Thursday, June 07, 2007

the question of human migration

along with my latent interest in how cities develop, and more specifically megacities or megalopolises (i.e. any city in excess of 8 million people), and of how these will characterise many developing countries in future. alongside this rural to urban migration, i am also keenly aware of human migration patterns across (nation state) borders. i know. i re-read what i´ve just written and it seems rather clinical. probably, your basic question is one of: but is she pro or contra?. well, i think that it is natural for human beings to seek a better life, and that they will do so, if their means or opportunities allow. and further, i do think that there needs to be creative well-considered approaches to dealing with human migration. approaches that rest on humanitarian grounds; humanitarian approaches that go beyond extending a helping hand only when people are seeking asylum or refuge due to internal country conflicts. meaning, that humanitarian values should also infuse approaches to dealing with clandestine immigration. and this goes even further than just being nice to people while they await repatriation. i am not an expert on this topic, but what does strike me are two things:
1) how immigration as a political question, more particularly in political campaigns, gains much attention
2) how there has to be better ways, somehow, of dealing with human migration. "better ways" not to stem the tide, but better ways prefaced by saying "maybe repatriating people, in a way similar to trying to control the flow of an open tap, is not the best use of our economic (and other) resources"

the flow of human beings has always been in my consciousness. when growing up in South Africa, with the pass laws (people needed papers to migrate to the city). well, to be precise, if your ethnicity were black you were restricted. you needed permission. so too, the matter of requesting a visa to enter a country is a process that has always been in my consciousness. i "marvel" at how countries deal with this, with regards to, who is allowed, who exempted, etc. when living in spain, this life-long consciousness, was brought strongly to the fore.

my having lived in spain, once for a month back in july 2000, and for a year back in 2005/2006, something which was very prevalent in the papers was the rate of, illegal, ostensibly economic migration, into spain. of course, people do arrive and enter illegally at the airports, but the daily media image in spain of illegal migration is that of boat-loads of people from Africa (mostly Central-, and Northern-) arriving on southern Spanish shores. people arrive in groups of 50 to 100 or 200, per boat. to give an idea, some two weeks ago or so, nearly 1,200 persons arrived within 5 days. then (july 2000) and now (every other day, if not daily) there are newspaper reports in the spanish papers of boats full of persons arriving on the spanish southern coast. these boats, referred to as "pateras" (which my spanish dictionary defines as "embarcación elemental de quilla plana y poco calado", that is, a small boat with a flat keel . to my mind i always think of olden-time wooden life-boats as found in the heyday of luxury cruise ships like the cunard). but to not digress too much, the word, apart from describing a boat, has metamorphosed into the umbrella term for anyone who arrives in spain illegally by boat (even if the boat is of bigger, better construction). another term frequently used in spain is "los sin papeles" or "indocumentados", literally, "those without papers" or "the undocumented".

with the above as background, i last week 30 May attended a talk by Steve Cohen given at Trinity College. His talk was titled "No One is Illegal -- issues of immigration control", and he was billed as:

Steve Cohen has been an immigration lawyer for over 25 years and is former Co-ordinator of the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit. He studied law at Oxford and Birmingham and has practised as a barrister. The author of many academic, professional and political articles, he has been actively involved in campaigns against deportation and denial of entry. He is the author of No-One is Illegal: Immigration Control and Asylum, Deportation is Freedom: The Orwellian World of Immigration Controls, Immigration Controls, the Family and the Welfare State: A Handbook of Theory, Politics and Practice, and a contributor to Social Work, Immigration and Asylum: Debates, Dilemmas and Ethical Issues for Social Work and Social Care.

