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Syrian and Iraqi refugee migration 2015

The migration crisis: what can trade unions do?

2015 will probably go down as the ‘year of migration’, certainly in Europe. All the contradictions of globalisation – free movement of capital but not free movement of people – were coming to a head. All the ‘blowback’ from Western interventions in the Maghreb and in the Levant were coming home. Europe was overwhelmed and, after a brave stance by Germany and Sweden at the outset of the current ‘migration crisis’, things were back to razor wire barriers and better ‘security.’ Not to be left out Republican presidential candidate in the US, Donald Trump, called for a bigger and better wall between the US and Mexico, to be paid for by the latter. Rational discussion was left behind as panic, xenophobia, racism, and irrationalism came to the fore. This is the main issue of the day, probably across the world.

The other issue we increasingly need to address is the degradation of work and workers’ lives. What began twenty years ago with the term ‘Brazilianisation’ – the global North becoming more like the global South – has now been surpassed by the notion of the precariat. This amalgam of precarity and proletariat refers to the emergence of a new global norm of contingent employment, social risk, and framework life conditions. Working and living is, for most people today in most of the world, losing any notion of security, protection and predictability. In terms of a globally fragmented and disposable labour force it is migrant workers, caught in the quagmire of so-called circular migration, who come up top of the list. They are subject to long hours of dangerous, demanding, and demeaning work and live in permanent fear of dismissal and, potentially deportation. Fortress Europe – most notably in the East – is erecting barriers forcing refugees into clandestinity as another part of a growing informal European precariat.

To the interlocking crisis of migration and precarity we can pose the need for transnational frameworks of governance to the credit of enhanced human, social, and labour rights. Ten or fifteen years ago there was considerable confidence that stable and efficient global governance mechanisms could be put in place. Thus in 2007 the UN sponsored Global Forum on Migration and Development was set up to create such a consensus in the area of migration in relation to the North/South development divide. It soon became clear that there was a wide gulf between this high level rhetoric and the politics and practices of national governments. The whole notion of a ‘rights based’ approach to migration and/or precarious work becomes rather academic in the face of the events of 2015. A formidable transnational movement of uprooted victims of Western generated conflicts in the Maghreb and the Levant is represented in terms of a so-called ‘refugee crisis’ coming out of an inexplicable evil. In place of addressing the economic, political, and social root causes of the current crisis, the shattering of the institutions of one of the world’s most powerful regional organisations is rationalised with reference to this self-inflicted humanitarian calamity. In conjunction with the eventual collapse of the Doha trade talks which began in 2001 it spells the end of global governance as an enlightened development project.

An alternative to governance ‘from above’ – which it is hard in the current climate of moral panic and paralysis of institutional capacity to have much confidence in – we might counterpose a governance ‘from below’ as it were. If we look back across Europe in 2015 we see that in relation to the plight of the refugees, it is most often groups within civil society who have responded positively to the humanitarian crisis.

Trade Unions have a particular responsibility in terms of integrating those workers who come from beyond their national boundaries. One instinct for these representatives of national labour forces is to join with others in a protectionist and exclusionary rhetoric and practice. We have seen over the last decade a number of trade union movements respond very positively towards migrant and precarious workers on the basis of the old trade union principle that “an injury to one is an injury to all.” The stakes are high today and the construction of a democratic alternative to Fortress Europe is an urgent task.

Featured image credit: Syrians and Iraqi refugees arrive at Skala Sykamias Lesvos Greece, 2015’by Ggia. CC BY-SA-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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