The need to 'control our national borders' is a long founded narrative imposed by elites and broadly agreed upon by most of the public. Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, argues the left need to reclaim the high ground – the dismantlement of immigration systems is not just morally right, it will give power to the have-nots over the haves.
After Brexit we will become ‘global Britain’, at least according to Conservative government ministers. In the words of Boris Johnson we will be “more outward-looking and more engaged with the world than ever before”. Theresa May says we will “embrace the world”. Trade Secretary Liam Fox waxes lyrical about the benefits of open global free trade, claiming it's one of the most “powerful tools we have to help those in greatest need.”
Yet this openness only applies to the wealthy – to big business, large investors, and the growing number of oligarchs from Russia to the Gulf to China. When it comes to the so-called 99%, the answer couldn’t be clearer: stay away.
The Prime Minister’s most significant political achievement is creating an environment for migrants that's so unpleasant they're willing to ‘self-deport’. Her ‘hostile environment’ has been responsible for even certified British citizens being sacked, arrested and deported. It has tried to turn landlords, employers, doctors, teachers and bank clerks into immigration enforcers. So severe is the impact of the hostile environment on the so-called Windrush generation, Commonwealth workers who came to Britain to work post-war, even the right wing tabloids have developed some empathy. That’s no mean achievement on May’s part.
And it doesn’t stop with May. The cabinet’s most fervent free trader, Liam Fox, says maintaining European free movement of people would be a betrayal of Brexit. Other cabinet ministers compete to be ever harder on migration, and the government retains an immigration target which is completely unrealistic and would seriously harm the economy if achieved.
And what of Labour? They've found it hard to come up with a clear and compelling position on migration. While Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott have spent a lifetime campaigning against the cruel effects of immigration regimes, the party's position on immigration is open to interpretation. They certainly talk about the need for a more humane system, but they also believe in ‘control of our own borders’, and are firm on ending our involvement with the most extensive free movement experiment of modern times, in the form of Europe. Despite forthright rhetoric, the SNP’s policy is similarly vague.
Of course these parties are partly responding, with some awkwardness, to a real sentiment shared by much of the British population. After years of being told – by both major political parties – that ‘migration is a problem’, many people believe it. But there’s a deeper issue here. For some on the left, the freedom of people to move is no different from the freedom for capital to move – both are aspects of a globalist ideology to wipe away the ability of the nation state to protect people. To decry this notion puts you in a camp with the cosmopolitan neo-liberal elite which has failed to understand the needs and desires of ‘real people’.
This is one of the myths of neo-liberalism: that we’re in a borderless world, where states no longer have any power. But that isn’t true. The global economy is premised on the power of nation states – just witness the bank bailouts as the most egregious example. And in important ways, freedom for the mass of people in the world has shrunk considerably. In fact, the era of neo-liberalism, since the late 1970s, has seen the creation of the world’s biggest and most brutal border regimes in history.
Globalisation is about a very restricted form of ‘freedom’ – the free movement for money and those who possess it. In fact, the true economic migrants of globalisation are the corporations who set up overseas – on whatever terms they dictate – to make use of the resources they find there, and then take their profits back home.
After 40 years of neo-liberal economics, this means that quantities of money too large to comprehend cross national borders on a daily basis. But neo-liberalism also means the borders of the global North have become far harsher and more brutal. And that’s not a surprise, because that’s precisely how profits are made – free capital but imprison people within national boundaries. This creates economies with poor pay, conditions and regulations for big business to exploit, with no way out.
The borders are policed brutally. Last year, nearly 3,000 people drowned trying to reach Europe. That’s eight people every day. Since 2000, the number is nearly 40,000. It’s war-zone levels of death. And it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Tens of thousands of migrants are in indefinite detention in defiance of human rights norms and our government has signed deals with numerous unstable and human rights abusing governments from Turkey to Afghanistan. We send war ships to the Mediterranean to turn back migrant boats to Libya, a country our government invaded and turned into a lawless state. And we spending aid money helping Kenya send refugees back to Somalia – a country our own foreign office tells British citizens to leave immediately.
All of this should surely make us question the stories we’re told about our economy and society – that it has expanded freedom and prosperity around the world. Our message to the rest of the world is clear: your wealth has been stolen – and you’re not coming here to share in it.
Of course to some degree, it was ever thus. The history of empire is a story of plunder and dispossession. But that’s all the more reason why the left should stay firm on this issue now. Yes, we want to build more equal countries with thriving public services, but we cannot do this off the backs of those even less wealthy than ourselves. Rather, building a more equal country must be part and parcel of building a more equal world.
It's true that setting more ‘generous’ targets for migration, or dealing with migrants in a more humane way, will mean a better life for some. But it doesn’t get to the real crux of the matter: borders are a means of protecting wealth. That’s why they don’t ‘work’ in terms of stopping migrants trying to enter the country.
No border will stop those who desperately need a better life from trying to obtain their dream. They don’t stop migrants trying to reach safety, a decent living, or a better life. They simply make that process more violent and insecure. For the left, the answer is not to ‘be nicer’, but to challenge the unfair structure; to begin dismantling borders altogether.
