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Society, Politics & Law

The paradox of migration control

Updated Friday, 12th June 2009

Melissa Butcher takes a look at immigration bureaucracy

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After watching recent news images of Afghani refugees climbing razor-wired fences around a Greek port, I prepared myself for the tabloid headlines screaming ‘invasion’ that would inevitably come the next day and for the government to announce yet more measures to sure up the borders of Great Britain. It seemed impossible to imagine a time when politicians in Europe actually encouraged ‘free’ movement, and discouraged the use of passports. Writers in the 16th century extolled the virtues of travel just for the sake of ‘curiosity’, and the onus was on receiving territories to extend a sense of hospitality to the traveller.

Of course, this is an idealised description: then as today, some travellers were more welcome than others. But reading Adam McKeown’s new book, Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalisation of Borders, reminded me that our current web of migration regulations has a history, one embedded in the 19th century exclusion of Asian migrants from white settler colonies in the Pacific. His detailed research raises several paradoxes which perhaps point to why, even with the intense focus given to migration control by successive governments, we still have a situation that the International Organisation of Migration (2003) has called a ‘migration governability crisis’.

The first paradox is that contemporary border controls evolved from regulations developed by settler nations such as the United States and Australia, which were ostensibly founded on the premise of egalitarianism by pioneers of political freedoms despite the obvious racism in ‘white only’ migration policies and the decimation of indigenous populations. As a result, over time, discrimination has become acceptable at borders but not overtly within the state itself.

A boat crowded with Cuban refugees arrives in Key West, Florida, during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift Copyright free  image Icon Copyright free: US Coastguard

A boat crowded with Cuban refugees arrives in Key West, Florida, during the 1980 Mariel Boatlift

Second, while neo-liberal globalisation is premised on an idea of free trade between countries, migration control is an obstacle to mobility. As a result, we have seen increasing separation between regulations relating to commerce and those relating to migration. Border control is now designed to facilitate some kinds of mobility, and migrants, and block others. Attempting to guarantee freedom, for some at least, through the imposition of regulations, transformed migration for others into an act of evasion and criminality. The meaning of ‘free’ has become ambiguous and opaque as a result.

The third paradox raised in McKeown’s research is that while migration laws coerce and exclude, interrogate, evaluate and attempt to quantify migrants, they are also considered as vehicles of justice, fairness, the ‘rule of law‘, and ‘efficiency’. They reflect normative ideals of how things should be, including the international order of states. It is impossible not to reflect on these distinctions and the right to be mobile when arriving at Heathrow Airport with an EU passport that only needs to be held up for a cursory glance by an immigration officer. To the left Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe queue up and wait. I am classified as a professional migrant, incorporated into a legal, formal administration, probably disappearing from the category of migrant altogether. In contradistinction are the ‘others’, those that work in 3D (domestic, dirty and dangerous jobs) who face resistance to their formal recognition within national labour regimes.

State institutions appear unable to resolve the inherent tensions in these paradoxes so the migrant continues to find their own way through red tape and over razor-wire. The kafka-esque world of immigration bureaucracy and rigid state regulations is met by the resilient human abilities of evasion and obfuscation in the hope of a better life.

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Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalisation of Borders
Adam McKeown, published by Colombia University Press





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