Let’s challenge this diseased view of migration

The scare about Eastern European construction workers spreading STDs in Britain is infused with old and new prejudices about migrants.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Politics

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‘Where men gather with time and money, then prostitutes will go there.’ No, this isn’t an ancient proverb – it’s a pearl of wisdom from Sara Walker of the English Collective of Prostitutes (and Platitudes, perhaps?). Quoted in a report in The Times (London) yesterday, Walker was giving her predictions on the effects of an influx of predominantly male construction workers into Britain in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics. One thousand workers have already started work on the Olympic sites; a further 2,000 workers are scheduled to arrive in the next fortnight, most of them from Eastern Europe, and a total of 100,000 are expected to work here before 2012 (1). And what will follow in their wake? Prostitutes, unprotected sex and disease, apparently.

A common kneejerk reaction to the arrival of foreign workers is to say: ‘They’re stealing our jobs.’ Now they’re seen as ‘diseasing our country’. Alongside the English Collective of Prostitutes, Olympics chiefs, health organisations, HIV/AIDS prevention charities, feminists and police officers have warned that these construction workers, who will be far away from their families, will have unprotected sex while in Britain. ‘There is a big potential for increase in poor sexual health, including HIV, Chlamydia and gonorrhoea’, claimed Lisa Power, policy director for The Terrence Higgins Trust (THT), the HIV and sexual health charity (2). The Trust is calling for an urgent meeting with the Olympic Delivery Authority and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games: it wants extra staff in London sexual health clinics and a programme of condom distribution and the publication of sex advice leaflets translated into various languages.

In this discussion of 2012 construction workers as potentially reckless and diseased, we can see some familiar prejudices about immigrants. For decades, immigrants have been accused of stealing or mistreating local women, and they have frequently been depicted as dirty or diseased. This latest immigration scare may dress itself in the PC language of concern for ‘sex workers’ and ‘health promotion’, but lurking under the surface are the old concerns about migrants being inherently dirty and degrading of local women. However, this new scare also reveals that there is much that is new in the problematisation of immigration today. Often those who ostensibly champion migrants’ rights enter into alliances with the very state institutions that monitor and restrict migrants’ freedom of movement – and free movement itself now tends to be stigmatised as ‘risky’ rather than criminal: risky in health, humanitarian and environmental terms.

spiked is launching a campaign to examine the immigration debate afresh, and to put the case for unfettered freedom of movement. Our aim is to challenge not only the old and predictable (and increasingly unfashionable) arguments against free migration – they steal our jobs, sleep with our women, eat our swans, etc – but also the new arguments. Today, justifications for restricting freedom of movement spring from across the political spectrum, and from non-governmental organisations, charities and campaign groups as well as from government officials. As with the latest Olympics health scare, concerns about migration and its destructive/diseased impact can unite very different voices, from liberal health groups to the upper echelons of the Metropolitan Police.

Consider the discussion about ‘human trafficking’, for example. This term is notoriously difficult to define or quantify; even campaigners against trafficking often describe it as a hidden or covert activity that is almost impossible to track or crack down on. In reality, what is today described as ‘trafficking’ involves a wide range of means and motivations for leaving home, which then become defined as ‘illegal’ and ‘exploitative’. Reportedly trafficked individuals are, in fact, engaged in disparate forms of work – from waitressing to prostitution – and they mostly take these jobs voluntarily. Foreigners (especially non-EU nationals) who wish to come to live and work in the UK have few legal options available to them; that is why some of them end up taking illegal or poorly paid jobs and occasionally become vulnerable to exploitation (3).

Yet anti-traffickers and human rights activists, supposedly fighting for migrants’ rights, seem less interested in dismantling stringent immigration controls than in taking on the duty to ‘rescue’ at-risk individuals and care for them. They often construe migrants as victims of circumstance: they describe them as having been ‘kidnapped’ or ‘forced’ to take desperate measures in order to survive, such as by selling sex to East European construction workers in London, perhaps. Not only does this fail to challenge restrictive laws, the lifting of which might actually give migrants more choice – it also robs migrants of any sense of agency and paints them as victims who need to be monitored and rescued (a new, PC word for repatriation). As Laura María Agustín argues in her book Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour and the Rescue Industry, in the trafficking debate, ‘victims become passive receptacles and mute sufferers who must be saved, and helpers become saviours – it’s a colonialist operation’ (4).

Another way in which migrants are ‘victimised’ today, and turned into so much flotsam and jetsam to be rescued by the authorities, is in the discussion of the motivations behind population movement as naturalistic and climate-based rather than social, political or economic. The new trendy term ‘environmental refugee’ effectively naturalises poverty, and overlooks the specific conditions – of insufficient development – that mean some people in the Third World are more vulnerable to natural phenomena. Yet these individuals are not blown by the wind to try their luck in the West; they make a conscious decision to come here.

