Slim Fejjari Erano come due notti

This essay, on the drivers of the ‘migration crisis’, was my Observer column this week.   (The column included also a short piece on tribalism in sport and politics.) It was published in the Observer, 1 July 2018, under the headline ‘Hostility to migrants is not born of rising numbers but a failure of hope’.

Another migration crisis, another EU summit, another banal resolution. Last week’s gathering of EU leaders was dominated by the migration issue, and shaped by the different needs of two nations: the desire of Italy’s new hardline coalition government to assert its authority on the European stage and the political crisis facing Germany’s Angela Merkel at home.

The final resolution was full of pious hope and little detail. It talked of a ‘shared effort’ by EU countries to alleviate the burden on Italy and Greece, without defining what would be shared. It proposed the building of detention centres in Europe, and of offshore facilities in Africa, euphemistically dubbed ‘regional disembarkation centres’. The irony of European countries demanding the right to maintain sovereignty over their borders while also trying to strong-arm African nations into accepting responsibility for a European issue seems to have passed everyone by.

The resolution was sufficient to persuade Italy to sign. It may yet help save Angela Merkel. What it won’t do is solve the ‘migration crisis’. Because the migration crisis has little to do with migration itself.

Politicians talk constantly of Europe being ‘under siege’, of millions streaming over the borders. In 2015, 1.3 million asylum seekers came to Europe. But that was an exceptional year, the numbers driven up by the Syrian war. The figures were much lower in the years before and after. Even taking into account the extraordinary numbers of 2015, Europe faced fewer asylum seekers in the five years from 2011 to 2015 than it had in the last five years of the 20th century.

So far this year, just 42,000 undocumented migrants have arrived on Europe’s shores. Hardly a continent under siege, nor the stuff of crises. The migration crisis is more the product of perception and politics than of numbers. There is a crisis despite the fall in migration numbers, not because of a rise in them.

So, if hostility to migration is not driven by the numbers of immigration, what is it that drives it?  A number of studies have suggested that attitudes to migration are shaped by wider social changes, for which immigration has become a convenient symbol.

Sociologists Vera Messing and Bence Ságvári have used data from 20 European nations to explore the relationship between attitudes to immigration and other social factors. There is, they observe, ‘a strong correlation’ between migrant levels in a country and attitudes towards them: ‘Countries with a negligible share of migrants are the most hostile, while countries where migrants’ presence in the society is large are the most tolerant.’

What shapes hostility is not the presence of migrants, but perceptions of trust and cohesion. ‘People in countries… with a high level of general and institutional trust, low level of corruption, a stable, well-performing economy and high level of social cohesion and inclusion (including migrants) fear migration the least,’ the authors note. On the other hand: ‘People are fearful in countries where people don’t trust each other or the state’s institutions, and where social cohesion and solidarity are weak.’ ‘Anti-migrant attitudes’, they conclude, ‘have little to do with migrants’.

Even in those countries that have, in Messing and Ságvári’s terms, relatively high levels of trust, stability and cohesion, such as Germany and the Scandinavian nations, there has been growing disaffection with mainstream institutions and political parties, a disaffection that has expressed itself in the rise of anti-immigration movements and of the far right. Immigration has become symbolic of unacceptable change, and of a loss of control over the direction of society.

The symbolic role of migration has been buttressed by the trajectory of the left. As social democratic parties have abandoned their working-class constituencies, and embraced policies, from austerity to privatisation, that have hurt the poorest sections of society, the disdain many have for mainstream institutions has been reinforced. Into the space vacated by the left have marched far-right and populist groups, linking anti-immigration rhetoric to economic and social policies that once were the staple of social democracy: defence of jobs, support for the welfare state, opposition to austerity. This shift has inevitably fortified the perception of immigration as responsible for the social problems facing working-class communities.

All this begins to explain why the migration crisis seems so irresolvable. The dominant political consensus is that the crisis can only be solved by even tighter controls on immigration. A handful of voices argue for liberalising controls. There are good political and moral arguments for liberalisation, bad ones for still more brutal restrictions. Neither approach, however, will resolve the migrant crisis, because the crisis is rooted in factors unrelated to migration – questions of trust, social disengagement and political disaffection. To solve any crisis, a good place to start is by defining the real questions for which we need answers.



The image is by Slim Fjjari from ‘Erano come due notti’, published by Else. © Else, Roma 2011


  1. damon

    Regarding the falling numbers of migrants coming across the Mediterranean, I just read somewhere that there were hundreds of thousands of them still in Libya. So it’s still a crisis. It’s no longer a crisis on the Indonesia to Australia route because the Australian government took quite cruel but decisive action to stop the flow of people coming.

    This crisis is now here for good, even as the numbers rise and fall from year to year.
    There will be West African people trying to get over the fences into those Spanish enclaves in Morocco today and every day into the foreseeable future I would think. They are only kept out by high fences and police action.

