Fables of Migration

On 14 April, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson stood chatting to the reassuring blue uniforms of the Royal Navy with the White Cliffs of Dover clearly in view, courtesy of Downing Street TV. ‘Our compassion may be infinite,’ he said, ‘but our capacity to help people is not.’ On the same day and in tandem, his home secretary Priti Patel was visiting Rwanda to sign an agreement with foreign minister Vincent Biruta. Although details remain scant, the deal means that many refugees arriving in Britain will be sent to Rwanda while their asylum claims are assessed. If their application is successful, they will gain the right to settle – in Rwanda. The expulsions could begin in weeks.

Johnson’s late-evening announcement ensured that the policy was emblazoned on the newsstands the next morning. ‘UK Migrants Off to Rwanda’, barked The Sun, the ‘off’ faintly suggesting that this was a journey the migrants would be making ‘off their own back’. The Mail adopted its usual tone of righteous aggression, proclaiming ‘Rwanda Plan to Smash the Channel Gangs’. Meanwhile, headlines in the Times and Telegraph were almost identically bland – ‘Channel Boat Migrants Will Be Sent to Rwanda’; ‘Channel Migrants To Be Sent to Rwanda’ – as if Patel’s programme were no more than a simple, technical solution to the ‘migration crisis’.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper immediately responded to Patel via Twitter: ‘Desperate and truly shameful announcement from Govt tonight as an attempt to distract from Boris Johnson’s lawbreaking. Unworkable, unethical and extortionate.’ Later that day, the same triad – ‘unworkable, unethical, extortionate’ – was repeated by Labour leader Keir Starmer. Since then, the opposition has continually described the scheme as a diversion from the Partygate scandal, keeping its moral outrage firmly focussed on the latter. Although the ethical content of the Rwanda plan was criticised in passing, its greater evil apparently lies in distracting from what really matters. Much like the Murdoch broadsheets, Labour has stayed mostly silent on the morality of the policy while questioning its practicality and efficiency – Does it work? How much will it cost? The implication being that, if only the government could resettle migrants to third-countries at a reasonable price, Sir Keir would offer his full support.

What explains this emphasis on the plan’s technical details over its human cost? Since Johnson secured a resounding parliamentary majority in 2019, he has sought various ways to maintain the populist energy of his campaign. Exploiting the issue of migration has been chief among them. Over the past year, the Home Office has considered a number of bizarre initiatives to push back dinghies using wave machines, deport migrants to remote islands on the other side of the world, or imprison them in disused ferries off the British coast – all in the name of ‘taking back control’. None of these blueprints were realised, and some have predicted that the Rwanda policy won’t come to fruition either. But their ideological function was obvious: to naturalise the treatment of certain people as objects that can be ‘offshored’, ‘processed’ or ‘relocated’. If this latest announcement prompted more hand-wringing over its administrative complexities than outrage at its political purpose, that was a clear sign of the government’s success: drawing on the history of enslavement and empire to cast migrants (particularly black and brown ones) as inert matter which can be transported, stored or disposed of, according to the priorities of the British state. 

Yet migrant-baiting is a contradictory discourse. On the one hand, the refugee is presented as a lifeless object – a problem in need of a solution. On the other, the public is told to be wary, suspicious, even fearful of those who land on Britain’s shores. Threaded through the Tories’ speeches and statements is a familiar narrative of criminality; and though it is primarily directed at ‘gangs’ and ‘people smugglers’, the taint spreads by association. Johnson warns of the ‘healthy young men’ or ‘economic migrants’ who come here under false pretences, sometimes posing as minors, in place of the truly vulnerable. We are taught to distinguish such pretenders from the ‘genuine asylum seeker’, for whom the government declares its endless sympathy. The construction of this ideal type acts as a ploy to justify state violence towards anyone who dares to cross the Channel. Early announcements of the Patel plan suggested that only single men would be sent to Rwanda, though this was quickly revised to include single women as well. Of course, there is no fixed criteria for becoming an ‘authentic’ asylum seeker. The status is unattainable; yet its imaginary preservation allows any aspiring refugee to be disciplined and demonized.

As such, while migration policy is drained of its ethical content and cast in bureaucratic garb, it is also paradoxically reframed as a pressing moral mission. In his speech on 14 April, Johnson stressed that the Rwanda deal was both an ingenious policy fix and a virtuous crusade:

From the French Huguenots, to the Jewish refugees from Tsarist Russia, to the docking of the Empire Windrush, to the South Asians fleeing East Africa, to the many, many others who have come from different countries at different times for different reasons, all have wanted to be here because our United Kingdom is a beacon of openness and generosity, and all in turn have contributed magnificently to the amazing story of the UK.

