Against 'Us' and 'Them': Reframing the Migration Question

by Luke Davies

Ben Rawlence, City of Thorns: Nine Lives in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, Portobello 352pp £14.99 ISBN 9781846275876
Ben Judah, This is London: Life and Death in the World City, Picador 428pp £18.99 ISBN 9781447272441
Slavoj Žižek, Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours, Allen Lane 128pp £9.99 ISBN 9780241278840

Last year 850,000 people – most of them Syrian – attempted to pass through Lesbos into Europe. European countries have processed just under a million asylum applications from Syrians alone since 2011; still only a fraction of the estimated 6.5 million either internally displaced or who have fled abroad as a result of the ongoing civil war in that country. Understandably a lot has been published on this situation. Three new publications take a step back from Syria and ask us to reflect more broadly on a range of related subjects: the continuing refugee crisis in Africa, the impact of migration on the UK, and the inadequacy and divisiveness of many left wing, liberal humanitarian responses. Combined, they indicate the need for a radical rethink about how we are handling the issue of migration.


Ben Rawlence’s City of Thorns offers a stark warning about what can happen when displaced persons aren’t adequately rehoused, and when they are instead inaccurately identified as potential terror threats. It tells the story of Dadaab, a refugee camp established in 1992 to hold 90,000 Somalians fleeing civil war. Almost 25 years on, the camp has become home to large numbers of permanent refugees (among them Sudanese, Congolese, Ethiopians, Ugandans and Rwandans fleeing famine and conflict in their own countries) – all with very slim chances of resettlement. Over the course of 2011 the population of Dadaab rose from 295,000 to half a million – the result of a drought that left 1.2 million people at risk of starvation and 12 million in need of food aid.

The book is timely as in the past week, Kenyan authorities have controversially announced that they are planning on closing the camp imminently, sending hundreds of thousands back to their war-torn countries. Kenya’s concern is ostensibly related to the Islamic extremist group al-Shabaab’s dominance in the camp. The irony is that many in Dadaab are there precisely because they have tried to flee al-Shabaab, a group who, as well as terrorising Somalians, majorly worsened the famine situation by increasing taxes in order to fund their wars and by banning food aid bearing the US logo. The same refugees who tried to escape al-Shabaab’s monstrous reign are now themselves being seen ‘as a potential fifth column, a threat.’

Rawlence quotes experts questioning the claims that this ‘sweaty place with a shit internet connection’ could be used as a training ground for terrorists, arguing that such theories are in part Kenyan propaganda. And yet at the same time, he acknowledges that people are being radicalised in Dadaab, and that variants of Wahhabism are taking root.

The most compelling explanations offered for this phenomenon all relate to foreign meddling and intervention. Rawlence notes that though most of Dadaab’s inhabitants are moderate Sufis, ‘thirty years of investment by Saudi Arabia in the Horn of Africa was paying off.' Add to this the American sponsored invasion of Somalia by Ethiopia in 2006 – which ensured that the Islamic Courts Union (a conservative organisation to which al-Shabaab belonged, but which by comparison was ‘a hopeful thing’) was dispatched ‘with astonishing speed, force and cruelty.’ The result was that al-Shabaab was ‘energized and now it sought revenge’ – replacing its comparatively moderate forebear. Finally, there was Kenya’s decision to fight a war against al-Shabaab, resulting in countless occasions in which they ‘dropped bombs […] without knowing who they have killed’ – of course fomenting the radicalisation of Somalians and Dadaabians. Kenya’s fears, then, are not completely without reason - and yet these reasons hardly justify plans to close the camp, subjecting the inhabitants of Dadaab to even more privation (and, in the process, surely increasing the chances of radicalisation).

Rawlence tells a handful of the many different stories of Dadaab’s inhabitants: for example, Guled, who fled to the camp after being forced against his will to fight for al-Shabaab; and Muna, who was one of the very first Somalis to arrive in Dadaab twenty-four years ago as a baby, after soldiers of General Aideed shot her uncle and raped her older sister. Rawlence’s anger and frustration at the conditions these refugees are subjected to is palpable. Reflecting on the life-threatening implications of a ration cut of 50% carried out in 2015, he writes: ’There was a crime here on an industrial scale: confining people to a camp, forbidding them to work, and then starving them; people who had come to Dadaab fleeing famine in the first place.'

If these people represent a threat, it’s because of the combined factors of their mistreatment in the camps, the interference of foreign powers, and the collective failure of the global community to negotiate a resettlement solution. As Rawlence puts it, everything comes down to the fact that ‘the rich world has turned its back’ on Dadaab.
With the announced closure of Dadaab, and the unlikelihood of countries like the UK (who have already pledged to accommodate 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020) offering to accommodate these abandoned refugees, it seems likely that things are about to get significantly worse. 


