Foreigners: victims or villains?- a political debate

Bridget Anderson
20 June 2008

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? Those who are supporters of migrants' rights promote the first: those who cast themselves in the role of guarding the rights of UK nationals promote the second.

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:

Podcast: World Refugee Day,

Sonja Linden, "Asylum aside: making it real"

Saskia Sassen, "The power of the powerless"

Rahila Gupta, "The pull factor"

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" It is important to challenge some of the British state's moral highgrounding around asylum, trafficking and human rights, and one of the most obvious ways of doing this is by examining the contrast between rhetoric and policy. For example, in 2007, the then Home Secretary, John Reid stated that traffickers were behind three quarters of illegal immigration to the country, leaving ‘vulnerable and often desperate people at the mercy of organised criminals' (Foreword to Enforcing the Rules). Yet in practice under 50 bed spaces are funded for victims of trafficking, and in 2007 there were 17 convictions for trafficking offences (none for trafficking for forced labour).

Yet despite the common ground that an appeal to better protection seems to offer those who are concerned with rights (however these are defined), this is a dangerous strategy if it is used uncritically.

Undeserving Foreigners

The first danger is that it permits the logic to prevail that those migrants who fit into the ‘villain' category should be deported or refused entry, or at least, that they are not the priority concern. Moreover, whether this group comprises economic migrants, or one legged roofers, they are often constructed as actively making life more difficult for those who have a better claim than they do for access to the UK. The argument goes something like this: Some individuals and groups give refugees/migrants a bad name and just make the British public unsympathetic to the contribution and requirements of the ‘good' migrant. What the state does to them is of their own making, and support and resources should be put into those who deserve entry but who are often not recognized.

Enlarging the category of victim in this way leads to the imposition of ‘hierarchies of suffering'. What categories of migrants are so exploited and abused either in their country of origin or in the UK that they become victims and thereby merit special treatment? And that poses new dilemmas. For example, how should we draw a line in the sand between ‘trafficked', and, ‘not trafficked but just-the-regular-kind-of-exploitation' migrants? This problem is most evident for organisations working with migrant workers where ‘choosing' those deserving of special help carries the very real risk of divisiveness and a ‘race to the bottom'. It risks enshrining a special set of horrors: those for example who have ‘only‘ not been paid the minimum wage should not complain, since they have not been beaten.

But more generally, it detracts attention from the role of the state and immigration controls in producing exploitation and abuse. Those who fail in asylum claims for example, ("the bogus asylum seekers"), become the undeserving foreigners. One of the key factors in their subsequent vulnerability is state legitimated non-access to labour rights, non-emergency health care, etc. That is, whatever the merits of one's claims, if this is not recognised one is driven into a new kind of victimhood by the British state. What of the rights of those ‘legitimately' denied asylum who, for whatever reason, do not want to or cannot return to their country of origin?


And there we have it. For the automatic response is that this group of people have ‘chosen' their fate. At the root of the distinction between migrant as victim and migrant as villain are matters of choice. Those who are refugees or trafficked victims have not ‘chosen' to come to the UK, so the policy argument goes. People who are economic migrants on the other hand are imagined as having made conscious choices which limit state responsibilities to them, especially if these are choices such as overstaying or working in breach of conditions, perhaps working too many hours, or leaving a named employer - i.e. choices that are not endorsed by the state.

But the options involved are not absolutes in this sense. These choices are matters of context and degree - and in general those who have limited economic resources will consent (oftentimes enthusiastically) to a whole lot more than those who are wealthier. ‘Consent', and ‘freedom' in this discourse are highly politicized: economic rights - even for survival, simply don't fit. Such arguments can be central in debates around prostitution/sex work: is a single mother who has no opportunity for paid work other than commercial sex ‘forced' into prostitution? But equally, they can apply to other types of work. They are essentially political arguments about what types and degrees of coercion are and are not acceptable in different labour markets.

We've heard how one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist. Well, one person's forced migrant is another person's economic threat. When we hear how England has been a haven for the persecuted for centuries, we need to remember that those who are now imagined as persecuted refugees might equally well at the time have been constructed as what we now would call ‘economic migrants'. The Jewish people who arrived in London between 1881 and 1914 fleeing persecution were viewed by many at the time with suspicion and hostility, and accused of stealing jobs, inflating rents and living in overcrowded conditions.

Unfortunately, when this malleability of who is a victim and who is a threat is pointed out, rather than drawing attention to its intensely politicized nature, it is all too easy for this to become another ground for fear of those who move. So asylum seekers become "bogus", really economic migrants; economic migrants become "bogus", really looking to abuse welfare benefits. We even now have "bogus" slaves, those seeking to abuse laws designed for the protection of victims of trafficking. Attention is somehow ineluctably drawn to the morally bankrupt nature of what ‘these people' are, rather than on the social, economic and power-laden contexts within which we all operate.

Subjects and Objects

Bridget Anderson is a Senior Researcher and Programme Head at the ESRC Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), based at the University of Oxford. Recent publications include "A very Private Business: exploring demand for migrant domestic workers" European Journal of Women's Studies 2007.

As we have seen with John Reid's trafficking comments, it does seem that at least concepts of force and freedom are becoming rhetorically stretched by the state, which might offer some potential for a more rights based approach. In a Europe where dead people daily wash up on the borders, and where so called free migrants are prepared to take life threatening risks for the possibility of working in poor jobs, this can be seized on by groups anxious to exploit any sympathetic opening. Where inequalities are great and increasing, and many people are making the best out of extremely poor choices, where the environment is degraded and life becoming unsustainable; where large companies can, quite literally, force migrants to work in Iraq, it is clear that many people are facing very miserable choices.

But we also need to challenge the idea that this turns those who move - into victims, unable to engage with structures. Citizenship is not simply a legal status bestowed by the state, but actively constructed through action. It is a process of constructing relations, in which all, including migrants, are directly engaged.

We can see it in the participation of migrants in trades unions for example, or the anti-deportation campaigns that are waged at the school gates. But to pass the test of true victimhood one must be unable to engage, make choices. One can only suffer and be rescued. Those who are angry, who are resentful, who break the law, are not true victims. They are not political subjects, rather the objects of negotiation. And since they cannot actualise their rights, they must be given to others to act on their behalf. So the language of victimhood means that migrants/asylum seekers are not actors who can be engaged with and with whom UK nationals can make common cause, but victims who must only be helped and rescued. Citizenship is not an "active" process: it is reduced to a formal legal status administered by an omniscient state, and in practise bestowed on very few people.

The language of victimhood risks sucking out the politics of citizenship. When this happens, the importance of formal citizenship/legal status, together with the role of the state in constructing vulnerability through denial of legal status, is obscured. At the same time, it does not allow for citizenship as a process that migrants are actively engaged in. So political conflict is reduced to negotiated adjustments of interests, patching over contradictions, where negotiation and patching is not being done by migrants but others acting on their behalf, and where the ‘bad' migrant can be sacrificed for the sake of the ‘good'.


The space for common ground around helping victims is smaller than rhetoric suggests and it is treacherous territory. However, at a time of increasing state surveillance and power, and limited analytical and practical responses, we should be cautious of ideological puritanism. Expanding the numbers of recognised victims can be hugely significant in the lives of the migrants who are so recognised. But it does not move the argument on and in the end remains within the parameters that are set by the state.

More people in the ‘good' category is not enough. The language of rights must be actively harnessed to demonstrate the gap between rhetoric around ‘human rights' and reality. It must be recognised as an opportunity to construct citizenship regardless of nationality, and to enact and seize rights rather than simply receive them. Seizing the moral high ground is no substitute for politics.

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