Print Friendly and PDF
only search openDemocracy.net

Fear and strange arithmetics: when powerful states confront powerless immigrants

About the author
Saskia Sassen is professor of sociology at Columbia University, New York, and at the London School of Economics.

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.


Saskia Sassen is the Lynd Professor of Sociology and Member, The Committee on Global Thought, Columbia University. Her recent books are Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global AssemblagesA Sociology of Globalization (Princeton University Press 2006; updated ed. 2008), and (Norton 2007).

Against these facts it is actually rather surprising to see our powerful states reorient large parts of their state apparatus so as to control, detect, stop, detain, and deport basically vulnerable and powerless migrants. They have been willing to sacrifice major and minor laws, and more generally the spirit of the law - one of the most valued achievements of our collective history in the west. They have sacrificed the civil liberties of their citizenry in order (supposedly) to control foreigners. Further, in adopting the asylum system, these states have been willing to reject de facto the international refugee system to which they are signatories. The asylum regime gives states unilateral authority over refugees. In other words, adopting the asylum-seeking system allows states to avoid many of the rules of the international refugee convention. That is a high moral price to pay for countries that are meant to be the most achieved democracies in the world - and, indeed, they have lost much moral authority in the global political economy. Why is this so?

When powerlessness becomes complex

What they are dealing with mostly are vulnerable, disadvantaged, and powerless men, women and children. Elsewhere I have used this conundrum to understand the ways in which the powerless have made history over the centuries (see Territory, Authority, Rights, chapter 6). Under certain conditions powerlessness ceases being elementary, and becomes complex, capable of making history, and hence pregnant with political possibilities. Much of the development of our civic rights and of public transport, housing, health, has actually come from struggles by the excluded (often minoritised citizens as well as immigrants and refugees) to gain access to basic services. States reoriented their goals to accommodate such demands. Out of this reorientation came the welfare state, the Keynesian social contract.

In the case of today's immigrants and asylum-seekers we can see that they are actually making history by eliciting such institutional rearrangements from our states. It is not that such conditions give power to the powerless and because of this they then make history. No, it is as powerless actors that they make history, thereby making their powerlessness productive. Thus, even the most vulnerable, undocumented immigrants have contributed to reshaping the policies of powerful countries. Some of the most powerful countries in the world have re-geared their public bureaucracies to control these vulnerable actors. In this process, they have been willing to sacrifice their standing as states following the rule of law and signatories to international human rights norms. In the process, states have not only lost credibility but also revealed the limits of their power, no matter how weaponised their borders. For instance, the US government has been raising its Mexico-US border budget every year, going from about 250,000 million dollars a year in the early 1990s to $1.6 billion a year in the early 2000s, and at the same time there has been a doubling of the undocumented population, from an estimated 6 to 12 million.

In the long run this mix of costs, both economic and ethical, is a very high price for ‘liberal democracies' to pay - all in order to control extremely powerless and vulnerable people who mostly only want a chance to work.

It is worth noting, however, that these mostly powerless men, women and children -immigrants and refugees - are a sort of historic vanguard that signals to us that major unsettlements are happening. It is not just that they themselves are agents of change: they also signal the making of major histories in both sending and receiving countries. Immigration and refugee flows are produced by larger structural unsettlements; they are not simply the result of individuals' actions.

Most directly, they signal that there are deep changes, even if partial, in their countries or regions of origin. In my research, for instance, I have found a direct connection between IMF and World Bank restructuring programmes in poor countries with the growth of trafficking of women and children for the sex industry of rich countries. The World Bank's multiple incentives to develop tourism enclaves in less developed countries has been a key factor promoting the development of sex tourism as a sort of appendix to these large projects. This often includes a flow of trafficked women and children into tourism complexes, not only from other global south countries but also from intermediate economies such as Ukraine and Poland. In brief, it is far too simple to say that we have trafficking because we have traffickers. The IMF and the World Bank are also actors that have produced the growth of trafficking.

More indirectly, the presence of immigrations and refugees can also point to changes in the countries of destination - changes in labour demand, in the development of the sex industry, attempts in certain economic sectors to weaken labour unions, among other factors.

Internal tensions in the immigration and refugee regime

So what is the relation between the reality on the ground and the policy framing of states in the global north? From the perspective of policy and the work of governing, immigration has historically been at the intersection of multiple dynamics. It is so today as well. But in each historical place and time, these dynamics are specific. In the past we had colonialism as one key dynamic, and today we have corporate economic and cultural globalisation. Today we can also add the specifics of the declaration of a War on Terror by major global north states, with its implications for a range of domestic policies.

Migration flows are conditioned by broad politico-economic dynamics, such as old colonial links and new global economic bridges. Receiving countries have often been active contributors to the emergence of migration flows from their former colonial or current neo-colonial partners. Poverty or unemployment are not by themselves sufficient conditions to explain migration flows. But they can be activated as ‘push factors', as is happening today under the impact of global institutions such as the IMF and the WTO, and the building of global infrastructures - such as cheap transport meant for global tourism, but now also used by migrants.