    When these new people are brought into western countries and housed out in suburban housing estates, a new set of problems is often set in motion. You get the French banlieue issues and the grim edge of city estates in cities like Stockholm where some people feel dumped and wished out of sight.
    The reason for the hostility to mass migration from countries that haven’t experienced it yet, can be I think, the lack of willingness to go through the radical transformations that having a culturally diverse society demands.
    I’ve heard this anecdotally from Eastern European people I’ve worked with in England.

    • steve roberts

      ” To solve any crisis, a good place to start is by defining the real questions for which we need answers”
      Kenan makes the point – and consider at this stage the defense of free movement is not really a numbers game but built
      more on a liberal/freedom axis but lets play your numbers game – that ” So far this year, just 42,000 undocumented migrants have arrived on Europe’s shores. Hardly a continent under siege, nor the stuff of crises”
      Considering the combined population of the EU and it’s relative prosperity that seems a fair description of the situation.
      Despite this you assert that “’s still a crisis”
      That’s hardly a good start to address the first sentence above.But perhaps you have your reasons for your assertion ,what would they be ?
      An impressionistic view of reality, a different agenda ?

      • damon

        I see it as a crisis as so many of the migrants are still in perilous situations away from their home countries. How many are still in Libya? Or do we not have to consider them until they set foot in Europe?
        Also, now that these mass movements of people have begun, and the knowledge of how to do them and the possible rewards for ending up in a good place have been passed back down the line, people are going to be setting out on these journeys for years to come. They are being deterred mostly by obstacles and difficulties. Many people would like to see these difficulties eased. Which in the short term would help the people in a bad situation, but does then encourage others to follow.

        As for the combined population of the EU …. none of them want to stay in Eastern Europe.
        Even Italy is not desirable for many who arrive there.
        There are just about a half a dozen countries that the migrants want to head for, and even inside them, only particular places. The cities mostly, where they have people from their country living already.
        Go to any council in London and ask them if they’ve got housing for a hundred new asylum seekers.
        It’s a headache at least. And will affect any queuing system already in place for social housing.

        What I find about people who advocate open borders is, that they aren’t interested in the small issues of how to integrate new people into existing societies. There have been no new roads or roadspace built in suburban south London for as long as I can remember, but traffic has grown to the point where driving around has become really difficult – and unhealthy too we are now constantly being told, because of the pollution. So now old cars are going to be banned out of half the city. It’s one solution, and it will force poorer people onto the inadequate bus system where journeys take twice as long.
        So just in a selfish way, we are paying a price for having a bigger population already.
        One day in the distant future, we might have sorted out all these transport and housing issues, but not yet. And we haven’t got anywhere near sorting out the integration/diversity issue, as some people still accuse general society of being terribly racist.

        • harvardreferences

          “What I find about people who advocate open borders is, that they aren’t interested in the small issues of how to integrate new people into existing societies.”

          Not sure who you mean by ‘people’, but if it’s a reference to Kenan then you may want to familiarise yourself with more his writing. He’s set out extensive criticism of policies of state multiculturalism (as opposed to immigration and diversity) and their impact on social cohesion.

          Your point about housing is simply an example of what the article is talking about. People may say they don’t have housing for asylum seekers, but the housing crisis isn’t simply going to be solved by clamping down on immigration. Blaming immigrantion is simply a symptom of the political failure to deal with the issue itself.

        • damon

          This is a reply to “harvardreferences” as I might have used up my quota of posts.
          I’m pretty familiar with Kenan’s writings, I’ve just never got the open borders thing.
          I think there’s a hole in the argument and it may be more ideological than practical.
          If you want a total transformation of society and are thinking of the possibilities of future societies when nation states are more connected and internationalist than they are now, then I can get that too. It could well be the way of the future and people will live anywhere in the world they chose to. But that’s not where we are right now.

          I don’t “blame” asylum seekers or immigrants for anything. But I do think one shouldn’t ignore the realities of change either. More cars on the roads around where I live in the last thirty years has increased traffic congestion. It just has. We could alleviate that with major transport infrastructure, but it still doesn’t solve everything. Flying cars would, though that’s some way off.
          In the meantime, everyone gets squeezed up and you are forced into public spheres of mass transit congestion like you get in China and India.

          And even that ignores the cultural issue. Do people have the right to live in a society that isn’t transformed in a generation into something else? Think of a small country like Slovenia for example. It’s quite a parochial place I believe, so do they have “a right” to remain that way or must they change and welcome extreme diversity?