If this description of City of Thorns prompts you to contemplate how we can enthusiastically welcome these soon to be displaced refugees, Ben Judah’s This is London might cause you to think twice. It presents a picture of a city transformed by an influx of economic migrants and asylum seekers; a situation that its author both celebrates and questions. Judah writes:

I was born in London but I no longer recognise this city. I don't know if I love the new London or if it frightens me: a city where at least 55 per cent of people are not ethnically British, nearly 40 per cent were born abroad, and 5 per cent are living illegally in the shadows.

The idea of being ‘frightened’ by an ethnically diverse London will undoubtedly offend some - but it’s the product of an approach that supposedly reflects the views of the people encountered. Judah’s book is in keeping with a long tradition of ‘social exploration’ literature, in which journalists like Jack London and George Orwell have insisted on meeting people face to face and experiencing what they have experienced first-hand. Judah writes: ‘I have to see everything for myself. I don’t trust statistics.’ The result is a whistle-stop tour of London, focussing on London’s migrant population, its poor and its needy. The picture we are left with is one of an ever-evolving and richly diverse London, but also of a city in which social divisions are alive and well, and in which many suffer invisibly and needlessly. 

Scepticism about the transformative effects of migration is something that Judah attributes to migrant communities more than to any other. Towards the end of the book, he describes a conversation he has with a Nigerian mental health ‘sectioner’ who argues that ‘multiculturalism is a recipe for disaster.’ The principle is a good one, he contends, but the reality is deeply problematic. As someone working in the mental health sector he deals with a disproportionate number of migrants (schizophrenia can be as much as 4 to 6 times more common amongst migrant groups), something that he explains is ‘due to higher overall life stress.' The ‘sectioner’ continues:

The trouble is human emotion has not evolved to the right degree […] multiculturalism is all OK when everything is going fine - if the economy is good, if there is no housing problem, if there is no major social issue, no political upheaval, no major trouble, it runs OK... But if it gets bad…

The general prognosis being that things have indeed got bad.

Judah claims that ‘every week two thousand migrants unload at Victoria Coach Station.’ He suggests that there are also 600,000 illegal migrants living in London, and that ‘almost 40 per cent of them arrived after 2001’ – desperate people willing to pay agents $10,000 to get them into Greece; people prepared to travel into the UK ‘strapped under a lorry’s suspension.’ For these new arrivals into London – both legal and illegal – a host of disappointments wait in store.

Judah writes of the thousands of Romanians trafficked into London to work on the streets as beggars so that they can pay off debts owed to criminal money lenders. He writes of the 7,000 prostitutes in London, ’96 per cent’ of whom are migrants. He also writes of overcrowding: of two bedroom council houses in Neasden with 15 people sleeping in them. He claims that ‘as much as 40 per cent of new immigrants in this city have been accommodated with an increase of persons per room.’ Relatedly, he reflects on the un-affordability of housing in central London: describing an estate in Elephant and Castle in which ‘three thousand people’ once lived that has been demolished to make way for flats: ‘less than 2 per cent of the new flats will be rented out by the state poor.’ We hear the view, apparently held by many, that ‘the government wants to socially cleanse the inner city.’

Judah also writes of the poorly paid jobs that London’s migrant population are subjected to, and for which they are often not at all suited. For instance, Femi, a Nigerian living in Brixton, whose agency have given him a position as a temporary care worker at an old people's home. He protests, helplessly: ‘I can't do this, I'm not able.’ Judah tells us that at least 60% of carers in London are migrants.

It’s hard to read all this as scaremongering. Judah’s chronicle celebrates London’s diversity, and his sympathies are clearly with the migrant communities that he meets. He is careful to take into account the fact that for many people – like Mukhtar, who came to London to escape ‘war criminals’ in Somalia – London is a safe sanctuary. But at the same time This is London serves as a warning: welcoming migrants into a community that is already fractured and apparently unable to support its most vulnerable has its costs. We are presented with a picture in which the majority of London’s migrant population are subjected to prejudice, overcrowding and poor pay, with their continuing expansion putting strain on both themselves and those around them. In this sense, Judah’s book offers a lucid but troublesome explanation of the tensions surrounding the migration question – concentrating on the human stories, and on the social welfare side of the debate, rather than on questions of economy.


