Without the poor of the world, where would the rich world be?

Share
Related Topics
"THE KURDS are coming!" Panic seizes the European Union, in the first days of Britain's presidency, as two shiploads of desperate families arrive in Italy and beg for the right to stay in Europe. France and Austria restore border checks with Italy. The Schengen Agreement, abolishing frontier controls between 15 EU member states, is in crisis. Britain thanks God that it is an island.

Once again, the rich world is gripped by terror that the poor world will invade it. There is talk of "Fortress Europe", of redefining the 1987 Single European Act to deny freedom of movement to non-EU citizens. There are even fresh doubts about the wisdom of enlarging the Union eastwards. Will Poland be able and willing to run a tight external frontier and keep the indigent Asian hordes out of "civilised" Europe?

This is trash - but cyclical trash: a recurrent nightmare. We must have short memories if we do not remember the last grand panic. As the Soviet Union began to collapse, it was fashionable to predict that tens of millions of Russians would at any moment begin to pour westwards in search of bread and sausage. The barbarian invasions were about to repeat themselves. European culture and prosperity would be swamped, and a new Dark Age would begin.

But nothing of the sort happened. Russians do not leave their own country in bad times, but dig in and survive. There was a substantial tide of migrants into Poland, but they did not settle; they provided a source of cheap labour - mostly illegal - which, if anything, gave the Polish economy a boost. Later there was an influx of Romanians, many of whom reached Germany by way of Austria, but this has been absorbed. Wild suggestions that Nato might be converted into a frontier guard, lined up along the Oder and Danube rivers to collar the swimming tribes of Asia, faded away.

This is not to deny that there are some real problems. It was right that the Royal Navy should hunt down slave ships trying to smuggle "illegal immigrants" into the Americas after the abolition of the slave trade. And it is right that European nations should send warships and aircraft to intercept the mafia-run vessels carrying Kurds, Albanians or Bangladeshis across the Mediterranean. The only real difference is that the new slaves have been forced to pay extortionately for their passage. But the central problem is one of perception. We are refusing to look at the migration phenomenon as a whole.

Europeans, and Americans too, desperately try to categorise those who arrive from the poor world into legal or illegal immigrants, genuine asylum seekers (good) or "economic migrants" (bad), refugees entitled to shelter or "habitual overstayers" who intend to live off welfare. In the end these distinctions are absurd. Take, for example, the outburst last week by Klaus Kinkel, the German foreign minister. He complained that over 80 per cent of the 17,000 Turkish citizens who applied for political asylum in Germany last year were Kurds - and that most of them did not come from the war-torn south-eastern provinces but from big Turkish cities. Is Mr Kinkel seriously implying that he is dealing with 13,500 Kurdish liars, crooks and parasites?

Everyone who deals with immigrants and their problems knows that our categories are really nonsense. This is glaringly obvious in the arguments about asylum. There are times - the Cold War was one - when the difference between victims of political persecution and people who "merely" want a better life seems obvious. But even then the distinction was not that clear. It was not just that almost everyone who came from "the Communist bloc" was in some sense escaping a zone of political oppression. It was also that the mere act of applying for political asylum created the grounds for granting it. News of an application always got back through the Iron Curtain, and an unsuccessful applicant who returned home could expect to lose his or her job, to be denied a passport, to have parents thrown out of their flat or siblings barred from higher education.

When it comes to far bigger immigration flows from unhappy countries in this decade - Nigeria, Algeria, Turkey, Bangladesh, to name only a few - the distinction gets even more arbitrary. Of course we should shelter political fugitives. But why does that mean that "economic migrant" has to become a dirty term? Why is it respectable to rescue oneself from torture by electrodes, but disreputable to rescue one's family from torture by unemployment, debt-slavery and hunger which kills children slowly?

On the other side of the world the crash of the "tiger economies" is beginning to displace a torrent of poor immigrants whose cheap labour is no longer required. Thailand and Malaysia are preparing to expel some 2.5 million foreign workers and their families. South Korea wants to repatriate 270,000 foreigners. They will be returned to Indonesia, Burma, Bangladesh, India and other poor countries where they will be dumped back into penury. This enormous tragedy, far worse than anything that will happen to the citizens of the bankrupt "tigers", ought to move us to help. But it should also teach us, in Europe, the true nature of migration as a force in modern history.

Every focus of prosperity is like a furnace. It creates a huge updraft - and sucks the poor and uprooted towards it. At first this only happened inside nations, as the industrialisation of Britain or Germany sucked the rural population into new manufacturing cities. Now it happens on a supranational scale. The industrial "golden triangle" of Western Europe in the 1960s, centred on West Germany, pulled in the peasants of Portugal, southern Italy, Croatia, Greece and eventually Turkey. The boom around the Pacific Rim in the last decade attracted millions of the Asian poor. And the arrival of those migrants - "economic" indeed - was crucial for sustaining growth in those regions. Without their cheap labour, Frankfurt or Zurich, Hong Kong or Seoul would not glitter and roar. They, the "economic migrants", made our office towers and motorways, our cars and subway trains.

But capitalism has cycles. The furnace cools off. Then comes the question of what to do with the "economic migrants", those who are called "guest workers" when they are needed and "welfare parasites" when they are not. The demand for labour has fallen, and angry voices demand that they be sent back where they came from.

Exporting their own unemployment is the dream achievement of all free-market systems. But only apartheid South Africa really mastered it. As demand rose, contract labour was imported from puppet Bantustans. When it slackened, the blacks were deported to rot on their barren, eroded homelands. But only a police state can keep adjusting the "labour pump" in this way. In West Germany, when the boom years ended in 1973, the pump leaked and hundreds of thousands of migrant workers stayed on. In Asia today even the most authoritarian regimes will find it hard to expel all their surplus labour.

And the people of the poor world will keep on coming to the rich world. They will come faster when we need them again, but they will come anyway. The "global economy" also means that most poor peasants can find a labour contractor who will smuggle them to Europe. And no fortress walls, frontier controls or jails for asylum seekers will, in the end, keep them out.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: We Are Not Syriza; and the riddle of an imitation Sphinx in China

John Rentoul
Labour and the Liberal Democrats would both end winter fuel allowances for pensioners with enough income to pay the 40p tax rate  

Politicians court the grey vote because pensioners, unlike the young, vote

Andrew Grice
Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable