Illegality vs Irregularity

Bridget Anderson

Notes from a COMPAS Debate Forum Meeting

The forum started from a discussion of the term ‘illegality’ and Bauder’s suggestion of ‘illegalisation’. We differed in our responses – some people preferred the term ‘irregular’ but I feel that this is too strongly associated with bowel movements, and Will had data that showed that ‘irregular’ is a term that does tend to be used in conjunction with physical health – though most commonly with ‘irregular menstruation’. I was less put off by ‘illegalised’ than most of the other people there who felt that it has an emotional power, that it has an element of judgement and that it is too related to transgressive actions. I said that I thought if you’re going to have a problem with that then you have to admit that there’s a problem with ‘migrant’ as well – which now I think of it is increasingly pejorative. Where we did agree is that the term we use should depend on the context.

This morphed into a discussion about racism and the fact that in Libya people are not called ‘illegal’ or ‘migrant’ but ‘Blacks’ and that what matters is skin colour. There was some tension there too, as I felt that we were drifting into ‘they in Libya are racist and that’s not what it’s like here’. Surely it’s just more attenuated?

Ben asked what we think about people calling the Mediterranean migrants ‘refugees’ and asking for special treatment. I think this is an interesting question. Because a lot of people are fleeing wars that we are implicated in and that makes it particularly incumbent on EU states to accept people from those countries, but then it becomes about processing people, listening to their claims and examining them, and it’s also a problem for people who don’t come from those countries and who are not ‘good migrants’. Ben used a great phrase along the lines of the ways that capitalism creates ‘unsustainable lives’ for people who are then ‘migrants’. We discussed how this is a problem more generally in the victim/;villain dichotomy – that there is no perspective on global capitalism and history, and that this is very important in terms of moving away from the good migrant or the deserving refugee.

So the conversation moved ineluctably to capitalism and to open borders or no borders, especially given that illegality is always going to be created by the global nation state system. The call for no borders is not in isolation, but goes along with a call for an end to inequality, and capitalism – it is not a policy recommendation. We were in disagreement about what this meant and the role of research in terms of being ‘useful’. Franck made the distinction between borders and boundaries – which Phil Cole is big on, pointing out that we cross boundaries all the time in terms of service provision, and that it doesn’t matter, unless the access to resources differs between boundaries. I thought this was a very helpful insight.

We then ended up talking about elections and politics and again there was a difference, with some of us holding out more for electoral politics than others.

In the final comments, Marthe made the interesting observation that the journey for many migrants is extremely traumatic, but that the refugee/migrant distinction only takes account of the starting point, not what is endured and how that marks you in transit. And Pier said that refugee and irregular migrant is very mixed up in Spanish public debate and this mixing of terms meant that they can become substitutable. Will agreed with this danger.