Migrants’ Rights Network: 2015 – The year when immigration became an indissolubly European issue

by , under Don Flynn

Don Flynn*

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Halfway through December seems like a good time to sketch out some ideas on what 2015 might come to mean in a history of immigration which has yet to be written.

My provisional take is that it will come to be seen as the year in which the movement of people into and out of the country became finally and indissolubly Europeanised.  There are circumstances in which we could easily imagine this to be a good thing, with progressive, forward-thinking governments working together to see how the movement of people is going to play its role in promoting sustainable growth and the welfare of populations, while at the same time cementing human rights and fairness right the way across the system.

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Sadly this isn’t the way in which immigration has been considered by governments for a long time. The resulting dysfunction has meant that Europe has become associated in the minds of many with turmoil and threat.  The image of desperate refugees landing on the Greek islands; the bodies of children washed up on holiday beaches; people pushed back by thuggish police action on the borders of Hungary; or the migrants living in the squalor of the ‘jungle’ camps in Calais will probably be the abiding memories of the past year for many.

Failure to anticipate the inevitable chaos

The truth is that these chaotic scenes have arisen for reasons which have less to do with the sheer press of numbers than with the utter failure of the European authorities to anticipate the inevitable flow of people away from the war zones which now stretch in great conjoined arcs across the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and into North Africa.

If this was going to produce pressure on the southern borders of the continent the governments of the larger region have assumed that they would deal with it by leaving the problem to the countries most immediately affected.  The obligation to implement Eurodac fingerprinting rules and the operation of theDublin Convention were assumed to be sufficiently robust tools to keep the refugees a long way off from the European heartlands.

These plans were upset by a combination of factors, which included the virtual collapse of Greece’s capacity to manage movement across its borders as a consequence of the impoverishment brought about by drastic austerity measures imposed by the European Central Bank and its partners in the so-called ‘troika’. The fact that some people fleeing chaos also included a large contingent of the well-to-do Syrian middle classes with the self-confidence to push back even harder against efforts to impede their flight to a safe haven, added to a mix that got people far beyond the point where they had previously been prevented from going.

Extraordinary moment

These developments opened the way to a brief late summer of daring initiatives on the part of some governments to break out of the circle of rapidly failing policies and attempt something they hadn’t tried before:  work on the assumption that the refugees were rational people who could be assimilated into other policies which met pressing demographic and economic needs whilst also ‘buffing up’ the self-image of governments searching for the moral high ground.

This, of course, was Germany’s moment when it offered to take in 800,000 Syrian refugees.  It initiated an extraordinary few weeks in which hundreds of thousands of citizens were suddenly released from a mind-set which told them to fear and loathe migrants and instead to offer them a welcome.  If there was hope as well despair during the course of the year it came from images of crowds at football matches unfurling ‘Refugees Welcome’ banners. And on that Saturday which preceded one of the many European leaders’ summit meetings back in September, coming out on demonstrations in their hundreds of thousands to call for a great reversal in the entire direction which European policies had been taking towards refugees for over a decade.

Free movement – a self-made rod for the UK government’s own back

This year will be remembered as the year when the UK government managed to make free movement a rod for its own back in the context of its efforts to renegotiate the terms of its EU membership.

Despite the absence of any evidence that the migration of EU citizens constituted a major problem for national welfare systems, the prime minister decided that it is a major issue which requires urgent resolution.   In truth it is a purely symbolic issue on which to stake a demand for revision of EU law, with the threat of a UK withdrawal if it is not met.  People exercising free movement rights are net contributors to the welfare system, as any number of independent reports have shown. Unfortunately a symbolic grievance seems to hurt at least as much as one which exists in reality and can excite as much of the same level of demand for change.  The rest of the EU is looking on in bafflement as to why so much is being staked on something of so little consequence and, for the moment, seems inclined to resist the demand to change the EU treaty to help Mr Cameron dig himself out of this hole.

Otherwise 2015 as the year of a second Immigration Bill is worthy of mention, intending to roll out the sort of skirmishes that used to be associated with checks at airports and consular offices in local communities.   Whether in Europe or the UK the public conversation about immigration continues to look like permanence guerrilla warfare aimed at reducing the rights of migrants and keeping them in a state of insecurity and vulnerability.  Our job is to turn the corner in 2016 and start to win greater support for a rights-based approach to the management of migration.

Read original posting here.

This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.

*Don Flynn, the MRN Director, leads the organisation’s strategic development and coordinates MRN’s policy and project work. He is a regular and sought-after speaker at conferences, seminars and lectures on behalf of MRN.

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