‘That looks to me like two elephants making love to a men’s glee club’, revealed Woody Allen’s character, Virgil Starkwell, in the 1969 mockumentary Take the Money and Run, when presented by a psychoanalyst with a simple, accidental inkblot picture. Inkblot tests have been used to study states of mind at least since the Renaissance, and were made famous in the early twentieth century by the Swiss psychiatrist Hermann Rorschach, who used them to analyse everything from cultural difference to schizophrenia. Though widely lampooned, the method relies on a sound premise: when you interpret something you often project our own pathological state of mind upon it.
I think about Rorschach inkblots when looking at the cover of Migration Studies. Beyond strongly suggesting human footprints—which are simple, timeless symbols of human movement—these blots on a blank page have no objective meaning. But they have proven an excellent projection screen for colourful reader responses. ‘It’s a racist image’, reacted one colleague, ‘not all migrants are black.’ ‘Why does he have to be poor?’, chimed another. ‘He can’t afford shoes, and he’s walking from the bottom to the top of the page, like South–North migration. He’s making a mess of a clean white page.’ Another countered, ‘but it’s elitist: it’s tourist footprints on the beach of a holiday resort’. Yet another asked: ‘Why choose a religious image?’ Clearly, the footprints referred to a famous Christian poem about ‘two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonging to me and one to my Lord’.
Although they say very little about our intentions in designing the journal cover, these contradictory interpretations say a lot about the stereotypes and hang-ups many people have about human migration. The more I think about these responses the more I like our cover image, because migration itself has an inkblot-like character. It too is a simple, haphazard and timeless process found throughout human history. But like an inkblot, it is interpreted very differently by different people in in different places and periods. In some eras it becomes a projection screen for the entire gamut of human hopes and fears.
It has been one of those years. In 2016 in the USA, Britain and Europe, immigrants and immigration bore the full brunt of a backlash against all forms of globalization. With frightening speed, Donald Trump, a spoilt and narcissistic American celebrity who initially looked laughable as a candidate for presidency of the USA, built a formidable political movement by fuelling fears of migrants as ‘rapists and murderers’, promising to build a wall along the Mexican border, and even to ban all Muslim immigration. The most terrifying thing about his victory is not, as many commentators have suggested, that it takes American politics into uncharted territory. It is the striking familiarity of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric to that of the bellicose totalitarian rulers who tore Europe apart in the first half of the twentieth century. Then too it was the supposedly unassimilable migrants and diasporas, with their abhorrent foreign faith, upon whom the mainstream projected their pathological fears in a context of great financial and political instability. We recognize an ominously familiar constellation of factors in both periods, but we seem to lack decisive understanding of what exact catastrophic failures have occurred and why, and therefore lack the knowledge of next steps required to stop the slow-motion train wreck taking place. In this context, one of the most important challenges facing researchers in migration studies is how to analyse and theorize the worldwide rise of neo-nativism.
Xenophobia has taken grip of the UK too. There, David Cameron’s prime ministerial career was doomed as soon as the country voted to leave the European Union earlier this year, driven in significant part by scaremongering around immigration. Having promised his unruly backbenchers a referendum in return for their support at the last two elections, on the morning of 23 June, Cameron secured a spot in history as a Faustian figure, who had summoned neo-nativist forces to gain power and, despite campaigning vainly against them, met with an inevitable reckoning.1 Theresa May was the last one left standing after Cameron’s downfall, largely owing to her pitch-perfect double-speak on immigration issues. As Home Secretary, she had maintained a skilful balancing act, talking tough against immigration in order to appease anti-immigrant Conservative backbenchers, while backing ‘Bremain’ and watching net migration surge, to the relief of the many more-cosmopolitan Tory-backing employers who depend on the free movement of European labour. Unlike any of the other main protagonists in the Brexit debacle, May had what amounted to hedged bets on migration.
