Jeremy Harding

Talks _7

Jeremy Harding is the author of Border Vigils: Keeping Migrants out of the Rich World (Verso, 2012), among other books.

Tank What has changed since Border Vigils came out; how is the situation developing?
JH The figures for undocumented entry have leaped. Two years ago, in Australia – on the eve of Tony Abbott’s election victory – I reminded a jumpy audience in Melbourne that 60,000 migrants had pitched up on the shores of Italy in 2011: more than the total number of “boat people” who’d arrived in Australia over the previous 35 years. The numbers entering Europe, along the Mediterranean and overland, are now very much higher: we have roughly half a million this year alone. It’s a step change. Two other points. In what is clearly a seller’s market, people-smuggling arrangements have become more ruthless. Populist anti-immigration discourse is louder and clearer in host countries than it was in the 1990s. Governments feel the weight of a large auxiliary force behind them when they enact anti-immigration policies.

The effect of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers arriving in large numbers is dramatic in itself, but it coincides with growing doubts – on the left and the right – about the legitimacy of the EU’s institutions and with the weakness of the single currency. The woes of the 19-member eurozone are momentarily masked by the oil price drop, but they’re persistent. So is the sense that Brussels’ sublime mission is to drive home liberal market principles at the expense of social policy and older, corporatist styles of “family management” that individual member states were happy with for much of the last century. This is why the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the US is an object of suspicion. Then there’s anxiety about inter-member state migration – freedom of movement – an anxiety that’s only increased, especially in the UK, with EU enlargement. That’s before we get to people entering from countries outside Europe. 

In the short term, we can expect individual member states to assert their own priorities, at their borders, in the absence of binding unanimity on how to distribute large new intakes of migrants and asylum seekers. The Dublin Regulation – which requires asylum seekers to lodge their claim in the first EU country they arrive in – is now a comedy, and will either be scrapped or kept on the books as a quaint heritage instrument. The numbers will abate over the winter and take up again in 2016: governments will want to adopt unilateral positions in the absence of a unified approach. There will be more piecemeal measures in Brussels, of the kind we saw in September on mandatory quotas, but even that was divisive. As you’d expect in a crisis of this kind, there is no long-term strategy. Nor is there an overarching European doctrine about asylum seekers and third-country migrants, despite the many treaties and conventions that exist on paper.  

Tank What do such events mean for borders? How do they change in meaning? 
JH Their symbolic importance grows as their efficacy appears to weaken. How to differentiate those? In a symbolic sense, they’re thresholds, distinguishing outsiders and insiders. I’d say, too, that they have older connotations of the sacred – the homeland – and the indifferent, the undomesticated, the beyond – I’m being careful not to use the antithetical word “profane”. They’re lines across which insiders and outsiders move with caution and ceremony. They imply rules and relations of power: the power of the host to extend or withhold hospitality, the stranger’s willingness to cede authority. But as more people cross borders these symbolic values become degraded. Borders lose their mystique: for most of us, it’s no more of an occasion to cross a border than it is to drive through a toll booth onto a highway. But if you want to get to Europe from Africa or the Middle East it’s a life-and-death struggle pitting real people with real needs against a symbolic line that’s suddenly reinforced in the host imagination. Borders regain their old symbolic strength when they’re thought to be too porous, or a “nation” feels itself under attack. 

About efficacy: the best option, it seems to me, is an imperfect arrangement – run-of-the-mill, working borders with a certain amount of porosity, as the US/Mexican border used to have. The EU’s common border – about 5,000 miles of land border, tens of thousands of miles of coast – is a star candidate for imperfect border control. (The US/Mexican border, by comparison, is only 2,000 miles long.) A certain number of undocumented migrants will get through, but by and large the system works and its imperfection assures that it’s more humane: lives are spared in the absence of monolithic defences.

But European borders are moving swiftly towards the American model. Sometimes the initiatives are taken by member-states: Hungary sticks up a fence; France and Britain barricade the Eurostar tunnel at Calais-Frétun. The bigger changes are taking place under the auspices of Frontex, along the Mediterranean coast and now on the overland route from Turkey to Greece. This is EU-level border control. The objective is near-perfect surveillance, interception and deterrence, though for the moment it’s on hold, because Frontex – like the EU itself – is in coping mode. 

The change, as it’s envisaged, would be from understated, affordable border control to siege defence. And so the first question is: once you’ve spent billions of euros and deployed tens of thousands of personnel to ensure your borders are watertight, why wouldn’t you make the most of your investment and run them according to plan? And the next question: will it succeed in keeping people out? When people who live outside a border need to cross it, and those who live within the border don’t want them to, there is no longer a consensus about the status of that border. Border patrol is then on a war footing. How obtuse or easily discouraged is “the enemy”? I’m not sure. 

Tank Is it true to say that enclaves like Melilla and Ceuta embody the future of Europe’s relationship with its neighbours?
JH Yes and no. No, because they’re anachronistic colonial outposts and Morocco wants them back as part of its sovereign territory. Yes, inasmuch as they were also forward positions in a struggle that hadn’t yet become clear, between African migrants wishing to go north and Europeans unwilling to take them. Already, in the 1990s, Ceuta and Melilla were twin bathyspheres, plunged deep into this conflict – much deeper than anywhere on mainland Europe – and the soundings were interesting. 

