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no human is illegal

Mutsa Murenje
School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle, Australia

Populism, migration and social work


Renowned for being a type of politics whose main intent and purpose is claiming to represent the opinions and wishes of ordinary people (Hornby, 2010), populism is present in different nations and for a multiplicity of reasons. It has been in existence for quite some time although attention to its deleterious effects on migration is relatively recent and has often focused on the election of one controversial populist politician, Donald Trump of the United States, Brexit, and the European migration crisis that predominated the EU and its member states in 2015/16 (Wolf, 2017). For instance, increased migrant and refugee flows have resulted in anti-immigrant sentimentalities soaking mainstream politics in a number of countries with populist politics said to be on the rise in Europe, the Americas, and the Asia-Pacific. There can be no doubt though that there has been scholarly neglect in so far as the venomous effects of populism are concerned particularly in parts of Asia and Africa. What is even more worrisome is the peripheral role that social work continues to play in the field of migration. The prime motif of this treatise is to underscore that populism has serious negative ramifications on migration and that opportunities exist for the social work profession to influence both practice and education. A lot shall surely be depicted in the subsequent paragraphs.

Understanding migration

It is indisputable that as a fundamental part of human experience, migration is widely believed to be intrinsic to human nature. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM, 2015) gave an estimate of 972 million migrants globally. Of these, the minority, 232 million, were international migrants reportedly living in high-income countries, while the majority, 740 million, were internal migrants moving within their own countries, mostly from rural to urban settings. The reasons why people move were multiple and varied; people often moved in pursuit of better socioeconomic opportunities, though migratory patterns may also result from civil conflict, political persecution, development activities, and natural disasters (International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), 2012).

Indeed, people fled their countries to escape from violent conflicts, the results of economic failures, autocratic regimes among other reasons. Thus, it would seem that human insecurity played a significant role in population movements. This has led to migrants being viewed as helpless and persecuted people fleeing from violent conflict while at the same time some regard them as strangers from a distinct or foreign culture who are notorious for violating national borders and rules, breaking into countries, and putting pressure on impoverished communities. Witteler-Stiepelmann (2009) noted that uncontrolled migration influenced the countries' stability by:

Spiralling population growth, political instability, escalating ethnic conflicts, persistent economic deterioration, abject poverty, and environmental shocks were all factors in migration (Adepoju, 2008).

Refugees comprised a distinct group set apart in international frameworks, policies, and discourses and distinguished from those believed to have a choice in their migratory decisions. This distinction is problematic and the question of 'choice' and 'force' is a vexed issue. The binary between 'economic migrant' and 'refugee' continues to be challenged and is actually believed to be false. For example, it has been noted that assumptions of 'a dichotomy between voluntary, economic, and migrant, on the one hand, and forced, political, and refugee, on the other' (Holmes, 2013, p. 17) have not proved helpful in the study of the complex phenomenon of migration. The emergence of several divergent theories to explain migration has given rise to the need for an integrated framework to achieve its holistic understanding. Nonetheless, considering its prevalence in public and official debates of displacement, it is important to consider how it manifests within migratory discourses.

Global overview

Globally, there were 65.6 million forcibly displaced people in 2016 (United Nations Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 2017). This group comprised:

Of the 22.5 million refugees recorded at the end of 2016, 17.2 million fell directly under the UNHCR's mandate while the remaining 5.3 million were Palestinian refugees under the aegis of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) (UNHCR, 2017).

Refugees, asylum seekers, and trafficked persons tended to attract most media attention, though this varied across contexts. In Australia, for example, the media and public debate focused on so-called 'illegal migrants', referring to people who arrived by boat and who were in offshore detention centres (Lidberg, 2016). In South Africa, xenophobic violence had directed attention to migrants from African countries (Hickel, 2014), while, in Europe, the Syrian refugee and migrant crisis was the centre of public attention (Syrian Refugees, 2016).

Preoccupation with negativity

There has been a tendency to focus on the negative aspects of the complex phenomenon of migration. People described migration through metaphors such as, influxes, tides, and floods. The emphasis on migration as a problem overlooks possible positive aspects of migration for migrant-producing countries, destination countries, and migrants themselves (O'Reilly, 2012). This gap is increasingly being addressed in both scholarship and public debate, which identifies the benefits resulting from migratory flows at levels of the individual, community, state, and transnational relations are identified (Tevera & Chikanda, 2009)


The European experience

Boros (2016) observed that new populist actors and the refugee crisis had dominated European politics when an estimated 1 million asylum seekers arrived in the European Union (EU) in 2015. Apart from these asylum seekers, it was believed that there were other migrants numbering several hundred thousand who also arrived in the EU as they took advantage of weak border controls and the fact that many governments appeared to be ill-prepared to deal with an influx of migrants at such an unprecedented rate. As such, Wolf (2017) was of the viewpoint that the 2015/16 migration crisis had demonstrated beyond any iota of doubt that the EU and its member states would be dealing with increased immigration in the future. Wolf further argued that the migration crisis would have two consequences in the Western world. She believed the crisis would lead to religious pluralisation and cultural heterogeneity and the rise of populism throughout Europe, with populist movements riding on people's social and economic insecurity in their attempt to advance right-wing politics.

Boros (2016) observed that the migrant crisis had increasingly become a question of solidarity though some continued viewing it as an issue of identity, economic threat, and security with the anti-migrant, nationalistic mood strengthening following the rise of populist politicians, their strength and even election to government in 2015/16. Resultantly, a country like Hungary, for instance, accepted only a few refugees in 2015 with the overall social acceptance of pro-refugee policies reportedly on the decline. These developments were blamed on and largely attributed to the fence erected on the southern borders of Hungary, government-funded anti-refugee publicity and xenophobic government propaganda (Boros, 2016).

Sub-Saharan Africa

In Sub-Saharan Africa, wrote Oucho (2009), asylum seekers and refugees face serious challenges. Though some of them are skilled, well-educated and are professionals, they are reportedly working for peanuts since they have little recourse for fear of being refouled. Rising unemployment exacerbated by poor economic performance has worsened xenophobia in some African nations. Some populist politicians have been blamed for fuelling xenophobia in these countries. In South Africa, Johannesburg Mayor, Herman Mashaba, was accused of inciting violence against migrants in Gauteng Province. Reports accused Mashaba of saying that illegal immigrants were holding South Africa to ransom and that he would be the last South African to allow it. Following his remarks, South Africans marched to the homes owned by foreign nationals and burnt them under the guise of fighting drugs and prostitution (Masinga, 2017). Many foreigners are now living in fear as a result.

Implications for the social work profession

In conclusion, it cannot be overemphasised that populist politicians are on the rise and that their populist philosophy is having serious negative implications on migration governance and management. As such, the social work profession should not be left out when it comes to addressing the serious challenges that populism is causing. Going forward, the social work profession is expected to delve deeper in generating knowledge on populism and its effects on migration. This knowledge will undoubtedly deepen our understanding and knowledge of the complexities of this phenomenon. It is also expected that social work educationists will play a vital role in producing competent professionals who will take up leadership positions within the professional community. With its focus on the cardinal principles of human rights and social justice, there is no doubt that the social work profession has an obligation to influence laws and policies that have a bearing on the social welfare and individual wellbeing of migrants and their families. These are the opportunities that exist for social workers who dare to make a difference and leave an indelible imprint in this world.


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