In a special feature to mark Refugee Week 2008, openDemocracy ran a short project to bring unheard voices, new ideas and testimony of the lived experiences of refugees in Britain into the public debate.
The politics of migration represent an acute challenge for a post-credit crunch world in which the assumptions of liberal globalisation are being called into question.
In the UK, Sunder Katwala warns against a return to the right-wing chauvinism of Enoch Powell, a politics that sought to prevent the multi-racial Britain which is today's reality. In contrast, Paul Kingsnorth argues that it is the left that has most to gain from challenging a belief in open borders that emphasises labour market flexibility at the expense of working class living standards.
For Shamser Sinha, that analysis represents a politics of resentment which ignores the broader reality. When people are faced with poverty, many will seek a better future elsewhere, and wealthy countries already put significant barriers in their way.
Some of those obstacles are exemplified by the experiences of Uzbek migrants in Russia encountered by Maria Yanovskaya. Despite their often marginal position, such workers provide crucial remittances to their home countries. The loss of their jobs to the credit crunch could pave the way for a social explosion.
Both policy and popular discourse have long relied on a dichotomous presentation of the ‘foreigner': on the one hand, the ‘good foreigner' (from the refugee and victim of trafficking through to the hard worker on whom ‘our' economy depends); and the abuser of the system (welfare scrounger, wage undercutter, illegal immigrant) on the other. Hence much of the debate in practice revolves around how many people fit into each category. What are the proportions of hard workers as compared to welfare scroungers? of refugees to economic migrants?
As a very young girl, in my bed at night I would to try and imagine how I would act if, like my parents, I had to live under Hitler's murderous regime. There was only one answer, my childish self reasoned: remove ‘the source of the evil'. No matter that Hitler was already dead. I can still see my imagined self, gun in outstretched hand, about to complete my self-imposed mission. Somewhat grandiose, I admit, yet as I write this I realise that my concern with eliminating Hitler was part and parcel of what was to become my ‘bystander' complex. My German Jewish mother remained bitter that ordinary Germans witnessed the deportation of their Jewish neighbours from behind net curtains, yet did nothing. My German ‘Aryan' father, a political activist against Nazism throughout the 1930s, saw this as the unsurprising paralysis of normal human behaviour under such a vicious regime. The tension between these two voices has remained with me ever since: the need to decry, balanced against the hesitation to condemn unthinkingly.
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.
Of all the hapless migrants caught up in the UK's increasingly dark and draconian immigration legislation, probably women trafficked into the sex trade are the only group to see a small patch of blue sky. In March 2007, on the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade, the government signed up to the European Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (ECAT) which brings them a measure of respite, protection and redress.
On 18 June, in the middle of Refugee Week, the European Parliament will vote on the amended directive on common standards and procedures in member states for returning illegally staying third-country nationals, also known as the Returns Directive.
What we say about refugees and immigrants in our public space is hardly ever nice. Sadly, how we treat refugees and immigrants is increasingly adding injury to insult.
My challenge, as I see it, is to bring some humanity and common sense into dehumanising, emotional and misinformed conversations about immigration. A few months ago I was a guest speaker at a training session for NHS staff from around the United Kingdom. At the half day session in the scenic English countryside, we exchanged some work experiences. I spoke about the challenges in accessing services for vulnerable migrants and refugees, and their experience of daily life in a climate of highly hostile and stigmatising xenophobia.
Probably no phenomenon today is more global in reach than the mass migration of people. When I say "global", I am not measuring by simple distance. I am measuring by daily impact.
Whether individuals may cross borders safely, permanently and with dignity is affecting everything from how quickly you can find a doctor, to how hard you must work for a university place, to how much you are paying for an apartment, to how soon a fast food franchise will appear near your apartment. Migration is the human heart of ‘globalisation' - the movement of people, technology, money and, inevitably, cultural influence.
Peace, or something like it, breaks out in Iraq. US-led foreign forces declare violence has tapered off to the lowest levels in years, thanks to additional troops, security cooperation with Sunni tribal leaders and erstwhile insurgents, and a tentative halt to the activities of Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army. An Iraqi government derided as sectarian and dysfunctional steps up to promote political accommodation and begins taking more responsibility for security and providing services. Stability takes hold, paving the way for about two million Iraqis who have fled the country to make their way home.
After the French Revolution, the British state sought to protect itself against dangerous French subversives and introduced the Aliens Bill (1793) which remained in force until 1826.
From 1826, Britain played host once again to different groups of refugees, and asylum was connected in the public imagination with the obligations of humanism, the rights of man and the espousal of free trade as an economic doctrine.
Asylum has a pedigree stretching back 4,000 years:
The word ‘asylum' comes from the Greek ‘asylos', that which may not be seized or violated. It referred to a place that was sacred or magical, such as a temple. Those who took sanctuary in such a place put themselves under the protection of the gods and so out of secular control. It allowed time for a wrong to be investigated and a judgment to be handed down. In this sense, temple asylum had a political role to play, until the state itself developed a monopoly of the role of protector.
It often takes a major shock to force a society to confront challenges it has been either denying or underestimating. South Africans have been living in a false paradise that ignored the realities of our interconnected and interdependent world. Our nascent democracy has often operated as if the migration of goods and services, ideas and people does not matter to us. Our apartheid isolation made us rather insular. The current crisis forces us to rise to our challenges and seize the opportunities of being part of a rapidly globalising world.
At least 200 million of the world's people - between 3% and 5% of its total population - are currently on the move outside their country of origin. Many of these would have preferred to stay where they were if they could. Another untold number would move if they could, but can't. Many simply are looking for better opportunities, as human beings have done for millennia. The realities of globalisation - economic, environmental, familial - mean that these numbers are bound to increase.
"When you see the Iceland store, you will be able to find Brook Road. Walk to the end of that road, the garment factory is on the second floor. You can't miss it. The building looks very run-down." Chun's voice at the other end of the mobile phone is anxious. To "argue reason" with an employer on a wage-claiming mission is always a tense occasion, but this particular boss has the kind of reputation that leads two Chinese workers to volunteer to accompany me.