Madrid chose fortification, but went on to wonder whether immigration control could be more proactive, or invasive. Part of the future of the EU’s common border is a slow, painstaking extension south, into the Maghreb and beyond, with forward positions in African countries – Mauritania is a recent success – that allow Frontex, and “frontline” countries like Spain, to train local immigration officials and put national or EU resources at their disposal. The notion is to cut off undocumented migrants well before they reach the Mediterranean. So the EU border aims to be elastic, between the northern shores of the Mediterranean and points south. In the model, it’s not supposed to bend inwards. In reality, 2015 has shown that it can also be a concave border, under pressure of numbers. 

Tank Is there a deeper relationship between systems of border control and foreign intervention than cause and effect? That is, to what extent can one speak of a military/border control complex?
JH There’s a psychological complex. It intervenes between cause and effect in the form of referred fear. Take the US/Mexican border, where undocumented Mexicans crossing had never been more than a sporadic worry for most of the 20th century. Clinton began to invest in border control in the 1990s but it was only after 9/11 that it became an obsession. The border is now so heavily fortified that it looks like a restaging of America’s foray into Iraq. And that’s pretty much what it is: a transposition of warlike mannerisms from distant foreign fronts onto home turf, a salutary metaphor. What are Mexicans and other central Americans supposed to think about this restaging of US resolve in the borderlands? Only that they have to work around it. People from poorer countries are always having to work around the fantasies of people in wealthier parts of the world. But your expression “military/border control complex” resonates with Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex”. Certainly in the US, and to an extent in Europe, border patrol is an industry, and the real money lies in detention. Companies such as Serco, G4S and GEO Group can ride the scandals and collect the profits. Locking up migrants is a lucrative business. Corrections Corporation of America, one of the largest private detention companies in the US, has seen business surge since the 1980s: when it started out, numbers of detained migrants were in the low hundreds; now there are around 30,000 in detention on any given day. CCA’s revenue last year was $1.65 billion with gross profits going on half a billion. 

Tank Does the media imaginary get in the way of conversations about migration? 
JH It’s not journalists who get in the way of the conversation, even if editorial pressures determine how we present our work about refugees and migrants. And piece for piece, news item for news item, this recent story has been more or less well reported. There are still tales of callous migrants who throw their mothers overboard or eat their hamsters, but not many. There’s also been a healthy debate about the word “migrant”. But the temptation to objectify migrants is still strong. In Britain it has its roots in a narrow concern with the net value of the migrant: is this person useful to us, or – on the contrary – a pointless expense? 

Is the cost of this person, in terms of public services consumed, outweighed by her contributions in income tax and VAT? Fair questions, and the media like to mull them over, but they don’t give many clues about the courage and agency of migrants from poorer countries. The last few months have put a damper on this approach. It’s too embarrassing, even for the British, to clink the change in their pockets in the face of such dramatic scenes of upheaval and fortitude. There are many sides to the story of asylum and migration – including the human side. We know now that they can’t be grasped by sending out a flotilla of accountants to board the boats with business calculators. 

Tank What is the significance of the erosion of the dichotomies between refugee and economic migrant in European discourse?
JH The change is dangerous but inevitable. Dangerous because it suggests inadequacies in the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, and this is not the moment to take issue with the Convention: it’s the basis on which asylum seekers have a right to a hearing. The change is dangerous, too, because the blurring, in the real world, of disadvantaged economic migrants and asylum seekers leaves the latter even more vulnerable: they find it harder to identify themselves, and authorities find them hard to distinguish from economic migrants. But this convergence is inevitable because the penury of many incoming migrants – I don’t say all – resembles the hardship faced by refugees. It has to do with disproportionate poverty in parts of the world that are close to Europe. Above all, sub-Saharan Africa. I think we’ve begun to understand this, even as we try to keep economic migrants out.

We’ve seen impressive wealth creation in developing countries since the 1990s. The International Labour Office in Geneva finds that real wages have grown in most of the world since the turn of the millennium: they’ve nearly doubled in Asia, and increased in real value by about 1.5 percent a year in Africa. But not everyone is a beneficiary and not everyone can access paid work. And discrepancies between north and south are still terrifying. According to keynote speakers at a World Bank Policy Research Talk in 2013, the real value of wages is one of the crucial distinctions: it can be anything from four to 10 times higher – the real value, not the nominal value – in the developed world than it is in the developing world. This goes for skilled IT workers and people hauling wheelbarrows round a construction site in Dubai. So there are good reasons to come to Europe.

We’re not wrong to think that lack of opportunity is a form of oppression and when it’s systemic, or structural, or just the result of gross mismanagement within a national economy, people understandably feel persecuted; often they have a well-founded fear that if they remain where they are, their lives will be blighted. I’ve lifted the words “persecuted” and “well-founded fear” straight from the text of the 1951 Convention. But as far as the Convention is concerned, to be fleeing persecution, or in fear of it, isn’t enough: that persecution has to be connected to their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion”. Increasingly signatory states are sympathetic to persecution on grounds of gender or sexual orientation. But there’s no consolation here for anyone who feels persecuted by grinding poverty or joblessness. Refugees almost always have a persecutor to whom they can point – a state, an army, whatever – while economic migrants have no easily identifiable tormentor who locks them up, or threatens them, or bombs their cities, or beheads them and posts the clip on a website. All the same, we know what their lives are like. Understandably this has made Europeans more insistent on the distinction between the economic migrant and the asylum seeker, since their first priority is to get the numbers down, and the category “economic migrant” is a useful tool for this purpose. §