International Migrants Day

By Richard Black|December 18, 2016|Research|13 comments

Today (December 18th) is International Migrants Day – celebrated in honour of the adoption of the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families in 1990. It’s an odd day, and an odd convention. But we should make more of it, if we can, because the issue of international migration has never been more salient, or understanding of an important issue so lacking. So what is the problem, and what can we do about it?

First, the day itself. International Migrants Day always strikes me as a bit like migrants themselves – rather hidden from view. As if falling in the week before Christmas, when half of the world’s population is distracted by the rampant consumerism of the festive season, were not enough, this year it falls on a Sunday, the day when half of the world tries not to think about work at all. The last UN day of the calendar year, it also comes too late to be celebrated on most university campuses.

And then there is the Convention it marks. Championed by the Philippines and signed in 1990, it aims to foster respect for migrants’ human rights. Yet it took thirteen years to gather the minimum 20 signatories to enter into force, and still has only 49 signatories, most in Latin America, West Africa and the Middle East, and virtually none hosts to significant numbers of international migrants. And it seems to have done little to help migrants – on the contrary, attitudes to migrants appear to have hardened as populations across Europe and North America have turned to populist politicians and rejected the globalisation of which migration is a central part.

Yet we do need to think about migration, and never more so than now. For example, globalisation may be slowing – 2016 marked a turnaround both in attitudes to globalisation, and in its strongest marker, international trade, which has taken a step back after what seemed like an inexorable rise. Global governance is also under threat, with the surprising sight of a successful US Presidential candidate questioning the value of the NATO alliance. Yet migration seems not to have slowed, with the UK apparently seeing historically high levels of migration in the months prior to the Brexit vote.

More important, attitudes to migration are not just polarised, they are highly complex. On the right, there is significant and growing anti-immigrant feeling, yet advocates of the free market have perhaps done more than any to stimulate migration. East Europeans have not simply ‘appeared’ in East Anglia and Lincolnshire, two of the heartlands of Brexit voting – they have been brought there by the companies and gangmasters working for the very farmers that have been the most strident supporters of an anti-EU position.

And on the left, there is a similarly schizophrenic approach: migrants are seen at the same time as deserving of celebration, the manifestation of global class struggle; yet at the same time there is a powerful discourse that if only it were not for poverty, global inequality, environmental degradation, climate change, or proxy wars (choose your factor, or combination of factors), people would not need to move and migration would be much lower. Perhaps this is the definition of a dialectic, but nonetheless there is confusion – migrants are good, but migration is bad, because its causes are the things that make our world divided. But would our world really be better off without migration? And isn’t that what the xenophobes say?

Universities – their researchers and students – are relevant here. First, there is the issue of whether international students themselves are migrants. Common sense says they are not, and university leaders in the UK have rightly campaigned hard that they should be removed from the migration targets set by our current government. Yet many demographers would say they are migrants, on the grounds that – like other migrants – they spend more than one year in another country.

For me, international students seem to encapsulate our problem in understanding migration – whether they are migrants or not. Rather than challenging the absurd policy of putting a cap on migrant numbers (a policy placed in the Tory manifesto of 2010 at the last minute with little working through of its logical consequence, and rashly accepted by the Lib Dems in their legitimate desire to be part of a coalition government), we too easily accept the premise that migration is bad, and try to argue that international students are not migrants.

Yet looked at another way, international students place a different light on migration itself – they can be seen as one of a number of examples that migration is not simply an expression of inequality and poverty, but part of a legitimate process in which young people seek to get a better life, where there can be benefits both for themselves, their families and their host communities when they do so. This is true for many international students; it is also true for the many families of migrant workers I have met in my own research in poorer areas of Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. Here, migration is usually understood as an opportunity, not a life sentence.

That should also shape our approach to research on migration – of which there has also probably been more in the last few years than at any other previous point in history. That this research is happening is important. But we should also step back and ask difficult questions – has this research opened up a space for honest debate about migration, or simply entrenched well-established positions? And what starting premises have we accepted in order to carry out the research in the first place? Are these defensible?

This International Migrants Day is probably not one in which such debates will figure large. But on the Day’s 20th anniversary next year, they should. And perhaps we could get them going by moving the Day forward a couple of months, so that everyone is paying attention.

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