First published in CARF, 57 August-September 2000, later in Race & Class as ‘Refugees from globalism’ (42/3, January 2001.)
The high priests of globalisation meeting at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank annual meeting in Prague next month will attract the same level of ferocity from anti-capitalist protesters as they did in Seattle last year. They will also further blur the distinction between political and economic refugees, ensuring that those who are ethnically discriminated against at home become economically marginalised abroad.
For the distinction between political refugees and economic migrants is a bogus one – susceptible to different interpretations by different interests at different times. The west is quite happy to take in economic migrants if they are businessmen (with the requisite £250,000), professionals, or technologically-skilled. It welcomes the computer wizards of “Silicon Valley” of Bangalore but does not want the persecuted peoples of Sri Lanka or the Punjab. And it is these it terms economic migrants – with all its connotations of scrounging.
The west does not need, as it did in the immediate postwar era, a pool of unskilled labour on its doorstep. As economies move from industrial capitalism into global capitalism, businesses move plants to find such workers. Where they cannot, they demand that their workers be temporary and cheap. And the rightless and the illegals fit the bill nicely.
Ironically, it is also globalism, with its demand for free markets and unfettered conditions of trade, that is eroding the distinction all over the world between the economic and the political realm. The nation state, particularly in the third world and the erstwhile eastern bloc, is the agent of global capital. It is capital that decides what to produce where and what to grow where and how. And through its aid and development agencies like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund and international trade agreements (such as Gatt and Nafta) and institutions like the World Trade Organisation, it holds the poorer regimes in hock.
It then insists that they accept austerity measures, through so-called structural adjustment programmes that dictate drastic cuts in public spending, to pull them back from bankruptcy. The result is pauperisation, the erosion of educational, social and welfare provisions, the end of training and enterprise. It denies the possibility of indigenous growth or any hope for the future that is not tied up with foreign powers and foreign capital. Hence resistance to economic immiseration is inseparable from resistance to political persecution. The economic migrant is also the political refugee.
That’s a totally different world order from the one in which the politically persecuted refugee was defined in the UN convention of 1951. Then, the political refugee was being defined in terms of the shame created by the annihilation of Europe’s Jews and the fear engendered by communist totalitarianism. But, already, a new category of political refugee was emerging in the newly independent states of the ex-colonies.
During the colonial period Britain had collapsed diverse tribes, nationalities, ethnic groups and other geographical entities into unitary states for the purposes of easier administration and economic exploitation. As the west’s neocolonial project began to displace indigenous economic development, the nationalism that had made the state cohere from independence began to give way to ethnic and communal divisions. And governments turned to using the trappings of democracy, especially the voting system, to establish authoritarian, majoritarian states – which systematically discriminated against and persecuted minority groups such as Ibos in Nigeria, Tamils in Ceylon and Asians in Kenya and Uganda.
At first, these politically persecuted refugees were economically “invisible”. In the 1950s and 1960s, when Britain needed all the workers it could lay its hands on, political refugees and economic migrants were all the same: they were labour. It did not matter that the Punjabis were fleeing the fallout of partition: what mattered was that they were needed in the factories of Southall.
But, as Britain began to need less labour and its doors began to close, the claims of the persecuted came to be measured against the yardstick of economic pragmatism. The “Kenyan Asian” episode of 1968, when Asians with British passports expelled by Kenya were refused automatic right of entry to Britain, showed up the racism of Britain’s immigration controls. But it was also the first clear indication of Britain putting its economic interests before those of the politically persecuted – even when they were its own citizens.
In other words, the definition of political refugee and economic migrant became interchangeable. So that, just four years later, British Asians from Uganda were deemed acceptable as political refugees because they, unlike the Kenyan Asians, belonged by-and-large to the entrepreneurial class and could contribute to Britain’s coffers. “British”, “alien”, “political”, “economic”, “bogus”, “bona fide” – governments choose their terminology as suits their larger economic or political purpose.
Nothing makes this clearer than the contemporary example of the Roma from eastern Europe. During the communist era of centralisation, minority cultures and ethnic differences were suppressed but were, at least, part of the citizenry. With the collapse of communism, however, they became outcasts, without employment, without access to full rights, discriminated against by state agencies and persecuted by untamed populist racial terror. By any yardstick, the Roma are a persecuted group like the Jews were earlier. And yet, when they seek refuge in western Europe, we reject them for the same reason that caused them to flee their country in the first place – that their culture and philosophy put them outside the pale of western European society. Once the underclass of communist totalitarianism, they are today the outcasts of western democracy.
As global capitalism spreads and cold war ideological rivalries collapse, nation states in both the former “black” colonies of the third world and the former “red” colonies of the eastern bloc are beginning to break up. Political and economic categories have collapsed into each other and culture is becoming homogenised.The values we live by are more and more those of the market.
Globalisation fragments our consciousness and casts us into individual, single-issue struggles that might bring about piecemeal reform but not radical change. That is why it is essential that we see how each struggle – whether against institutional racism, asylum laws, arms sales or unequal trade agreements – connects with the others within the overall campaign against globalism. So that even when we agree with the free marketeers that asylum seekers should be allowed to work, we do so, not because a free labour market is an imperative of globalism, but because it is globalism that deprived them of their livelihoods in the first place. Our fight should be for the asylum seekers and therefore against globalism.
By the same token, any human rights convention that does not guarantee asylum seekers the right to a livelihood is irrelevant to the condition of our times.