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«CROSSING BORDERS IN THE NEW IMPERIALISM Bob Sutcliffe In words which seem uncannily relevant today, two mid-nineteenth century fugitives (in ...»

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Nearly all countries now wish to encourage the immigration of skilled workers, both for their key skills and because increasing skilled workers is part of encouraging foreign investment. Legal unskilled immigrants in developed countries are not very numerous but some sectors of low productivity agriculture are dependent on them and so reducing their number might have severe regional economic consequences in parts of countries such as the USA, Spain and even the UK, which has recently authorized an increase in temporary unskilled migrant agricultural workers. The right to immigration of family members of legal residents is also difficult to curtail. In some countries this composes the major part of current legal immigration. It has been roughly calculated that the immigration multiplier (the total number of subsequent legal immigrants for each legal primary migrant) is about 1.2, that is every 100 primary immigrants implies 120 additional legal immigrants within 10 years20. In the long run this element of immigration can only be reduced by reducing other forms of legal immigration; in the short run it can only be reduced by forbidding immigrants to live with their close families, which violates an ideological tenet of most western governments and might be expected to engender serious protest and would discourage the migration of skilled workers.

With these three legal categories of immigration difficult or impolitic to reduce, the attack on immigration must focus on two remaining categories–asylum applicants and illegal immigrants. The right to asylum from persecution, however, has been (as long as it is resorted to in moderation) one of the defining rights of the “free world”. It was used in this way particularly during the Cold War when the West was secure in the knowledge that while those in the unfree world had the right to asylum they would be prevented from taking it up by the strict control of exit by the communist regimes. Asylum applications increased with the fall of the Berlin wall and panic increased even faster21. When that crisis ultimately subsided asylum applications remained relatively high, partly because others now followed the East European example. Western countries have, therefore, tried to cut the number of asylum applications without abolishing the right to asylum as such, something which would threaten their credibility as “free nations”.

Various ways have been sought to go back to the good old days of the Cold War when asylum was a principle but not so much a practice. In the first place, a rapidly expanding list of countries has been designated as places from which no asylum applications will be accepted since they are already “free” and therefore persecution is by definition ruled out. It will be interesting to see what happens when Anglo-American occupied Iraq (the leading country of origin of asylum applications in developed countries between 2000 and 2002) is declared “free”. Secondly, applying for asylum has been made more difficult. The British government’s attempt to restrict valid applications to those made at the moment of entry to the country, however, has, at the time of writing, failed. Third, the living conditions of asylum applicants have been made more arduous in order to dissuade applications. Applicants are forbidden to work; financial support has been cut and some applicants are obliged to live under conditions of detention while their applications are processed. Fourth, the processing of applications has been speeded up so that in principle failed applicants spend less time in the country. Fifth, the rate of forcible deportations of failed applicants has increased, although most are not deported. An unknown number leave of their own accord. By the end of 2002, however, measures such as these had not had the desired effect of reducing the number of applications. In Britain, in particular, they reached record levels.

In view of this failure it is not surprising that many governments, especially in Europe, have become attracted by a more radical approach, advocated especially by the British Labour government. This would involve not allowing any applicants to enter the country where asylum is sought but obliging them all to register their application from transit camps (officially known as International Transit Centres) outside the country. For this the British Conservative Party, like its Australian counterpart, favours small islands, which are easy to isolate; instead the British Labour Government has proposed countries like Albania which are outside the EU but which might like to make some money by housing asylum applicants, becoming a kind of international Group 4 (a British private security company with contracts to manage some prisons and asylum spplicants detention centres).

. Applications would then be processed at a distance. Failed applicants (which presumably as today would be the great majority, presently in Britain around 90 per cent) would be deported from the transit area to their country of origin or some other country which would accept them. Successful applicants would be admitted to the country of asylum but burdened with a debt, equivalent to the cost of their upkeep in the Transit Centre, a burden which it is hoped might dissuade them from seeking asylum in the first place22.

If and when asylum seekers are thereby eliminated as part of the resident population the anti-immigration campaign will have to concentrate on illegal immigrants. This will require police campaigns to find and if necessary forcibly eject thousands of failed asylum applicants who are still present (a policy recently recommended by the home affairs select committee of the British House of Commons), and to detect others who have overstayed the limiting date of their visas or who have entered clandestinely without papers of any kind. It is impossible to imagine that such a policy could be carried out effectively throughout Europe without enormous police intrusions on the "innocent" as well as the “guilty”. If no more asylum applicants are allowed to enter the country then there will probably be a rise in attempted illegal entries. This can only be prevented by a much stronger policing of the borders. This is already happening in the sea crossings between Spain (including the Canary Islands) and Morocco. Greater enforcement has brought similar results to those already mentioned for Mexico. Expenses have risen, the number of detained migrants has not risen substantially, the estimated number of successful illegal entries has risen and so has the number of deaths due to drowning and exposure during the crossing. Estimates by the Association of Moroccan Workers in Spain (ATIME) put the death toll in the seas between Morocco and Spain at about 4000 during the five years 1997–2001, a figure that is broadly in line with the one appearing in the Spanish press.

