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