Trade in Human Misery

Jeremy Seabrook


The anger directed by Western governments against the traffickers and smugglers who bring illegal immigrants into Europe in the ‘trade in human misery’ comes as a surprise to observers in the Third Wrold, who cannot help wondering why the same passion is not expended to stop the creation of human misery itself; for without it, there would be little economic opportunity for miscreants to make it the object of their business.


But that would not do, because it would illuminate too clearly the mechanisms whereby poor people stay poor  and rich people stay rich, Hence, the outrage against rings, networks and conspiracies of ruthless people who have added the traffic in human beings to their list of crimes. Now worth an estimated US$7 billion a year, this new slave trade has suddenly become an affront to the West, which is now the recipient of new cargoes of desperated humanity.


At the very heart of Globalisation lies the universalising of values of mobility, enterprise and inventiveness of peopel in their search for wealth. The disavowal of economic migrants in this world-wide process is the most glaring contradiction in the ideology of global ‘intergration’. Again it demonstrates the serene prioritising of money and goods over human beings by the controllers and manipulators of falsely free markets.


Their humanitarian sorrow over the death of 58 people of Chinese origin in a container truck arriving in Dover on 19 June cannot be taken seriously. Politicians reffered to this appalling episode, ‘this cruel tragedy’, and spat their venom at the phantom gangs and organisers of such inhuman deals. But the very next minute they are talking of ways of excluding illegal immigrants, refugees, seekers of asylum from both political and ecomomic oppression, closing borders even more firmly against the wretchedness and misery in which they want no trade, but to the perpetuation of which they have contributed so tirelessly.


To arrive at the real story behind this gruesome event, it is necessary to follow, not so much the trails of traffickers across the globe, and the networks of criminal gangs back to their source - although to do so is also a necessary task - but to follow the labyrinthine contortions of the ideology and morality of privilege, to unravel its tangled and contradictory skeins.


Tough on the trade in human misery, mild on the causes of human misery, might be their slogan. This dramatic event occured in a context in which the debate over ‘asylum seekers’, refugees and illegel immigrants’ had begun to shift in Britain.


There has emerged a more or less open discussion of renewed specialised immigration into Britain for the sake of the contribution such people might make to the economy. Not only have words like ‘labour shortage’ and ‘skills deficit’ been heard for the first time in a generation, but it is also being suggested that we need new blood in order to help look after the ageing populations of the West


According to the Observer (11/06/00), a recent UN study said that the EU will require 159 million immigrants [in the next 25 years] to maintain the current ratio of people of working age to the retired population.

This has already in the efforts to recruit workers qualified in IT (information techonology) and computer technology, as has occurred in the US and Germany ; while there is a perennial need to attract medical personnel from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, South Africa, Bangladesh and others which have such a surfeit of skills; I think I even read somewhere that social workers were being sought in China.


The idea has gained ground that qualified personnel might be imported from the Third World into the rich countries to look after us in our old age (not only in the guise of carers, but also to give a boost to or flagging pensions funds).


This tentative liberalisation towards international mobility of labour is partly a recognition of the impossibility of insulating national entities against the exigencies of globalisation. Such selective economic migrants, however, represents a particular class of people. It is emphasised that these are not to be the unskilled, uprooted peasantry those displaced from subsistence farms, the developmental refugees and slum-dwellers in the carceral cities of Asia and Africa. Europe is not going to open its doors to them. At least, not officially.



Those required, it is stated, are highly-trained, educated, the labour elite of the South, educated at great expense by their hard-pressed governments. The loss of their skills to their own countries is not an issue, even though such skills may be desperately needed there. The transfer of competent people from the south to the rich countries is only one of the conduits that serve to widen the gulf between global rich and poor. It is the brain drain in action.


It is justified by IMF estimates that remittances from such workers are worth US$65 billion a year : what this neat calculaton cannot measure is the costs of this splendid sum to the most wretched the severing of relationships, the breaking of families, the absence of fathers, the separations of loved flesh and blood such sentimental losses are not measured by the refined instruments of economic advantage.

In the impoverishment of the Third World, this movement of labour scarcely has the same impact as debt bondage, internal pricing mechanisms within the transnationals, terms of trade that disadvantage providers of raw materials and so on. But a process that encourages academics, researchers, scientists, technologists, engineers, intellectuals, artists and skilled workers to enrich the societies that attract them neverthless represents significant loss to their places of origin.


In any case, it is argued, Third Wrold skills ultimately benefit all humanity. Their contribution to the world cannot be quantified in terms of money — one of the rare instances when market values are briefly suspended. In this context, humanity becomes an abstraction of convenience to set against poor perishing flesh and blood.


But there is another story, which, in the recent feverish discussion about refugees and asylum-seekers, may not be publicy told. Waves of economic migrant have always been necessary to dampen inflationary pressures; a tendency which the United States is always more prepared to recognise than Europe.


The six million or so illegal immigrants in the USA, many working at levels of bare survival, serve to lower wages and check inflation. Their illegal status is redeemed by economic legitimacy — an equation as yet, apparently, too advanced for a Europe preoccupied with racism, old and new.


So the official ideology remains that money and goods and some vital personnel are unstoppable in the perpetuum mobile of globalisation, but poor people must stay at home. Only the cream of the skilled may be filtered through imporous barriers to sustain the growing GDP (gross domestic product) of Europe.


What cannot be uttered here, and what is illuminated with brutal clarity by this week’s events in Dover, is that those who manage to evade the restrictions and disincentives to cross closed frontiers whether in leaky boats that do not sink off Bari or Brindisi, in suffocating container trucks from Romania or Hungary, stowed away in ships, aircraft or trains may be absorbed into an industrial anonymity which will permit them to do their bit for inflationay pressure here. They may find employment in ill-paid gangs plucking chickens digging potatoes, picking fruits or serving as cleaners, security guards, domestics and providers of personal services, for derisory rewards that make a mockery of the minimum wage.


We may be sure that only the most determined and most persistent will acutally evade the obstacles in place to enter the forbidden lands. Their energy and ingenuity can only add value to the countries into which they find a path. In other words, the prohibition on economic migrants is actually a form of triage which will ensure a passage only to the most resourceful.


Audacious liberals who now openly declare that skilled people should be welcomed to our booming  economy are doubly disingenuous. Not only are they illiberal in the extreme to the poor and destitute of the world from which the highly qualified individuals will be plucked, but they also suppress the darker story of the perpetual need for a stream of miserable and despairing newcomers, whose willinges to do anything for a kind of living maintains the rich in the style to which we have become addicted.


New blood indeed, transfused from the needy in this way, when it does not perish in sealed metal coffins, it is food for vampires.


[Third World Network Features]