Already coast guards and port police forces have been strengthened and in some places the military also takes part in border control. NATO forces have directly assisted the policing of frontiers in Italy and probably elsewhere. In a speech shortly after taking office the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic, General William Kernan, argued in 2000 that “In the future, the task will not only be to defend the borders (of its member states) but to fight against ethnic violence, international crime and illegal immigration.”23. A recent report, written for the International Organization for Migration, estimates that the world’s 25 richest countries “are probably spending US$ 25–30 billion a year on immigration enforcement and asylum processing mechanisms”24, a figure which is about two-thirds of their total spending on development aid and one which is rising fast while development aid stagnates.

The plea to curb immigration in the interest of preventing too much ethnic and cultural diversity for the nation to maintain internal order is offered up as a conservative argument for a peaceful status quo. But in fact it can only be achieved by a radical change in the nature of the state, involving a major reduction of human rights and a large step towards a more repressive state, from which not only would-be immigrants will suffer. It turns out to be a great error to think that transport and communications can be revolutionized and that borders can be opened to goods, capital and money but not to people, if only because, unknown to many governments, people are much smarter than goods or money. The designers of the European Union were aware of this and have to some extent accepted its consequences by allowing relative freedom of movement of citizens within its borders. But the designers of a globalized world have not.

At present, the major capitalist countries compete for one kind of migrant but they seem to be united on the need to exclude others (asylum applicants and most unskilled workers and in particular illegal immigrants). It is not at all clear, however, that they will be able to establish a common strategy against unwanted immigration, using their increasingly divided alliance, NATO. The bitter, although finally settled, conflict between the British and French government over the Sangatte refugee camp25 was a example of the problems which they will encounter. In any event tighter migration control seems inconceivable without a major increase of state repression and an equivalent loss of civil rights.


The distribution of income between the countries of the world was more unequal at the end of the twentieth than it was at the end of the 19th26. There has been little enough redistribution within the developed countries themselves; on a world scale it has been negligible. Official development assistance has fallen to the negligible level of about 0.2 per cent of the national income of developed countries.

President Bush’s appropriation bill to pay for the first six months of the 2003 invasion of Iraq was worth about 8 times as much as annual US official development aid to the rest of the world. Protectionism and dumping continues to damage poor primary producing countries, and many countries are burdened with an immense debt service obligation, often to pay off loans which have accumulated in the foreign bank accounts of the privileged or which have paid for state repression. With the very partial exception of the Nordic countries, there is no evidence that the richer capitalist countries take the question of extreme world inequality seriously. It is natural that many citizens of poor countries look to temporary or permanent migration to rich countries as a way of redistributing income through individual action.

If loans, aid and trade in present conditions are at best extremely limited as motors of development in poor countries, the possible positive effects on world equality of the migration of poorer people to richer countries are also limited by a number of factors. First, there is not a close correlation between poverty and successful migration. It is not yet the very poorest countries which provide the largest numbers of migrants; nor do migrants usually come from the most deprived classes.

The many needy people who might benefit from the ability to migrate for work are hindered by the cost of migration which is itself greatly increased by anti-migration policies and laws in the richer countries. This situation is made worse by the trends in migration policy described above.

Despite this, many millions of people from poor countries have been able to improve their and their families’ economic position by migration. There is much evidence also that it has helped the economic situation of their country, by increasing foreign exchange availability, by raising the skills of the labour force when migrants return, by raising the wages in the countries from which the migrants come and by the tranfer of part of the emigrants’ earnings. Some of these effects are seen in the figures for the constantly rising flow of migrants’ remittances from richer countries back to their countries of origin. In the year 2000 the total of remittances registered by the World Bank was US$ 80 billion (almost certainly an underestimate), of which about one quarter went to India and Mexico and about one third originated in the USA. This means that the individual decisions of individual migrant workers lead to considerably more money being transferred to poorer countries that all the development aid provided by the world’s richest countries (including the multilateral agencies) which has been stuck at about US$ 50 billion (an overestimate) for several years. In the case of the USA remittances are estimated at 2 ½ times the level of development assistance. While the distribution of remittances reflects the relative economic position of those who are able to migrate successfully, it is still almost certainly better distributed than development aid, so much of which is lost in corruption and bureaucratic inefficiency. The ending of migrants’ remittances would now be a much more catastrophic event than the ending of official development aid.

European governments and the European Union have for some time been toying with the idea of using development aid as an antidote to immigration: aid would be concentrated on areas from which produced a disproportionate number of migrants came and on projects expected to curb migration, either because they provided alternative economic opportunities or because they were used explicitly to boost emigration control in the country of origin. The idea has not really got off the ground, partly because Third World governments are often happy for migration to take place, either to ease various pressures or because they lead to future remittances, and second because several studies have suggested that the effect of aid on migration will, from this point of view, be perverse. Aid, along with trade and investment, between two countries serves to increase knowledge of opportunities in the richer countries, to build the contacts which make migration networks possible and to produce the resources to finance migration. The USA dropped the idea of aid against migration some years ago which is one reason why its aid budget remains so low27.

The European pursuit of stronger border control suggests that EU governments have drawn the same conclusions.

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