As Prime Minister, May continues to play skilfully with anti-immigrant fire, publicly striking out in the British tabloid press at ‘citizens of the world’2 in tones reminiscent of Stalin’s and Hitler’s tirades against ‘rootless cosmopolitans’, while privately assuring big banks like Goldman Sachs that she is committed to the European common market.3 There is a perverse logic in the way in which anti-immigrant double-speak has deflected Britain’s fears of vulnerability onto some of the most vulnerable people in British society: those fleeing the conflagrations that now blaze in a line across North Africa and West Asia, along a fuse lit after 9/11 by Britain’s own Tony Blair. But for social scientists and others professionally committed to accurate and ethical coverage, it has been dismal to see the emergence of this kind of ‘post truth’ public discourse. In order to counteract its corrosive effects on public life, migration researchers need to focus efforts on better understanding how neo-nativist propaganda and sensationalism, spread in part through disruptive new online media, have been able to fragment and transform traditional public spheres so swiftly and radically.
One thing at least is clear: Theresa May understands the political power of an inscrutable inkblot. Her sleek new slogan ‘Brexit means Brexit’, for example, is a piece of Orwellian political genius, managing to sound stern while remaining so ambiguous as to allow almost any negotiating strategy. And the prospect of needing Parliamentary approval for Brexit may seem like a setback, but in some ways it broadens her negotiating options. In Britain, she can keep up the populist pandering, battling heroically against the scrounging immigrants, and blame an unelected judiciary and an unpatriotic Parliament for any setbacks to the Brexit agenda. In Brussels, she can play the quiet Bremain campaigner, battling a recalcitrant electorate in order to salvage the EU. Parliament is now ‘in play’ in the Brexit chess game, and as the most powerful politician in the parliament, Theresa May has just gained a new piece. If the Supreme Court upholds the right of Parliament at appeal in early December, May will have some carrots in addition to the sticks she has been holding grimly over UK-based migrants.
Trump, Clinton, Cameron, May: the fates of powerful leaders now clearly rest on their ability to play the politics of migration. And not just domestically. For example, the anti-immigrant Brexit result has geopolitical implications. Banks and corporations are preparing to re-headquarter massive capital outside London. There is talk of Scotland and Northern Ireland renewing their independence claims. An independent Little England is less useful to the USA than a European Great Britain; without the Special Relationship Britain’s global role is truly over and America loses a strong Western ally against the eastward drift in continental alliances. These trends are already benefiting the strongmen in Russia and Turkey. Until recently many scholars were sceptical when political scientist James Hollifield talked about the rise of ‘migration states’ as successors to the ‘security states’ and ‘welfare states’ of previous eras (Hollifield 2004). But migration is now so clearly a first-order political priority that no one could doubt that it belongs in the realm of high politics.
More and better migration research is needed to inform these increasingly weighty decisions; but putting policy-driven research questions aside, migration scholars need to maintain a focus on the wider question of exactly how migration is transforming the nature and purposes of states. For example, what can we learn about the changing character of the liberal state from the massive expansion of the USA’s deportation regime, and—since it can no longer be dismissed as a delusion of grandeur—from Donald Trump’s vow to build a Great Wall across the southern border? How is democratic citizenship being transformed by the resurrection and expansion of temporary migration schemes around the world, and how should we understand the state of permanent temporariness in which an increasing number of people live? How do these developments relate to the optimism over ‘circular migration’ that has become orthodox in the international community? To what extent does the temporary paradigm actually produce ‘triple-wins’ for migrants as well as their states of origin and destination, as opposed to reproducing the kinds of exclusion and disadvantage that arose from the guest worker programmes of the mid-twentieth century? The transformation that demands the greatest scholarly vigilance in this vein is the increasing connection between rising neo-nativism in liberal democracies and the strengthening and global spread of authoritarian regimes beyond (Diamond, Plattner and Walker 2016).
