Migration – what is the problem?

There has been migration for as long as there have been people. Firstly moving from Africa and spreading over the entire world. Not that it is a peculiarly human trait. Come autumn or spring, some birds migrate considerable distances. There are herd animals with a tendency to move en masse.

However, anyone thinking migration is a novel phenomenon and a recent political problem could be forgiven considering how it’s being portrayed by sensationalist media and desperate politicians. A veritable armada of small boats swarming across the English Channel, or so it would seem.

‘Johnny Foreigner’ is single-mindedly intent on accessing public services having never paid a penny towards them, expecting to be housed and receive benefits. That is when not undertaking devious criminal schemes, or bringing extensive extended families to join them in enjoying such largesse.

With a general election pending both Tory and Labour Parties have identified this emotive issue as a major potential vote winner, or loser. Each vies with the other to demonstrate how they alone can tackle this problem. There is the nub of the issue. Migrants are not people with problems, they are deemed to be the problem. And problems must have solutions, though it is doubtful if either party would claim to have the final solution. Although there is a discomforting resonance whenever politicians specifically identify a particular group of people as being alien.

Capitalism has used this sense of the lesser other from its outset. Taking early advantage of that notion led to brutal forced migration from Africa in the slave trade, with enterprising traders shipping involuntary human cargo to the money-making plantations of the ‘New World’. A deliberate movement of people to generate profits, the capital that financially fuelled the industrial revolution.

It might be objected that slaves are not the same as migrants in that they were transported against their will. But how many people become migrants undertaking the perilous, and too often fatal, sea journeys from choice? War, abject poverty and famine are drivers of people who are uprooted with little or no control over their journey.

Those early days of capitalist industry in Britain saw the enclosure of rural land creating a mass migration from the countryside to the new industrial urban centres, where labour was required. There was no consultative process, just the financial imperative. Undoubtedly, in the initial stages there were men who had to leave their families in the village while they went to the towns.

Eventually those men would send for their families to join them. Such movement would have been no simple task in the absence of organised transportation. Later, many descendants of those families would relocate to the Americas and the antipodes, driven again by desperation. Some went against their will as transported criminals.

Even economic migration within national boundaries led, on occasion to conflict. For example, in 1832 a strike by miners at Friars Goose in Gateshead was met with the eviction of the miners and their families from their colliery tied cottages. This was to accommodate lead miners, who’d been impoverished by their declining industry, who were migrating to the expanding coalfields. Because it suited the mine owners, this migration was welcomed by them, while the locals were forced aside by use of the local militia from Newcastle.

It requires a little genealogical research for those who identify their families as belonging to a particular former industrial area in the north of England, for example, to find antecedents, going back only a few generations, who came from the then rural south. The growing interest in genealogy has led to many taking DNA tests to establish their familial origins. It is common enough to meet people claiming blood-ties to Scandinavia, Northern Germany, Ireland and Wales, often with unexpected influences from much further afield.

It seems we are all descendants of foreigners, not that those Viking and Saxon forebears would have thought of themselves in such terms. Movement of people was commonplace and there were no nations to identify with.

All too frequently there are news reports of another small boat foundering in the Channel during an attempt to cross over from France that ends in disaster. For a brief moment the drowned become men, women and children, rather than simply migrants. There may be a momentary reduction in belligerence towards those promoted to victims, while the antagonism is refocused on villainous people-smugglers making money out of human misery.

Asylum traders, like slave traders before them, are of course simply motivated by money. As are the manufacturers of the wholly unsuitable inflatables used as makeshift ferries. As, also, are the politicians of various stripes who soon return to ranting on about the unacceptable cost of migrants coming to ‘our’ country.

The accommodation of migrants, it is insisted, must be as basic and unwelcoming as possible to act as a deterrent to others. This begs the question as to how dreadful must accommodation become to be a more effective deterrent than the prospect of being launched in an overcrowded rubber dinghy into the world’s busiest and turbulent shipping lane with the very real possibility of drowning?

Politicians continue to trade their quack solutions to the ever-present migrant situation. Repurpose army camps? Use hotels, a nice little earner for hoteliers? Or perhaps take an idea from history and anchor a few prison hulks, sorry barges, around the coast.

If migrants are so ungrateful as to object, they can always take the reported advice of Lee Anderson, deputy Tory chair: ‘If they don’t like the barges, they can fuck off back to France.’

What if the small boats were luxury yachts carrying super-rich traders in the wealth created for them by workers? These economic migrants, in the sense of being wealthy enough to sail from country to country as they will, would certainly be welcomed.

However, those referred to pejoratively as economic migrants are classed as being even less worthy of acceptance than those fleeing war and political repression. Yet, the common cause of their distress is capitalism. War is the most belligerent expression of that fundamental characteristic of capitalism, competition. Politics, whether totalitarian or democratic, ultimately serves capitalists’ interests, the need to ensure profitability.

Meanwhile those workers who cannot serve the ceaseless pursuit of profit of their home country’s capitalist class, become economically surplus. Migration in search of the wherewithal to live then becomes the driving necessity.

The ‘migration problem’ has a solution; abolish capitalism. Then everyone can make a valued contribution to society, local, regional and internationally. And in return their self-defined needs will be met.In socialism people can travel freely and safely, as and when they choose. Or stay put around where they are born if they wish. The choice is straightforward, continue ad infinitum to have migrants fleeing war, famine, repression and poverty, all of which will persist as long as capitalism is allowed to persist. Alternatively, sink capitalism and promote socialism as the world’s common destination.


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