Tag Archives: migration

Brexit as Nostalgia for Empire

This post was contributed by Dr Nadine El-Enany, lecturer in Law at Birkbeck’s School of Law School. On 15 June 2016, Dr El-Enany presented at Law on Trial – the School’s annual public lecture series which this year focused on the EU referendum. Here, Dr El-Enany touches on the themes she explored in her talk which explored Europe’s current migration crisis.

This post was originally published on CriticalThinking.org on Sunday 19 June 2016.

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This week Jo Cox, a pro-immigration Labour MP was brutally murdered by a man who shouted Britain First as he killed her and who gave his name in court on being charged with her murder as “Death to traitors. Freedom for Britain”.

Jo Cox was killed a week before the referendum on Britain’s EU membership and following months of campaigning which has been dominated by the topic of migration. This referendum has not felt like an exercise in democracy. There is something painfully undemocratic about denying EU citizens from other Member States living in Britain a vote. The message to them is that they do not belong here. Their neighbours, co-workers, friends and family decide on their future for them. Worse still, the referendum has licensed the expression of racism and xenophobia, which has been unleashed with deadly consequences. The racist discourse that has defined the Brexit campaign must be understood in the context of Britain’s imperial legacy. The terms on which the debate around the referendum have taken place are symptomatic of a Britain struggling to conceive of its place in the world post-Empire.

In this context waiting for Lexit is to be the frog in that cautionary tale — the one that sits in boiling water until it is too late. I have taught EU law for many years and have always tried to instil in my students a healthy scepticism about the EU. I have worked to show them that it is possible to be critical of the neoliberal, capitalist, imperialist EU and not fall into the anti-migrant, sovereignty-fetishising UKIP camp. When the EU referendum was first announced, I made a Lexit argument when the topic came up.

A vote for the EU is a vote for capitalism, austerity and militarised borders, I’d say. The reality is that argument has elicited only the minutest of echoes. The Brexit campaign has been entirely dominated by the ugliest form of Euroscepticism imaginable. As Priyamvada Gopal has put it, a vote for Brexit is a vote for the “magnificent lie that exploitation, austerity, greed and impoverishment have all come to Britain from the nasty outside”. Lexit is a dream that has not been realised. Waiting for Lexit is like waiting for Godot — in more ways than one. Graham Hassell has aptly described Beckett’s play of that name as “a metaphor for… mainland Britain, where society has ever been blighted by a greedy ruling élite keeping the working classes passive and ignorant by whatever means.”

The “means” adopted by the Brexit campaign in a bid to sway voters have primarily consisted of scare-mongering on the issue of migration. Despite the rhetoric about migrants being a drain on resources, HMRC tax figures for 2013–14 show that migrants contributed £2.5 billion more than theytook out in benefits, but I will neither myth-bust around migration nor be drawn into a debate about whether or not migrants enrich the societies in which live because fundamentally that is a racist question — it erases the history of the British Empire which has set in motion the migration of today and assumes a pre-existing, static society, membership of which can only be validly determined by birthright. Migrants tend to have the least capital and so are easiest to exploit. We have seen this in the unrelenting scapegoating of migrants that has characterised the Brexit campaign, a convenient distraction from the material consequences of the current government’s austerity measures.

It is not that I expected better of Michael Gove, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. I merely hoped they would not succeed, as they have, aided by the British mainstream media, in drowning out the possibility for a Left movement in opposition to the EU to emerge. It is difficult to choose a low point in the Brexit campaign. Was it when Nigel Farage had the gall to say to a black woman who challenged him on the racist rhetoric of the Brexit campaign in the course of a live televised debate that he is “used to being demonised”? Or Michael Gove’s Islamophobic rant about Turkish birthrates and criminality? Or UKIP donor-funded Leave.EU’s recent tweet, “act now before we see an Orlando-style tragedy here before too long”? Or Farage’s latest poster depicting non-white refugees crossing the Croatia-Slovenia border in 2015 along with the slogan “Breaking Point”, which has been reported to the police for inciting racial hatred?