What is at the root of the fears driving people to seek the patronage of strong-seeming authorities? On the face of it, people fear an unprecedented influx of immigrants and asylum seekers. As of 4 November 2016, the International Organization for Migration had counted 355,031 arrivals by sea in Europe for the year, on top of 1,011,712 the previous year.4 But if these sound like big numbers, consider for a moment that, according to the World Data Bank, regular old net migration adds about 5,000,000 new people to the population of the United States of America every year. Consider also that the European Union has almost 1.6 times as many people as the USA, and much lower and faster-falling net migration rate: net arrivals to the EU fell from almost 7 million in 2002, to less than 6 million in 2007, and down to just over 2 million in 2012. Despite the frenzied and distorted rhetoric around the refugee crisis,5 with a total fertility rate of 1.58 in 2014, far below the replacement level of 2.1, the European Union’s problem is not too much migration but not enough.6 Meanwhile, for those who think America’s high net migration figures justify Donald Trump’s hysterical wall-building proposals, think again: For all Trump’s bluster about Mexico, net migration from that country has essentially ground to a halt.7
It is not the numbers themselves that matter then, it is how they are interpreted in the context of a frighteningly tangled and turbulent world. Although expressed as a fear of border-crossing people, the anxieties driving the spread of neo-nativist authoritarianism are at least as much about the effects of border-crossing money (which brought people a financial cataclysm), of border-crossing goods (which brought them manufacturing junk in place of lost manufacturing jobs), and border-crossing images (which are beaming the Hobbesian conflicts of the Arab world into their living rooms). As Zygmunt Bauman has recently suggested, the fear of migrants and refugees erupting everywhere are projections onto others of the instability we fear in our own lives:
These people who are coming now are refugees not people hungry for bread and water. People who yesterday were proud of their homes, were proud of their position in society, were often very well educated, very well off and so on, but they are refugees now, and they come here. And whom do they meet here? They meet here the precariat. Precariat lives by anxiety. By fear. We have nightmares. I have very nice social position. I would like to stick to it, I would like to continue. Precariat comes from the French word precarité, and precarité in loose translation means walking on moving sands. And now come these people from Syria and Libya. They bring a threat from far away countries here at our backyard. They suddenly appear next to us. We can’t omit their presence. And they symbolize, they embody all our fears. Yesterday they were very powerful men in their country; very happy men. Like we are here today. But look what’s happened today. They’re homeless. They’re without means of existence. I think that the shock is only beginning. There’s no shortcut solution, no instant solution. So we have to brace ourselves for a very difficult time coming. This last year’s wave of immigration was not the last one. There are more and more people waiting to do just that. So you have to accept, this is the situation. Let us come together and find a solution.8
But a solution to the tragedies playing out on Europe’s southern beaches has evaded leaders in the European region. This is ironic, given the zeal with which the European ‘model’ of managing globalization has been exported around the globe in recent decades. So-called regional solutions to labour mobility and asylum issues have been touted as best practices in lieu of a global compact for migration analogous to those in the realms of finance and trade that underpin the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. But with Europe failing so miserably on issues of migration, so soon after the monetary debacle of the Eurozone (who even remembers ‘Grexit’ since the refugee crisis?), regional solutions are coming under the kosh. In many ways today’s so-called crises of globalization are more accurately crises of an over-enthusiastic regionalism.
The defeats suffered by regionalism are creating new urgency around old efforts to evolve the ‘missing global regime’ for international migration. In this context, the images projected onto migrants and migration by officials in Geneva and New York are almost perfect mirror images of those conveyed by today’s neo-nativists. Whereas the UK Independence Party pedalled fears of ‘Schrodinger’s Immigrant’, who simultaneously steals your job while lazing around on benefits, your average international organization official is taught to think of migration in the (often exaggerated) terms of a ‘win-win-win’ scenario where, with the right light-touch policies, migration can benefit everyone: migrants can gain massive increases in living standards as well as the freedom of movement to realize their dreams; meanwhile destination countries can get cheap labour and a ‘diversity dividend’, and poor origin countries can supposedly get remittances and innovative foreign ideas from their diasporas in the developed world, in compensation for the loss of their best and brightest (UNDP 2009).
Here again, the sign and the signifier are not exactly the same thing. Both May and Trump clearly realize how effective anti-immigration scapegoating can be as a political strategy in turbulent times, but there is ample room to doubt that they actually agree with the hateful things they say in order to win votes. Conversely, it would be a little naïve to think that everyone who proselytizes ‘migration for development’ is doing so out of a firm personal conviction that migration benefits everyone as long as the policies are right. Political strategies are also at play here. For example, it is a well-known fact that linking the issue of migration to the relatively well-funded and uncontentious development agenda was a tactic intended to get migration on the UN agenda, in the hope that cooperation incubated under the development umbrella would spill over into trickier areas such as security (Skeldon 2008). The underlying impetus was a sense that migration lacked extensive enough global governance arrangements. While recognizing that those advising the expansion of such arrangements may have a horse in the race, we should not be too cynical about motives: there are many grounds for saying migration is a force for good, and almost no grounds, either factual or ethical, for the kinds of neo-nativist statements that have won the day for Donald Trump and Theresa May.
