Michael Dummet’s On Immigration and Refugees and ‘Race’ Panic and the Memory of Migration, edited by Meaghan Morris and Brett de Bary

Reviewed by Amir Ahmadi

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Human migration, whatever its causes in specific cases, is certainly not in itself a political problem. We know that prior to settled social life and territorial organization of political order, change of habitat was a natural occurrence of human life, whether on a permanent or seasonal basis. In the former case, having reached the life-support limits of its local environment, the human group would move on to an adjacent area. As to the case of seasonal migration, one can still see this in the life of nomadic people within the borders of territorial states. The history of freedom of movement of individuals (and perhaps even small human groups such as families or small sects) as opposed to (large) human groups lasted even longer, well into the nineteenth century on the average. Restrictions on free movement are the corollaries of state borders or, more analytically, the conditions of operation of the political technologies of population control.

On the other hand, the causes and scale of migration also underwent radical changes in the course of the twentieth century. Mass migration (‘mass’ in the sense that one uses it in ‘mass society’) is seen by many as a symptom of the three central, decisive problems that our century has to deal with, namely, ecological and demographic problems, plus problems associated with the increasing inequality between the rich and the poor under the conditions of globalization. Without adopting viewpoints and measures that are able to meet the scale of these phenomena, the attempts by the political authorities of the rich countries to deal with the problem of diffuse migration at their borders are doomed to failure. At best these are stop-gap makeshifts, the only utility of which would be to provide temporary relief and hence time to prepare for taking on the causes. And tackle the causes they must, otherwise the only fruit of these policies would have been its fallouts in the form of xenophobia, racism, and eventually ethnic and religious tensions and conflicts. However, the ‘readjustments’ in state power that globalization and the neo-liberal ideologies associated with it have introduced, unfortunately, have induced the liberal-democratic state to abdicate its responsibilities (for example, by providing ideological cover for it). Indeed, opportunistic and therefore myopic decision-making has become more openly the modus operandi of the state.

Against this background it is quite understandable that governments would become increasingly inclined to exercise their authority with a view to satisfying short-term, oligarchic interests. Sovereignty is exercised at the expense of the most vulnerable categories of human beings, such as immigrants and refugees, and with huge dividends at the polls – of course.

The two books under review are valuable contributions to a number of topics surrounding migration. Michael Dummett’s On Immigration and Refugeescomprises two parts. The first part, ‘Principles,’ provides a philosophical clarification of the nature of state obligations toward immigrants and refugees and aims on this basis to determine what a ‘just’ immigration programme would be like, both in terms of principles and institutions. The second part, ‘History,’ looks at the immigration and refugee policies of England and a few other European countries from the past forty years or so. Edited by Meaghan Morris and Brett de Bary, ‘Race’ Panic and the Memories of Migration’ is a collection of essays around the theme of race and ethnic identities, addressing the various ways racial identities are constructed, manifested or mobilized in the context of state-building and state violence, popular feelings and situations of hysteria, and historical memories.

Dummett is not a political theorist or sociologist but primarily a philosopher of language and mathematics. Nonetheless he has been actively involved in the issues related to immigrant and refugee rights, in the context of various support groups and associations. The humanistic principles of justice that have motivated his advocacy of these rights also guide his reflections in On Immigration and Refugees.The right of migration or refuge in a country other than one’s birth place is grounded, according to Dummett, in the fundamental right of each human person to a decent life. ‘The basic conditions that enable someone to live a fully human life are the due of every human being, just in virtue of being human’ (26). This right, which is enshrined in the UN Charter and various UN human rights conventions, places a positive obligation on member states to consider asylum claims and immigration applications, and to treat applicants fairly and with humanity. The basic conditions in question are a secure livelihood, shelter and other necessities of existence; acceptable health and environmental standards; stable political order and freedom from persecution on the basis of religion, ethnicity, and so on. In this context, Dummett discusses the various senses in which one is said to have a certain right and convincingly argues that ‘inviolable rights’, such as rights to these basic conditions, are absolute and can thus be unconditionally asserted against the state.