Being faced with a choice between between David Cameron and Nigel Farage is a nightmare scenario for any anti-racist and anti-capitalist. With the debate on the referendum eclipsed by the topic of migration, it is no surprise Cameron is struggling to hold the fort having spent the last five years peddling the lie that migrants are to blame for society’s ills rather than his government of millionaires and their penchant for cuts to vital public services. But if Britain votes Leave, it does so on the terms of the racist and xenophobic Brexit campaign. A Leave vote would provide a mandate for Brexit leaders to push for Fortress Britain, which already exists insofar as it can as an EU Member State. Britain is the most fortified of all EU countries. It is not part of Schengen. It has a flexible opt-out from all EU law on immigration and asylum, which it has consistently exercised to opt into restrictive measures that further strengthen its capacity to exclude and out of those aimed at enhancing protection standards.

There is no “refugee crisis” in Britain. Britain has barely increased its resettlement quota in light of the movement of so many desperate Syrians, and a similar number of asylum applications have been made in Britain this year as in 2008 unlike the higher numbers we see in other EU countries. Britain has been the strongest advocate of the EU Dublin Regulation, which sees people seeking asylum confined to Southern Europe, sometimes under conditions found to constitute inhuman and degrading treatment by the European Court of Human Rights. We will see no loosening of Britain’s borders if it leaves the EU, quite the opposite. A Leave vote would provide a validating framework for the enactment of the ugly promises the Brexit campaign has made — take their wish for an Australian style immigration system for example, an idea originally proposed by Tony Blair, inspired by Australia’s “Pacific Solution”. We know what that looks like, visas for the white and privileged while brown and black refugees self-immolate in prisons on remote Pacific islands.

Nor is there a “migration crisis” in Britain. The only crisis identifiable is that caused by a capitalist system which sees the ongoing enrichment of the few and impoverishment of the many. Capitalist and imperialist structures enable oppression on a mass scale. Leaving the EU is not going to ameliorate this. In fact, the British government was so afraid that the EU might empower British workers that it negotiated an opt-out from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights because it guarantees the right of workers to take strike action. Unlike in other EU countries, there is no right to strike in Britain. Successive governments have legislated to curtail the possibility for industrial action, the most recent assault being in the form of the Trade Union Act 2016.

The run up to the EU referendum has shown Britain for what it is. Woodwork: the washed-up bracken of the British Empire, and the ugly flotsam of its legacy of racism. From this woodwork the Brexiters have emerged. They have long romanticised the days of Empire when Britannia ruled the waves and was defined by its racial and cultural superiority. It is no coincidence that Farage has a preference for migrants from India and Australia as compared with East Europeans, and has advocated stronger ties with the Commonwealth. This referendum has not been about Europe, but about Britain and its imperial legacy. For Brexiters, turning their back on Europe and turfing out their neighbours is a step toward salvaging the shipwreck of the British Empire, which saw the exploitation of peoples, their subjugation on the basis of race, a system that was maintained through the brutal and systematic violence of the colonial authorities.

The violence in the Brexit rhetoric of “taking back control of our borders”, of excluding others for self-interested goals at a time when thousands of refugees are dying at sea, is resonant of the racism that pervaded imperial Britain at the time of the 1781 Zong massacre which saw slaves thrown overboard by their captor to save a British slave ship and in the interest of profiting from an insurance claim. If what we want is to live in a more equitable society, it is dangerous to begin by voting for an outcome which has been driven by racism. A nostalgia for empire is no starting point for emancipatory struggle based on solidarity with the oppressed.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of Birkbeck

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Australia is playing a dangerous game with Sri Lanka

This post was written by Dr Stewart Motha, a Reader in the School of Law. It originally appeared on the Guardian’s Comment is Free on 21 February 2013.

It’s election year in Australia, and that means open season on boat migrants. Last year, 17,000 people arrived by boat, with a massive surge of 6,500 from Sri Lanka. These numbers have an alarming impact on Australia’s human rights record as the government puts in place draconian domestic measures to deal with the increase, and plays a foolhardy game of building military and security links with Sri Lanka to stem the flow.

