The Politics of Migration
The issue of migrant labour and/or refugees is at, or near, the top of the political agenda in many countries round the world today.
There are two main reasons for this. First, the combination of globalisation and war over the last decade or so has generated flows of migration greater, possibly, than at any previous point in human history – in excess, possibly, even of the huge displacement of people caused by the Second World War. Second, the ruling classes in most of the affected countries put it there.
Despite the fact that these ruling classes are directly or indirectly responsible for the bulk of this movement of people (either by driving people out of one part of the world through poverty, unemployment or war, or attracting them to another part to meet labour shortages) they try to ensure that the prevailing attitude to the phenomenon of migration and to the migrants themselves, is one of hostility.
Obviously the details vary from time to time and country to country, but the general thrust of the ruling class argument, presented through the statements of politicians and complemented through innumerable press and media stories, remains essentially the same everywhere. It is that migrants are to be seen primarily as constituting a ‘problem’ for the ‘host’ country into which they come.
For a start there are always too many of ‘them’; ‘they’ are always arriving or about to arrive in vast numbers, like an invading army, into a country which is always already bursting at the seams. Then ‘they’ are pretty much always taking ‘our’ jobs, causing unemployment among ‘native’ workers, and at the same time jumping the queue to get houses and flats thus creating a housing shortage for deserving citizens. Their presence will also be putting all sorts of pressure on public services. Their children will be causing problems in schools because they don’t yet speak the local language or because they speak too many languages. Form time to time they will get sick and this will cause problems in the hospitals as they take up needed beds and use up scarce resources. They are also quite likely to be bringing and spreading foreign diseases. Remarkably these migrants and refugees also often seem to have tendency to crime – stealing, drugs, prostitution, knives etc – and other forms of bad behaviour but despite this the authorities still seem bent on giving them preferential treatment over local people.
But, even if they are not guilty of all this bad behaviour, ‘they’ are still a ‘problem’ because of their different and ‘alien’ culture – language (which makes them hard to understand) clothes, food (which makes them smell funny), religion (which makes their morals doubtful) and so on. It being well known that people of different cultures have difficulty mixing or living together.
Every socialist has to be able to refute these arguments and expose them for the reactionary rubbish they are. She or he needs at their finger tips concrete facts and statistics to dispose of the mass of exaggerations, myths and downright lies that invariably surround this subject and clearly such concrete facts will differ from country to country and case to case. However there are also certain basic theoretical points which underpin the whole debate.
The first is simply that a rise in population is not a bad thing. All over the world the system tries to convince us that the existence of people is a problem, and of more people a calamity. Obviously this is the perfect alibi for governments and ruling classes everywhere – if there is unemployment, homelessness, poverty etc it is because there are too many people – but it is complete nonsense, an absolute inversion of the truth. If an increase in population really caused unemployment or homelessness then unemployment and homelessness would have been rising relentlessly since the year dot. In reality there is not some fixed number of jobs or houses, and every increase in population means an increase in the workers able to make these things.
On the contrary a rise in population is, fundamentally, a result of an increase in the standard of living. The world’s population is not rising because people are having more children but because more children are surviving and living longer, which in turn is caused by caused by improved diet, health care and living standards. Equally an expanding capitalist economy generates a demand for more labour, which can be met either by natural increase in population or immigration. By the same token the real cause of rising unemployment is economic contraction or crisis and nothing to do with population size or, therefore, immigration.
The second general point is the link between hostility to migrants and racism. Many of those who oppose immigration or demand it should be limited, vehemently deny that this has anything to do with racism, saying it is just about numbers, but in reality this is never the case.
Racism as a systematic ideology developed in Europe from about 17th century onwards as a reflection of, and justification for, first the slave trade and then colonialism and imperialism in general. It established a mythical hierarchy of so- called ‘races’ or ethnicities, with white Europeans at the top, followed by Far East Asians, South Asians and African Blacks at the bottom. Attached to this hierarchy were innumerable prejudices and stereotypes, such as Blacks are lazy, Orientals are inscrutable and wily, and so on. Because Europe came to dominate the world culturally and ideologically as well as economically and politically, this racist hierarchy and its stereotypes achieved considerable worldwide acceptance, even in non- European societies. It is against this background, and resting on or mobilising these prejudices (spoken or unspoken), that opposition to migration always operates.
Finally it is necessary to understand the double game currently being played by our various rulers. On the one hand they require large amounts of cheap migrant labour to boost their profits, and they make sure they get it legally or illegally. On the other hand they encourage prejudice and racism against this migrant labour, both because of the general benefit they obtain from having readily available scapegoats and dividing the working class and because stigmatising and marginalising the migrants reinforces their status as cheap super-exploitable labour without employment rights or union organisation.
On this basis it should be clear why the attitude of socialists to migrants and refugees of all kinds is the opposite of our rulers: why we emphasise the potential benefits, economic, political and cultural, of immigration, and fight for the national and international unity of the working class by extending to all immigrants the hand of solidarity and saying ‘YOU ARE WELCOME HERE’