Sai Englert

Sai Englert

Against both borders

Reading Time: 7 minutes

A motion at the Labour conference has placed the defence of free movement back on the agenda. Sai Englert argues that entirely correct criticism of EU ‘free movement‘ should not lead the left towards an anti-immigration orientation.

The passage of a motion at Labour conference to maintain and extend free movement, close detention centres and rip-up the Tory hostile environment policies and their attempts to introduce regressive new immigration controls, is a welcome development and a useful re-framing of this issue on the left.

It also contrasted sharply with the Tory Government’s recent announcement that it would attempt to end Freedom of Movement (FoM) on the first day of Brexit, despite the PM’s promises to the contrary only a few weeks ago, with the addition of increased criminality checks for immigrants. This approach raises worrying and urgent questions for EU nationals in the UK.

There are over three million EU residents in Britain – 65,000 work in the NHS, a similar number in agriculture, while about 165,000 work in construction and just under 50,000 in UK universities. While government officials continue to claim that those already in the country will have the opportunity to apply for so-called settled status until 2021, the move throws up new uncertainty over what will happen in the case of a no-deal Brexit. How will border agents discern between those EU citizens already based in the UK and those newly arriving? How can more severe criminality checks be imposed at the border, without changing the status of all EU passport carrying citizens? Will there be a different measure for wealthy Western European and poorer Eastern European citizens, imposed through profiling at the borders?

Answers have not been forthcoming from the government, and the strategy will be to use EU citizens as a bargaining chip with Brussels and a platform for rhetorical bluster aimed at their most xenophobic voters. The left and the labour movement should have no truck with these proposals. Strengthening border controls, increasing criminality checks on foreigners, or the imposition of minimum wealth requirements for new arrivals are always assaults on workers and labour standards. This is also why there can be no such thing as a progressive border policy.

This move, if implemented, is unlikely to actually lead to the removal of millions of EU workers from the UK. It would however increase their precarity, insecurity at work, and minimise the likelihood of their resistance against bosses’ assaults on their pay and conditions. While this might not be the case amongst more comfortable workers – for example in universities – it could have significant effects for the labour movement in sectors including construction and agriculture. Scared workers, workers facing (real or threatened) loss of legal status, workers who worry about their immediate future do not often make good trade unionists. They tend to keep their heads down, avoiding making trouble, and hoping that this will allow them to stay. In fact, this is exactly the aim and the outcome of border controls and immigration policy.

There is an enduring myth, peddled by both liberal ideologues and some labour movement activists, that capitalism aims to undo borders and facilitate the free movement of goods, wealth, and people. It leads liberals to celebrate the beauty of capitalism as a freedom enhancing system, and those labour activists to demand so-called progressive controls over trade and migration. Yet, the irony is that both positions are based on a lie. Capital does not undermine borders – as a quick glance around the world should confirm fairly quickly. Even the much-vaunted process of globalisation has depended for its spread of liberal economic norms on the ability of the state to police, control, and impose border regulations.

The nation state has not weakened in the last 40 years. Much the opposite is true. Across the world, dictatorial regimes have thrived and democratic regimes have been hollowed out. The control of migrant workers has been a central aspect of the neoliberal period, as tens of thousands of workers are moved across the globe. Think of the South Asian and East African workers in the Gulf, the Chinese construction workers who are sent to their country’s mega projects around the world, or the steady intake of Latino workers in the US. None of these flows of workers are taking place because of the disappearance of borders. On the contrary, they are policed, organised, and/or created by highly militarised border regimes. Even the celebrated ‘freedom of movement’ for EU citizens is a sham. It is not so much a move away from borders, as a re-positioning of the location of their policing.

