Migration: Europe and Aotearoa/New Zealand
This article looks at the phenomenon of recent migration to Europe and Aotearoa/New Zealand, highlighting both commonalities and differences.
The fascistic Sweden Democrats have become the third largest political party in their Parliament in this month’s elections. The two main political parties have stated they won’t form a coalition with them. However, there might not be an option if they want to avoid having to go back to the polls.
All over Europe ultra-nationalist and racist parties are springing up and winning elections. Why?
Since at least 2012 Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen have been plunged into civil wars that have been marked by levels of atrocities, massacres and other war crimes on a scale that haven’t been seen in decades. Millions of people have been driven out of their homes and forced to leave their war-torn countries. Millions more are on the move, cast out by repressive regimes or the loss of livelihoods as the result of economic, political and social instability or upheaval in their countries.
It’s estimated by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees that there are fifteen million Iraqis and Syrian refugees and internally displaced people (Millions of refugees at risk in the Middle East as winter funds dwindle, October 3rd, 2017, UNHCR website). It is impossible to tell how many of these refugees have fled to Europe but the European Parliament estimates that around 2.5 million migrants entered Europe between 2015 and 2017 (“EU migrant crisis: facts and figures”, European Parliament News, June 30th, 2017). Most of them have ended up in Germany and Italy.
Their arrival in Europe was initially mostly welcomed but the sheer numbers of people arriving quickly began to overwhelm local housing providers, social agencies and other organisations. It also didn’t help that a few were involved in anti-social crimes. Of course, the establishment media coverage was often sensationalist around those isolated incidents. On January 3rd the BBC website had an article emblazoned with the headline “Germany: Migrants ‘may have fuelled violent crime rise’.” On January 17th the New York Times had the headline “A Girl’s Killing Puts Germany’s Migration Policy on Trial”. However, it was the far-right vigilante mobs in Chemnitz in Germany who were hunting down and attacking foreigners, including two migrant teenagers – an Afghan and a Syrian – who were accused of killing a German man that finally revealed how deep anti-migrant sentiments run there.
It’s not just in Germany that this sentiment is being expressed. Xenophobic views have played a major role in the election of anti-immigration nationalist governments in Austria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.
In Aotearoa/New Zealand we haven’t faced large numbers of refugees putting pressure on already over-stretched social services, state housing and health care. That is primarily the result of the tyranny of distance but it’s also because general immigrants encounter a points system to determine if a person has the qualifications, skills or wealth that the bosses and government deem valuable. The more points a person has the more likely s/he will be allowed to move here.
Refugees don’t go through the points system. They go through a refugee centre where they learn about local cultures, customs and laws. By the time they enter the community they will usually have a place to live, an income (often a social welfare benefit) and someone to help them to integrate.
As a result of the points system, processing procedures and geographical isolation it’s nearly impossible for undocumented immigrants to get here. This has helped to create the belief that immigrants are better educated, harder working and wealthier than many of the locals so they are more likely to be hired to work in better paying jobs than their counterparts in Europe. There is also a more prevalent culture of accepting immigrants and refugees here. Perhaps this is a legacy of the fact everyone here with the exception of the tangata whenua are fairly recent immigrants themselves or descendants of immigrants. As a generalisation, ignorance rather than outright bigotry tends to have been the biggest barrier faced by the most recent arrivals in Aotearoa.
However, it would be misleading to claim there’s no anti-immigration sentiments. Some people labour under the delusion that the Muslim community is seeking to impose Sharia law upon this country (“Sharia Law Inside New Zealand”, www.whaleoil.co.nz, April 13th, 2017) while others, like the Salvation Army, believe that immigrants are taking jobs away from the unemployed (“Too many jobs going to migrants – Sallies”, RNZ, October 19th, 2016). Perhaps the biggest source of discontent with immigrants in recent times was due to the mistaken perception they were driving up house prices to the point few locals can afford to buy a house. Riding on the back of this anti-immigrant populism, the Labour-led government banned foreigners from owning existing housing stock earlier this year. Thus far, house prices show no signs of coming down.
It would also be wrong to assume that life has been sweet for all of the immigrants coming to this country. According to the RNZ website exploitation of migrant workers living in New Zealand is becoming such a big problem that the government has set up an inquiry to look into the issue. (“Migrant exploitation cases growing – advocate”, RNZ, March 8th, 2018.)
Despite some grumbling from certain quarters immigrants and refugees are mostly still welcome in Aotearoa and, at a time when countries in the rich regions of the northern hemisphere are calling for an end to immigration and taking in refugees, many here want the refugee quota to be doubled from 5000 a year to 10,000. So why are so many Europeans supporting anti-immigration parties?
