Guest Post by Anjuli Peters. Anjuli is an undergraduate student at Pitzer College, a member of the Claremont Colleges in Claremont, California. As a legal studies and sociology dual major, her research interests include immigration removal centres, criminal law, and decision-making processes in the criminal justice system. In this post, Anjuli Peters interviews Sasha Polakow-Suransky, author of the newly-released book, Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy.

Within the past decade, the world has witnessed a surge in exclusionary immigration practices. For example, British Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to cut net immigration rates to below 100,000 a year. Since the EU-Turkey deal, migrants traveling from Turkey into the Greek islands are now forced to return. United States President Donald Trump recently announced his decision to terminate policies which protect young, undocumented immigrants from deportation.

In his newly released book, Go Back to Where You Came From: The Backlash Against Immigration and the Fate of Western Democracy, author Sasha Polakow-Suransky provides a powerful narrative history of public and political backlash against immigration. ‘Many of the world’s most advanced democracies,’ writes Polakow-Suransky, ‘are effectively hitting the self-destruct button rather than take on new passengers.’ Over the span of two years, Polakow-Suransky traveled across eight different countries to conduct over 120 interviews with individuals ranging from politicians and activists on the far right to refugees held in immigration detention centres. While the book provides insight into the politics and policies surrounding issues of immigration, Polakow-Suransky’s primary focus is on how backlash against immigrants and refugees can erode political systems within long-standing, advanced democracies. In my interview with Polakow-Suransky, he elaborates upon several of the main arguments found within his book, as well as challenges that he has encountered throughout his research.

Q: What are some of the logistical and emotional difficulties that you have encountered during the research and writing process of your book?

I began the research for my book during the summer of 2015 after receiving a grant from the Open Society Foundations. As I did the reporting for this book, the refugee crisis in Europe was reaching its peak. Policies were constantly evolving, and in a day, my predictions and arguments would suddenly become outdated or overtaken by new events. For any sort of researcher, working on a topic like this can be a real challenge. I often felt that I was chasing a moving target.

During my interviews with refugees, I had to prepare myself for the traumatic first-person narratives of their experiences. I would like to think that I have a pretty thick skin, but I did see some awful things. For instance, I spent quite a lot of time reporting in the Calais ‘Jungle’ before it was bulldozed. It is not an easy topic to research and write about, and I knew that going in. After going into people’s tents and following them around a trash-strewn landscape, I was exposed to some traumatic stories.

I also spent a lot of time with politicians and activists on the extreme right with whom I vehemently disagree. This can be quite unsettling as a researcher and journalist. However, my goal while writing this book was to try to understand both where these people are coming from and how they had succeeded in dominating the political debate in so many different countries. I think that if you convey to your sources that you are going to listen to them and care about their ideas, most of them will talk. I think it is important to let people make their argument. That is ultimately what this book is about: Where do these people want to take these societies, and what damage could they do?

Q: Your book refers to the creation of a ‘civilizational enemy,’ where politicians like Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump manipulate reasonable public concerns in a way that makes voters think that immigrants and refugees are responsible for their problems. Can you elaborate upon this?

Across Europe, there is this idea that Muslim immigrants are coming to colonize, take over Europe, and change it irrevocably forever. Now, the idea that one million people arriving into Germany is a lot to handle economically in terms of integration might be considered a fair argument. But instead, we hear rhetoric such as, ‘The Muslims are coming! In ten years from now, we are going to have Mosques instead of Churches and our children will be speaking Arabic and Turkish instead of German.’ You see this in best selling books, you hear this in the rhetoric of politicians, and it is spreading throughout a lot of European countries. The center of political debate has shifted so dramatically that things that would never have been said ten years ago are now said every day on television and in newspapers. Far right parties can win without winning elections.

Q: In Chapter 15 of your book, you suggest that Australia’s immigration policy has become a paragon for Europe’s far right. Can you expand upon what you mean by ‘outsourcing responsibility?’

Yes, I just wrote a Guardian article that elaborates upon this. Australia is unique in that they have offshoring policies that divert refugees to offshore camps in places like Nauru or Manus Island. When I spoke with refugees and detainees in Australia who have in the past been stuck in tents on steaming tropical islands, they articulated how the camp staff would try and convince them to repatriate voluntarily. This is one of the flaws in Australian immigration policy: returning to an unsafe country is presented as a viable option, despite the fact that it is not safe at all. It is one thing to say that you are not going to let just anyone show up in your country, but it is another to say that you have no responsibility to verify that these people are not going to be killed upon return. That is the concept of refoulement in the Refugee Convention -- you do not force people back into danger.

Q: What do you hope that readers will take away from your book?

I hope that this book will be taken seriously by people on both sides of the political spectrum. Ultimately, I am interested in how ideas spread, take hold, and translate into politics. I am not just trying to attack the far right and say that they are incorrigible racists and should be shut down. However, I am critical and think that many far right politicians are taking us in a dangerous direction. I want readers to be able to identify the sources of our current political climate and recognize in the future when a popular but dangerous idea emerges.

Photo: Chris Gloag
Sasha Polakow-Suransky earned his DPhil in modern history as a Rhodes Scholar at St. Antony's College, Oxford University and was an Open Society Foundations fellow from 2015-2016. He has worked as an op-ed editor at the New York Times and a senior editor at Foreign Affairs, and is also the author of The Unspoken Alliance: Israel's Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa (2010). His writing can be found in the Guardian, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, the New Republic, the New York Times, and the Boston Globe.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Peters, A. (2017) In Conversation with Sasha Polakow-Suransky: Go Back to Where You Came From. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/10/conversation (Accessed [date]).