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Chris Bertram

Snitching on those in breach of immigration law

by Chris Bertram on January 31, 2017

Kwame Anthony Appiah, of whom I have only had positive feelings up to now, has produced an opinion for the Ethicist column for the New York Times that it is “a good thing” when citizens report violations of immigration law to the US authorities. He produces this opinion in the context of a question about “green-card marriage” entered into merely in order to gain an immigration advantage, so it is unclear how far he relies on the specific features of the case he describes to generate a more general moral conclusion, but I, for one, find his reasons highly problematic.

First, he operates on the assumption that US migration policy is reasonable and reasonably fair and that states have the right to set their immigration controls unilaterally. Whether or not legitimate states have the right to set their immigration controls unilaterally (I’m a sceptic), I think it hard to argue that US policies are currently fair given who they exclude (and a fortiori who they are now excluding). Appiah argues that people who enter by unlawful means are queue jumpers who thereby act unfairly towards others. But the very idea that there is an immigration queue that people can join and wait their turn is preposterous. There is no such queue and many many people will never be in a position where they can realistically have a chance of a visa. The claim of unfairness to other would-be migrants is therefore unfounded. [click to continue…]

Trump’s migration ban

by Chris Bertram on January 29, 2017

Donald Trump’s order that the US be closed to the nationals of several Muslim-majority countries is a particularly egregious intensification of the racist immigration policies that many “liberal democracies” have pursued in recent years. It isn’t clear at the moment how this story will develop, with various US courts taking action against the order but with Homeland Security apparently indicating that they will continue to enforce it. As everybody now knows, it is being enforced even against US permanent residents who were on trips abroad, against people transiting US airports on their way back to other countries, against students in the middle of their courses. It is separating loved ones, including parents from children (a very prominent case being the British-Somali athlete Mo Farah). It also seems to be the case that the US is failing to allow people to claim asylum and have their cases properly assessed, as the 1951 Refugee Convention requires as well as US law, and that the US has engaged in some breaches of the non-refoulement obligation towards those seeking asylum.

Naturally, there are calls for European politicians to protest. Theresa May, just back from Washington and then from selling fighter-planes to Turkey’s Erdogan seemed reluctant to do so at first, but someone from 10 Downing Street has now issued a weakish condemnation. Well, ok, but what’s new here? Both European states and the US have long given people a harder time based on their country of origin and poor people from a long list of states have no chance of entering the territory by non-clandestine means. We all know of the appalling death toll in the Sahara, the Mediterranean, up through Mexico and in the Arizona desert. Wealthy states, such as Australia and the US under Clinton, have already breached the non-refoulement provisions of the Convention on many occasions, and now often pay poorer states on their periphery to send people back on their behalf (or just keep them locked in). Migrants present on the territory without authorization face “hostile environment” policies aimed at depriving them of work or accommodation, which also expose them to crime and exploitation, policies put in place by politicians who also make speeches about “human trafficking” and “modern slavery”. And Theresa May herself is no stranger to policies that abruptly refuse students entry at the border or that separate partners or parents from children. In the UK, aliens, even those present from birth, can be deported to homelands they have never seen, without due process, if law enforcement deem them “foreign criminals”. And then we have France, among others, criminalizing people who offer assistance to irregular migrants and refugees, and countries like Hungary constructing physical barriers to keep them out. So nothing much new.

Or maybe something, which matters somewhat: Trump and his henchmen feel able to do openly and proudly what those other politicians have usually done hypocritically and shamefacedly. Not for him speeches such as the ones Theresa May (and Cameron before her) make about a “proud record” of helping those fleeing persecution, speeches made whilst they condemn the persecuted to risking death and then incarcerate them in detention centres. To be honest, I prefer the hypocrisy, because at least then there is some chance of holding them to account for the betrayal of the values they publicly profess. That Trump doesn’t care is terrifying.

(Protest and campaign, of course. But one thing you can also do is to volunteer to support refugees or to donate to a refugee charity. Bristol Refugee Rights is one such in the town where I live, but there are many others in Europe and North America.)

Sunday photoblogging: Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

by Chris Bertram on January 15, 2017

Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao

Sunday photoblogging: Paris metro

by Chris Bertram on January 8, 2017


Open thread: best books of 2016

by Chris Bertram on December 18, 2016

An open thread for commenters to recommend their favourite books of 2016.

I’ll start with Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable (Allen Lane).

Trying to understand my country in the light of the EU referendum vote, I picked up a copy of Lynsey Hanley’s Respectable: The Experience of Class. I’m glad I did. Hanley is now an academic at Liverpool John Moores and lives a life shaped by the culture and expectations of Britain’s middle class, nourished, as she explains, by a diet based on mackerel and pulses. But this isn’t where she started. Life began on a vast working-class estate on the edge of Birmingham, Chelmsley Wood, a place to where many families had been decanted as part of the post-war social democratic experiment, and where they’d stayed. The book is about social class and social mobility, about getting from there to here, and about the “walls in the head” that make the transition a matter of profound anxiety and which stop many people from leaving at all. It is also about divisions within the working class, between those who cope with their subordinate status by keeping up appearances, and those who don’t, between those who read the Mirror and those who read the Sun. As Hanley puts it in the introduction: “Changing class is like emigrating from one side of the world to the other, where you have to rescind your old passport, learn a new language and make gargantuan efforts if your are not to lose touch completely with the people and habits of your old life.”

