The Migration Panic And Its (Mis)Uses

By Wednesday 23 March 2016 No Comments

Zygmunt Bauman2016TV news, newspaper headlines, political speeches and tweets used to deliver foci and outlets for public anxieties and fears are currently overflowing with references to the “migration crisis” – ostensibly overwhelming Europe and portending the collapse and demise of the way of life we know, practice and cherish. That crisis is at present a sort of politically correct codename for the current phase of the perpetual battle waged by opinion makers for the conquest and subordination of human minds and feelings. The impact of the news broadcast from that battlefield now comes close to causing a veritable “moral panic” (by the commonly accepted definition of that phenomenon as recorded by Wikipedia: “a feeling of fear spread among a large number of people that some evil threatens the well-being of society.”)

When I write these words, another tragedy – one of callous unconcern and moral blindness – lies waiting to strike. Signs pile up of public opinion in cahoots with the ratings-covetous media gradually yet relentlessly approaching the point of a “refugee tragedy fatigue”. Drowned children, hastily erected walls, barbed wire fences, overcrowded concentration camps (“reception centres”) and governments vying in adding insults to the injuries of exile, narrow escape and nerve-racking perils of the voyage to safety by treating the migrants as hot potatoes – all such moral outrages are less and less news and ever more seldom “in the news”. Alas, the fate of shocks is their turning into the dull routine of normality – and of moral panics spending themselves and vanishing from view and from consciences wrapped in the veil of oblivion. Who remembers now the Afghan refugees seeking asylum in Australia, hurling themselves against barbed-wire fences in Woomera or confined to the large detention camps built by the Australian government on Nauru and Christmas Island “to prevent them from entering its territorial waters”? Or the dozens of Sudanese exiles killed by the police in the centre of Cairo “after having been deprived of their rights by the UN High Commission for Refugees”? (See here).

Massive migration is by no means a novel phenomenon; it accompanied the modern era from its very beginning (though time and again modifying, and occasionally reversing, its directions) – as our “modern way of life” includes the production of “redundant people” (locally “inutile” – excessive and unemployable – owing to economic progress, or locally intolerable – rejected in the effect of unrest, conflicts and strife caused by social/political transformations and subsequent power struggles). On top of that, however, we now bear the consequences of the profound, and seemingly prospectless destabilization of the Middle-Eastern area in the aftermath of miscalculated, foolishly myopic and admittedly abortive policies and military ventures of Western powers.

The factors behind the current mass movements at the points of departure are twofold; but so is their impact at the points of arrival and the reactions of the receiving countries. In the “developed” parts of the globe, in which both economic migrants and the refugees seek shelter, business interests covet and welcome the influx of cheap labour and profit-promising skills (as Dominic Casciani juicily summed it up: “British employers have become savvy at how to get cheap foreign workers – with employment agencies working hard on the continent to identify and sign up foreign labour”); for the bulk of the population, already haunted by the existential frailty and precariousness of their social standing and prospects, that influx signals however yet more competition on the labour market, deeper uncertainty and falling chances of improvement: a politically explosive state of mind, with politicians veering awkwardly between incompatible desires to gratify their capital-holding masters and placate the fears of their electors.

All in all, as things stand now and promise to be for a long time to come, mass migration is unlikely to grind to a halt; neither for the lack of prompting nor for the rising ingenuity of attempts to stop it. As Robert Winder wittily remarked in the preface to the second edition of his book Bloody Foreigners – “We can park our chair on the beach as often as we please, and cry at the oncoming waves, but the tide will not listen, nor the sea retreat”. Building walls in order to stop migrants short of “our own backyards” comes ridiculously close to the story of the ancient philosopher Diogenes rolling to and from the barrel in which he lived over the streets of his native Sinope. Asked for the reasons for his strange behaviour, he answered that seeing his neighbours being busy barricading their doors and sharpening their swords, he also wished to contribute to the defence of the city against being conquered by the Macedonian troops of Alexander.
What has however happened most recently, in the last few years, is an enormous leap in the numbers added by refugees and asylum seekers to the total volume of migrants knocking on the doors of Europe; that leap was caused by the rising number of “failing” or rather failed states or – for all intents and purposes – stateless and thus also lawless territories, stages for interminable tribal and sectarian wars, mass murders and round-the-clock banditry. To a large extent, this is the collateral damage done by the fatally misjudged, ill-starred and calamitous military expeditions to Afghanistan and Iraq, ending in the replacing of dictatorial regimes with the open-all-hours theatre of unruliness and frenzy of violence, aided and abetted by the global arms trade, unleashed from any control and beefed up by the profit-greedy weapons industry with the tacit (though all too often proudly displayed in public at international arms fairs) support of governments greedy for increased GNP. The flood of the refugees pushed by the rule of arbitrary violence to abandon their homes and cherished possessions, of people seeking shelter from the killing fields, topped the steady flow of the so called “economic migrants”, pulled by the all too human wish to move from barren soil to where the grass is green: from impoverished lands of no prospects, to dreamlands rich in opportunities. Of that steady stream of people seeking condition of decent living standards (a stream flowing steadily since the beginning of humanity, and only accelerated by the modern industry of redundant people and wasted lives), Paul Collier has the following to say (in Exodus):