While greater freedom has been given to EU citizens to travel freely between member states – though always conditionally as the victims of the War on Terror whose passports are withheld or nationality is stripped away know only too well – this freedom is entirely dependent on a much more violent imposition of the union’s collective borders. The now all too familiar images of the hundreds and thousands of migrants who are killed in the Mediterranean Sea every year by those policies should be enough to remind everyone of the reality of the EU’s border regime. As should the deadly deals signed with repressive and authoritarian regimes who are charged with policing Europe’s borders before migrants even get to its shores, in exchange for advantageous military, economic, and diplomatic relations.


Sajid Javid’s stunt last winter, of bringing a military ship to the channel to police the UK’s borders was widely – and rightly – condemned as a piece of racist theatre in which migrants were re-cast not as people fleeing for their lives and/or in search of new economic opportunities but as an invading force. Yet little was said about the obvious fact that the boat had performed the same role for the EU for 13 months between 2016-2017 in the Aegean, imposing exactly the same logic on migrants crossing into Fortress Europe. There is no internationalism, no anti-racism, no solidarity between workers under a British or European flag.

Much of the debate on migration rests on two further myths. Firstly, that migration is random. Migratory flows are not large movements of people trying to get into any wealthy states, at random, hoping to enjoy their riches. Instead, all research points to the fact that migration is policed, first and foremost, by the availability of work. It is one of the reasons why migration takes place in networks, and why certain jobs and industries become so visibly identified with people from specific areas around the world. The first to arrive find work or keep going until they do. If there is more work available, they write home and others join. Migrants therefore do not ‘steal jobs’ as the famous racist slogan would have it. They often fill in the gaps created by local labour shortages. The presences of thousands of migrants in the industries mentioned above are a case in point. In fact, industries like the NHS or agriculture need more workers – and urgently – rather than less.

This leads to the second myth, that anti-immigrant policy is effective in curbing migration. Instead, all the evidence again points to the opposite. The UK is a good example, despite years and years of growing assaults on migrants and migrant rights by New Labour and Tory governments (yet again, weren’t neoliberals and capitalists supposed to undermine borders?), migration into Britain has in fact not significantly changed. Even when Theresa May proudly announced that she would bring net migration down to less than 100,000 a year, the numbers barely moved. How can that be? Because there is a lot of work available. Then why continue to impose gruelling controls on migrants? The answer is simple.

Anti-immigration policy does not significantly curb migration. It performs two other functions. On the one hand, it helps to whip up nationalist sentiment directing people’s anger, frustration, and revolt away from the rich and powerful, those who create the economic hardships we all deal with, and towards some of the most vulnerable in society.

On the other hand, by increasing the structural and physical violence meted out against migrants, states also increase the amount of control they have over their work. As already pointed out above, if workers are scared of deportation, or if they have braved death to arrive into the country, they are less likely to resist government policies, exploitative bosses, or slum landlords. They are more likely to accept lower wages, longer working hours, and more dangerous working conditions. This is also why border controls need to be so violent – think of the camps in Australia and the US, the aggressive targeting by the Home Office in the UK, or the murderous EU regime in the Mediterranean. It is only through the active and violent assault on some (often large) groups of migrants, that the migrant working population can be disciplined as effectively as possible by the state.

They are also less likely to join a union and fight back. It is exactly because of this that there can never be progressive or left-wing anti-immigration policy or border controls. Their very existence puts foreign workers at risk – physically – and sets the stage to drive down standards for British nationals also. It is for this reason also that the acceptance by many trade union officials – including in some of the UK’s largest union – of the myth that migration itself brings down wages is so catastrophic. Not only does it lead them to support some of the violence meted out against migrants, as so-called progressive border policies, it also undermines their ability to take on bosses and governments effectively, leaving both settled and migrant workers unable to fight back. They participate, in doing so, in the further isolation of newly arrived workers and increase the likelihood that they will be employed on low wages and with terrible conditions.

Borders – whether they are policed by the EU or the UK – are always reactionary and always tools for class violence. They are always tools for the bosses. And they should always be fought by all progressive, labour, and socialist forces.

Pictures: Carlotta Silvestrini, Oxfam International

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