While each country is unique, and each migration flow is produced by specific conditions in time and place, these larger patterns are present in all. Economic and cultural globalisation have had shaping effects on the formation of newer, and the reproduction of older, migration flows. In brief, beyond the particularities of each flow and each individual migrant, there are typically some more general tendencies.

Among the most prominent are conditions likely to function as inducements for emigration and trafficking in people, much of it directed to the global north. These conditions include such factors as the restructuring programmes of the IMF and World Bank briefly referred to above. Just to elaborate on this aspect by way of illustrating a more general condition, one consequence of these programmes has been a sharp fall in the incomes of governments, enterprises, and households in global south countries.

This has, in turn, raised the importance of immigrants' remittances for these countries. Worldwide remittances rose 7% in 2007 to US$318 billion, of which 240 billion went to developing countries. Among developing countries, Mexico and the Philippines are among the highest recipients, with respectively US$25 billion and US$17 billion. A very different measure is the weight of remittances in a country's economy. Thus, while remittances are between 0.2% of GDP in high-income countries, they are a fourth of GDP in several poor or struggling countries: Tonga (31.1%), Moldova (27.1%), Lesotho (25.8%), Haiti (24.8%), Bosnia and Herzogovina (22.5%). But also in a country with a lot of major and profitable economic sectors, remittances count: thus in Mexico, remittances are the second source of foreign currency, just below oil and ahead of tourism, and are larger than foreign direct investment.
This article forms part of MigrantVoice on refuge, a special project celebrating UK Refugee Week 2008.Have your say on our multiauthored blog, bringing unheard voices to the forefront of the debate. Also in openDemocracy:

Liza Schuster, "Europe's shameful directive",


Zrinka Bralo, "Asylum and health: insult and injury",


Philippe Legrain, "Open Britain",

Irshad Manji, "For a future bigger than our past"

Mamphela Ramphele, "The rainbow nation's lesson",

Hsiao-Hung Pai, "Chinese migrant workers: lives in shadow",

Brian K Murphy, "Open borders, global future".

But do remittances really help the poor families left behind, and, more generally, a poor country? A recent study covering 74 low- and middle-income countries indicated a positive correlation between remittances and poverty alleviation. "According to the findings, a 10 per cent increase in the share of remittances in country GDP would lead to a 1.2 per cent decrease in the percentage of persons living on less than US$1 a day, and also reduce the depth or severity of poverty" (International Organization for Migration 2006). Stopping immigration means, then, a significant loss of livelihoods for a large number of countries. The source for these remittances are mostly not jobs taken away directly from native workers in immigration countries. Our highly developed global north economies are creating a growing demand for low-income jobs, mostly unattractive and with few advancement possibilities.

This is a complicated situation where both native and immigrant workers lose to the often high-profit making firms and households that generate a demand for very low-wage workers. The available evidence shows two significant ongoing trends beginning in the 1980s. With rare exceptions, the developed EU countries experienced growing inequality in earnings in the economy as a whole, and, secondly, they experienced growing inequality within skill groups (i.e. a given low-skill job may or may not be part of a firm that pays at least a minimum wage and offers benefits). Interesting is the fact that increases in earnings inequality were sharper than in household inequality, telling us that the wages paid by low wage jobs are a key factor explaining the relative loss at the lower end rather than, for instance, fewer earners in a household.

Further, earnings inequality increased regardless of the initial level of inequality in a country. Thus Scandinavian countries have long had less inequality than the rest of the EU, so the growing inequality beginning in the 1980s is less evident there; but it is there. The evidence suggests that the increase in low wage jobs is in good part a result of new labour market policies, notably deregulation of the labour market, and the creation of new types of jobs. All these economies have begun to deinstitutionalize employment relation, which allows the market more leeway to shape the earnings distribution, and they all have seen significant changes in the structure and technological features of their economies. Nowhere is this clearer than in the US, and increasingly in the UK, the latter way ahead of the rest of the EU in this domain. The result is that both countries have a large supply of low wage, typically unprotected jobs

A second set of conditions is the demographic deficit forecast for much of the global north where several countries have now entered a low, and even below reproduction, fertility phase. While demographic forecasters are famous for getting it wrong, today we are at least partly beyond forecasts, and living the reality of major declines if immigration and fertility growth rates stay at current levels over the next few decades. The natural increase in Europe's population is slowing and may start a steep decline within a few decades, researchers say. In a major study, the Austrian Academy of Sciences finds that European population growth reached a turning point in the year 2000 when the number of children dropped to a level that statistically assured there will be fewer parents in the next generation than there are in the current generation. This means the momentum now is towards population decline, a trend that could strongly influence population numbers throughout the 21st century. If the current fertility rate of around 1.5 births per woman persists until 2020, the Academy's study estimates the result will be 88 million fewer people in 2100, if one assumes constant mortality and no net migration, a fall from 375 million in 2000 to 287 million. The EU is not alone in this trend, but along with Japan it may have the most dramatic fall. The USA is expected to decline by 34 million by the end of this century given current fertility, mortality and migration patterns.

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.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the
oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.