In the case of mass immigration into a relatively small country, Dummett thinks that the country ‘has the right to limit immigration if its indigenous population is in serious danger of being rapidly overwhelmed’ (52). Two things must be noted regarding this ‘exception.’ One is that as an exception it makes clear that the onus of justification must be borne by the state that refuses entry and not by the refugee or immigrant who seeks entry. Second, despite racist and xenophobic claims in the rich countries of being ‘swamped’ by alien peoples, the immigrant totals in European countries range from 2 to 5 percent, hardly capable of ‘overwhelming’ the 95 or so percent of native population. Nonetheless, Dummett thinks, race is often the motive that underlies exclusionary immigration policies even today, although it is no longer invoked as an explicit ground. In order to restrict the inflow of people, whether asylum seekers or immigrants, Western governments have been making it more and more difficult for people to reach their borders (for example by imposing hefty penalties on carriers that bring people without ‘proper documents’). They have also created various ‘disincentives,’ in direct contravention of the Refugee Convention, that are supposed to make their countries ‘unattractive’ to would-be asylum seekers or immigrants. In the case of refugees, these include detention centers, unfair tribunals and generally punitive assessment terms and processes, imposition of stringent criteria of qualification, and restriction of legal recourse. One result of these policies has been the creation of a huge number of ‘illegal immigrants’, living in the shadowy recesses of metropolises, who are forced to lead extremely precarious lives and often fall prey to all kinds of extortionate and inhuman exploitation.

‘Race’ Panic, in the words of one of its editors, is a ‘multilingual response’ to the ‘mobilization of virulent racism and xenophobia’ that has attended recent mass population displacements and economic and geopolitical upheavals. The word ‘race’ here is not understood in the ethnological sense but intends any construction of identity that is associated with hetero-phobic violence, whether this other is a woman, a Moslem, a ‘red,’ or a ‘Yellow.’ The contributors are from different countries and have different disciplinary backgrounds; their essays range from social theories of migration or colonization to analyses of memories of violence and of feelings of shame and alienation with which the migrant is burdened. Let us look at two of these contributions.

By drawing on the works of Foucault and Agamben, Kim Seong-nae shows how the violence perpetrated by the nascent South Korean state against the inhabitants of Cheju island, who were suspected of being ‘red,’ was the founding moment of that state which defined its very identity as anticommunist. But intertwined with the hatred for the reds (that ‘racializes’) is a patriarchal tradition that helps ‘sexualize’ the population, thereby making its brutal repression more ‘natural.’ The bodies of the thirty thousand or so people that were tortured and massacred were turned, thanks to ‘the technology of sexual politics,’ into a ‘signifier for a “gendered body.” As a gendered signifier, a body indicates the location in which state power is brutally exercised, and it also provides the agents of state violence with free political resources’ (268). The patriarchal violence is further prolonged, according to Kim, in the silence induced in the female survivors by the supposed shame that the recall of their rape and other atrocities committed against them would bring to their families and villages. Ghassan Hage’s piece is an important contribution to the issue of ‘reconciliation’ with Australia’s indigenous peoples, as a persistent topic of public debate since the High Court Mabo decision of 1992. Following Gatens and Lloyd he argues that historical memory is constitutive for a collectivity’s self-understanding and hence its identity. This is why the capacity to act politically (with respect to a certain conflict) necessarily involves an affectively invested one-sided or particular history: ‘remembering affectively is not about getting worked-up about a particular memory. More importantly it means that parties remember the conflict from “their own” perspective.’ In other words, reconciliation in the frame of a unitary nation (an ‘Australian memory’) would be tantamount to the completion of colonization, a process that involves the neutralization of antagonistic Aboriginal historical remembrance. ‘We are far from reaching a stage where “we,” Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, can remember the acts of dispossession and murder together without its partisan affective intensity’ (349).

In any event, a little reflection reveals that migration under duress (whether political or economic) is a deeply traumatic experience that, one would have thought, inspires a sense of hospitality. Unfortunately, it has given rise to a life-boat mentality and the attendant hostility in greater proportion. We have to remind ourselves (and others!), however, that in our Titanic there are no life-boats, and that we either survive together or are damned together.
Amir Ahmadi lives in Melbourne and his research interests are primarily in the area of social and political theory.

Michael Dummet, On Immigration and Refugees was published by Routledge in 2001 and ‘Race’ Panic and the Memory of Migration, edited by Meaghan Morris and Brett de Bary, was published by Hong Kong University Press, also 2001.

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