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Expert Comment: World Day of Social Justice - An end to immigration controls?

passport Friday 20 February 2015

On World Day of Social Justice, Dr Joe Greener discusses what governments should be doing to end human trafficking and forced migration.  

Today is the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) World Day of Social Justice. On this day the ILO requests that member states promote activities in accordance with the wider ILO aims of promoting ‘decent’ employment and tackling poverty. 

This year’s theme is ending human trafficking and forced migration: a good solid ‘evil’ that the world’s political elite can unite over in common condemnation. However, in tackling the human suffering and misery that goes hand-in-hand with migration, the ILO needs to recognise that it is state-level immigration policy which contributes largely to the suffering of migrants as opposed to a process of globalisation over which member states apparently have no control.

Firstly, much of the discussion around forced labour fail to capture the complexity of the dynamics of migration.  Many people who have been ‘trafficked’ have consented to the situations they find themselves in albeit in the context of difficult life-circumstances, whilst those who are involved in organising the illegal movement of people across borders are often also undocumented migrants.  Simplistic notions of victim/perpetrator are not easily maintained. This is not to deny that those who enter the UK without formal citizenship regularly experience brutal employment situations. Crucially it is the state that structures their illegality in the first place therefore making them vulnerable.

Immigration policies across the world regulate and restrict transnational movement and are to blame for putting many people in a situation which makes them vulnerable to hyper-exploitative working conditions.  By making foreign populations ‘illegal’ on the basis of their nationality they have little choice but to find work in illicit or undesirable parts of the labour market.  Industries, such as elderly social care, sex work, fruit picking and food processing, have become dependent on workers from abroad in order to fulfil labour shortages and secure cheaper, more compliant workforces.    

The benefits for business are coupled with an increasingly divisive politics. The UK migrant population is continually described by politicians as being the underlying cause of many social problems.  Housing shortages, failing NHS services and even traffic jams, we are told, are the result of immigration.  Yet the British housing crisis, for example, clearly has much more to do with decades of underinvestment in social housing, the privatisation of the public stock and a market increasingly organised to benefit the upper middle class.

Migrants are not to blame. Britain’s immigration policy has historically been formed in response to both right wing and racist political interests and the wishes of business. Hence why politicians are seen to be drawn into paradoxical actions where they denounce immigration policies and migrants in one breath, and open up the doors for entry in the next.

The ILO’s discourse on global justice presents globalisation as a force from above – as they say, a force which has benefitted some economies and workers just as it challenges others. But this misses the point that it is nation states who are the architects of globalisation. It is the ILO member states that sign the treaties which allow the free movement of capital and it is these member states who also implement national-level immigration policies forcing immigrants into vulnerable life situations.

Justice for migrants means the radical destruction of restrictions on the movement of people.


086 Dr Joe Greener




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