But this generosity is only possible, he went on to argue, in the absence of illegal migration and people trafficking:

These vile people smugglers are abusing the vulnerable and turning the Channel into a watery graveyard, with men, women and children, drowning in unseaworthy boats, and suffocating in refrigerated lorries. And even if they do make it here, we know only too well some of the horrendous stories of exploitation over the years, from the nail bars of East London to the cockle beds of Morecambe Bay, as illegal migration makes people more vulnerable to the brutal abuse of ruthless gangs.

Robust, impermeable borders are therefore necessary to protect both the British public and the ‘good immigrant’ from the criminal Other: a point that Tory ministers repeated in press interviews over the following week. By extension, opposition to Patel’s plan amounts to supporting the traffickers, or siding with Britain’s civilizational enemies. When the Archbishop of Canterbury challenged this logic in his Easter Day sermon, describing the offshoring scheme as ‘the opposite of godly’, Brexit opportunities minister Jacob Rees-Mogg seized an opportunity to double down on the Tories’ fable. He described the plan as ‘almost an Easter story of redemption’, since it would involve the UK using its first-world privileges to support a deprived African nation and its people.

The missionary script was vividly present in these remarks. Yet the Tories have also harnessed another, less well-known legacy of the colonial era to their anti-migrant rhetoric. In late nineteenth-century Britain, popular fiction made abundant use of what the critic Stephen Arata has called ‘narratives of reverse migration’: stories where primitive forces threaten to colonise the Western world. In Rider Haggard’s She, Ayesha wants to sack London and depose Queen Victoria; in Dracula, the Count invades Britain by boat after buying a series of large properties. As Arata points out, these stories stemmed from anxiety about Britain’s place in the world when confronted with increasingly globalized competition. They built on a pervasive cultural suspicion of unmoored or uprooted people, who find themselves isolated, far from home, for opaque reasons. Their purpose was to shore up a ‘civilized’ and stable British identity in contrast to this itinerant one. In our post-Brexit age, as Ukania struggles to articulate its role within a multipolar order, the relevance of this narrative has been renewed. Following Theresa May’s invective against ‘citizens of nowhere’, Johnson has moved to excise these nomadic subjects from the British polity.

The outsourcing of what was formerly state provision (health, education, security, justice) to global conglomerates in the name of efficiency and frugality is a familiar feature of neoliberal capitalism. Any public service can be broken down into a set of anonymized technical procedures administered by profit-making companies. Yet Patel’s asylum plan represents a particularly noxious form of public–private partnership, in which the state, its capacity eroded by years of austerity, can only execute its nationalist-authoritarian turn by delegating its repressive functions to unaccountable contractors. This was true of the plan’s immediate forerunner: the Australian practice of removing migrants to Manus, Papua New Guinea and the small South Pacific island of Nauru. Shadowy companies like Serco and G4S were awarded substantial ‘care and justice’ contracts to carry out this programme, and they are now likely to be enlisted by Patel (who hired the architect of the Australian plan, Alexander Downer, in February of this year). If this is the reality of Britain’s ‘post-neoliberal’ settlement, then it is no cause for left triumphalism. It means the empowerment of parasitic companies to compensate for the weakness of the imperial state – whose atrophy and insecurity has not diminished its malice.

Of course, as Justin Welby noted, there is no such thing as an illegal asylum seeker; but the proliferation of various categories of migrant creates a hierarchy of virtue which is easily exploited by those who seek to block migration tout court. Is long-term structural unemployment a less valid reason to leave your home country than state persecution? Is lack of access to education? My father left Karachi by ship in 1955 for what was supposed to be a temporary stay in London. It was a comfortable journey, sharing a cabin with a friend, and he was relatively privileged compared to most of those who were arriving from the Caribbean and Subcontinent. He soon became an immigrant, gradually settling in London without even realising he was doing so. Yet just eight years earlier, he and his family had left Amritsar for Lahore amid the Partition crisis, in which two million were killed and up to 15 million displaced. It is unclear what motivated my father’s onward journey to Britain; and one may have struggled to classify him as either an immigrant or a refugee. But one thing is certain: were he to set out on the same journey today, the machinery of the Home Office would be mobilized to stop him.

Read on: Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, ‘Empire, Twenty Years On’, NLR 120.