Here we go again. After a period when my alter ego as the figure of the ‘economic migrant’ was in the news in the UK almost continuously had passed, to make way for concerns about terrorism and the NHS, it was probably naïve to think I would not come back into the limelight. Today then was the day: The last figures on ‘net-migration’ before the general election came out and showed it had risen considerably and not come down, as the Conservatives had promised. In fact numbers are higher than when Cameroon came to power in 2010, and the only thing Labour has to say is that the Conservative strategy to control migration is ‘in tatters’. But who are those ‘economic migrants’? And why does almost nobody speak up for them?
On paper, if there is a government database, I would be counted as one. But, for the record, I am not an economic migrant!, regardless of what any statistic might say. I am in this country because I work for an institution that has ‘international’ in its name, the Global Development Institute (formerly the Institute for Development Policy and Management), at one of the country’s leading universities. Many of my colleagues come from different countries and continents, and like me have different identities, notions of belonging and different places they call ‘home’. In my case, I spend my professional life largely in Manchester, but my primary ‘home’ is in the capital city of another European country. Anybody who is on regular flights between mainland Europe and the UK is aware there are many of us – either weekly commuters or those like myself who divide up their year into junks of time spent here or there. We all pay our taxes in the UK – but probably use many or even most of the entitlements of the respective European welfare state in the ‘home-abroad’. We are not here because we could not find work ‘at home’, but because we believe in cosmopolitan connections and the fact that global problems need solutions beyond ‘little England’ or the nation state more generally.
Many of my best postgraduate students over the years have also come from countries far and wide – and are, in totally non-sensical fashion, included in the total number of ‘net-migration’. British universities would not only be a much less stimulating environment without them, they would also be broke, as they can still afford a peculiar system where they charge non-EU students (the latter are only lucky because of EU legislation that would forbid discrimination) about three times as much as the home-grown sort – and still find (always to my astonishment) enough takers. The fact that overseas students still come in high numbers, in spite of these exorbitant fees and the increasingly difficult process to obtain their visa, should make Britain proud – as should the fact that so many of us have chosen to work here, in an environment still characterised by a culture of stimulating diversity (how much longer that will be the case is an open question when looking at the migration-utterances of all major political parties).
But even those who claim to support migration do so on rather contentious terms. I for example received an email the other day by the Movement Against Xenophobia asking for crowd-funding support for an advertisement campaign entitled I am an immigrant that aims to demonstrate the value migrants add to the country. While the themes of the campaign go beyond the usual population groups and include for example a builder under the slogan ‘I build your homes’ and a cleaner who helps ‘organize your world’, this focus on value-added in essence advocates market citizenship, where proper membership to a national community is based on a person’s economic productivity and ultimately undermines social citizenship and entitlements.
What we really need is a discourse in favour of the Kantian project of conjectural cosmopolitan rights and the acknowledgement of a common humanity, where the boundaries of sovereignty are embedded within mutual social practices.