By Laetitia Baya Yantren
“This blog post is about all you strangers, future classmates that I as of yet have not met.” It’s also about myself— this is a blog after all, the genre of self-confession and individualism (consumption). Early bloggers called themselves “escribitionists”.
There would have been many other ways to begin this post, some with more established human rights records than others. A colonial crowd-pleaser: “Kolkata is a city that bridges modernity and tradition…” Or, again, à la Camus: “The monsoon rain has not yet come, leaving Kolkata under the humidity and heat of deceitful clouds.”
If we’re looking for something less “NGO” and more “EU Commission”, there’s always: “Migration is one of the 21st century’s most pressing challenges.” To push the managerial to its limit, why not statistics? “Today around 214 million people, or approximately 3 percent of the world’s population, live outside their country of birth.”
Instead I start with us. The blog may be a fitting form for us, human rights interns scattered about the world by McGill. After all, we are expected to speak about things other than work, to foreground something “experiential” about our time spent “living” (working and “not”), but there is something unsettling about the word “experience” as descriptive of “work plus+”. Who can have such experiences? How are they remunerated, and on which market are they sellable?
We are in different parts of the globe, economic migrants in our own right, accumulating “experiences” that will enhance our social capital. Scholar Thomas Nail has argued that “today, most people fall somewhere on this migratory spectrum between the two poles of ‘inconvenience’ and ‘incapacitation’. But what all migrants on this spectrum share, at some point, is the experience that their movement results in a certain degree of expulsion from their territorial, political, juridical, or economic status…. Both the ‘tourist’ (the traveling academic, business professional or vacationer) and the ‘vagabond’ (migrant worker or refugee), as Bauman calls them, are ‘bound to move’ by the same social conditions but result in different kinds and degrees of expulsion from the social order.” What do you think about this?
WHAT IS AN ECONOMIC MIGRANT?
The world is abuzz with talk of “economic migrants”, “swarms” of which have landed on the shores of capital-rich countries to usurp labour and contaminate the culture of European nations. In response, European states—with human rights pedigrees to defend and weak remnants of a universalizing Left electorate—have proceeded to the triage of this undifferentiated mass. Others have Brexited.
But what are economic migrants? The OIM defines “economic migrant” as “A person leaving his/her habitual place of residence to settle outside his/her country of origin in order to improve his/her quality of life.” Based on this definition, here are “5 of my favourite economic migrants”:
1. Gérard Depardieu registered as Russian resident amid tax row with France;
2. Apple HQ in Ireland;
3. Your grandmother in Florida;
4. Investment bankers in London;
5. Maltese Individual Investors.
Not to mention the major migrant that is our capital— those dollars that could have been somewhat mine and somewhat yours, but are currently on vacation in Panama, the Bahamas or other sunny destinations.
Of course, it is not these five that David Cameron had in mind as part of the “swarms of people coming across the Mediterranean”. Rather biblically, the metaphors of migration elicit clouds of dangerous insects, reference invading armies or warn of floods and inundations.
But let’s not be fooled into thinking that the problem is simply one of terminological differentiation based on stereotypes and “discrimination”— some (poor, non-Western, uneducated) people are immigrants, others (rich, usually Western, educated) are expats or “in exile”. Rather, let’s say that the bases of this differentiation—these meaningful stereotypes and the histories of this discrimination—are not “the product of ignorance” as Internet memes would have us say, urging us to “choose love, not hate”. These are products of knowledges so deep as to become invisible, symptoms of a deeper machination from which human rights as a discourse emerges and to which it continues to contribute. I’ll get back to this idea later (maybe in my next blog post), but for now I would like to look at legal frameworks pertaining to migration and history.
INTERNATIONAL FRAMEWORKS FOR MIGRATION
Beyond national frameworks, there are a number of international legal frameworks that address migration. Let’s talk about two of them, the Refugee Convention of 1951 and the lesser-known International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families of 1990.
The Refugee Convention (1951) is one of the most well-known UN Conventions. According to the UNHCR, “Signed by 144 State parties, it defines the term ‘refugee’ and outlines the rights of the displaced, as well as the legal obligations of States to protect them. The core principle is non-refoulement, which asserts that a refugee should not be returned to a country where they face serious threats to their life or freedom. This is now considered a rule of customary international law.” Under article 1 of the Refugee Convention, a refugee is defined as [an individual with] “ well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is out-side the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”
The 1990 convention emerged from a 1974 study led by a Moroccan representative, Ms. Warzazi. The Convention remains one of the major human rights conventions with the least signatures and ratifications. The Convention, which guarantees basic rights for documented and undocumented migrants, is unsigned by all European countries who are unwilling to guarantee some of these rights. The context of the Convention’s emergence is the Cold War, with non-aligned nations largely constituting the Convention’s supporters. Importantly, Morocco and Mexico —nations on the borders of two of the most active crossings on the planet—were the two nations who pushed for Warzazi’s study and who followed the development of the Convention. Many Western European Countries saw the Convention as a “conspiratorial scheme” pushed through by the domination of the UNGA by Third World countries and designed to serve their interests. Today, the Convention’s signatories are migrant-sending states who may be attempting to use international law to protect their citizens from other states—could this be seen as an important development in the traditional dynamics of international law?
ONE FINE DAY… THAT WAS ALL
Hannah Arendt had relevant things to say about everything, including economic migration. What she said (before the end of WW2) throws into stark contrast the current discourse on migration:
“In the first place, we don’t like to be called “refugees.” We ourselves call each other “newcomers” or “immigrants.” Our newspapers are papers for “Americans of German language”; and, as far as I know, there is not and never was any club founded by Hitler-persecuted people whose name indicated that its members were refugees.
A refugee used to be a person driven to seek refuge because of some act committed or some political opinion held…Now “refugees” are those of us who have been so unfortunate as to arrive in a new country without means and have to be helped by Refugee Committees. Before this war broke out we were even more sensitive about being called refugees. We did our best to prove to other people that we were just ordinary immigrants. We declared that we had departed of our own are will to countries of our choice, and we denied that our situation had anything to do with “so-called Jewish problems.” Yes, we were “immigrants” or “newcomers” who had left our country because, one fine day, it no longer suited us to stay, or for purely economic reasons. We wanted to rebuild our lives, that was all.” (Hannah Arendt, “We Refugees”, Together Elsewhere 1996.)
That was all, and that was enough. Afterall, in 1945, you had half the countries in Europe going elsewhere for “purely economic reasons” and many Europeans were chasing fortunes in North America, Africa and Asia. Back then, it seems, changing countries for economic reasons was a perfectly valid thing to do. In the time of global primitive accumulation, migration was accepted. When did we change our minds, why?
The term economic migrant seems to emerge in the mid-1970s. The graph above shows the emergence of the term “economic migrant” in the New York Times.
What did the world look like in 1975? What had changed?