The revenge of the bushfaller – why so much of the global visa system deserves to fail

The revenge of the bushfaller – why so much of the global visa system deserves to fail

The recent work of the economist Branko Milanovic, on the extent of inequality across the world has gone a long way to explaining people of meagre means in the poorer countries are prepared to risk so much in the great gamble of migration.[*]

Challenging the naïve optimism of the progressives who became hooked on neoliberalism at the turn of the millennium, expecting as they did to see a convergence in relative levels of wealth across all the nations of the planet, Millanovic sets out the evidence which shows that is just not happening.  Whilst Asia has made significant progress to report on this matter, currently on course to fill the gap by 2044, elsewhere the picture is grimmer. Starting from an already low level, African GDP per capital in 2013 was a mere 1.9 times higher than its 1970 level.  Growth across Latin American has been similarly weak.

In such a world, where inequalities based on geographical place are much greater than those of class in the country of birth, then migration is often the best plan for improving living standards.  In concrete terms, a wage earner in the Democratic Republic of Congo could reasonably hope for an income 93 times higher if she could make the move to the United States.  In contrast, an advance into the status of middle class in her own country would result in a gain of only a tiny fraction of that amount.

For politicians and policy-makers in the developed world these stark facts are justification for harsh, restrictive immigration controls.  The poor must be held at bay to prevent the current sfraction of global migration (around 3% of the world’s population) from becoming a tsunami of people movement.  Plenty of liberals of the stamp of the American political theorists John Rawls and Michael Walzer see no problems with this, arguing that, since the would-be migrants have not contributed to the prosperity which exists in the rich countries, then no issue of injustice arises if they are excluded.  Plenty of exponents of the discipline of development economics, led by Oxford professor Paul Collier, similarly argue that the world is best served by keeping the migrant poor out of the lands of the rich.[†]

But then there is the rather large problem of keeping the idea of the wealthy and fortunate nations of the world out of the heads of the wretched of the Earth. The supposed sophistication of glittering, high-tech cities seems to have become something that is mulled over and preoccupies the minds of subsistence farmers as the tend to their fields and animals in regions which are far removed from Europe or North America.

These notions got there are by the obvious route of the colonialism that brought western civilisation to the villages and towns of the ‘dark’ continents. They continue to be fanned by the ubiquity of the consumer capitalism which has prevailed during the recent decades of so-called independence, and which dictates the idea of what everyone should be aspiring to as the good life.  In the 1970s and 80s the institutions that sustained the economic system at the global level set about eliminating all the home-grown options to this market-driven modernisation and development through structural adjustment programmes which pushed people off the land, closed the industries governments had been nurturing behind protectionist policies, and sacked hundreds of thousands of the educated workers who had been labouring in the public services.  The promised bonanza of speeded up growth rates and break-through into higher performing economies was seldom realised in any country outside Asia.  But the hopes of a distinctively Latin American or African route to progress were ruthlessly extinguished at the behest of the IMF and the World Bank, and the dream of a Global North-style prosperity rooted itself even more deeply in place.

Trek to cities

If the escape from poverty remained elusive, other aspects of the social and cultural life of the only slowly developing countries did not stagnate.   As peasant farmers were uprooted from their fields and began the trek to the slums and shanties of the burgeoning cities they were obliged to find lives for themselves based on casual employment and petty trading.  The quickened pace of the exchange of commodities and services encouraged a commitment to literacy and numeracy, and a high valuation on education in general.  Even though the rewards of extended years of schooling remained modest, parents made sacrifices to ensure that their children were equipped with the skills that helped them to hustle in the informal markets that prevailed across the poorest countries.

From the standpoint of the developmental economist, these people were doing all the right thing by in investing in their own human capital and strengthening the skill base of the economy.  Supply side economic theory, in the spirit of ‘build it and they will come’, continued to believe that as people became better skilled and more educated, investment would pour in to build the industries which would give everyone decent employment.

