Friday, 29 November 2013

The Lifeboat Politics of Immigration

By Dr Ala Sirriyeh, Lecturer in Sociology  

On Tuesday the Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced his government's plans to introduce increased restrictions on welfare entitlements for EU migrants living in the UK; ostensibly in preparation for the lifting of work restrictions for Romanians and Bulgarians in the UK from January 2014. If these plans go ahead, EU migrants will not be able to claim benefits for their first three months in the UK and benefit payments will stop after six months if these migrants are not deemed to have a 'genuine' chance of getting a job. Fines are set to quadruple for employers found to be paying less than the minimum wage, while EU migrants found sleeping rough will face deportation. On Wednesday evening Channel 4 news visited Margate in Kent in search of local residents' reactions to Cameron's new policy. One man they spoke to explained his support for the new restrictions by comparing the UK to a lifeboat. He asserted it was not a case of being racist or xenophobic, but rather a matter of numbers and balancing the books. Too many migrants arriving would lead to the UK (the lifeboat) sinking. In times of austerity tough decisions about our survival need to be made. Such sinking analogies are common in this island nation and, for me, often conjure up an image of a mad dash to each side of the country in a desperate attempt to keep the UK afloat. It has become commonplace for proponents of immigration restrictions to attempt to separate immigration policy from debates on racism, as was seen in the Conservation campaign posters in the 2005 general election. As I observed in my chapter on asylum politics in the book The State of Race, immigration control is presented as a rational, common-sense approach that aims to match numbers to resources and the needs of the nation-state. Immigration control becomes a matter of rational order, efficiency and good management, uncomplicated by the emotions of 'race' and culture.

As Bauman (2004: 66) observed, 'State powers can do next to nothing to placate, let along quash uncertainty. The most they can do is to refocus on objects within reach'. Romanians and Bulgarians are simply the latest group of migrants targeted as scapegoats as the Coalition government continues with the longstanding formula adopted by governments for displacing the blame for economic uncertainties and fears.

In fact, contrary to the perception that migrants are a drain on public services and finance, recent research from Dustmann and Frattini (2013) at the University College London found that between 2001-2011 EEA migrants in the UK have made a net fiscal contribution of about £22.1 billion. Furthermore, as has long been known, key public services rely on migrant labour to keep them operational (see, for example, the health service where approximately 30% of health professionals are foreign born). In 2006, migrants in the USA undertook a series of protests under the banner 'A Day without Immigrants' in which more than a million Latinos came out on to the streets and boycotted workplaces, shops and schools. As Mehdi Hassan suggested in his article in the New Statesmen in July, a similar boycott by migrants and children of migrants in the UK could bring a whole sectors of services and businesses to a standstill. This is not to say there are not real and legitimate concerns about the resourcing of public services. However, I would suggest that the political spotlight needs to be shifted back to the real challenges which are on the supply side and the neoliberal ideologies lurking behind the policies of austerity An alternative and rather more accurate notion of 'lifeboat politics' would be to recognise that rather than sinking the ship, migrants in fact can help to keep 'host' nations afloat.


Esmee said...

A really interesting article, immigration is such a politically sensitive issue and one which the general public feel scared to discuss sensibly I feel, we need a more open discussion about migration, that involves accurate facts and figures about who is coming in and out of the country but also who is using what services so that we can move away from labelling immigrants as not paying their way. Proper statistics and research along with sensible dialogue is needed and pieces like this really begin that type of discussion so an important contribution made here.

Adam Snow said...

Surely those same 'Neo Liberal Ideologies' are responsible also for the positives of immigration you stress? Free movement of labour and capital, without which immigration would not exist (except of course asylum which is different rationale).

Ala Sirriyeh said...

Thanks for your comments Esmee. Yes there does need to be more accurate data. The Migration Observatory at Oxford are good for this.

Ala Sirriyeh said...

Thanks for your comments Adam. I would disagree as I would argue that neoliberalism does not promote the free movement of people. Capital and the rich may move freely. However, the poor may move, but in a different way (see Bauman’s analysis of ‘tourists’ and ‘vagabonds’ in his book Wasted Lives). People often migrate in spite of, and under the restrictive terms of, restrictive migration regimes. The concept of free trade and movement, the idea that there is ‘free choice’ and that there has been dismantling of barriers are a myth. Structural inequalities, racism etc. are still deeply embedded in our migration regimes and wider society. The neoliberal state is managed for the economic benefits of the minority.

Christopher Till said...

Great post! It is a little bit worrying how powerful such metaphors are which is why it is so important to tackle them with facts...and other metaphors. With regards to the "free" movement of labour, there are big differences between those which Boris Johnson tries to attract from China (for instance ) via business class and those that arrive on container ships.