There is no migration crisis

Migration is an essential part of human history. Instead of recognizing this, EU politicians are instrumentalizing those seeking protection to maintain their power. This article was first published at Migazin.

“Refugee crisis”, “wave of refugees”, “refugee flows”. These populist terms are often used by politicians in the debate about migration policy. In the political arena of the EU, a racist rhetoric towards protection seekers has been normalized. It is not only the devaluation of protection seekers through these common terms that is problematic. They also convey a false image of migration movements, which are predominantly limited to migration from the “Global South” to the “Global North” and disregard the historical normality of migration.[1]

Migration as part of the human DNA

Migration movements are as old as human history. Whether it is nomadic people who make their living by regularly moving around and thus migration was and is their core identification attribute, resettlements due to imperialist efforts to subjugate them, involuntary migration due to abductions, flight from armed conflicts or economically motivated moving. Migration is not a phenomenon of the modern age, but follows through the history of humankind in various forms.

Moreover, migration is not a one-way street. Return migration and circular migration have been and still are an essential part of global migration movements.[2] Leaving one’s birthplace in search of a better life is part of human identity. If you look back a few generations into your own past, you are likely to find one or more ancestors who were migrants. In 2021, according to the Federal Statistical Office, 27.2 percent of the population in Germany or one parent was not born in the country. If one includes preceding migration, the proportion grows ever stronger: “Migration is thus much older than Germany.” Sooner or later, in one way or another, we all have a migration history or present.

Migrants are (not) all the same

However, this wide spread of migration does not imply a general normality and acceptance of cross-border mobility. Although migrants are united by the main characteristic that gives them their name – moving to another region – the discussion of migration movements emphasizes the different motivations and directions of migration as a differentiating factor. Along this distinction, migrants are divided into “good” and “bad” in public discourse. Semesters abroad or student exchanges are recognized as valuable experiences, and expatriates’ work for multinational corporations or neocolonial state institutions under the guise of “development aid” is glorified as adventure or commitment.

At the same time, people who migrate from the “Global South” to the “Global North” for a variety of reasons are seen as a threat to the economy and job security by the local population. Ironically, however, it is not a threat to the labor market when production is shifted from the EU to countries with lower wage levels, because the “Global North” profits from this.

Migrants who come to the EU for asylum are put in an equally bad light. Propagandist, right-wing conservative parties, as well as neoliberal voices and self-proclaimed representatives of the so-called “social center” portray them as a threat to the “local culture” and economic stability. These attributions are not only racist and misanthropin. The emphasis on two artificially created categories of migration is also wrong.

We should instead criticize neocolonial migration. Whoever migrates as a foreign representative of a Western company to a country of the Global South and supports the exploitation of the local population should not be respected as a cosmopolitan business person, but criticized for his neocolonial and exploitative lifestyle. Those who, as a profession, represent the interests of Western states, confederations of states or organizations, enforce Western interests.

Those who do voluntary service in a country of the “Global South” do not reduce global inequalities, but broaden their own horizons, gain experience and develop skills that have a positive impact on their own job prospects. Higher salaries for expats[3] compared to local employees also contribute in many cases to gentrification . Such forms of migration are problematic. Expats, foreign representatives, and volunteer service workers are bad migrants.

People who migrate from economically weaker countries in search of work, for example to Western Europe, fill the gaps in the labor market, but are often exploited in the process. Without economically motivated migration to Germany, the Tonnies slaughterhouse would not be running and the pork steak in the discount store would not be so cheap. Without seasonal workers from South-East Europe there would be no asparagus season. Without migrant workers, privileged Germans would not be able to have their groceries delivered to their homes by an underpaid bicycle courier, and white Germans would have to clean their public toilets themselves. These migrants make an essential contribution to the Western European capitalist economy. Instead of gratitude, high regards and respect, they are met with shameless exploitation, racist hostilities and discriminatory structures.

Almost no one wants to migrate into the EU

Politicians of all established parties in the Federal Republic of Germany like to refer to the migration movements to Europe in 2015 as a “refugee crisis” or a “wave of refugees”. In fact, this is wrong. There was a crisis in Syria that year, where a bloody civil war broke out, but not in the EU. Not only were there no bloody conflicts in the Union, there were not even significant economic collapses. The crisis rhetoric is therefore simply misguided.

Considering that around 86 percent of those seeking protection worldwide flee to countries in the global South and do not (want to) come to Europe at all, the image of a “rush” or a “wave” that is often painted is also incorrect. Most of those seeking protection remain in their region, also because they would like to return to their homeland if it should be possible again at some point. The comparably economically worse off countries of the “Global South” have a higher financial burden from protection seekers than the rich but still whining West.

Even if they were all coming

The general prosperity of Western Europe is based entirely on the centuries-long and continuing oppression and exploitation of people in the “Global South” and of their workers. We are responsible for the poverty, the broken nature, the unstable political conditions worldwide. And we profit from it. The exploitation of cheap labor in India, Bangladesh and Thailand, the predatory mining in the Congo, the deforestation of rainforests and palm trees for wood and oil production and the excessive production of Co2, because of which many regions of the “Global South” become more and more uninhabitable. Without that the West would not be the supposed land of milk and honey. Everything we “own” and claim for ourselves is stolen and based in human rights violations and the destruction of livelihoods of people worldwide.

Therefore, from a moral and ethical perspective, even if three billion people wanted to come to Europe to find work and security, Europeans would have to welcome them with open arms. Strictly speaking, the West would not only have to share its resources and wealth with all those coming from the Global South, it would be morally clean and historically just to hand over all accumulated wealth and prosperity unconditionally and comprehensively.

Considering the involuntary nature of flight, addressing the causes of flight is another moral imperative that countries benefiting from global inequality would have to provide,  instead of discriminating and degrading immigrants. While freedom of movement for all can and should be one goal of just migration policies, the possibility of remaining should be another. Only those who have a real possibility to stay in their home country and to lead a dignified, self-determined life there, can also decide to migrate in a self-determined way.

A better distribution of existing resources, including by opening borders to all, is the first step towards a more just migration policy. In the second step, however, the causes of forced migration, such as environmental destruction, neocolonialism, capitalism and global injustice, must be abolished.

[1] The term migration is used here as an umbrella term for all human resettlement processes. Even though there are historically and currently comprehensive migration movements within nation-state borders, the focus of this text is on the consideration of cross-state migration movements. The motivation of migration, for example work, or persecution, plays no role in this use of the term.

[2] Jochen Oltmer, Global Migration. Geschichte und Gegenwart, 3rd ed. Bonn 2016; see also, for an overview, Patrick Manning, Migration in World History, 2nd ed. New York 2013; Immanuel Ness (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration, 5 vols, Malden, MA 2013; Michael Fisher, Migration. A World History, Oxford 2014.

[3] Expatriates (expats for short) are individuals who live in a country and culture foreign to them without citizenship. They are often employees who are sent to the foreign branch of their company/organization. In contrast to immigrants, expats often lack the “will to integrate” because their stay is limited in time and they racially exoticize and devalue the host culture.