        • steve roberts

          Reply to your second comment below Damon, because it encompasses the enduring problems that you repeat time and again on many threads, and these are your words at the end of a paragraph, not taken out of context ” But that’s not where we are right now”
          And that is it, you are stuck in the present, your impression of the present, no possible political solutions to complex social issues now or in the future, accepting present resource of all types and logically refusing to countenance moving from that so shut the doors, pull up the drawbridge.
          I see it in your reference to driving around London, it appears to you it is full it is bursting at the seams etc, no more room at the inn.
          Frankly it’s impressionistic nonsense, London is a low density city compared to many others with huge amounts of Land in and around i’;s boundaries, up, down, left right and centre, but then you don’t want encroachment on the green belt either.
          Your views are exactly what the presentists, the TINA crowd and defenders of the status quo require , effectively we have limits. lets argue about how we serve it up. Quite sad and unfortunately also regressive.

      • damon

        Steve Roberts, in reply to your post yesterday. I’m not sure why there’s not a “reply” function under that one.
        Anyway, we don’t agree obviously. You are looking at sweeping change and can’t see why everyone is not for that, and I’m being more “regressive” looking at the complications in the short and medium terms.
        We could do what China does in its redevelopments, and just destroy the old to bring in the new.
        But let’s not ignore the drawbacks of doing that, one of which is living around large construction projects which take years. And the lag behind increased population and the catch-up in resources to accommodate those. Thousands of British school children are right now spending their school years in overcrowded schools. That’s just a consequence of the rise in the population.
        It shouldn’t have to be like that. In theory you are correct. But it is the case that schools are oversubscribed and many kids have to travel to other schools further away from where they live.

        And until we get a new transport system running in London (after I’m alive) then getting around suburban south London will be a pain. It’s why I ride a motorcycle – which is dangerous in itself with all the extra traffic around. You can build houses and increase the population, but when you do that to an existing old city, you can bring about adverse effects and make things worse locally. For a time at least.

        As for the cultural issues …. I’m currently in a coffee shop in a small market town outside York.
        It’s so culturally different to city areas with large cultural and racial diversity.
        It just is. It’s almost totally white, like something out of a James Herriot book.
        The contrast with city areas that have become home to recent waves of immigrants is quite astounding when you observe things closely. And you might not believe this, but there really is one Roma looking woman outside selling The Big Issue. I saw some Roma men in Hull last night (drinking beer outside the bookmakers) and I believe people from their community travel out to towns like this to try to sell their Big Issue paper. What I find about open borders people is that they tend not to look too hard at situations like what happens when an area changes from being one way, to being another, more diverse community.
        This town wouldn’t be the same place if it had Tottenham’s population. Would it be “fair” to send two hundred Nigerian boat people asylum seekers here? You could argue that it wouldn’t hurt, but it would change the town also. Particularly when they were still very dependent on social services.
        And then everyone would have to be sent to racial diversity classes, as racism would surely become an issue in a way that it isn’t right now. That population would then rapidly grow in the space of a decade as chain migration kicked in and families were started. Which is all fine, but it would cause some challenging issues, just like it has done in the cities, but where it’s not so noticeable and obvious.

  2. yandoodan

    Let’s take a break from the usual dialectic and examine illegal immigration in economic terms: Why are we importing poor people? None of us would deny that labor is a commodity market. So what demand is this commodity filling?

    Put another way, if the local supply of poor people is inadequate to meet demand, the cost of purchasing poor people will go up. But think of the implication: imported poor people suppress the rising cost of the domestic poor supply, and so depresses the money that our local poor would gain. This is money out of their pockets, and into the pockets of the Other. The poor who suffer from this see it as a preference for people who are not [put nation here], at a time when the ruling class should be favoring locals instead of lowering their cost, and therefore profits (in the form of higher wages).

    Of course it’s been proven seven ways from Sundays that heavy immigration helps the economy. This makes obvious sense. If you reduce costs you reduce inflation. This, however, doesn’t help the local poor; it helps the local rich. The benefits of lowered inflation and lowered labor costs is reaped by those who gain from the increase in capital.

    Near as I can tell this is pretty much what Marx said. And so the social class that used to be dedicated to stopping inequality is now dedicated to increasing it. Liberals, welcome to the bourgeoisie!

  3. But if the crisis is not about migration, how is it that Robert “Rettile” Salvini has seen his popularity soar by launching vicious attacks on migrants? He’s not using code or speaking in allegories and Italians voters understand him perfectly. The raison (razor?) d’etre of his League party is racism and xenophobia, and it’s they, not the left-wing and far-from-instinctively-xenophobic 5-Star, who now occupy the driving seat in the coalition government.

    “There are good political and moral arguments for liberalisation, bad ones for still more brutal restrictions.” Indeed. And voters across Europe are embracing the bad arguments and rejecting the good ones. Brutality is paying off for political pondlife like Salvini, Kurz, the AfD and — the biggest brute of all — Orbán in Hate-Central Hungary. We have to see this situation for what it is: a continent-wide racist white backlash against vulnerable people whose only crime is to seek a better life for themselves and their children.

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