Sunday photoblogging: Hebron Road

by Chris Bertram on December 18, 2016

Hebron Road, Bedminster, Bristol_

Conscription and the media narrative on refugees

by Chris Bertram on December 13, 2016

The world is watching the denouement in Aleppo, with stories emerging of massacres, particularly of young men (and probably by young men). A story I read from Patrick Cockburn in the Independent reported that such is the shortage of manpower for the Syrian army that other young men, emerging from eastern Aleppo, are being immediately conscripted into the Syrian army. A Syrian refugee I heard speaking the other day said there was no choice but to leave because you would either be killed, or you would be forcibly enlisted and forced to kill others. And many of the young Eritreans who find their way to Europe are also fleeing conscription (they face indefinite military service). This is hardly a new thing. The last major exodus of Americans fleeing the jurisdiction of their state was of young men who were evading the Vietnam draft.

James C. Scott, in his wonderful The Art of Not Being Governed writes of state conscription as one of the main reasons why the subjects of states flee to the hills, to a zone outside of state control. There are few such zones today, and those that there are may be governed by forces even less appealing that the states that conscripts are fleeing from.

This all got me thinking about some of the media narrative on refugees over the past few years. The preponderance of young men has been treated by those who want to keep refugees out as a reason for suspicion. The “genuine” refugees for the newspaper columnists are mothers and children. It is the toddler drowned on the beach, like Aylan Kurdi, who elicits public sympathy. But young men are often the ones with most reason to flee. It is they who face the starkest choice between killing and being killed. No wonder they predominate.

Sunday photoblogging: Blackbird

by Chris Bertram on December 11, 2016


I’ve posted similar shots before, but at a different focal length.

Redcliffe Flats from Gaol Ferry Bridge

Castro is dead

by Chris Bertram on November 26, 2016

Fidel Castro is dead at 90, so let me adapt some words I wrote when he retired back in 2008. Doubtless, there will be commentary, particularly from within the United States, that is unbalanced and hostile, and, of course it is true that Castro ran a dictatorship that has, since 1959, committed its fair share of crimes, repressions, and denials of democratic rights. Still, I’m reminded of the historian A.J.P. Taylor writing somewhere or other that what the capitalists and their lackeys really really hated about Soviet Russia was not its tyrannical nature but the fact that there was a whole chunk of the earth’s surface where they were no longer able to operate. The same thing goes Cuba, for a much smaller area, and it hurt them particularly to be excluded from somewhere that plutocrats and mobsters had once enjoyed as their private playground. (Other countries, far more repressive, got a pass from successive US administrations.) So let’s hear it for universal literacy and decent standards of health care. Let’s hear it for the Cubans who help defeat the South Africans and their allies in Angola and thereby prepared the end of apartheid at a time when the United States favoured “constructive engagement” with white supremacy. Let’s hear it for the middle-aged Cuban construction workers who bravely held off the US forces for a while when the US invaded Grenada. Let’s hear it for more than half-a-century of defiance in the face of the US blockade. Hasta la victoria siempre!

Sunday photoblogging: car, leaves

by Chris Bertram on November 20, 2016


On the alleged failure of “liberal progressivism”

by Chris Bertram on November 13, 2016

The other day, an article by Chris Deerin, a writer for the Scottish Daily Mail, appeared on my twitter timeline, retweeted and endorsed by several people I respect. The article argued Trump and Brexit mean that “liberal progressives” have lost and that “the model that has more or less dominated Western politics for the past three decades is defunct. It could not be more dead.” “We” misused that hegemony and are responsible for our own downfall:

We used our hegemony to take down barriers and borders, to connect and build, to (yes) line our own pockets and smugly luxuriate in the goodness of our ideas and intentions. Meantime, we forgot about those who weren’t able to take part, who weren’t benefiting, to whom free trade and open borders meant greater hardship and uneasy cultural compromises. Or, let’s be honest, we didn’t forget – we just chose to conveniently ignore. We stopped asking for their permission, ploughed on through the warning signs, and fell off the end of the road.

Now “liberal” is a funny old word, mostly used as an insult these days by the Jacobin crowd on the one hand and conservatives on the other. Still, I can’t help but feel that my politics is being condemned here as infeasible and dead whilst wondering whether it is in fact true that I’ve enjoyed such “hegemony” for the past 30 years, because that certainly doesn’t gel with my experience. [click to continue…]

Sunday photoblogging: morning sun, France

by Chris Bertram on November 13, 2016

Morning sun, France

Sunday photoblogging: railway line, Orio

by Chris Bertram on October 30, 2016

Orio is a small town in the Basque country, northern Spain

Orio, early morning

Sunday photoblogging: more Bogota pigeons

by Chris Bertram on October 23, 2016

Pigeons, Bogota, Colombia