The infusion of the immigration debate with environmentalist ideas is a worrying development. First, it means that migrants tend to be seen as individuals driven to move by bad weather or climate shifts rather than by economic necessity and personal desire; second, it means that those migrants who do make it to the West tend to be discussed as ‘another carbon footprint’ polluting our societies. The right-wing anti-immigration lobby, from the think tank Migration Watch to the Campaign for National Democracy and the British National Party (BNP), have, with relish, co-opted environmentalist arguments and the obsession with the carbon footprint to put forward what they consider to be acceptable arguments against free migration. The BNP claims that ‘immigration is creating an environmental disaster’; the Campaign for National Democracy says immigrants to Britain are putting ‘pressure on housing, roads and the countryside’ (5). Once, Enoch Powell and his supporters talked about ‘rivers of blood’ – today the BNP talks about ‘tidal waves of concrete’ if too many polluting immigrants come here and we have to build more roads and houses to accommodate them.

These are not fringe views. Green groups and several liberal commentators embrace population control measures and restriction on free movement in the name of ‘saving the planet’. The Optimum Population Trust, which counts Jonathon Porritt, chair of the government’s Sustainability Development Commission, among its patrons, also talks about the need for overall population decline and argues that, in light of its harmful effects on the environment, immigration should be balanced with emigration; Britain should have a net immigration of zero, says the OPT (6).

Of course, immigrants are not only viewed as pollutants and contaminants. The idea that foreigners can be good for host countries, taking jobs that no one else wants and helping to boost our economies, is widespread today. In moderation, and if they have the right set of skills, immigrants are considered beneficial. Yet this is also an inhumane way of judging foreigners: it means they are essentially defined as commodities, as useful side effects of globalisation. The pro-immigration lobby has for a long time talked up the ways in which immigrants enrich cultures and economies. Instead of upholding the principle of freedom of movement for all, they have reacted defensively to anti-immigrant arguments by insisting: ‘But migrants are good for the economy!’ Now, the pro-immigration lobby has been hoist by its own petard: the New Labour government’s new points-based system, introduced last month, sets quotas for migrant workers and shuts out anyone deemed ‘not useful’ for the jobs market. This represents the triumph of economic and utilitarian celebration of migrants, and the institutionalisation of the narrow pro-immigration argument.

Alongside these new political arguments and activities against free movement, there is a new political effort to use migrants as a stick with which to bash the native population. Increasingly, government ministers – while restricting free migration in practice – use arguments about diversity, cosmopolitanism and the value of migrant culture to demonise what they consider to be the lazy, feckless and uncultured British-born masses. As Alka Sehgal argued on spiked recently, today’s political and cultural elite elevate certain migrant communities to the level of ‘decent’ and write off working-class communities as backward: in this view, the native population is the ‘scum of the earth’ and those migrants we decide to allow in are the ‘salt of the earth’ (7). This is a recipe for increased division, and for further making British people feel like they have no ownership over their lives and localities.

spiked is launching an Open the Borders campaign to call for unfettered freedom of movement and to challenge the dangerous new arguments against it. The scare about Eastern European construction workers in Britain spreading disease captures how many view free movement these days: as too risky, too unpredictable, a health threat, almost as a disease itself. We should not judge migrants by their carbon footprint or by their economic usefulness, but rather should celebrate migration as a free and positive expression of human agency and desire: a good in itself.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

(1) Influx of workers and prostitutes for Olympics raises sexual health fears, The Times, 17 March

(2) Influx of workers and prostitutes for Olympics raises sexual health fears, The Times, 17 March

(3) It is also worth here to remind ourselves of the discounted widely-publicised claim that 40,000 women would be smuggled into Germany by ‘traffickers’ during the 2006 World Cup to be prostituted to football fans. spiked exposed the myth, revealing that the increase in forced prostitution and human trafficking did not materialise. See Exposed: the myth of the World Cup ‘sex slaves’, by Bruno Waterfield, 14 February 2007.

(4) Sex at the Margins: Migration, Markets and the Rescue Industry, by Laura María Agustín, Zed Books, 2007

(5) See BNP’s green disguise, Brendan O’Neill, New Statesman, 23 August 2007

(6) See BNP’s green disguise, Brendan O’Neill, New Statesman, 23 August 2007

(7) See Escape white culture – put on the hijab!, by Alka Sehgal, 14 March 2008

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Topics Politics


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