Migrant lives: not a commodity
This text is written by a group of people living in the United Kingdom who are migrants, students and workers. In the last few weeks alone we have witnessed the deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea and we have mourned Pinakin Patel who died in detention in Yarl’s Wood. This, as we all know, is only the tip of the iceberg. It is the direct result of the UK and the European Union’s murderous migration policies.
The framework underlying these actions is a capitalist conception of the value of life. We see this replicated on a daily basis in the discourse of politicians such as Ed Miliband and David Cameron, but also in the media and even in migrant rights campaigns. This framework has legitimised discourses as extreme as the now notorious “cockroach” rant by Katie Hopkins and Nigel Farage’s fascist statements. Although they undoubtedly have very different intentions and aims, they all share a very similar underlying framework: migrants’ lives are only worth what they can be sold for.
One example that you might have noticed when taking the underground in London is the “#migrantscontribute” campaign. We absolutely realise that this campaign was initiated by well intentioned and well informed people who care deeply about migrants, many of them are indeed migrants themselves. Clearly a strategic decision was made about what the most effective positive messaging would be around migration, keeping in mind the upcoming national elections. This does not make it any less concerning that a campaign that on the surface seeks to stand up for the rights of migrants, in fact reproduces those very same frameworks underlying the far right discourses referred to above.
When a major migrant rights campaign centres its message around the fact that migrants “contribute”, and defines this contribution primarily as an economic one, we have reached a low point. In this we can truly realise the extent to which the capitalist framework has infiltrated our thinking. So what is wrong with justifying the presence of migrants in terms of their economic contribution?
First, this does not take into account the historical roots of migration flows. In particular, how many EU States benefited from the mass murder, enslavement and plundering of resources in the former colonies. This makes it even more perverse to now criticise migration as an economic threat. Second, this framework instrumentalises migrants’ lives by linking their inherent worth to their economic input. Migrants are no longer human, their only relevance is to serve as commodities for consumption by the capitalist state.
Third, this reproduces the idea of the “good” and “bad” migrant. The good migrant being the formally employed, non-criminal, law abiding, hardworking, tax-paying individual trying to make a “better life” in Britain. Migrants, unlike ‘white’ and middle and upper class nationals, must prove that they are deserving. The distinction is at the same time classist and ableist, gendered and racist. The most vulnerable: those who are unemployed, disabled, undocumented, detained, unpaid or criminalised and marginalised in many other ways, are not perceived as valuable. They expose just how narrow a framework #migrantscontribute is.
Fourth, it implies that national borders are natural, unchanging and even necessary and leaves intact and reinforces arbitrary state power to inflict violence against migrants’ bodies. This rationalises the need for the detention of ethnic others and public indifference.
This lethal discourse that commodifies migrants’ lives has directly influenced decision making, causing ongoing human tragedies. We must refuse to put a price tag on migrants’ lives and stop valuing them only to the extent that they benefit European economies. We must challenge the framework that commodifies migrant lives and move forwards to a new one. One that values life in its own right.
Rosario Fernández Ossandón, Fenya Fischler, Nicolás Ortiz Ruiz, Aleksandra Stankova