In Europe it’s hard for some in the middle class to grasp that much of Europe’s working classes have still not recovered from the 2008 Great Recession. The majority of the migrants have ended up in areas where there is already high unemployment, shortages of affordable housing and poverty caused by austerity measures that have hit the poor and the working classes the hardest. For a lot of workers these migrants are seen as competition for scarce resources. It also doesn’t help that these areas sometimes have minimal cultural diversity. The local people aren’t used to living with anyone but other people from their own culture, ethnicity and nationality. This is particularly true in the case of Austria, eastern Germany, Hungary and Sweden.
For all concerned in Europe the migrant crisis has been one heck of a culture shock and this has led to the rapid rise of populist anti-immigration, alt-right identitarian and other fascistic groups. It has also led to violent clashes between migrants and extreme-Right groups, especially in Germany. There has been some effort to counter this, but the mainstream attempts have often been things such as marches or music festivals. While holding anti-fascist rallies and concerts can be a component of a co-ordinated and comprehensive fightback, they will achieve little beyond the symbolic in themselves.
Two key issues mark the difference between European and Aotearoa/New Zealand immigration.
The first is that the immigrants and refugees coming here mostly want to be here. In the case of Europe many of the migrants don’t want to be there. They are stuck in Europe because there’s no other option. As the Irish Times article “Road to Damascus: the Syrian refugees who want to go home” (December 2, 2017) makes clear they face legal, financial and practical hurdles which prevent them from returning and many, if not most, of them can expect to be arrested, conscripted or executed if they ever set foot back in Syria.
The second is that most immigrants coming here are lifestyle immigrants looking for a better life for themselves and their families in a country perceived as relatively peaceful and stable and economically and environmentally better than their places of origin. The reality of course is more nuanced than that.(there are real problems of economic disparity, housing, environmental damage and social and economic legacies of the colonial robbery of indigenous people etc.) but that’s the perception or draw card at least. Many have the option of returning home if they choose. Even the refugees in New Zealand seem to like it here and most of them would prefer to stay rather than return home, (“Resettled Syrian refugees talk of life half a world away from their homeland” Stuff website, June 25th, 2016.) In Europe they’re not looking for a better life. They’re looking for a place where they can feel safe and stay alive until they can return home.
Immigration is a big issue everywhere but there are differing factors which drive immigration in different parts of the world, despite the fact there is a common underlying economic system. Also, the impact on the societies which immigrants end up in can be primarily positive, negative or a combination of both. That’s the complex reality.
When local working people perceive they have largely been forgotten it should not come as a shock when their reaction to immigrants is far from welcoming. It should come as no surprise when they vote for demagogues and political parties preying on their fears. It should also not be a major revelation when liberals end up being abused for their willingness to open up opportunities to these migrants. After all, they aren’t moving into the nice middle class neighbourhoods where most liberals live or applying for the types of jobs that most liberals are employed in.
The migrants risking literally everything to get to Europe are not to blame for the situation they find themselves in. Blaming them and running them out of town (literally in some cases) is not the solution. Nor is electing racist and ultra-nationalist leaders and political parties into office. The only solution in the longer term is to sort out the mess that colonial powers of the past, primarily France and the United Kingdom, and various current local tyrants, despots and rival regional powers have created. That means people at the grassroots working hard to alter the map of the area in their own favour, to amend the artificial boundaries and hierarchical structures in place now and finding more natural alternatives. These islands would also benefit from a similar process.
We also need to address the built-in inequalities and injustices of a Capitalist class system that pits local workers against migrant workers for the same jobs and resources. This same class system also entrenches many of the tyrants and despots whose actions have forced millions of people in the Middle East and North Africa to flee to Europe. It also divides immigrants into various classes of desirable and undesirable people with working class people often being relegated to the ranks of undesirables who never get selected for refugee or points systems quotas.
In this country immigration control is relatively easy because these islands are so remote and so it’s difficult to get here. As noted, the people who migrate here mostly want to be here and they are, for the most part, accepted by the local people. It is worth noting however, that the points system and, therefore, those who can get into Aotearoa, is weighted heavily in favour of the middle classes and petty bourgeoisie classes.
To conclude, we need to put our heads together and work out methods for dealing with both the differing and shared aspects of the immigration phenomenon that exist in the antipodes and Europe. Perhaps then we might get real solutions to the challenges posed by immigration and the bigger threat that lurks behind most of the world’s injustices: Capitalism.