The optimists have by no means been impotent themselves. For example in 2014, less than a decade after the first UN General Assembly High Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development in 2006, the UN Security Council began regularly discussing migration (in the context of concern about ‘foreign terrorist fighters’). Security-oriented international cooperation has become increasingly tangible almost everywhere since the onset of the European refugee crisis the following year. The idea of a World Migration Organization, mooted by Annan’s Global Commission on International Migration and roundly rejected at the time, has arguably come a step closer to reality with the International Organization for Migration becoming a ‘related organization’ of the United Nations. Could any of these developments have happened without the softly-softly approach of linking migration to development that Annan (2006) instigated, and which has been bubbling away in the Global Forum for Migration and Development and a range of other forums ever since?
More broadly, are we witnessing the birth of a global migration regime? If so, how and why? For example, to what extent can we see the thickening global migration arrangements as taking up the slack from regional solutions that have failed? How much of the policy movements can be explained by the priest-like role of nominally neutral experts, the migration optimists and experts who have been coaching states towards cooperative solutions, as if by teaching them how to become better versions of themselves? And to what extent can we understand the emergence of a migration regime as a process lurching forward in response to a series of crises? For example, the broad question of the UN in the wake of 9/11 was a factor in identifying migration as one of the issues where it needed to modernize. Meanwhile, the security cooperation we see emerging, and the entry of the IOM into the inner circle, have both drawn significant impetus from the European migration crisis.
It comes back to the question at the outset: What is to be made of these footprints? Are they the marks of the destitute, the deviants and the dole bludgers moving northwards and blotting the blank sheet of Europe’s brave post-war world? Or are they the best and brightest, those with the get up and go, the ‘exceptional people’ who act as filaments of a progressive globalization, the future entrepreneurs, philanthropists and innovators whose new ideas teach us more about what it means to be human? Do their journeys represent everything wrong with modernity, or symbolize the universal hopes of humanity?
Both, neither: it’s a lot about how you interpret the inkblots. As writer Robert McFarlane reminds in his remarkable meditation on the pre-historic footprints preserved in the hardened mud of Formby Point coastline near Liverpool (McFarlane 2013), migration is one of the timeless mysteries of the human experience, and footprints are among the ‘earliest texts’ we have through which to interpret it:
Footprints in the mud: two sets of prints, walking northwards. A man and a woman, companionably close, moving together, shore-parallel, at around four miles per hour: journeying, not foraging. … Like the daubed handprints on the cave walls at Lascaux, they are the marks of exact and unrepeatable acts—the skin of that palm or this sole was pressed to this cave wall or that beach on this occasion—and in their shape and spacing they remind us of a kinship of motion that stretches back as far as 3.6 million years. Other than that, almost nothing is known. Who made these marks that are so particular and so generic? What were they feeling as they left them, in the same centuries that the first pictograms were pressed into Mesopotamian clay with a reed stylus? … They are among the earliest texts, from a period of history devoid of recorded narrative. Following them, we are reading one of the earliest stories, told not in print but in footprint.
Last year we announced that, as Migration Studies awaited an official Impact Factor, Oxford University Press had, by way of calculations using the same methodology as Thompson Reuters, estimated our Impact Factor at 1.737. This year, we are still awaiting a formal listing, but following the same methodology Oxford University Press calculates that the Impact Factor of Migration Studies has risen to 2.175. It is encouraging to be on the right trajectory, thanks to the talented authors, reviewers, editors and publishers we have the privilege to work with.
At the end of each year the Editors of the Migration Studies announce a prize for the best article published in the previous calendar year. This year's winner is especially timely because it is becoming ever more urgent for migration scholars to consider the complexities surrounding deportation, in light of both current developments in Europe, and in the USA, where the president-elect has proposed to expand the already colossal deportation regime. Against this background, the Editors wish to extend their congratulations to Barbara Buckinx and Alexandra Filindra, Winners of the 2015 Migration Studies Best Article Prize, for their eloquent piece entitled “The case against removal: Jus noci and harm in deportation practice” (Buckinx and Filindra, 2015).