Guests and Aliens
by saskia sassen
New York, The New Press, 2000. 224 pages
Paperback: UK £11.50, US $16.95
Saskia Sassen has been one of the most respected voices in the study of migration for many years, especially since the publication of The Mobility of Labor and Capital: A Study in International Investment and Labor Flow (Cambridge University Press, 1988). The strength of Sassen’s work has been her use of empirical data and breadth of analysis to demonstrate the patterned and bounded nature of migration movements. In Guests and Aliens, Sassen once again offers readers an array of historical facts and figures drawn from a wide variety of sources and locations.
In this work, Sassen’s declared purpose is “to widen the options we envision for dealing with immigrants and refugees by making a broader interpretation of why these people in motion exist in the first place” (p. 2). For European readers, her goal is to demonstrate that Europe was not just a continent of emigration to the New World, but that immigration has been an integral part of European history since at least 1800, and that these migrations were an important factor in Europe’s economic development. For American readers, her aim is to offer an alternative to current US policy, suggesting that an approach closer to that of Europe has something to offer. She contrasts the United States’ “refusal to recognize the incompatibility between the new economic regime aimed at neutralizing borders and immigration policies aimed at total control of borders” with the situation in Europe, where the European Union “has to come up with ways to accommodate the free movement of its residents including those who are not EU nationals” (p. xvii, italics in original).
Guests and Aliens is primarily a brief history of migrations to, from and within different European regions and states since the middle of the eighteenth century. Sassen is concerned to place the motivations for migration—persecution, poverty and overpopulation—in an economic and political framework. She again shows how migrations have been patterned and bounded in time and place. In this she draws explicitly on the work of historians such as Jan Lucassen (on Europe), Abel Chatelain (France), Gerard Noiriel (France) and Klaus Bade (Germany), who have described worker migrations such as those of Germans to Holland, Poles to Germany, the Irish to Britain, and Italians to Switzerland, France and Germany. Her mastery of this literature brings to the attention of those without her gift for languages some important sources that have not yet been translated into English.
In previous work, Sassen has asserted that “the state continues to play the most important role in immigration-policy making and implementation”.1 Guests and Aliens similarly stresses the role of the state and state system, but it also says that they are “increasingly part of a web of rights and regulations that are embedded in other entities—from EC institutions to courts defending the human rights of refugees” (p. 133). Sassen argues that the sovereignty of states is constrained by a range of rights, obligations and internal and external pressures. Examples of these constraints include decisions by the French and German constitutional courts that certain provisions in national laws, which were in harmony with European instruments such as the Dublin and Schengen agreements, violated other national legal instruments (namely the constitutions of the two countries) and international instruments such as the Geneva Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and the European Convention on Human Rights (p. 109). However, national governments wage a constant war against these constraints, continually seeking and finding ways to circumvent them.
In relation to the European Union, Sassen’s assessment has been somewhat overtaken by events. Her overall conclusion is that “the new confluence of conditions which has engaged national governments and the EC in a joint effort to harmonize migration and asylum policies in the EU represents a remarkable change compared to only a few years ago” (p. 130). This presumably refers to the Amsterdam Treaty (1996) and the Tampere Summit (1999), which set 2004 as the date by which the European Union should have in place a common European migration policy. But while the various governments generally believe such a policy is desirable, until recently there were considerable differences between them, such that the sole area of agreement was that increased controls were necessary. There was no consensus that there should be migration, let alone a consensus on how much migration, what kind or from which country.
Towards the end of 2000 there was a shift as Britain and Germany, in particular, slowly came to accept that there are shortages of skilled labour and that the legal channels for migration need to be widened if industry and the economy are to grow. This view recently received considerable support in Migration: An Economic and Social Analysis (2000), a report published by the British Home Office. Government policy based on economic and demographic considerations, however, remains one driven by narrow national self-interest and not of enlightened burden-sharing, much less of making migrants welcome as anything other than workers. Contrary to Sassen’s optimistic view, it seems the only lessons European states are prepared to learn from each other are how better to control their frontiers, and to pick and choose those migrants that best fit each state’s economic needs.
Sassen also places forced migration within the broader migration context. She offers a brief discussion of the history of refugee movements in some of the major European states, referring especially to the work of Aristide Zolberg and Michael Marrus. She underlines Zolberg’s claim that refugees are a product of state formation, and stresses Europe’s historical and contemporary role as a producer of refugees. Central to her argument is the importance of the interstate system as it developed in Europe. And yet the arguments presented here, about the centrality of the state and the interstate system, particularly in relation to refugees, do not go any further than her sources. While Sassen is right to focus on refugees as a European product (p. 96), this is not a novel approach. Most of the authorities in this area, including Marrus and Zolberg, have written extensively on the European aspects of refugee matters.
In her final chapter, Sassen draws on the work of a wide range of specialised scholars, especially labour and migration historians, in order to make certain claims and recommendations. She is anxious that the lessons of the past be learnt so that the reasons why nations have welcomed incomers as “guests” or disparaged them as “aliens” may be understood. She outlines an approach to improving US and European immigration policies.
However, Sassen’s ambitious goals and some of the material she uses fit uneasily into such a slim volume. The shift from a focus on very particular, local migrations to a broader canvas and back again can leave the reader confused. On the one hand, it is not always clear what point is actually being made by a description of a group of migrant workers in a particular area of a particular country. The relevance of such descriptions—a relevance asserted by Sassen—is occasionally opaque. For example, there is an extended account of the movement of East Germans to West Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, but there is no real discussion of the significance of this unique occurrence. On the other hand, discussion of national contexts and debates is sometimes reduced to very general outlines, especially in the second half of the book.
Guests and Aliens provides an accessible introduction to the migration issue. However, it offers little that is new in terms of data or analysis. Given its brevity it is perhaps inevitable that this book oversimplifies what are in practice complex historical and contemporary trends.
1. Saskia Sassen, “The De Facto Transnationalizing of Immigration Policy”, in Challenge to the Nation-State: Immigration in Western Europe and the United States, ed. Christian Joppke (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 49.