Migrants and the New ‘Wandering Poor’: Back to the Future

We’ve known for some time that the UK government wants to attract only the ‘brightest and the best’ immigrants to Britain, and that special forms of largesse are extended to rich migrants in order to attract them to our shores.   If you are married to a British citizen but earn less than £18, 500 for example, you can’t live in the UK, even if your spouse and children already live here.

If you happen to be an ordinary worker who comes to the UK in search of a job you will now have to earn £150 per week just to attain ‘worker’ status and access child benefit, jobseekers allowance,  and all the other privileges that national citizens get regardless of whether they fulfill the same criteria – and even then only if you speak English.

If you are a foreign millionaire however or wealthy businessman however, you and your families can live in the UK for two to three years by buying government gilts or simply be investing in your own business,  without anyone telling you that you have to speak English or have a job or anything else to ‘integrate’ into our warm and welcoming society.   And now the government is proposing to set up an auction in which rich migrants will be able to bid for a limited number of tier-one visas that will allow them and their families to live in the UK indefinitely.

These very different attitudes reflect wider assumptions and attitudes about migration that have a long historical pedigree.    In medieval and early modern Europe, poor ‘migrants’ were regarded as a dangerous and disreputable class that needed to be checked, excluded, punished and controlled, whether they consisted of beggars, vagrants, ‘masterless men’ or journeymen workers.

In 1587 Pope Sixtus V complained of vagrants in Rome who ‘fill with their groands and cries not only public places and private houses but they churches themselves; they provoke alarms and incidents; they roam like brute beasts with no other care than the search for food.’   In 1569, authorities in London noted that poor relief had ‘drawen into this citie great numbers of vagabondes, roges, masterless men and idle persons, as also poore, lame and sick persons.’

In 1554 a decree in the Netherlands ordered that all ‘brigands and vagabonds’ should be sent to the galleys, on the grounds that their poverty resulted ‘solely from waywardness and pure sloth, through not wishing to work or toil to earn their bread and living.’   In the fifteenth and sixteenth century Irish migrants fleeing poverty and famine who fled to England were likely to be flogged and deported back to where they came from.

At various periods in sixteenth century Valencia, the authorities ordered the arrest of any vagrants – partly in an attempt to prevent immigration from beyond Spain.   Still, in the early seventeenth century, the Spanish Royal Secretary Fernández de Navarrete complained that ‘ all the scum of Europe have come to Spain, so that there is hardly a deaf, dumb, lame of blind man in France in France, Germany, Italy or Flanders, who has not been to Castile.’

In 1561 the English Privy Council ordered local authorities across London ‘to searche out & learne the holl number of Alyens & Strangers in that city.’   Even in nineteenth century Europe, apprentice journeymen in pre-unification Germany were obliged to carry a ‘Wander -Buch’ ( Wandering Book) in order to travel and look for work.

Before the advent of national borders, unwanted strangers were scrutinized and excluded  city gates, at town and parish boundaries.    But then, as now, wealthy travelers were rarely subject to such restrictions – beyond the customs tariffs they were expected to pay.   Then, as now, societies that had no interest in preventing or addressing the causes of poverty preferred to invest their energies in the control, exclusion and repression of those who refused to accept the boundaries of class, economic status, race or geography.

Today global migrants below a certain income level  are routinely depicted as an undesirable and dangerous expression of the ‘undeserving poor’, whose mobility is a threat to the lifestyle, identity and security of the countries where they go to seek work and/or sanctuary, and we continue to inhabit the world that Herman Melville once described in Moby Dick, in which ‘sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.’

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