Together, these two texts present a dismal picture. On the one hand, a country representing just a fraction of the refugee crisis as a whole, in a state of dire need; on the other, the capital city of one of the few countries willing to accept people in this position, already struggling to accommodate its new arrivals. So what’s to be done? Slavoj Žižek has a few suggestions…

Against the Double Blackmail tackles the subject of refugees and terrorism. Its title refers to the idea that in response to the migrant question we are presented with two forms of ideological blackmail: one prioritises refugees and involves advocating open borders (which if actually implemented would ‘trigger an instant populist revolt in Europe’); the other priorities those already living in Europe and involves advocating protectionism (which comes at an obviously devastating cost to refugees). Žižek’s point is that, either way, our commitments bind us to moral compromises.

Reflecting on how to get around this impasse, Žižek challengingly suggests that it is moderate left wing, liberal culture that has created this stalemate situation, as it has replaced the truly universal and emancipatory ‘class struggle’ of previous generations with its paradoxically divisive 'notions of tolerance and solidarity.’

Žižek’s scepticism towards ‘humanitarian empathy’ of this kind is at first premised on a distrust of the ‘sentimentalism’ of many on the liberal and moderate left side of the debate who refuse to acknowledge that migration might present a problem. These same people, Žižek contends, channel their efforts into defending the positive virtues of refugees. They go so far as to deny that migrants, like everyone else, can be ‘impatient, violent, demanding’ – instead, shaming anyone who dares to be critical of their communities and their impact. Žižek begins by pointing out that the obverse of this kind of liberal tolerance is a patronising infantilisation of those in question, as if the rules that apply to most people don’t apply to ‘them.’ He suggests that this kind of posturing betrays a saviour complex that is a legacy of precisely the kind of colonialist arrogance that such attitudes are supposed to safeguard against. We should be looking to help refugees ‘because we cannot not do it if we want to remain decent people’ – not because we’ve been convinced by patronising and imbalanced victim narratives.

His next complaint is that fixating on political correctness – agonising over the terminology we should be using, and focussing our efforts on criticising those less sensitive and enlightened than ourselves – often involves antagonising these individuals, who are very often from working or precariat class backgrounds. In other words, there is a class dimension to this game of ‘who is the most tolerant?’ (Mike Savage, in his 2015 sociological study Social Class in the 21st Century, made a similar observation.) This of course plays into the hands of the likes of Nigel Farage and Donald Trump. Far from bringing people together, a politics of toleration in fact only helps to reinforce divisions.

Yet Žižek’s biggest objection to the way in which many on the left focus their attention on venerating refugees and promoting a politics of compassion is that this serves as a substitute for action. This analysis is in keeping with Žižek’s wider project of opposing a postmodern distrust of ‘grand narratives’ – an inevitable consequence of our general wariness of the totalitarian bent of left wing regimes during the 20th century. Whilst acknowledging this legacy of terror, Žižek and other 21st-century philosophers and activists pushing the same agenda argue that it’s also necessary to see how liberal, humanitarian pretensions of tolerance are simply not an adequate substitute for class struggle and political upheaval when faced with such grave threats as the current refugee crisis. A key progenitor of this line of thinking is the French philosopher Alain Badiou, who has challenged the postmodern ‘respect for differences’ and ‘toleration of the Other’ by suggesting ways in which we can reinstate a Kantian universalism within a modern post-foundational framework, and thereby recover a truly emancipatory political programme for all. Žižek echoes Badiou when he writes: ‘The only way to break out of this deadlock is to move beyond mere tolerance of others. Don’t just respect others: offer them a common struggle.’
So what exactly is the grand narrative on offer here, and is it enough to get us beyond a finger-pointing politics that, it is suggested, is a tragic combination of the self-serving and ineffectual? It’s pretty simple, according to Žižek. All we have to do is accept that ‘refugees are the price humanity is paying for the global economy.’
The evidence? Most refugees come from 'failed states’ where ‘public authority is more or less inoperative.’ The tendency is to present these conditions as arising from 'ethnic warfare fuelled by old passions,’ but Žižek argues that in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Congo and elsewhere, disempowerment has been 'the result of international economics and politic.’

This in part consists of outside powers carving up countries, arming insurgents and directly stepping in. But such activities, Žižek is keen to stress, are just the most visible examples of a far more pervasive and equally perverse phenomenon: 'economic colonialism.’ One of the central tenets of this argument is that the refugee crisis 'stems directly' from ‘the globalisation of agriculture’ – which, as even Bill Clinton has admitted, is the true cause of ‘today’s global food crisis.’ In simple terms, food crops are being treated as ‘commodities instead of as a vital right of the world’s poor.’ The primary culprit, according to Žižek, is the 'long-term global Western policy imposed by the US and the European Union and enacted for decades by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and other international institutions.’ He explains how policies implemented by these organisations have pressurised African and Asian countries into developing export crops in order to integrate them ‘into the global economy.’ As a result, they have become dependent upon 'imported food' and have been subjected to the fluctuating prices on the global food market, leading to humanitarian crises across the globe, 'from Haiti to Ethiopia.’