Although that idea of ‘no borders’ might sound utopian, it’s important to remember the relatively recent history of political borders. Most borders are less than 200 years old – many less than 100 years old. In the 19th century, Europe dealt with its own poverty through mass migration to the ‘colonies’. Millions moved from Europe to North America and Australia and South Africa. Indeed outside Europe, borders were mostly just lines drawn by Europeans on a map in order to control those places better.
The first modern immigration law in Britain wasn’t introduced until 1905, the Aliens Act – and it was introduced with the noble purpose of keeping out Jewish refugees who were fleeing persecution in Russia. Then, as now, the public was told by the media that Britain was being swamped by foreigners.
The then Liberal MP Winston Churchill (above) wasn’t having any of it – he opposed a bill which looked like “an attempt on the part of the Government to gratify a small, but noisy, section of their supporters, and to purchase a little popularity in the constituencies, by dealing harshly with a number of unfortunate aliens who have no vote. It will commend itself to those who like patriotism at other people’s expense…. The same men who are obstinate opponents of trade unionism will declaim the rights of British Labour.”
It’s a familiar ruse. Indeed, a scapegoating of migrants and foreigners has so regularly been used as a way of elites maintaining power, we should by now be better at responding to it.
None of this is to deny a very real concern about migration in many parts of Britain today – concerns shared by people who aren’t racist at all. There's certainly a widespread anxiety that migration lowers wages and puts more strain on public services. The evidence doesn’t support this, aside from some specific lines of work. But even if migrants did lower wages, this isn’t enough reason to pull up the drawbridge or to construct more brutal borders.
Few people now would take the view of some trade unions 100 years ago who, when faced with the entry of more women into the formal workforce, campaigned to keep them out. Women’s entry into the workforce might have lowered wages, but trampling on the rights of those lower down the ‘pecking order’ is no way to build a fairer society. Rather it’s a reason to organise and to fight for a better deal for working people.
The more rights migrants have, the less the ‘native’ population will suffer any negative consequences. It prevents undercutting and forces employers to abide by rules and standards. On the other hand, the more people enter a country illegally, the more everyone will face exploitation. Because for those who want to exploit, the issue isn’t about less migration, it’s about less legal migration. Illegal workers can’t stand up for their rights, can’t battle alongside native workers for better terms and conditions. They can be paid below minimum wage because they’re illegal anyway. So it’s a recipe for exploitation.
That’s why free movement in Europe is such a step forward. Of course, it doesn’t ‘make up for’ the fortress created around Europe. It doesn’t justify treating migrants from outside Europe like sub-humans. But it is, unusually for a migration system, based on rights. To replace this system with a managed migration system, even a very generous one, is to take power out of the hands of individuals and put it into the hands of employers. People’s importance and ability to access a better life becomes dependent on their economic value. They will be dependent on their employer to stay in the country – so are less likely to organise or mobilise for better pay and conditions.
Free movement doesn’t do that. It says you move to work, live and study as a right. So the left must both defend and extend free movement. Dismantling borders won’t happen overnight, but a number of policies – including amnesties, family migration rights – plus of course strong employment laws, better housing and public services, can start to get us there.
Most important is the solidarity we show, not simply to the Windrush generation and their children currently in the news, but to all migrants in Britain. After all, when the left has fought for rights for the most marginalised, in solidarity with those affected, we have achieved the greatest strides forward. It was not the best-off workers who created the modern trade union movement, but the most marginalised – the match girls, the Jewish tailors, the Irish dockers. These great struggles – often led by migrants – played a fundamental role in destroying the Victorian slum. Today that struggle is global, but it still centres on migration. Through fighting for the rights of migrants, we can create a better society.
None of this means freedom of movement should be compulsory. Freedom to move must also mean a freedom not to move. People are forced to move by war, political oppression, economic injustice, unemployment, poverty, climate change, hopelessness. Those conditions must also be tackled and the part of the world most responsible – the global North – must stop the plunder and start redistributing wealth from the richest to the poorest.
But to imprison people behind national borders until this day comes is obscene. In fact, migration can provide the political impetus to equalise the world sooner rather than later. In his excellent book Violent Borders, Reece Jones describes movement across borders as a political act – deserving support and solidarity. Today, we face a system of global apartheid. Where you are born dictates the life you can expect to live. Your country of origin decides whether you enjoy relatively free movement around the world, or whether you are unable to enter the wealthiest countries. The left cannot simply accept that and get on with building a better country here and simply wish others well.
As things stand, Britain’s post-Brexit looks set to become more exploitative than ever. Our department for international development is privatising education and healthcare in Africa, Liam Fox is pushing trade deals which threaten to open Africa, Asia and Latin America to the whims of big finance, and Boris Johnson wants to re-invent the British empire.
In fighting this – and working to build a fairer country, with a more equal share of resources – let’s not forget where so much of our wealth has come from. The national borders we live within today have been created and are policed to retain large amounts of wealth in a small part of the world. We must start to dismantle these borders. A kinder migration system is not enough – we must begin to tear down the structures of global apartheid.