Do anti-racists need new perspectives in the present fight for asylum rights? Writer and activist A. Sivanandan presents an overview and analysis.
The distinction between political refugees and economic migrants is a bogus one – susceptible to different interpretations by different interests at different times. The West is quite happy to take in economic migrants if they are businessmen (with the requisite £250000), professionals, or technologically-skilled. It needs highly-skilled people, preferably ready-made. It welcomes the computer wizards of ‘silicon valley’ of Bangalore but does not want the persecuted peoples of Sri Lanka or the Punjab. And it is these it terms economic migrants – with all its connotations of scrounging and begging.
From industrial to global capitalism
The West does not need, as it did in the immediate post-war era, a pool of unskilled labour on its doorstep. As economies move from the era of industrial capitalism into the era of global capitalism, businesses move their plants to other countries in search of the cheapest possible unskilled labour. But where they do need unskilled labour domestically – in the seasonal agricultural sector and the fluid service sector – they still require such labour to be temporary and cheap. And the rightless and the illegals fit the bill nicely.
Ironically, it is also globalism, with its demand for free markets and unfettered conditions of trade, which is eroding the distinction all over the world between the economic and the political realm. The nation state, particularly in the Third World and the Eastern Bloc, is the agent of global capital. It is capital which decides what to produce where, what to grow where, and how. And, through its aid and development agencies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and international trade agreements (such as GATT and NAFTA) and institutions like the WTO, it holds the poorer regimes in hock, and then insists that they accept austerity measures, through so-called Structural Adjustment Programmes that dictate drastic cuts in public spending, to pull them back from bankruptcy. The result is massive pauperisation, the erosion of educational, social and welfare provisions, the end of training and enterprise. There simply is no indigenous growth possible any longer, there is no future to look forward to which is not tied up with foreign powers and foreign capital. Hence resistance to economic immiseration is inseparable from resistance to political persecution. The economic migrant is also the political refugee.
That’s a totally different world order from the one in which the politically persecuted refugee was defined in the UN Convention of 1951. Then, the political refugee was being defined in terms of the shame created by the annihilation of Europe’s Jews and the fear engendered by Communist totalitarianism. But, already, a new category of political refugee was emerging in the newly independent states of the ex-colonies.
Colonialism and refugees
During the colonial period, Britain had collapsed diverse tribes, nationalities, ethnic groups and other geographical entities into unitary states for the purposes of easier administration and economic exploitation. In the first flush of Independence, these countries, ruled by progressive nationalist governments, attempted economic policies which they hoped would give them a measure of self-sufficiency and instituted educational and training schemes which would further their national aspirations. But as the West’s neo-colonial project began to displace indigenous economic development, the nationalism which had cohered the state from Independence began to give way to ethnic and communal divisions. And governments turned to using the trappings of democracy, especially the voting system, to establish authoritarian, majoritarian states – which systematically discriminated against and persecuted minority groups such as Ibos in Nigeria, Tamils in Ceylon and Asians in Kenya and Uganda.
At first, these politically persecuted refugees were economically ‘invisible’. In the immediate post-war period of the 1950s and 1960s, when Britain needed all the labour it could lay its hands on, it made no distinction between economic migrants and political refugees. It did not matter that the Punjabis were fleeing the political fall-out of Partition, what mattered was that the factories of Southall needed their labour. Political refugees and economic migrants were all the same: they were labour.
But, as Britain began to need less and less labour and its doors began to close, the claims of the persecuted came to be measured against the yardstick of economic pragmatism. The ‘Kenyan Asian’ episode of 1968, when Asians with British passports expelled by Kenya were refused automatic right of entry to Britain, indeed showed up the racism of Britain’s immigration controls. But it was also the first clear indicator of Britain putting its economic interests before those of the politically persecuted – even when they were its own citizens. The definition, in other words, of political refugee and economic migrant became interchangeable. So that, just four years later, British Asians from Uganda were deemed acceptable as political refugees not only because Amin gave Britain little choice, but also because they, unlike the Kenyan Asians, belonged by and large to the entrepreneurial class and could contribute to Britain’s coffers. ‘British’, ‘alien’, ‘political’, ‘economic’, ‘bogus’, ‘bona fide’ – governments choose their terminology as suits their larger economic, political or ideological purpose.
Roma – the outcasts of Europe
Nothing makes this clearer than the contemporary example of the Roma from eastern Europe. In many ways, their experience in the countries of the former Soviet empire half a century ago parallels that of the minority groups displaced from newly independent states of the British empire. During the Communist era of centralisation, minority cultures and ethnic differences were suppressed. The Roma, although not allowed cultural expression and freedom of movement were, at least, part of the citizenry – an underclass maybe, but still part of a system. With the collapse of Communism, however, they became outcasts – without employment, without access to full rights, discriminated against by state agencies and persecuted by untamed populist racial terror. By any yardstick – ethnic, racial, economic, political – the Roma are a persecuted group like the Jews were earlier. And yet, when they seek refuge in western Europe, we reject them for the same reason that caused them to flee their country in the first place – that their culture and philosophy put them outside the pale of western European society. Once the underclass of Communist totalitarianism, they are today the outcasts of western democracy.
Life or livelihood?
Equally, the refugees who come from the Balkans are those, who have been displaced from their homes by Star Wars, waged ostensibly to save them from genocide, but in the event – because of the refusal to put troops on the ground – leading to the indiscriminate devastation of their country and, therefore, their displacement. The choice for those who face genocide appears to be either life or livelihood, but not both. And if they manage to get away with their lives and come over here, they are denied a livelihood, denied the dignity of work, and are stigmatised as beggars and scroungers, marked out this time not by the colour of their skin but by the worth of their vouchers.
As global capitalism spreads like an oil slick all over the world and Cold War ideological rivalries collapse, nation states in both the former ‘black’ colonies of the Third World and the former ‘red’ colonies of the eastern bloc are beginning to break up. While giant corporations, richer than whole continents and more powerful than nation states, try to cohere the world economically, more and more people are being displaced from their countries and their homes. Some countries are being economically devastated, in others there is genocide; some countries have old-style communal wars, in others new racisms are being unleashed. Political and economic categories have collapsed into each other, culture is becoming homogenised the world over and, increasingly, the values we live by are the values of the market place.
Globalisation reduces all human activity to the binary of buying and selling, and commercialises human relationships. So that we judge our duties and responsibilities to others not by what is owed to them, but by what it costs us. Even the wars we enter to preserve civilisation from descending into barbarism are depersonalised wars which do not involve us personally. We do not put our lives on the line for the values we hold. So that the victims of war are not – even as an extension of the values we fought for – any longer our concern.
For asylum-seekers, against globalism
Globalisation fragments our consciousness and casts us into individual, single issue struggles which might bring about piecemeal reform, but not radical change. That is why it is essential that we see how each struggle – whether against institutional racism, asylum laws, arms sales or unequal trade agreements – connects with the other within the overall campaign against globalism. So that even when we agree with the free marketeers that asylum-seekers should be allowed to work, we do so not because a free labour market is an imperative of globalism, but because it is globalism that deprived them of their livelihoods in the first place. Our fight should be for the asylum-seekers and therefore against globalism.
By the same token, any human rights convention that does not guarantee asylum-seekers the right to a livelihood is irrelevant to the condition of our times.