The above bio from

just an interjection: usually illegal migration can be stigmatised, but note that migration, even if legal, can be stigmatised. think for instance, notions of flows of people from newly-accessing European Union countries. one has heard concerns expressed about overflows of people upon accession of countries to the EU, for instance. the "fall guy" always changes, but there is always a "fall guy". to continue...

i will attempt to provide here a summary of the main points from Cohen´s talk:

he reflected on how the approach to immigration from the legal practice perspective, had changed during the past century, using the UK as case. and of how those changes which háve occurred reflect the convergence of law and politics. that ca. the 1970s "immigration control" was merely an administrative process and system, and was not really seen as a judicial process. that every effort was made back then, to make it (immigration) appear to be depoliticised. he noted that within the past 12 months there had been a "sanctification of the politics of immigration". in saying this, he meant to indicate that immigration as a question had reached a point where discourse went unquestioned. that people spoke about "illegals" and "aliens" (stigmatised loaded terms, much like "patera" or "sinpapel") as if it were entirely natural to be referring to people in such a manner. that the categories went as accepted and unquestioned. further, that, from a legal scholar view, immigration law was the only branch of law where a person could, by virtue of being alive, be "illegal", that in all other branches of law, only acts or behaviours could be termed to be illegal. that now, the legitimacy of your very existence, by the unquestioning adoption and use of the term "illegal" as a noun, was brought into question.

another interjection from me: well, you could say that this word usage is a philosophical question; or that it is merely a linguistic evolution, because the term is used as shorthand to refer to the illegal act of entering a country without permission, etc. if you tilted at those windmills, i would say that you are missing the point somehow. for at issue is the notion of making a person feel excluded from (a) society, and as of having no rights that nation states usually confer to its citizens. it is someone existing in the shadows, or made to feel, even if legitimately relocated, that he/she is a shadow, peripheral, or marginal and marginalised figure. you could say that the latter is part of the grander process of "othering". the "them" and "us" syndrome. very well, it could be, but that is no justification for its acceptance.

back to Cohen: there has been a sharp increase in the number of UK laws passed in recent years, with no consolidation of these. a timeline: 1905 (first UK Immigration Act), 1914, 1919, 1962, ?, 1968, 1971, 1988, 1993, 1996, 1999, 2002, 2004, 2006, 2007. he added that no other area of law has gone through this kind of evolutionary track. another change seen in recent times (post 1970s) has been the "coming into the public sphere" of immigration. that there has been an overt turn to a legalistic
approach, and an obvious politicization. that the danger of the adoption of loaded terminology was that they were used as common-sensical terms, serving then as basis for their usage not being questioned.

Cohen elaborated: the term "illegal" had come to denote criminalization of a human being, without an explicit charge, trial, nor conviction. he drew the parallel to the use of the term "unperson" in Orwell´s 1984, and that detention centres were, in effect, centres filled with "unpersons", and that many people were not ready to question such thinking.

some interesting "asides" from Cohen: apparently, the development of "judicial review" as a legal process, had developed on deportation issues. that William Morris (he of the Arts & Crafts movement) had been involved in anti-immigration campaigns as part of his participation in the UK Socialist League.

Cohen cautioned against the "sanctification of law"; that sanctification happens through making something appear normal; where people start to think that obeying orders is a natural thing to do. Cohen mentioned the Wannsee Conference where the extermination of Jews had been discussed in a very civilised manner over cocktails, as if this were an entirely "natural" thing to do, and to discuss.

Cohen´s Wannsee reference made me think again of Hannah Arendt, and her writings on the banality of evil. from the linked-to wikipedia entry on Arendt, I quote:

In her reporting of the Eichmann trial for The New Yorker, which evolved into the book Eichmann in Jerusalem, she coined the phrase "the banality of evil." She raised the question whether evil is radical or simply a function of banality - the tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without critically thinking about the results of their action or inaction. This work created a great deal of controversy and animosity toward Arendt in the Jewish community.

to conclude the summary of Steve Cohen´s talk, his Oxonian take-home message was that people had to question day-to-day uses of terms, and to also question their education on an almost daily basis; to not take things as "given", or "natural" or "common-sensical".

before i go, for interest, here´s also a link to Oxford´s Centre on Migration, Policy, and Society (COMPAS).

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