people who are displaced end up in the global south. We really saw this hysteria play out around the 44 migrants that recently attempted to cross the English Channel over the Christmas period. And the hysteria was so intense; people speaking about moving warships and bringing in fighters for 44 migrants that were trying to cross the channel.
It’s not accidental, then, that when people like Muammar Gaddafi were being ousted from power, their threat to Europe was that they were going to open the floodgates for refugees. That’s because for decades the EU immigration regime has really depended on connecting development aid to these dictatorial regimes with border control. That has been the policy. You get development aid if you keep migrants away from our borders. You also get surveillance equipment. This is the system we are speaking of and this is the system we want to dismantle.
the reality is that today we do have open borders: we have open borders for capital and we have open borders for individuals who can purchase citizenship
So, talk of a migration crisis or a refugee crisis, in reality, is just debate a debate about bodies but whose bodies have a right to move and whose don’t, who is to be contained and who’s to be warehoused. While some call the demand for open borders too vague, the reality is that today we do have open borders: we have open borders for capital and we have open borders for individuals who can purchase citizenship. For example citizenship by investment programs allow direct purchase of residency rights and a fast-track to citizenship, if you’re able to afford it. For this country, the so-called golden visa program which was introduced in 2008 has really introduced a lot of investment money to the tune of £3.18 billion by 2015 with more than 60% of successful applications coming from China and Russia.
So when we speak about the movement of people and limiting the movement of people, we are really speaking about limiting the movement of workers who cannot afford to purchase citizenship. We are limiting the movement of specific people, specific bodies that are racialized and in many instances gendered in specific ways as well.
Of course there has been a liberal response to this and the liberal response is to assert universalism based on human rights and international norms, emphasize respect for dignity of refugees and other kinds of migrants, give provisions for humanitarian assistance and meeting government obligations under international law. This is all really well and good. So in place of xenophobic ideas of migrants as a threat, we’re supposed to have a welcoming attitude to migrants and we’re encouraged to see that migrants give back.
And until we can say that capitalism functions by creating dispossession then we are not really talking about the root causes of the problem
They have entrepreneurial dynamism, they give back to economic growth and they also increase consumer demand. Again this may all be really well-meaning but this really falls short of addressing the root causes of why people move in the first place and personally, and I think most people who work on migrant trying are expecting a lot more and a lot better, because this paradigm is really based on producing this idea of a “good migrant” and a “bad migrant”, a migrant that was forced to leave because of war versus ones that left because of economic migration. But I don’t know which people, if it comes down to their families living or dying, would not move for economic reasons. How do you separate war from poverty? When we talk about policies that are about just adhering to the dictates of the migration system and making it softer, it’s essentially just a softer policy of simply ordering them, labelling them as who is worthy and who is not worthy. It explains migration as an issue “over there”. There’s people “over there” that are having problems, but it doesn’t explain that migration and people-moving, displacement and dispossession is actually fundamental to how capitalism functions. And until we can say that capitalism functions by creating dispossession then we are not really talking about the root causes of the problem.
Imperialists Wars and their associated arms trade which this country benefits from extensively are what produces this
The softer liberal paradigm also means that migration is explained as issues of war and poverty somewhere else. This is in itself a racializing process; these other people have wars while we do not. Somewhere else people take each other’s lives and then they come here seeking happiness. This completely takes away the responsibility of richer countries and the corporations that pursue policies overseas that dispossess people. Western states and international financial institutions are what is producing displacement and dispossession. Imperialists Wars and their associated arms trade which this country benefits from extensively are what produces this.
Economic and ecological crises, the neoliberal destructuring of recent decades cannot be ignored as the root causes of displacement. Immigration is not an issue that begins at the national border, it is rooted in long histories of colonialism, rooted in long histories of imperialism, international economic pressures and foreign policy practices that generate migration patterns in the first place.
The movement of people does not happen in a vacuum, it is deeply tied, not only to the colonial stitching of the global north or the global south, but also to business led practices and state-backed policies. Countries like this one are implicated in the causes of people moving. They are not passive receivers that simply need to be nice.
What I really want to say is, rather than understanding migration as an issue of charity or simply adhering to international law or international norms, we need to understand that, regardless of status, migrants are parts of the working class, and if we are speaking about a working class, we cannot define it and specify it in terms of who has a piece of paper and who does not. I have worked in factories where I was the only undocumented person and every single person that worked with me said, you are just as much a worker as I am and I’ll stand up for your rights and if the immigration raids come we will make sure to hide you.
That is what internationalism would look like and that is what people on picket lines talk about. So it’s very important that we stop this idea of dissecting the working class by citizenship and think of solidarity and internationalism.
It is on us to put forward an argument that migrants are not the reason for bad working conditions, but the corporations and government policies are and we really need to change them
So flowing from this, a major task I think for the left is actually discussing and tackling the root causes of migration, fighting against imperial wars and ecological disaster, in order to give people a right to stay home in the first place. If we really want to tackle migration, we need to make sure the conditions for people to be able to stay at home are actually there. But what it also needed is to centre internationalism, rather than a left nationalism, in our approaches, rather than adherence to least-common-denominator policies and scapegoating of migrants for all economic ills, or arguing that migrants are taking jobs, and saying that freedom of movement is really the problem. It is on us to put forward an argument that migrants are not the reason for bad working conditions, but the corporations and government policies are and we really need to change them.
It’s very easy to do least-common-denominator politics and keep following the rhetoric to the right. What is more challenging is to actually put forward an anti-racist discussion on migration.
So, here we’re speaking about an internationalism that links conditions at home to those existing overseas and recapture the meaning of international solidarity as an organic and necessary component of left politics, qualitatively different from simple charity or benevolence.
This is the task that all of us have to do collectively together, but we need to start the conversation on the right basis. It’s an anti-racist conversation, it’s a conversation about internationalism not simply charity.