Harsh measures for dealing with people arriving by boat are nothing new in Australia. The Howard government set the tone in 2001 by mobilising special forces to seize the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa after it rescued more than 400 refugees from a sinking vessel and brought them into Australian waters. The “Pacific solution” was then introduced, whereby outer islands were excised from the Australian territory for the purpose of migration and judicial review. Refugee claimants arriving by boat at excised territories were mandatorily detained and transported to harsh offshore camps administered by Australia in countries such as Nauru – a practice stopped in 2008, but reactivated last August.

The Australian government is now constructing permanent facilities in Nauru to detain boat migrants, and also runs a detention camp in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. The PNG opposition were in court last week, challenging the legality of the Manus Island detention centre.

The migration amendment (unauthorised maritime arrivals) bill 2012 now seeks to implement the Pacific solution throughout Australia. What was an exception is to become the norm. A new category of “unauthorised maritime arrivals” will discriminate against people on the basis of the mode of their journey to Australia. If you arrive by boat, you face mandatory detention in a harsh and remote place. Travel by plane and you will be able to apply for a protection visa on arrival. Given most maritime arrivals are from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Sri Lanka, the legal regime effectively implements a de facto form of apartheid based on country of origin (and here, let us note that article 3 of the 1951 refugee convention obliges Australia to fulfil its protection obligations without discriminating on the basis of “race, religion, or country of origin”). As such, the migration amendment bill seeks to implement a staggering legal artifice for a nation that claims to walk tall among the civilised.

The Australian government has also introduced the dangerous practice of forced repatriations of people it claims are not refugees (last September, Human Rights Watch documented the torture of Tamil men and women repatriated to Sri Lanka by the UK Border Agency). These people are returned within 72 hours of arrival, and with “screening” taking place offshore, this happens without any provision of legal assistance for the returnees, or transparency in relation to the work of immigration officials. The risk of refoulement – the return of refugees with a right to protection to their persecutors – is increased, thus flouting the fundamental obligation under the refugee convention.

Australia’s extreme measures have been prompted by a curious surge in the number of people arriving by boat from Sri Lanka. In 2012 around 6,500 people made this arduous journey. In the previous year the number of Sri Lankan arrivals was a mere 211. Department of Immigration statistics indicate that 5,215 of the 2012 arrivals were Tamil, and 1,027 Sinhalese. In the last month, the number arriving has dramatically reduced to a trickle. What explains these fluctuations, and what is to be made of the Australian reaction to it?

Earlier this month, the Australian reported that Australia’s intelligence agencies suspected an official with a high profile close to President Mahinda Rajapaksa was “responsible for authorising numerous boats in the past 10 months, fuelling the surge of asylum seekers from Sri Lanka”. The Sri Lankan government has denied the allegations. The suggestion is that Sri Lanka can “turn on the tap” and “unleash untold asylum boats”. Australia has chosen an unreliable security and surveillance partner.

The politics of people smuggling is hardly ever only about the people being trafficked and those exploiting their desperation. Because of its hysterical attitude to those seeking asylum, Australia has potentially walked into the trap of being held hostage by any authoritarian regime that colludes in people smuggling. The currency they will demand is a blind-eye to human rights violations, favourable diplomatic attention and security partnerships.

The Australian minister for foreign affairs, Bob Carr, visited Sri Lanka in December and announced training for Sri Lankan naval officers on surveillance and intelligence gathering. The shadow minister for foreign affairs, Julie Bishop, visited Sri Lanka last month and praised its postwar reconciliation and reconstruction efforts. It’s one thing for Australia to throw the refugee convention out the window, and another to weigh in on issues such as reconciliation and militarisation in another country. If they want to do the former they should do it honestly; the latter is gratuitous, unnecessary and harmful.

As Australians look ahead to the renewal they deserve in an election year, is it not time to imagine a different, better Australia? Let’s not add another episode of “unutterable shame” to Australia’s archive of atrocity. Instead, let Australia summon up the sentiments of Henry Lawson’s iconic 1891 poem, Freedom on the Wallaby, for today it is not the rebel’s blood but a callous disregard for the vulnerable that “stains the wattle”.