The growing numbers of refugees arriving at Europe’s borders have been reflected in the social sciences, as well as in a proliferation of EU summits, media coverage, and civil society mobilisations both supportive and hostile. Over the last year funders including the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Council have issued special calls for research relating to refugees, the journal Sociology is publishing a special issue, and the Race, Ethnicity and Migration stream at this year’s British Sociological Association annual conference was larger than any other stream. Sociology has an important public role to play in helping us to understand how people become refugees, where and how refugees move, and the wider social impacts. The way institutions, groups and individuals understand what is taking place informs responses. While many people can contribute to factual ‘myth busting’, sociology is perhaps uniquely placed to offer alternative lenses through which we can make sense of those facts and decide which facts are more or less important, and to critique and challenge dominant narratives. The remainder of this article proposes some urgent questions that I suggest call for sociological interventions, focusing on the way the ‘crisis’ has been produced, the distinction that has been created between ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’, the presentation of refugees as a burden and a threat, and the importance of recognising refugees’ agency.
A crisis of numbers?
When viewing television images of long lines of people trekking through the Balkans, ships full of migrants disembarking in Greece and Italy, or considering the 4,000 people who lost their lives in the Mediterranean last year, it is easy to imagine the current crisis is the result of the sheer numbers arriving in Europe. The numbers are certainly considerable, with estimates of up to 1.2 million people arriving by sea and land at the borders of Europe in 2015, although this figure is based on people crossing an external EU border and so prone to double and triple counting as people pass in and out of the EU on their journey. Even if this figure is accurate, it still amounts to only 0.24% of Europe’s population. To put this in perspective with other population movements, in 2013, 2.9 million people migrated into one of the pre-2004 EU15 countries from outside the EU through legal routes other than asylum, and 2.2 million people migrated from an EU15 country to a country outside the EU. An estimated 5.5 million British citizens are permanently resident in other countries Large number of people moving between countries is accepted as normal, but particular types of migration are treated as a problem. The humanitarian crisis facing migrants cannot be understood, therefore, simply on the basis of population movements, but also requires attention to the border regimes that categorise people on the move and impose restrictions – it might be more accurate to discuss the current situation as a crisis produced by Europe’s immigration regimes rather than a ‘migrant crisis’. The thousands dying in the Mediterranean are not an accident, they are a predictable outcome of policies of EU states. How categories of migrants are constructed, and used as a basis for restricting movement and other rights, is an inherently social and political process and calls for thorough analysis. Attention also needs to be given to the geography of the EU, in which states such as that are peripheral in physical, economic and political terms are expected to play the role of border guards to impede refugees and migrants in reaching member states in Western and Northern Europe.
Setting refugees against migrants
In the summer of 2015, as numbers continued to increase and struggles were fought over the passage through the Balkans toward Germany, strident calls were made by institutions and individuals from Al Jazeera to Bono, to stop referring to those entering Europe as ‘migrants’ and instead use the term ‘refugees’. It was claimed that using the term migrant undermined the case of refugees for protection. However, the reality is far more messy than such a neat distinction implies, and the same individuals may move between categories depending on changes to the law as much as changes to their status: research has previously established that even people fleeing war zones often prefer to move as a ‘migrant’ where possible, rather than have to recount traumatic experiences to a government official in order to claim asylum. As Raia Apostolova powerfully argued last summer in the newsletter of the American Sociological Association Culture Section, upholding the category of ‘refugee’ as uniquely deserving of support can help to justify increased restrictions against other kinds of migrants, and can be used to delegitimise ‘economic’ reasons for moving that may be just as important to material survival as the need to flee government persecution or war.
Refugees as a burden and a threat
In the countries where refugees arrive, they are commonly presented by politicians and the media as a burden on society, competing for jobs and services, or as a threat. Sociology offers tools to examine how the ‘us’ that is supposed to be under threat is constructed in opposition to the refugee ‘other’. These categories are socially constructed, but appear at first sight as natural and unquestionable. My research since 2007 has examined the relationship between these categories and the operation of British capitalism: I argue that in the context of UK immigration controls that have been increasingly tailored to labour needs of employers, most notably through the Points Based System introduced in 2008, refugees pose an implicit threat because they make demands on the basis of universal human rights, regardless of demand for their labour. Over a series of empirical projects in North East England I have explored how refugees who make it to Britain struggle to rebuild their lives, facing systematic discrimination and exploitation yet in many cases making significant contributions to the communities where they live and forming lasting friendships and alliances with British people and other migrants.
Acknowledging refugees’ agency
When refugees are presented in a positive light, it is often as passive victims, and in some cases a proven state of helplessness can become a condition for state support. Yet refugees are also active social agents. As I argued at this year’s British Sociological Association annual conference, the concessions Germany made in 2015 in accepting a larger number of refugees cannot be understood in the absence of the determined resistance by masses of refugees and migrants, in particular the thousands who marched en masse from Hungary to Austria last summer, in defiance of the attempt by the Hungarian state to block their movement. Similarly determined resistance is also taking place closer to home, from the protests, sit-ins and hunger strikes that are a constant feature of Britain’s immigration detention estate to the organising being carried out by refugees and migrants in the camps at Calais and Dunkirk. The statements and demands put forward by refugees in these situations are routinely ignored in much of the media and political discussion of the ‘refugee crisis’, and public sociology has an important role to play in drawing attention to them.
None of the above should be taken to suggest that sociology has a unanimous response to Europe’s migration and border crisis, but that is no bad thing: the very act of problematising the way the crisis is constructed, and presenting alternative perspectives, is an important contribution to developing more informed and considered responses.
This article was written in June 2016 as an invited contribution to Nottingham Trent University’s School of Social Sciences magazine. As always, comments and responses are very welcome.