Fear and strange arithmetics

… when powerful states confront powerless immigrants

Linked with Saskia Sassen – USA and Netherlands.

Published on openDemocracy, by Saskia Sassen, June 19, 2008.

(It is surprising to see the high price in terms of ethical and economic costs that powerful ‘liberal democracies’ seem willing to pay in order to control extremely powerless people who only want a chance to work. Immigrants and refugees have to be understood as a historical vanguard that signals major ‘unsettlements’ in both sending and receiving countries).

Most of the rich countries in the world have been bounced or scurried into fairly extreme state action aimed at controlling immigrants and refugees. But they have responded more to the idea of growing migrations than to the actual numbers.

Yes, worldwide migration flows have increased over the last two decades, but immigrants are about 3 percent of the global population. From an estimated 85 million international immigrants in the world, or 2.1 percent of the world population, in 1975, their numbers rose to 175 million by 2000, and to an estimated 185 to 192 million in 2005, or 2.9% of world population. Further, 60% of all immigrants are in the global south, leaving our global north countries with the remaining 40% of immigrants. The fact of the greater concentration of migrants in the developing world is often overlooked. Finally, also overlooked in much of the debate, is the extent of return migration. Thus, to mention just one example, a third of Polish immigrants in the UK have now gone back to Poland, after stays often as short as two years; they have learnt English, accumulated some savings and now want to return to the fuller lives they can have in their home countries …

… In conclusion:

Against this backdrop, the increasingly restrictive regulation of immigration in the global north can be seen as containing some fundamental contradictions.

First, we have destroyed many global south economies which have now become dependent on immigrant remittances. At the same time, we have increasingly become dependent on immigration to meet the demand for low-wage jobs in our economies and to make up for our low fertility rates. Yet our policies aim at rejecting immigration – the source of needed money in many global south countries and the source of needed population growth in many global North countries.

Secondly, and critical to our long traditions of civic liberties, is the tradeoff between the protection of civil liberties and control over immigrant populations. Today, global north states have shown a strong willingness to interfere with our civil liberties in order to control a few, possibly dangerous or criminal individuals in immigrant populations that are for the most part like your average citizen. To this we must now add the new restrictions brought on after the declaration of the so-called ‘War on Terror’, with all its erosions of citizens rights, let alone immigrant rights. This imbalance seems a very high price to pay for a society for which civil liberties are foundational, even if never perfectly or fully achieved.

These are high costs to pay for what is ultimately not a very successful or workable policy framework. Is this really the only way we can handle this matter?

What we need is a reasonable and workable way of governing migrations and refugee flows. It is not possible to do justice to this complex issue in a brief essay. But let me just mention two critical aspects of a solution, one for sending countries and one for receiving countries. Stances that regard immigrants as exogenous to our own global practices are not going to help us develop a better immigration policy. Our starting point should actually be: how do we address the massive economic losses we have imposed on global south countries through our unremitting pursuit of IMF and World Bank restructuring programmes. Critically, we need to recognise that the key to governing migration is not weaponising border control (which has not been effective anyhow) but assisting in genuine people-intensive development.

More difficult is addressing the profound distortions embedded in resource-based economies (such as oil rich Nigeria) that has fed government corruption. And we need our governments to stop the race to the bottom in our own countries. The larger and larger numbers of low-wage jobs being created in rich countries are not strengthening our economies, as the case of the US indicates, where one-third of workplaces are below standards. The winners are mostly a minority of firms and of households – and even if that minority now reaches 20% in many of our countries, it is still not feeding the prosperity of a vast middle class, as was the case in the Keynesian period. (full long text).

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