This analysis need not be confined to Africa and Asia. As Paul Mason put it recently in his Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere; The New Global Revolutions, the single thread connecting Mubarak, Gaddafi and Assad was their ‘freeing up their home market for corporate penetration' – policies ‘actively championed by the IMF and by leading European politicians.’ Lest we forget, it was food price rises in Tunisia and Egypt that were the initial cause of the immolations and public protests that led to the Arab Spring, as well as precipitating the conflicts in Libya and Syria that transformed the present refugee crisis into the greatest we have witnessed since the Second World War.

Žižek's contention is simple: 'the ultimate cause' of this mass movement of people lies 'in the dynamics of global capitalism.’ Acknowledging this reality, he insists, instead of indulging in debates about how respectful and tolerant we are, is the means by which we can escape the morally compromising situation of having to choose between refugees and Europe, and instead unite those on all sides against a common enemy.

Is it not precisely global capitalism (whether or not they know it) that has ruined the lives of those who have turned to UKIP, or to Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, and Vlaams Belang in Belgium? As the ex-Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis (for whom Žižek has repeatedly expressed support) argued in And The Weak Suffer What They Must; Europe, Austerity and the Threat to Global Instability, those within the EU who feel threatened by the prospect of migration are by and large victims of the same global economic forces that created the problem in the first place. The resurgence of the right in the EU – and of hostility towards migrants – is a direct result of the gross inequality that has resulted from the EU's failure to safeguard against an economic downturn with anything akin to a federal reserve, its insistence on making poorer nations pay for the recklessness of European banks, and its compulsory programmes of austerity. In short, the rise of fascism in Europe today is a byproduct of the EU's laissez-faire economics.

Thinking along these lines, Žižek’s position is that the best response to the refugee crisis is not the paradoxically divisive politics of tolerance, but instead the publicising and promotion of analysis like this that exposes the systemic root causes of all our problems. It is global financial capitalism that has separated many millions of refugees from their homes, from their jobs, and from their sense of security. It is this same ideology that has created gross inequality in Europe and that has resulted in the mass imposition of detrimental austerity programmes, making the prospect of welcoming these refugees so unappealing to so many.

At present, it seems fair to say that the response of many of those on the left only entrenches the divisions between these two camps. Implicit in Žižek’s insistence that we determine common goals is a sense that we should instead be looking to unite migrants with the very people who oppose their presence. All are suffering for the same reasons.


It may well be that Žižek's attack against 'humantiarian empathy' goes too far. Challenging people who sentimentalise refugees hardly serves the purpose of uniting us in a common struggle. Žižek could be more understanding of the efforts of many on the left to counter the seriously hostile attitudes we so often hear towards refugees. How would those affected feel if there weren’t people willing to leap to their defence? He also shouldn't underestimate the power of simple, emotive responses to prejudice in precipitating an awareness of the need for change. But at the same time he clearly has a point when he points out that the greater challenge is to understand the common basis of frustration, instead of condemning those whose hatred, though deplorable, is nevertheless premised on credible concerns and very real privations. 

It’s obvious that we need to pay attention to the problems identified by Rawlence and Judah in tandem if we’re going to make any progress on the subject of migration. We can’t be blind to the tens of millions of displaced people, but neither can we ignore the potential cost of doing something about it. Žižek is right to suggest the ironically partisan nature of a leftist politics of tolerance; how it excludes consideration of those in Europe most likely to suffer as a consequence of migration. He is also right to regret the fact that such a position has displaced left wing narratives of old that sought to determine a common struggle. Given the bleak picture that Rawlence and Judah present, it seems quite clear that something more than sympathy is needed. By suggesting that we concentrate our efforts on identifying and responding to the systemic causes of people's suffering instead, Žižek does not make the task seem any easier. But if a sober assessment of the situation leads us to contemplate the need to reinstate a radical agenda, then so be it.

The question for those who agree then becomes: how to reframe the discourse in this way? Against the Double Blackmail might have some compelling arguments, but it's a contentious, provocative and, more than anything else, a difficult book. Its readership will be mostly made up of students and academics; people already convinced that unleashed capitalism, though it has its benefits, comes at too devastating a cost. The cry of ‘unite!’ has been audible from the Žižek camp for some time. Events on the global stage have done nothing but vindicate it. The challenge is to make this cry more widely heard.