From invading to marauding: what is wrong with how we are talking about the present migrant crisis?

By Teresa Piacentini

It was only a matter of time. Talk of ‘incursions of migrants’, ‘monitoring signs of migrant activity’, ‘threats to security’, ‘army ready to act’ and ‘sending in the troops’ is marking the latest transformation of migrants desperately seeking a safe and better life into a militaristic threat. Increasingly the present situation – largely described under the rubric ‘the Calais crisis’  – is being reported in language usually reserved for actual conflicts themselves, of surveilling the enemy and awaiting the next infiltration.  The Calais migrants are not invading, but the plight of migrants making rational decisions to risk their lives has become a key global conflict of the 21st century. A new conflict with no obvious single enemy, but an enemy who appears to be everywhere. A conflict that has resulted from other conflicts, but which are not acknowledged as driving people to desperate measures.  It is a conflict that has been moving progressively closer and closer to Europe, from the millions of displaced people on the African continent, to the tragedy of Mediterranean crossings, to the bloody scaling of high razor fences at Calais.

The anti-migrant language of the most recent reporting about the present situation of migrant crossings has accelerated at an alarming pace, although perhaps no great surprise. Described as ‘swarms’ by Nigel Farage and David Cameron, only to be condemned by labour leader  hopefuls Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham, promptly followed up by links to Labours’ own managed migration policy, which is hardly any more humane. The language of managed migration is at the heart of the problem, as if it is something that can be turned off like a tap. As if it refers to a homogenous thing, rather than encompassing mixed flows of people seeking family reunifications, economic migrants, unaccompanied minors, and victims of trafficking amongst many others.  Can the label ‘marauding migrants’ capture this complex reality?

So what has been the political response? Well so far it continues to be framed along the pull factors. On 28 October, 2014, the British Government quietly announced its decision to withdraw support for Mare Nostrum, “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean,” said Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay, to avoid “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths.” On 30 July 2015, David Cameron‘s take on the “swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean seeking a better life” was that they are “wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs, it’s got a growing economy, it’s an incredible place to live.” For too long this has been used as a justification of increasingly regressive immigration legislation in the UK, which has progressively stripped people claiming asylum of any sense of value, reducing them to fully state dependent shells of their former selves. For those that make it to Britain to claim asylum Britain is not a great place, it is a tough place, where there are extensive restrictions on movement, consumption, employment, access to education and housing. It’s quite simply difficult and there is plenty of evidence of the extreme conditions individuals face trying to survive life in Britain (Oxfam 2011; Scottish Refugee Council October 2012).

But where is the focus on the push factors? Those factors that drive and compel individuals to leave their ‘home’ their families and friends, everything that is familiar, even when it is incredibly hard.  Where is the focus on foreign involvement in civil wars across the globe, including the systematic human rights violations that serve as the major push factors for refugee and migration flows to the EU from countries like Syria, Eritrea, Afghanistan, and Somalia, as well as from transit countries like Libya?  Where is the global responsibility for creating conditions that have produced the present situation?

At least three changes need to happen in how we talk about what is happening, how it is reported and how politically to respond. First, the focus on push factors needs to be foregrounded in policy media and public debates, with nation states taking responsibility for contributing to the creation of impossible conditions for human beings to survive.  In acknowledging their collective roles European states will then have to also acknowledge their responsibilities politically to finding acceptable and humane solutions. Ones that provide people with the ability to apply for asylum lawfully, and being able to do that lawfully without people having to wait in places for up to 10 years, as has been the legacy of the UK’s asylum policies since 1999. Solutions beyond practices of ‘deport first, appeal later’ which have no regard for the rights of individuals.  Second is that a shift in thinking about mobility not as something to be feared but as something that requires organisation. As Francois Crépeau, the UN special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants,  suggests, this means opening up avenues for safer mobility for both refugees and  the economic migrants, coming mainly from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, who may also have protection issues , but who are in search or a better life that is not on offer in their own countries.  Their journey is often a violent and dangerous one.  They too though are at risk of the exploitation from both people traffickers and exploitative employers.   Third, there needs to be a refocus on the moral imperative and a shift in the conceptualisation of migrants – and in particular migrants from Sub Saharan Africa, Syrians, Eritreans, Somalis, Afghani – from an enemy threat to be feared to people that need help. The human rights perspective must be at the centre of responses to what is happening. It must not be presented as an afterthought, reduced to the last 10 seconds of a 5 minute report on ‘migrant incursions’. This has to stop.  It’s not enough.  As Kent social services advises it is struggling to cope with children seeking asylum , as the Home Office’s is presently consulting on welfare ‘reform’  for ‘illegal immigrants’ and people how have been refused asylum; and as Phillip Hammond  speaks of millions of ‘marauding migrants’ from Africa, one thing is clear:  the present migrant crisis will not be solved by force, by the reframing of migrants as an enemy threat to both material and symbolic resources; or by enforced destitution and impoverishment. Saving lives, supporting safer mobility, and ensuring basic levels of care could and should be integral to more humane solutions to the present migrant crisis.

Teresa Piacentini is a sociologist and concerned citizen. She works at the University of Glasgow.