´The first fact is that the income gap between poor countries and rich ones is grotesquely wide and the global growth process will leave it wide for several decades. The second is that migration will not significantly narrow this gap because the feedback mechanisms are too weak. The third is that as migration continues, the diasporas will continue to accumulate for some decades. Thus, the income gap will persist, while the facilitator for migration will increase. The implication is that migration from poor countries to rich is set to accelerate. For the foreseeable future, international migration will not reach equilibrium: we have been observing the beginnings of disequilibrium of epic proportions.´




Between 1960 and 2000, as Collier calculates (having available only the statistics up to 2000) “what took off, from under 20 million to over 60 million, was migration from poor countries to rich ones. Further, the increase accelerated decade by decade (…) It is a reasonable presumption that 2000 continued this acceleration”. Left to its own logic and momentum, we may say, the population of poor and rich countries would behave like the liquid in corresponding vessels. The number of immigrants is bound to carry on towards equilibrating, until the levels of well-being even up in both “developed” and “developing(?)” sectors of the globalized planet. Such a result will, in all probability, however, require many decades to be reached – even barring the unanticipated turns of historical fate.

A Never-Ending Story

Refugees from the bestiality of wars and despotisms or the savagery of famished and prospectless existence have knocked on other people’s door since the beginnings of modern times. For people behind those doors they were always, as they are now, strangers. Strangers tend to cause anxiety precisely because of being “strange” – so fearsomely unpredictable, unlike the people with whom we daily interact and from whom we believe we know what to expect; for all we know, the influx of strangers might destroy the things we cherish and intend to maim or wipe out our consolingly familiar way we life. Those people with whom we are used to cohabit in our neighbourhoods, on city streets or in work places, we divide ordinarily into either friends or enemies, welcome or merely tolerated; but to whatever category we assign them, we know well how to behave towards them and how to conduct our interactions. Of strangers however we know much too little to be able to read properly their gambits and compose our responses; to guess what their intentions might be and what will they do next. And ignorance of how to carry on, how to deal with a situation not of our doing and not under our control, is a major cause of anxiety and fear.

These are, we might say, universal and extemporal problems with “strangers in our midst” – appearing at all times and haunting all sectors of the population with more or less similar intensity and in more or less similar measure. Densely populated urban areas inevitably generate the contradictory impulses of “mixophilia” (attraction to variegated, heteronymous surroundings auguring unknown and unexplored experiences and for that reason promising pleasures of adventure and discovery), and “mixophobia” (fear of the unmanageable volume of the unknown, untameable, off-putting and uncontrollable). The first impulse is the city life’s main attraction – the second being, on the contrary, its most awesome bane, especially in the eyes of the less fortunate and resourceful, who – unlike the rich and privileged, capable of buying themselves into “gated communities” to insulate themsleves from the discomforting, perplexing, and time and again terrifying turmoil and brouhaha of crowded city streets – lack the capacity to cut themselves off from the innumerable traps and ambushes scattered all over the heterogeneous, and all too often unfriendly, distrustful and hostile urban environment to whose hidden dangers they are doomed to remain exposed for life. As Alberto Nardelli informs us:

Nearly 40% of Europeans cite immigration as the issue of most concern facing the EU – more than any other issue. Only a year ago, less than 25% of people said the same. One in two of the British public mention immigration as among the most important issues facing the country.



