Perceptions from the UK – The changing face of migration

Photo by Reuters

By Barney Walsh

It is not difficult to talk about the securitisation of immigration within a European and British context. Even critics of Barry Buzan’s theory - that speech acts publicising an apparent danger which result in special measures being employed against that threat, constitute a ‘security’ issue - accept that it is perhaps at its explanatory best when being applied to liberal democracies, notably against asylum seekers or migrants. In the UK, at different times and to varying extents media and politicians present migrants as potential terrorists; benefit scroungers; or a threat to public welfare and strain on health services, education, and housing.

Changes from the EU

What a ‘migrant’ is perceived to be has undoubtedly evolved over the last decade or two, as it has done over previous eras of Caribbean and Indian migration. But the definition has always remained people from outside the Cold War definition of ‘First World’ or ‘West.’

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it was ‘Asylum Seekers’ who seemed to come mostly from Middle Eastern conflict zones who garnered most attention, with a few also from Africa. The 1999 UK Asylum and Immigration Bill sort to spread their numbers more evenly across the country to encourage integration, and provided them with vouchers rather than cash so they could take less sneaky advantage of our supposedly generous benefits system.  

In May 2004 that changed with the expansion of the EU, when substantial flow Eastern Europeans arrived (anticipated numbers were grossly underestimated by UK Ministers). These were mostly from Poland, with Poles now the second largest immigrant population behind Indians.  These were not Asylum Seekers but were ‘immigrants.’ They were not from Europe (read France, Italy, Spain, Germany etc, where people go on holiday), but from Eastern Europe. They were already here, and were allowed to be here, who nonetheless spoke a foreign non-exotic language and took far too many traditional working class jobs, the stereotype being Polish immigrants working on building sites.

Further EU expansion in 2014 led to media hysteria over Romanian and Bulgarian’s likely to subsume us in similar numbers (which hasn’t materialised in the same way). These would certainly claim benefits or likely commit crimes now the UK job market was in crisis, plus their homelands were particularly backward and, well, full of gipsys.

Recent migrant boat deaths

The April 2015 migrant boat tragedy in the Mediterranean serve the UK press and politicians with an unwelcome and rather annoying reminder amidst national debate on our membership of the EU - unquestionably tied to the Eastern European influx - that were we to actually leave the community, the forgotten ‘migrants’ illegally attempting to enter our lands from Africa would not necessarily cease.  Like all casualties, migrant deaths do matter. They just don’t matter as much as European/white ones. In 2014, there was an estimated 3,419 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, and from January-mid-April 2015 there had been 1,750 which is 30 times higher than the same period from the previous year.  But to gain media attention and public interest, however fleeting, the deaths need to be in large numbers during one incident.

It was not until the April 2015 capsizing resulting in a newsworthy 950 deaths - the worst toll in recorded history for a single incident in the Mediterranean - that headlines appeared for what I would estimate approximately two days in the UK press. With a general election campaign currently underway, that lack of sustained reporting could perhaps be understandable - for want of a better word – with so many other national issues to discuss.

But the fact in previous years it took tragedies killing 500 in September 2014, or the Lampedusa migrant shipwreck of October 2013 killing up to 340 to create a similar amount of noticeable but ultimately brief attention tells the true and persistent story.  The press attention on these events resulting in hundreds of deaths compare similarly to the headline lead news stories of two British people being kidnapped off the coast of Somalia in 2010, which in fact received more sustained publicity,  or the 2011 death of a husband and kidnap of wife in Kenya.

Intelligent, far-sighted debate around the severe development challenges faced by migrants which encourages their harrowing attempts does exist but is far from the mainstream political agenda. Academics, NGOs or Think Tanks will appear briefly on a news show or be quoted in an article, in order to balance the debate somewhat by pointing to the glaringly obvious fact that if home countries had more opportunities – or even less frequently mentioned if UK did not sell weapons to the corrupt and oppressive governments from which they are often fleeing  – they might not feel the need to risk their lives to come over; but the establishment politicians provide little long term visioning.

Political response

During the current UK election and after the April deaths, opposition leader Ed Miliband bucked this trend somewhat by suggested the latest tragedy was a direct result of the UK bombing of Libya and subsequent failure of post-conflict planning by Prime Minster David Cameron. These comments linking Cameron to the deaths were angrily dismissed by the ruling party as ill-judged, a new low, opportunistic, offensive, outrageous and disgraceful. No real explanation seemed to be offered as to why the Libya campaign in fact had no bearing at all on subsequent events.

Australia’s headline grabbing death toll of 50 bodies washing up on Christmas Island in December 2010 helped encourage one of the ‘harshest border policies in the world,’ which includes turning or towing back boats; forcing migrants to live in detention centres across in Nauru and Papua New Guinea; and guaranteeing they will never be admitted into Australia.  Despite Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott urging the EU to imitate such policies, this does not seem to have been taken up just yet. The sheer volume of migrants and state of the countries they would be returned to make the situation somewhat different, which is acknowledged and understood at the EU.

The emergency summit after the April tragedy saw something of a U-turn in British policy which had originally not supported the EUs Triton search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean thinking they only encouraged the migrants to come. UK seems to now admit that reduced patrolling has not stopped the flow,  and pledged ships and helicopters to bulk up search and rescue operations, but on condition that any picked up migrants would not be automatically taken to Britain and considered for asylum in UK. The summits proposals, however, saw diplomats and politicians admit the package ‘had been cobbled together in a hurry by the European commission as a result of the public clamour for action after last weekend’s drownings,’ and agreements would take several months to take effect.

Emerging role of ‘people smugglers’

With the migrants not wanted in the destination country, garnering too much public sympathy for their plight would be problematic for the political class. But to ignore the deaths of hundreds of people, whether European or otherwise, is not good PR for any administration. Something therefore has to be done to deflect both blame and responsibility from the UK government. The April tragedy may begin to focus attention around the trend of ‘people smugglers’ or ‘human traffickers’ increasingly entering the public lexicon as the true villains of the story. If we can smash their boats, or prevent their evil, we can solve the problem apparently. It seems likely that UK press and politicians will increasingly focus on these convenient scapegoats. By concentrating on people who are more than likely indeed highly unsavoury people, attention can be drawn away from the fact if the ‘market’ for such people-to-be-smuggled is not prevented in the source country through appropriate investment and support with resultant stability and development, then the attempts to cross and subsequent deaths will not cease.

About the Author:
Barney Walsh is a PhD student and Research Associate at the African Leadership Centre, King’s College London.

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