The wait is still on.  In Ghana, a country with the apparently excellent record of GDP growth rates in the order of 7% per annum across the period 2000-16, sees 250,000 well-educated children coming out of its secondary schools every year.  However, out of this number, only 10% will be able to lay down a future for themselves in good jobs in the formal sector of the economy.  Young Ghanaians are a prime example of a group of people who have been reading all the signs and indicators that as to what is expected from them in order to function as productive members of their society, but somehow, for the vast majority, that decent job which would allow them to live that life remains far beyond the immediate horizon.

Into this world of frustrated endeavour comes the immigration control systems that are imposed on the peoples of the poorer countries by the countries of the developed world.  The message they are supposed to take from the vastly difficult demands of visa regulations is, don’t even bother unless you really are one of your country’s top few percent, with the money and the willingness to splash out that makes you a candidate for inclusion in the ‘brightest and best’ category. The merely smart, hopeful and ambitious are supposed to hunker down and take consolation from the fact that convergence will eventually happen, sometime around the middle of the twenty-second century.

Brokering migration

Understandably this is not a happy thing to be told.  But does it at least do what it is supposed to do – namely deter the young, agile, discontented masses from starting out on the path of migration?  An answer to this question is to be found in a recent book by the Dutch researcher, Maybritt Jill Alpes. Brokering High-Risk Migration and Illegality in West Africa: Abroad at Any Cost is based on her ethnographic work in the Anglophone regions of Cameroon.  It is not one that will be welcome to the architects of immigration policy in the destination countries, picking about as it does the claims of such authorities to be the sole arbitrators of what constitutes legitimate immigration, Alpes looks at things from the point of view of the people who are the subject of controls which the authorities of the Global North believe are transparently clear, totally rational, and a necessary part of the administrative furniture of a globalised modern century.  From this imperious standpoint, only criminals could want to work against a scheme which is intended to bring order into the chaos that would otherwise reign.

Alpes’s informants might well be characterised as chancers, opportunists, or whatever – but criminals seems a step too far.  It is interesting that they divide along gender lines between would-be migrants – almost all female – and the exclusively male brokers.  Their chosen routes are not intended to take the dangerous turns of sea crossings or midnight smuggling across razor-wire fenced borders, though an unexpected landing at a Balkans airport might undo the best laid of their plans.  The basic strategy is that of working hard -very hard – to get the immigration regulations to bend and eventually open a rift through which you might be able to slip.  For this to stand a chance of success the applicant must of necessity employ the services of a broker who has the knowledge of how the rules operate and the experience of being able to pick away through them.  The difficulty for the aspiring ‘bushfaller’ – the local term for migrant – is being able to identify a genuine ‘big man’ broker, who might be able to deliver on his promises, and the ‘feyman’, who will just take your money and run.

In this world the claims made by officials of the destination states to the sole judge of forms of migration that will bring greatest benefit is challenged by multiple other authorities who stand at key points within the immigration control systems.  To the forefront of this group is the free-lance broker who holds in his head the arcane knowledge of how it all operates and who will share this with suitable paying customers.  Alpes explains how the successful broker builds the image of being a trustworthy agent who has the power to transform what might be a poor initial visa application into something more compelling.  Certificates will adorn his office testifying to the strength of contacts amongst others in authority out in ‘bush’ (the place to which the bushfaller dreams of going).  Business organisations, universities, testimonials from officials in public office in Gulf states are all authorities which accrue to the authority of the broker, and which tip the balance against the authority which the applicant wants to overcome – namely the visa officials representing the destination state.

She spends time in descriptions of the physical space in which the claimants to authority locate themselves.  The broker operates from an office with a receptionist and possibly a secretary in attendance.  The walls show posters of places which can be recognised as being out in bush, even though the persons in scrutinising the vision might be vague as to whether they are looking at a scene in Paris or Istanbul.  Phones and laptops are on display which reassure the client that the information provided is current and the way is open to communication with the partners who might be needed to facilitate a journey.

The visa department at the embassy of the destination country has its own version of this stage craft.  Television screens show video films on continuous loop pointing to the penalty for the presentation of fraudulent documents and warnings about the risks of exploitation and misery for those whose immigration doesn’t follow the correct paths.  The suggestion is that the messages conveyed by in these two locations, whilst apparently pointing in opposite directions, are in reality mutually reinforcing.  The visa office says that immigration is a very hard thing to accomplish:  the broker says, yes, it is hard, but that is why you need a big man like me to get you across the obstacles.