In our increasingly deregulated, multi-centred, out-of-joint world, this permanent ambivalence of urban life is not, however, the only reason to be made uneasy and feel fightened by the sight of homeless newcomers, to arouse enmity towards them, to invite violence – and also use, misuse or abuse the migrants’ all too visible destitute, woeful and powerless plight. One can name two extra impulses to do so, added by the peculiar traits of our post-deregulation mode of life and cohabitation; factors apparently quite distinct from each other and so predominantly affecting different categories of people. Each of the two intensifies the resentment and pugnacity toward immigrants – but in different sectors of the native population.
Animal Farm

The first impulse follows, even if in a somewhat updated form, the pattern sketched already in Aesop’s ancient tale of hares and frogs. The hares of that tale were so persecuted by the other beasts they did not know where to go. As soon as they saw a single animal approach them, off they used to run. One day they saw a troop of wild horses stampeding about, and in quite a panic all the hares scuttled off to a lake hard by, determined to drown themselves rather than live in such a continual state of fear. But just as they got near the bank of the lake, a troop of frogs, frightened in their turn by the approach of the hares, scuttled off and jumped into the water. “Truly,” said one of the hares, “things are not so bad as they seem”. No need to choose death over life in fear. The moral of Aesop’s tale is straightforward: the satisfaction that this hare felt – a welcome respite from the routine despondency of daily persecution – he has drawn from the revelation that there is always someone in a worse off pickle than himself.

Hares “persecuted by the other beasts” and finding themselves in a plight similar to that suffered by those of Aesop’s tale are plentiful in our society of human animals; in recent decades, their numbers keep growing, and seemingly unstoppably. They live in misery, debasement and ignominy amidst a society set to outcast them while boasting the glory of its unprecedented comfort and opulence; our hares are derided and condemned by those “other human beasts”, offended by being demeaned and denied worthiness by others – while censored, derided and humiliated by the court of their own conscience for their blatant impotence at levelling up with those others. In a world in which everyone is presumed, expected and prompted to “be for himself (or herself)”, such human hares refused by other humans respect, care and recognition, are just like the Aesop “hares persecuted by other beasts” cast in that “hindmost” that has been written off as the legitimate Devil’s spoils – and kept there for the duration with no hope, let alone promise, of redemption or escape.

For outcasts suspecting they have reached the bottom, the discovery of another floor beneath that to which they themselves have been pushed is a soul-saving event, redeeming their human dignity and salvaging whatever has been left of their self-esteem. The arrival of a mass of homeless migrants stripped of human rights not only in practice but also by the letter of law creates the (rare) chance of such an event. This goes a long way to explaining the coincidence of the recent mass immigration with the rising fortunes of xenophobia, racism, chauvinist variety of nationalism – and the astonishing as much as unprecedented electoral successes of the xenophobic, racist, chauvinist parties and movements and their jingoist leaders.

Les Bas Profonds

The Front National led by Marine Le Pen gathers votes mostly among the bottom – disinherited, discriminated, impoverished and exclusion-fearing – layers of French society, mustering their support with explicitly stated or tacitly presumed “France for the Frenchmen” rallying call. By people threatened with practical, even if not (thus far) formal, exclusion from their society, such a call can hardly be ignored: after all, nationalism provides them with the dreamt of life-boat (a resurrection device?) for their fading or already defunct self-esteem. Being a Frenchman (or a Frenchwoman) is one feature (the only one feasible?) that puts them into the same category as the good and noble, high and mighty people at the top, while sumultaneously setting them above the similarly miserable aliens, the stateless newcomers. Migrants are that sought-after bottom located yet further down – beneath which the indigenous misérables have been consigned and committed; a bottom that may render one’s own lot a little bit less than absolutely demeaning, and so a little bit less bitter, unendurable and intolerable.

And there is another exceptional (that is, reaching beyond the “normal”, extemporal distrust of strangers) reason to be resentful of the massive inflow of refugees and asylum seekers; reason appealing mostly to a different sector of society – to the emergent “precariat”: to people afraid of losing their cherished and enviable achievements, possessions and social standing, rather than those human equivalents of Aesop’s hares, sunk in despair fed by having lost them already or never having been given a chance of attaining them.

Strangers On The Shore – And Street

One cannot but notice that the massive and sudden appearance of strangers on our streets has neither been caused by us nor is it under our control. No one consulted us, no one asked our agreement. No wonder that the successive tides of fresh immigrants are resented (to recall Bertold Brecht) as “harbingers of bad news”. They are embodiments of the collapse of order (whatever we consider as an “order”: a state of affairs in which the relations between causes and effects are stable and so graspable and predictable, allowing those inside to know how to proceed) that is no longer binding: a sort of “sandwich man” carrying the announcement “the end of the world as we know it is nigh”. They, in a poignant expression of Jonathan Rutherford (see here), “transport the bad news from a far corner of the world onto our doorsteps.” They make us aware and keep reminding us of what we would dearly like to forget or better still to wish away: of some global, distant, sometimes heard about but unseen, intangible, obscure and mysterious forces powerful enough to interfere also with our lives while neglecting and ignoring our own preferences. The “collateral victims” of those forces tend to be, by some vitiated logic, perceived as those forces’ avant-garde troops – now setting up garrisons in our midst. Those nomads – not by choice but by the verdict of a heartless fate – remind us, irritatingly and infuriatingly, of the (incurable?) vulnerability of our own position and fragility of our hard-own well-being – and it is a human, all too human habit to blame and punish the messengers for the hateful contents of the message they carry from those baffling, inscrutable, frightening and rightly resented global forces which we suspect as the culprits of the agonizing and humiliating feeling of existential uncertainty which despoils our confidence and plays havoc with our life plans. And while we can do next to nothing to bridle the elusive and faraway forces of globalization, we can at least divert the anger they caused us and carry on causing, and unload that anger, vicariously, on their close to hand and within reach products. It won’t of course reach anywhere near the roots of the trouble, but might relieve if only for a time the humiliation of our haplessness and our incapacity to resist the disabling precariousness of our own place in the world.

That twisted logic and the mindset it generates provide a well-prepared and highly fertile ground, tempting many a political vote-gatherer to graze on: a chance which a growing number of politicians would be loath to miss. Capitalizing on the anxiety caused by the influx of strangers of whom it is feared they will push further down wages and salaries already refusing to grow, and to lengthen yet more the queues of people lining up in vain for stubbornly scarce jobs, is a temptation to which very few politicians already in or aspiring to office would be able to resist. Strategies which politicians deploy to embrace that opportunity can be and are many and different, but one thing needs to be clear: the policy of mutual separation and keeping one’s distance, building walls instead of bridges and settling for sound-proof “echo-chambers” instead of hot lines for undistorted communication (and all in all washing one’s hands and manifesting one’s indifference in the disguise of tolerance) leads nowhere but onto the wasteland of mutual mistrust, estrangement and aggravation. Deceptively comfort-bringing (by chasing the challenge out of sight) in the short run, such a suicidal policy stores up explosives for future detonation. And so one conclusion needs to be equally clear: the sole way out of current discomforts and future woes leads through rejecting the treacherous temptations of separation; indeed, making such separation unfeasible by dismantling the fences of “asylum-seekers camps” and bringing the annoying differences, dissimilarities, and self-imposed estrangements into a close, daily and increasingly intimate contact – hopefully resulting in a fusion of horizons instead of their induced yet self-exacerbating fission.

Long And Winding Road

Yes, I know – such a course of action portends a long, jolting and thorny period ahead; it is not likely to bring any immediate relief, it may even initially trigger more fears and exacerbate suspicions and animosities; however, I don’t believe there is an alternative, more comfortable and less risky, short-cut solution to the problem. Humanity is in crisis – and there is no exit from that crisis other than solidarity among humans. The first obstacle on the road to the exit from mutual alienation is the refusal of dialogue: the silence – of self-alienation, aloofness, inattention, disregard, indifference. Instead of the duo of love and hate, the dialectics of border drawing needs to be thought therefore in terms of the triad of love, hate and indifference or neglect.

On the vice or sin of indifference, Pope Francis had the following to say on 8 July 2013 during his visit to Lampedusa – when and where the current “moral panic” and the ensuing moral debacle started:

How many of us, myself included, have lost our bearings; we are no longer attentive to the world in which we live; we don’t care; we don’t protect what God created for everyone, and we end up unable even to care for one another! And when humanity as a whole loses its bearings, it results in tragedies like the one we have witnessed… The question has to be asked: Who is responsible for the blood of these brothers and sisters of ours? Nobody! That is our answer: It isn’t me; I don’t have anything to do with it; it must be someone else, but certainly not me… Today no one in our world feels responsible; we have lost a sense of responsibility for our brothers and sisters… The culture of comfort, which makes us think only of ourselves, makes us insensitive to the cries of other people, makes us live in soap bubbles which, however lovely, are insubstantial; they offer a fleeting and empty illusion which results in indifference to others; indeed, it even leads to the globalization of indifference. In this globalized world, we have fallen into globalized indifference. We have become used to the suffering of others: it doesn’t affect me; it doesn’t concern me; it’s none of my business!



Pope Francis calls on us “to remove the part of Herod that lurks in our hearts; let us ask the Lord for the grace to weep over our indifference, to weep over the cruelty of our world, of our own hearts, and of all those who in anonymity make social and economic decisions which open the door to tragic situations like this”. Having said that, he asks: “Has any one wept? Today has anyone wept in our world?”

About Zygmunt Bauman
Zygmunt Bauman is Emeritus Professor at the University of Leeds and one of Europe’s foremost sociologists. He is author of ‘Liquid Modernity’ (Polity 2000) and many other books on contemporary society.

December 2015

from: socialeurope