For International Migrants Day, the University of Bristol’s Bridget Anderson reflects on migration, fractured societies, and interdependence.

For over twenty years the outsourcing of migration controls has meant that European publics have been protected from the practical reality of forced displacement and economic desperation that is now showing up on holiday beaches. Agreements with source and transit countries, readmission agreements, the creation of migration management policies and facilities in countries of origin have kept the consequences of war and global inequalities out of sight. In recent years they have become more visible, polarising public opinion. The election of Donald Trump as US President, the Brexit victory in the UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership, the rise of anti-Muslim, anti-immigration populism across many EU states, seem to confirm migration as a significant fracture dividing societies.

Migration is unavoidably political: who is in the community, who belongs, what are their duties and responsibilities, what values do we promote and what binds us together now and across the generations? These are all fundamentally political questions that underpin contemporary responses to migration. Yet one of the responses to take the sting out of migration has been an attempt to depoliticise it: ‘Don’t worry, not many will come’ or ‘Migrants are good for the economy’. These attempts to make migration not disruptive are increasingly difficult to sustain and do not challenge the underlying bottom line that ‘we’ are frightened about too many of the wrong kind of people. But how do we repoliticise migration and make it into the right kind of problem? And what is the role of intellectual work in this repoliticisation?

The question, what is our moral obligation to the stranger has haunted European philosophical and religious thought for centuries. The tension between sovereign self-determination claims on the one hand and adherence to universal human rights principles on the other is arguably a constitutive feature of liberal democracy. Scholars like Benhabib (1995) have argued that the demos constitutes itself through more or less conscious struggles of inclusion and exclusion, and this is the struggle that is being waged in a very practical way. While policy making and public opinion is often treated as pragmatic and atheoretical it is guided by concepts and histories of ideas deeply rooted in the European tradition. Excavating these can be of considerable value in understanding assumptions and alternatives.

But it is also necessary to think historically, as the scale and shape of human movement today is very much a consequence of historical and contemporary relations. The representation of migration typically disavows these global connections, seeing only foreigners in search of the good life and jobs, and more particularly seeing too many people chasing too few resources. ‘We are here because you were there’ asserted Sivanandan a propos of post-war migration to the UK from former colonised states, but one might equally say it of the movement to Europe by Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis. And it is not simply a response to foreign policy. To paraphrase Sivanandan: ‘Migrants are here because global capital is everywhere’.

European and North American standards of living – our standards of living – continue to be dependent on the resource exploitation and cheap labour that marks so many areas of the world and that is deeply embedded in our history. John Smith argues that goods are affordable for impoverished workers (and non-workers) in what he calls the ‘Global North’ because of a system of resource extraction, outsourcing and arms-length super exploitation in the Global South (Smith, 2015). We are living at a time of the highest level of global inequality in human history, when on some counts 67 people are as wealthy as the world’s 3.5 billion poorest people and the poorest 50% of the world have 6.6% of total global income. According to the Global Rich List, a website on global income inequalities, an income of around US$32,400 is enough to put a person in the top 1% of global income earners (see http://www.globalrichlist.com). In 2011 the World Bank estimated that three quarters of inequality could be attributed to between country differences. One might quibble about the methodology of these estimates, but the fact remains that today for most people in the world, what is key to life chances is where one lives. And let’s be frank $32,400 is not a lot of money. In this context, it is scarcely surprising that there is anxiety about migration in wealthier states. Debates about migration are caught up in anxieties about safety nets and austerity, as the migrant or the refugee is set up as a competitor with the citizen for privileges of membership, whether these are for jobs, education, housing or health care.

Re-politicisation requires re-contextualisation and the recovery of relationalities and interdependence. This is of course about better appreciating the relations and forces that drive many people’s mobility to Europe, recognising that while migration is seen as a problem from the point of view of European institutions and member states, for the people who move migration is the solution or at least a response to colonial histories and post-colonial presents that structure civil war, violence, and economic systems that in turn render the lives of many people in the world unsustainable and impoverished. While this is played out at the border, to see this complex interaction of pasts, presents and futures as a problem of migration is impossibly limiting. Uncovering these deep economic and historical systems of connections between groups and individuals who seem unrelated is vitally important. Mobility and international migration are indications of our interdependence, the challenge is how to make these interdependencies not just ‘readable’ but into a good story. Perhaps we can start from the insight that what is bad for migrants is not good for citizens, indeed, it is often bad for citizens as well.


Benhabib, S. (1995) ‘Borders, boundaries and citizenship’ PS: Political Science and Politics 38(4): 673-677.
Smith, J. (2015) ‘Imperialism in the twenty first century’ Monthly Review 67(3).

Bridget Anderson
University of Bristol