The problem is not immigration. The problem is inequality
Indeed, rather than the alien phenomenon it is currently in vogue to characterize it, immigration is as natural as the sun rising and setting every day. In a previous article I explored how mass migration was a key factor in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, doing so in relation to the refugee crisis that began lapping up on Europe’s southern shores in 2015, an ongoing crisis directly related to the chaos that has engulfed the Middle East and North Africa. This refugee crisis is not the same phenomenon as immigration; however both are linked in so far as they are the product of concrete factors out of the control of those most affected by it – i.e. people compelled to uproot and move to other countries and parts of the world due to economic factors or in order to flee conflict and the societal collapse that conflict produces.
The prominence that the subject of immigration/migration now has across the northern hemisphere is directly linked to the global economic crisis which began in 2008 which continues to wield havoc, especially in poorer economies that were most exposed to its impact. In political terms it has wrought the collapse of the center ground, opening up space for radical ideas and narratives. Thus we have seen the emergence and rise of movements, parties, and political leaders from both the radical right and left, vying for the hearts and minds of people and communities, especially poorer and low income communities where the impact of migration is felt most, in the battle of ideas.
We have seen the rise of left wing anti-austerity parties such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, while existing political parties have thrown up radical leaders such as Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in the UK, and in the US democratic socialist Bernie Sanders winning mass support in his challenge to Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party nomination for US president.
However despite the aforementioned examples of a left wing political response to the economic crisis that has engulfed the West, it is the right that has gained most traction and currency in recent times. Indeed, not since the 1930s have we experienced such a resurgence of the far right as we are experiencing now. In western Ukraine, across Scandinavia, Hungary, France, Holland, in the UK and in the United States, where Donald Trump has gained huge support for his idea for a wall on the US-Mexican border to keep out migrants, differing gradations of ultra-nationalism, reaction, and in some instances full blown neo-fascism are gaining mass support in societies that have been rocked by the huge economic turbulence of the past six or seven years, leading to the normalization and legitimization of racism and xenophobia where migrants are concerned.
Trump, we have already mentioned, but the real focus at this point is on the UK, where in a momentous vote 17 million people have just voted to end Britain’s 40-year membership of the EU. It has unleashed the biggest political crisis to engulf the country in generations, leading to renewed calls for a referendum on Scottish independence and a call in Northern Ireland for an all-Ireland referendum on Irish unity between north and south, given that the majority of people in Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain rather than exit the EU.
Regardless of the embroidery about the lack of democracy within the EU, which the official Leave campaign argued, this was a referendum on immigration and migrants, specifically the free movement of people that is part and parcel of membership of the European single market, one of the four freedoms – of goods, services, capital, and persons - enshrined in the Treaty of Rome.
Under free movement of people nationals of other EU member states have the automatic right to move to other member states across Europe to live and work. British author and academic, Chris Bickerton, reveals in his 2016 book – ‘The European Union: A Citizens Guide’ – that of the EU’s total working population of around 242.3 million people, 7.3 million are living and working in a country other than their own. Breaking the figure down, this represents 3 percent. However, and this is the key point, most of this intra-EU traffic is from poorer economies within the EU – such as the former communist states in the east - to richer, such as Germany, France, and the UK.
Absorbing migrants from other parts of the EU has become a particular concern in countries where austerity has been most severe in response to the economic crisis. Cutting spending on welfare, on health, education, and housing, merely increases the demand, especially on the part of the poorer sections of the population, which relies on them most. This inevitably results in increased hostility towards migrants; hostility is easily exploited by the political and far right for ideological reasons.
Of course there are also cultural challenges that need to be surmounted when it comes to migration. Language barriers foment a sense of alienation and apartness, which is exacerbated in downward economic cycles such as we are living through at present. Such barriers can take generations to overcome. The experience of Irish, Caribbean, and Asian migrants to the UK bears this out. At first they were met with hostility and bigotry, with their assimilation blocked, resulting in them drawing deeper into their native cultures for protection and the sense of worth and identity denied them by the wider society in which they had arrived.
The fundamental problem then, as we see, is not migration but the misdistribution of wealth and resources, which is a non-negotiable condition of free market capitalism. Gross economic inequality in periods of economic boom is bad enough, but in terms of bust and recession it is tantamount to lighting a fire under the issue of migration in the wealthier EU economies that are the preferred destination of migrants under the auspices of free movement.
Just over a week after the decision to leave the EU was taken by a small majority of British voters the spike in racism and xenophobia, hate crimes, and attacks has left no doubt that people such as myself, arguing the case for remain, have been proved right when it comes to what would ensue.
It should be pointed out that when it comes to the UK, just over half of migrants coming into the country are from outside the EU and Europe. It also has to be emphasized that the refugee crisis that has caused a political crisis all by itself is directly related the West’s disastrous role in destabilizing Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan in recent years, producing societal collapse and the conditions out of which terrorism has proliferated.
Stopping immigration by setting quotas and implementing ever more stringent border controls and measures is futile. The only way to reduce it is to deal with its underlying causes – namely inequality, poverty, and unfettered capitalism.
Like it or not, we live in an inter-dependent world in which we either all rise together or fall together. For far too long the huge wealth and affluence of the northern hemisphere has rested on the crippling poverty of the southern hemisphere, where millions are denied even the semblance of a decent quality of life, exploited as cheap labor for global corporations, producing goods for consumption in the West. Across the EU there is a gross inequality between smaller countries such as Greece and larger such as Germany, which while favoring the German people and economy punishes their Greek counterparts to such an extant it has called into question the sustainability of an economic union that is currently falling apart at the seams.
Blaming migrants for the problems and crises produced by a global economy that is a tyrant rather than a servant is both unjust and immoral. To be a migrant is to be human, and attacking migrants for doing exactly what we would do if in their shoes is inhuman.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.