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"Economic migrants" are refugees too


While they may have faded from the headlines, the perilous mass migrations from Africa and the Middle East to Europe have continued apace. Earlier this week, two shipwrecks off the coast of Libya are believed to have killed two hundred migrants, according to the BBC.

Writing in Mute magazine, Richard B examines the twentieth-century evolution of migration policy in Europe, which has forced migrants into taking dangerous sea routes. He also rejects the self-serving distinction made by European officials between “asylum-seekers” and “migrants,” suggesting instead that all migrants are refugees fleeing life-threatening conditions, whether it be poverty or state violence. Read an excerpt from the piece below, or the full text here.

The basic situation of a capitalist world entails that people, regardless of their nation, must in general search for work on the one hand, and are plagued by violent and repressive state-sanctioned politics to force them out of subsistence and into the labour market on the other. From landgrabs by Jammeh in The Gambia, to the Oromo protests in Ethiopia, from the ISIS invasion or Raqqa to Sudan’s Unregistered Land Act, the peasant is being dispossessed. And on the other side there stands the rapid creation of labour forces: the rise of free trade zones and factories in Nigeria and Turkey, the continual bombing and reconstruction in Libya. And alongside these forms of exploiting the newly landless, there are the modes of state control more generally, of taxation and monopoly. That is, the reasons behind economic migration can be just as rich and descriptive of capital’s worst aspects as anything provided by a war reporter, even if sensational. And the result as always is the formation of a proletariat.

It is exactly the processes of dispossession which stand out as the shared experience of so many people from so many different states who are making use of the rubber boats. Here the question has to take a turn, has to turn back on itself to look at the people, the subjects at the centre of this all. Away with the fences and police science, all these barbs and mangles. The proletariat is asserting itself as a dispossessed mass on leaving their homelands, and as a worker on route and entering – simply because the solution to the variegated problems we all face on this planet is perceived as, or truly is, the wage. A ‘wage’ is not just a bargaining tool within the labour activist’s shed, but represents often the only ready or imagined solution to the problems imposed by capital, exploitation, dispossession etc – as paradoxical as that remains.

If this is the case, that this is literally a workers’ movement, why does it not express itself as such? For the simple reason that the worker identity of the new masses of the Back Ways is constantly, deafeningly undermined by the generalised necessity to lie and dissemble, to present oneself as something else. For in order to gain access to documents under the asylum regime as it stands, the worker must present themselves as anything but. Age, religion, sexuality and even nationality is betrayed and dissimulated. In this respect, the document process itself is restricting, and runs against the very freedoms of expression it professes to protect. The rules imposed upon the entering masses mean that the working class must profess to have abolished its desire to work in order to gain the mobility and legality to labour. The proletarianised masses are arriving at the ports desperate to work, to earn, for the paradise of the wage: our response is that they must stay quiet, must complain only of war, and never say too loudly that they wish to survive here as well. Some kind of identification of the working class is present even prior to the obtaining of a wage, but it denies itself so that the wage can be received with the blessing of the law.

Image: A landing dock in Palermo, Italy. Via Mute.