Brokers, even when they genuinely are ‘big men’, have a high rate of failure and many people lay out sums the equivalent of thousands of dollars in futile efforts to get abroad.  What gives them resilience is the fact that they are providing their services to people who know that life is always hard and that most of the plans that people have for a better life will end up in disappointment.  When efforts to set up a business fail nine out of ten times, wiping out hard-to-come-by capital in the process, then no one surprised that a similar proportion of visa applications will go down the drain. Surviving in such an environment is a matter of luck, and whether one’s luck is good or bad is influenced by everything from the spiritual effects of a priests blessing or a witch’s curse, though to the more material matter of making the right impression during an interview. In other words, even luck is not random in the sense that it is thought of in the West.  Action can be taken, resources drawn upon which are supposed to help the bushfaller to take on and defeat bad luck.

Indeed, succumbing to bad luck tends to be seen as a sign of weakness on the part of the individual, rather than the outcome of the random why in which fate stacks its cards up against you.  The person who gets as far as an interview for a visa sees the outcome turning on whether they wore the right colour tie, or their demeanour was appropriate for such an important occasion.  Worse, the person who gets so far as to make it out into bush, but then returns as a deportee has revealed a weakness of character which will not deter others from trying, but merely reinforce the idea that they will have to be stronger.

In the consulate

In a fascinating chapter Alpes sits in on and dissects the work of the visa official as he or she works their way through the 150 files that typically make up their daily workload.  During interview with applicants a face appears on the other side of the glass screens in the consular offices.  The visa officer has at most two minutes to make up her mind as to whether the individual who appears before her has met the requirements of complex sets of rules which consist of a dozen or more clauses and sub-clauses and which have to be met for the application to be successful. At this point Alpes’s description recalls to mind the novel published several years ago the UK, in which the author, himself an ex-immigration official, explains that often the decision of whether to admit or not devolves around such issues as whether the applicant has his ‘refusal shoes’ on that day.[‡]  What constitutes a refusal shoe at any time might very – brown brogues on a Monday, open-toe sandal on Tuesday, elastic-side boot on a Wednesday, etc.  But if the African lives in a world where cosmic powers will decide her fate, the westerner makes a joke in poor taste as to how random and comic everything is.

If the broker fails to deliver the opportunity to bushfall, and costs the applicant thousands of dollars as a consequence, that is not so different from the policies which the visa officials enact of charging the applicant large fees to process an application, but then retaining all this money when the hoped-for permission is denied.  It needs to be pointed out to the politicians who thought this practice was a good idea because it would deter even more hopeless cases, that its main achievement is to put their embassy officials on the same moral standing as the ‘feyman’, who never intended anything more that the straight swindling of the hapless victim.  Having sunk to this level in the eyes of the aspirant bushfaller, the visa official is thought of as being at one with those who are out to exploit her vulnerability and poverty, and as such merits all the action that needs to be taken to counter this maliciousness.

The destination country authorities intend that their policies and regulations will ‘send the message’ to would-be migrants that only an exceptional few will ever be allowed to cross the hallowed threshold of the destination country.  But this is a task that produces a constant need for the revision and redrafting of regulations to update and plug all the holes that immediately appear as soon as they become operational. The shifting and conditional status of the rules does not convey the impression of a wise and rational authority which aims for universal reach across all humanity., On the contrary, it goes a long way to affirming what applicants feel about the immorality of the system, having its origins in a rich world is prepared to go to cheat them of all the things that had been promised for bringing themselves into line with the world of global capitalism.  Alpes’s informants are hardly paragons of virtue – they are far too interesting to be that – but they have not deserved the fate of being subject to a regulatory system which, on the occasion of each and refusal of a visa, signals the judgment that they are part of a rubbish segment of humanity, there to be rode over roughshod.  They are pushing back against this verdict, and we should be doing more to tip the balance in their favour.


[*] Branko Milanovic, Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization, 2016.

[†] Paul Collier, Exodus: Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century, 2014.

[‡][‡] Tony Saint, Refusal Shoes, 2003.

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