Edinburgh World Justice Festival shines light on migration

As many people have noted, “migrant crisis” or “refugee crisis” might seem like neutral terms – a handy media shorthand – but they are really anything but. The language implicitly blames the “crisis” on those who are doing the moving, even when that is forced by war, persecution, poverty or exploitation.

It was illuminating to attend an event called This is not a migrant crisis at Edinburgh University this week, part of the Edinburgh World Justice Festival, which runs to Saturday October 20th. The panellists looked at some of the factors that drive people to travel far from home, often risking or losing their lives and those of their families.

In the UK, as in many countries, the “welcome” has become grudging and absurdly conditional. We’ll let you stay but you cannot work legally. Don’t be a sponger off the state. Be grateful.

Nor is it surprising that housing newcomers in under-resourced areas has sometimes stoked social tensions.


Fair exchange?

Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now, cited the myths surrounding lavish European aid to Africa.

In fact, tens of billions of pounds’ worth more flow the other way each year, he said – through extortionate interest on loans and revenue that should be paid in local taxation but ends up in overseas havens. He referred to official figures showing a net £203bn going from Africa to Europe in this way in 2016, against £161bn flowing to Africa.

Another form of systemic exploitation is the “free trade” deals that reward multinationals to the detriment of local farmers and businesses. Investor-state dispute settlements (ISDS) also grossly favour corporations, Dearden said.

“The migrant crisis is not driven by migrants. And in the case of Africa and the Middle East, we are restricting people to living within borders that were drawn at times arbitrarily by imperial powers in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

Climate change

Sean Mattar, from Glasgow Caledonian University, said migration was increasingly being driven by climate change, particularly in sub Saharan Africa. (This is often internal migration rather than across national borders, he added.)

Yet the UN does not officially recognise the terms climate refugee or climate migrant. It only supports people in the immediate aftermath of climate disaster, for instance until floodwaters recede.

Instead, migration in response to climate change is seen officially as a “successful adaptation strategy”, Mattar said.

As a result there is no international law to protect “those least responsible for climate change fleeing to places that don’t welcome them and are not prepared for them.”

Arms trade

Although war and refugees have gone hand in hand for millennia, perhaps less well known is Scotland’s present role in the arms trade. Companies including BAE, Raytheon and Leonardo are highly active in Scotland, with many of their weapons systems or components ending up in Saudi Arabia for use against Yemeni rebels.

Arms sold by the UK in recent years have also helped repress uprisings in Libya, Egypt, Bahrain and Gaza, all of which have created numerous refugees.

Jessie Normaschild, from Campaign Against Arms Trade, said the number of jobs supported by the defence industry was wildly exaggerated to justify these sales, and the likes of Trident and Tornado. “It’s less than 0.5 of 1% of jobs in the UK,” she said. “And many of the engineering skills would be easily transferrable into the renewable energy sector.”

CAAT has been legally challenging the UK’s government decision to continue to license arms exports to Saudi Arabia, its biggest client by far. It has also successfully campaigned for several Scottish universities to divest from arms manufacturers and won a commitment from Scottish Enterprise not to back any further trade fairs, Normaschild said.

Free movement

Dearden of Global Justice Now said it was time to start making the case for freedom of movement, hard though that may be in the present political climate. “Harder borders won’t stop migration. Thousands and thousands have died trying to reach the richest countries, so pulling up the drawbridge won’t sort out this mess.

“Plenty of people probably never imagined slavery would disappear, or apartheid. I would not choose to start here, with Trump and Brexit, but we have to.”

© Sam Phipps

Sam Phipps