Who's afraid of the 'global poor'?

Shifting the migration debate to consider the impact of global phenomena such as climate change and global capitalism on the movement of people requires an understanding of scarcity and insecurity as factors which affect citizens and non-citizens alike.

Agnes Woolley
13 September 2015

Opening the recent Migrant Voice conference in London, founder Nazek Ramadan stated that on the question of migration, ‘we are all in this together’. Striking a key note for the event as a whole, her comments suggest that the issue needs to be approached not from the dualistic and often antagonistic perspective which pits citizen against non-citizen, but from a number of different directions at once.

In an increasingly polarised debate – exacerbated by recent successes by the UK Independence Party in local elections earlier this year – the need to confront a governmental agenda hostile to migration in Britain through collaboration with other dissenting voices is ever more pressing. However, it is also a major challenge. A key question arising from the varied conversations which took place at the conference was how to productively reorient prevailing views of migration in light of systemic inequalities at both the national and global levels. After all, with proliferating economic and ecological crises, migration is set to increase and, as Zoe Tyndall predicts, ‘the political narrative around immigration will only continue to harden.’

Immigration has long been a touchstone for politicians across the political spectrum in Britain, but as Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Teather opened the debate by commenting, concerns about migration in the public sphere conceal a complex and wide-ranging reality which politicians are unwilling to address. These sentiments were echoed by other members of the ‘Question Time’ style panel with which the conference began, with many arguing that the highly-charged migration debate in Britain is a smokescreen for systemic inequalities. For Sheffield University’s Jairo Lugo-Ocando, the perennially popular issue of immigration allows the government to deflect concerns over social equality, welfare, employment and housing. Arguing against David Goodhart (whose controversial new book The British Dream: The Successes and Failures of Post-War Immigration has recently been reviewed on openDemocracy), Lugo-Ocando remarked that the reason for the low standard of living for many people in the UK is not that migrants occupy a disproportionately high number of jobs, but is a result of the neo-liberal economic model which requires modes of working that are low-wage, insecure and often exploitative.

These concerns were considered in more conceptual terms in a keynote address by Bridget Anderson, Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow at the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society at Oxford University (COMPAS) at the University of Oxford, in which she posed the question: ‘who is the migrant?’ Neither a French banker working in the city, nor an Australian entrepreneur with a multi-million pound business, the migrant is predominantly perceived as poor, racially ‘other’ and non-English speaking. According to Anderson, this perception reflects a wide-reaching fear of the global poor, which demands examination if the political traction of the migrant figure is to be affirmatively appropriated.

 Migrant Voice

Photo: Migrant Voice

Placing this anxiety over the global poor at the centre of the conversation about migration entails, according to Anderson, the forging of ‘alliances’ between diverse groups seeking to ameliorate conditions for, and representations of, marginalised constituencies. Anderson noted that campaign groups often feel anxious about introducing immigration into the debate over welfare and public services. Yet drawing these issues into the same frame not only ensures greater political impact through solidarity but also, crucially, reveals the extent to which these concerns are intricately entwined. Approaching immigration in a vacuum results only in the historically ineffectual battle between negative and positive images of migrants and the extent to which they enhance or undermine Britain’s economic and cultural value.

One example of the joined up approach advocated by Anderson is the impact of new family migration laws on ‘ordinary British citizens’. As both Anne Stoltenberg and Nando Sigona have explored in detail, national citizens are as affected by family migration laws as newly-arrived migrants wishing to be reunited with their families. Demonstrating the damaging impact of punitive approaches to migration on valued concepts of citizenship, democracy and welfare might help reorient the debate over immigration away from the ‘Us and Them’ paradigm articulated by Anderson towards a shared vision of the kind of society we want to live in. 

For Goodhart, such stratifications are not only necessary but desirable. He argued that citizenship loses its meaning in the context of immigration, asking ‘what is the point of national citizenship if everyone gets treated the same?’ Goodhart’s problem with the concept of human rights is that it erodes the differences between citizens and non-citizens. The troubling implications of this idea for asylum seekers – whose claim to rights is based on human, rather than national belonging – notwithstanding, upholding these normative differences obscures the fact that national belonging is itself a constructed category. The ‘naturalness’ of national belonging is one of the key ways in which migrants become the global scapegoats for the failures of global capitalism. As one participant tweeted during the discussion: eroding the differences between these prescriptive categories is precisely the point of human rights legislation!

Goodhart went even further by suggesting that it is natural to be fearful of the unfamiliar. The idea that people are inherently averse to the possibilities opened out by interaction with otherness is not only a depressing indictment of humanity, but also overlooks the manifold benefits to be gained from exposure to different cultures and perspectives. As critic Paul Gilroy suggests, it is only through ‘convivial’ encounters between diverse individuals that we can reconcile the paradox of an ‘increasingly divided but also convergent planet’. Sarah Mulley of the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) made a similar point when she drew participants’ attention to the ‘quotidian realities of integration’; those day-to-day interactions that facilitate the empathy which, as Rita Chadha  of the Refugee and Migrant Forum of East London (RAMFEL), pointed out, is increasingly sidelined in the debate over immigration.

Anderson’s alliances need to be extended even further if they are to have a transformative effect. Becoming embroiled in the political point scoring that tends to characterise the debate in the UK often succeeds only in further entrenching the binary rhetoric of deserving and undeserving poor. While migration is perhaps most potent an issue at the national level, shifting the debate to consider the impact of global phenomena such as climate change and global capitalism on the movement of people requires an understanding of scarcity and insecurity as factors which affect citizens and non-citizens alike (in the case of homelessness for example). Addressing this very concern, Gilroy’s concept of planetary consciousness suggests a mode of living which takes as its starting point the understanding that ‘environmental and medical crises do not stop at national boundaries’ but need to be addressed in light of planetary vulnerability: ‘The world becomes not a limitless globe, but a small, fragile and finite place, one planet among others with strictly limited resources that are allocated unequally’.

 Bracha L. Ettinger

Emmanuel Levinas. Photo: Bracha L. Ettinger

The idea of neighbourliness was raised by conference participants as an alternative to the binary opposition between citizen and non-citizen that polarises the debate over migration. This does not entail a wholesale rejection of the concept of national citizenship, which is an enduringly important mode of belonging; not least for refugees unable to return to their country of origin who wish to make a permanent life elsewhere. Instead, neighbourliness suggests an ethical orientation towards others – regardless of political or social status – which recalls philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s repeated assertion that ‘the other is the neighbour’. In this sense we might also consider ourselves ‘neighbours’ with others the world over, and in doing so overcome those divisions which reduce migrants to symbols of anxiety and fear.  

This article was first published on 15 July 2013.

Read more articles written by refugee scholars and activists on People on the Move, 50.50's migration, gender and social justice dialogue, edited by Jennifer Allsopp.

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData