The emergence of xeno-racism

September 28, 2001 — Comment

Written by Liz Fekete

A new racism directed at the displaced, the dispossessed and the uprooted

‘It is a racism that is not just directed at those with darker skins, from the former colonial territories, but at the newer categories of the displaced, the dispossessed and the uprooted, who are beating at western Europe’s doors, the Europe that helped to displace them in the first place. It is a racism, that is, that cannot be colour-coded, directed as it is at poor whites as well, and is therefore passed off as xenophobia, a “natural” fear of strangers. But in the way it denigrates and reifies people before segregating and/or expelling them, it is a xenophobia that bears all the marks of the old racism. It is racism in substance, but “xeno” in form. It is a racism that is meted out to impoverished strangers even if they are white. It is xeno-racism.’ – A. Sivanandan, Director, Institute of Race Relations

Once, the West saw its superior civilisation and economic system as under threat from the communist world. That was the ideological enemy as seen from the US; that was the hostile intransigent neighbour as seen from western Europe. Today, the threat posed by 125 million displaced people, living either temporarily or permanently outside their countries of origin has replaced that which was posed by communism. For, in this brave new post-Cold War world, the enemy is not so much ideology as poverty. As western security agencies, supranational global bodies, inter-governmental agencies and national governments mobilise against migratory movements from ‘overpopulated’ and ‘socially insecure countries with weaker economies’*, a whole new anti-refugee discourse has emerged in popular culture. Those seeking asylum are demonised as bogus, as illegal immigrants and economic migrants scrounging at capital’s gate and threatening capital’s culture. And it is this demonisation of the people that the capitalist western world seeks to exclude – in the name of the preservation of economic prosperity and national identity – that signals the emergence of a new racism. As Sivanandan has argued ‘It is a racism that is not just directed at those with darker skins, from the former colonial territories, but at the newer categories of the displaced, the dispossessed and the uprooted, who are beating at western Europe’s doors, the Europe that helped to displace them in the first place. It is a racism, that is, that cannot be colour-coded, directed as it is at poor whites as well, and is therefore passed off as xenophobia, a “natural” fear of strangers. But in the way it denigrates and reifies people before segregating and/or expelling them, it is a xenophobia that bears all the marks of the old racism. It is racism in substance, but “xeno” in form. It is a racism that is meted out to impoverished strangers even if they are white. It is xeno-racism.’

‘Managed Migration’: the new socio-economic Darwinism

Over the last decade, the EU, while encouraging member states to harmonise asylum policy, has slowly been introducing measures to control ‘migratory movements’. But it was only recently that the EU’s approach coalesced into an overall philosophy, going under the name of ‘global migration management’. Since the UN warned of the growing demographic crisis in Europe, brought on by an ageing workforce and declining birth rates,there has been a growing recognition within western Europe that immigration is necessary and that refugees might even provide an important source of skilled labour. Indeed, since the European Commission indicated in November 2000 that the EU should open up legal routes for migration, and national governments within Europe followed its lead by adopting skills-based recruitment programmes for foreign workers, European governments have been openly supporting ‘managed migration’.

But while ‘managed migration’ may well be a means of opening up avenues for skilled immigrants (including refugees) to enter Europe as guestworkers, it also has another aspect, leading throughout Europe to moves to abolish the right to claim asylum, as guaranteed by the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees. For global migration management is not just a philosophy within which skills shortages are addressed; it has emerged as part of the strategic response of the powerful nations of the First World to the economic and social dislocation engendered, first, by the breakup of the former communist zone of influence and, second, by ‘the impact of globalism’s insatiable demand’ on the Second and Third Worlds ‘for free markets and unfettered conditions of trade’. It is a strategy that arises, ironically enough, from the recognition that the global market-induced displacement of people cannot be left to market forces but must be managed for the First World’s benefit. If global capitalists are concerned with ‘building a stable and regional environment for global accumulation’ and ‘a new legal and economic superstructure for the world economy’, they are equally concerned with building a new global structure of immigration controls to decide which people can move freely around the world, and which people will have their movements restricted. One result of this is that the Fortress Europe ‘zero immigration’ approach, which characterised the end of the twentieth century, is not so much abandoned as refined.

But to understand how such a strategy of global migration management leads to xeno-racism, it is necessary first to outline the scale of international cooperation on migration issues and detail specific, internationally agreed measures through which seeking asylum came to be regarded as an illegal, criminal act. Although the targets of policies of global migration management may differ in terms of North American, Australian and European concerns, these power blocs also share a common interest, as demonstrated by their cooperation in supranational bodies and intergovernmental agencies in pooling information on migratory movements. Such cooperation then informs regional policy, at the EU level for instance. The industrialised nations liaise through bodies like the International Centre for Migration Policy and Development (ICMPD), founded in 1993, which developed out of the Inter-Governmental Consultations on Asylum, Refugee and Migration Policies in Europe, North America and Australia. It was originally set up to coordinate refugee and migration policies following the break up of the former Soviet Union and sees its role as ‘advising governments on the prevention of migratory movements from East to West and South to North’. Other mechanisms include regular meetings of the secretariat of the Budapest Process, a conference of ministers from some thirty-four states and representatives from intergovernmental organistions, which deals with the prevention of illegal migration and recommends action on issues like trafficking, smuggling and pre-entry and entry controls. There are at least thirty other networks and fora of activity set up by European states and intergovernmental organisations to predict migratory flows and to advise on border controls. On many of these, international and national security agencies are represented, as well as the governments of the US, Australia and Canada, either as fully-fledged members or as observers. Most recently, the focus of these fora has shifted from predicting migratory flows to combating smuggling and trafficking. The year 2000 was designated by the EU, the Group of 8 industrialised nations and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (which includes Canada and the US) as the year of the ‘anti-trafficking plan’.

Criminalising irregular migration

The overwhelming focus of supranational bodies and inter-governmental fora on trafficking networks (termed by the G8 as the ‘dark side of globalisation’), coupled with a complete absence of concern for refugee protection, has led the human rights organisation Migrant Rights International to warn that ‘in national and international fora, the dominant considerations regarding displacement of people have deteriorated from assistance and hospitality to rejection and hostility’. In effect, that aspect of international law which once upheld the right of all migrants to claim asylum in another country, regardless of their means of entry, and placed on all governments the obligation not to return refugees, either directly or indirectly, to a country where they face a real risk of persecution (non-refoulement), has been entirely negated.

While no-one can deny the exploitative nature of the smuggling networks which control so many of the routes through which asylum seekers reach Europe, Australia and the US, what these international fora have blatantly failed to address is that it is the very regime that governments have instigated (carriers’ liability, visa requirements, readmission treaties and electronically fortified borders) that has blocked all legal routes for those seeking asylum and thrown them into the arms of smugglers and traffickers. Western governments refuse to countenance this. Instead, refugees trafficked into Europe are described, as the UK Home Office puts it, as people who seek illegal entry ‘after receiving daily images of the potential economic and… social benefits available in richer countries across the globe’. Informed by such blinkered views, international bodies, hardenening themselves against the plight of millions of displaced people across the globe, adopt anti-trafficking measures which elide the difference between the traffickers and the trafficked so as to treat both as part and parcel of the same shadowy continuum. Indeed, the Smuggling Protocol of the 2000 UN Convention on Transnational Organised Crime states unequivocally that the ‘migrant’ should not be viewed as a blameless victim but, rather, as partly complicit in the act of ‘illegal migration’. It is now an international offence to assist any person in an illegal border crossing, regardless of whether she or he is a refugee in need of protection or not.

Governments admit, when it suits them, that the traffickers trade in human misery. The women and children thrown overboard in the Atlantic by traffickers desperate to avoid detection and the fifty-eight Chinese who suffocated in a refrigerated lorry on its way to Dover, were cited by UK prime minister Blair as vulnerable victims of the trafficking trade when he launched the joint Anglo/Italian initiative to clamp down on trafficking via the so-called Sarajevo route. But when former home secretary Jack Straw implies that trafficking is carried out on such a large international scale that it threatens national sovereignty over immigration issues, then he is linking trafficked and traffickers in a criminal conspiracy.

The ‘War Against Trafficking’ serves, in effect, both as the means of and justification for states to recast asylum seekers in the public mind as ‘illegal immigrants’. To break domestic immigration laws (through, for instance, entering a country as a stowaway) is now redefined as a criminal act, even though the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees upholds the right of refugees to break domestic immigration laws in order to seek asylum. In such ways has the EU succeeded in shifting the terms of the asylum debate so as to treat asylum seekers not as people from many different countries, with many different experiences and each with an individual story to tell, but as a homogenous and undifferentiated mass. Hence, the fascination among its politicians and press with flat statistical projections of asylum flows; hence the offensive language in which migratory movements of displaced people are described in terms of environmental catastrophe; hence the dehumanisation of asylum seekers as a ‘mass’, ‘horde’, ‘influx’, ‘swarm’. In this, xeno-racism against asylum seekers resonates with the past. Jews under Nazism, Blacks under slavery, ‘Natives’ under colonialism, were similarly dehumanised, held to hold mass characteristics which justified exploitation, victimisation and, in the last, genocide.

Imposing western immigration controls

But there is another aspect to the ‘War Against Trafficking’ and the criminalisation of asylum seekers. For, if asylum seekers who break domestic immigration laws are seen to have carried out an illegal act that links them to an international criminal conspiracy, then the EU is justified in imposing its own immigration policies on states that tolerate illegal migratory movements or fail to control the movements of internally displaced people.

How does this work in practice? It was at the Tampere European Council summit in October 1999 that the processes were formalised under which the EU instituted policies that turned Third World governments into immigration police for western Europe. (Such structures already existed for the so-called ‘buffer states’ of central and eastern Europe.)Prior to this, in late 1997, the EU (borrowing from the Canadian practice of posting immigration control officers at every airport across the globe) substantially increased the number of airline liaison officers posted at airports and other ports to stop suspected illegal immigrants from travelling. Such officers, who have no training in refugee protection, also act as immigration staff at embassies and consulates throughout the world. The EU High Level Working Group on Asylum and Immigration, which had already drawn up draft action plans to stop refugee movement from Afghanistan, Albania (and Kosovo), Morocco, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Iraq, also started to seek ways in which trade and development arrangements could be used as levers with which to achieve the EU aim of refugee reduction.

The new policies instituted at Tampere, in essence, formalised arrangements which had earlier been ad hoc and piecemeal. In future, western Europe’s asylum policy would not commence at the point of arrival in Europe; rather, the EU’s policy of ‘refugee reduction’ would be achieved at the point of departure, via pre-embarkation checks. In future, responsibility for the prevention of refugee movements would be passed on to the asylum seeker’s country of origin or the Second or Third World countries through which asylum seekers passed on their way to Europe. This was to be encouraged by the adoption of plans that tied trade and humanitarian aid to the prevention of ‘refugee flows’ and the return of rejected asylum seekers. Thus, the Lomé convention was redrawn in February 2000 in order to tie £8.5 billion in aid and trade agreements between the EU, Africa, the Caribbean and Pacific (ACP), to specific rules guaranteeing the repatriation and expulsion of people deemed to be ‘illegal’ within the EU.

In this way, the discourse around global migration management – of opening avenues to skilled migrants – camouflages the First World’s true approach to immigration controls. Effectively, it takes control of migration strategy and policy, a basic state function, from those nations that have no sway on the supranational bodies which set out the stall of global migration policy. It take it, too, from those countries of central and eastern Europe, that are so anxious to join the EU club that they will forfeit border controls as a condition of entry. Just as a Third World country has to accept World Bank and IMF austerity measures imposed through Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), if it is to survive in the era of globalism, it also has to accept the imposition of migration controls measure. And, just as SAPs mean pauperisation and the erosion of education, social and welfare provision, western-imposed immigration controls lessen the life chances of globalism’s victims still further, by denying them freedom of movement, confining them to camps in their own countries, and removing the hope of obtaining sanctuary from the persecution of authoritarian regimes.

To put it another way, whereas European nation states are prepared to pool sovereignty on immigration and asylum issues in order to stop asylum seekers from getting in to the EU, the poorer nations of the world lose their sovereignty over immigration controls in order to stop their citizens getting out. Unless, that is, these citizens are part of the chosen few: highly-skilled computer wizards, doctors and nurses trained at Third World expense and sought after by the West. Global migration management strategy saps the Third World and the former Soviet bloc of its economic lifeblood, by creaming off their most skilled and educated workforces. Since the Tampere summit, the thrust of EU refugee policy has shifted to include integratory measures for officially recognised refugees (henceforth ‘genuine refugees’), while moving towards the total exclusion of asylum seekers (henceforth ‘bogus claimants’ and ‘economic migrants’), preferably through pre-embarkation controls. But former home secretary Jack Straw, the master of the Dutch auction, has gone one better in this proposal to compel refugees to remain in their region of origin, in huge refugee camps, from which Europe will ‘select’ a quota to be brought to Europe for resettlement.

But what would be the criteria for such selection? Given the EU’s eager support for a policy of managed migration, are we now to see a situation develop in which the displaced people of the world are screened and selected, sectioned off into categories of skilled and unskilled, through a sort of economic natural selection process ensuring the survival of the economically fittest? Global migration management heralds a new Darwinism. Not the old Social Darwinism that believes that the advance of civilisation is dependent on the advancement of the superior race, but a socio-economic Social Darwinism that allows the rich First World to maintain its economic dominance by emptying the poorer worlds of their skilled work-force. In the era of globalisation, the skills pool, not the genes pool, is key.

Related links

This article is an extract from The three faces of British racism

* The phrases are those used to describe those migrating to the UK, including refugees, by the UK Home Office in its 1998 White Paper, 'Fairer, Faster and Firmer'
This is an extract from The three faces of British racism, a special report published by the Institute of Race Relations.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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