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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Refugee Meritocracy

The “Refugees Got Talent” show enshrined two popular assumptions: the myth of the meritocracy and the concept of the “deserving refugee.”

In September 2019, deputy Italian Prime Minister Matteo Salvini left office. An infamously hardline economic and social conservative, Salvini’s bread-and-butter issue has always been immigration—specifically, he’d like a lot less of it. His reign resulted in a significant increase in the number of asylum applications rejected in Italy: from 17,500 between October 2017 and January 2018 to nearly 25,000 between October 2018 and January 2019. At the same time, he implemented policies that limited asylum eligibility, and also removed humanitarian protections for migrants who have been denied asylum. 

But Salvini’s cruelest act of all took place in the summer of 2019, when he banned charity rescue ships from helping stranded asylum-seekers onto Italian shores. As sunbathers lined up their deck chairs on the idyllic island of Lampedusa, 500 refugees waited on board the rescue ships—within eyeshot of the beach—for Europe to decide if they could enter. After 19 days in grueling conditions, they were finally allowed to land, and scattered among the countries that would take them. But not every refugee in Italy was having such a bad month. Unbeknownst to the terrified, heat-exhausted refugees on the ships, something miraculous was unfolding 390km away on the Italian mainland. In the buzzing streets of Catania, at the foot of Mt. Etna, a stage had been prepared, an audience assembled, and a panel of celebrity guests convened, for an event known as…Refugees Got Talent. 

As part of the World Refugee Day celebrations, Refugees Got Talent was backed by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and judged by Riot Club actor Douglas Booth, alongside actress Francesca Ferro, musician Paolo Li Rosi, and the choreographer Lino Privitera. Over the course of the night, 13 performers, including a reggae artist from Sierra Leone and a dancer from Colombia, took to the stage in an effort to display the spectacular and prove the trivially obvious. The U.N. Press Officer, Marco Ruttono, claimed that the event served as a powerful reminder: that “refugees are people like all others”. The Creative Director, Francesco Patane, described it as an opportunity to show the audience that refugees “are skilled and talented people,” who are “contributing to make our countries better places.” Competitors break-danced, rapped, and sung their way through the evening, cheered on by a slick host who broke down the events and galvanized the audience into rounds of applause. While a show like this might feel entertaining, even inspiring, it raises an uncomfortable question: Why should people who have lost everything have to put themselves on display and showcase their usefulness for us to deem them worthy of help?

Salvini’s anti-immigrant rhetoric often centers around a strawman: the “fake refugee” or the “crafty migrant” (a staple of the official Bigot’s Lexicon, somewhere between “benefit scrounger” and “welfare queen”). This framing suggests that migrants who come to Europe for purely “economic reasons” regularly use and abuse the asylum system, faking their trauma just to get jobs in European countries. These stereotypes are designed to stack the deck against all immigrants: If you want to move to Italy to contribute your labor, then you are unwelcome, but if you have to move because of displacement, then some contribution is expected, even while your motives are regarded with suspicion. The migrant worker is a parasite, while the refugee is either a burden or a liar. 

The winner of Refugees Got Talent, a teenager from Nigeria named Hannah Imordi, directly challenged this assumption through her poem: “The Journey. ” Imordi dedicated the poem to, as per the Guardian, “those who doubt whether refugees have justified reasons for leaving their home countries.” The poem dealt with the difficulties of displacement and of adapting to somewhere new: “In this different world, I look for acceptance. In this different culture… I seek help. What does tomorrow hold for me?” After receiving her medal, Imordi downplayed her achievements, claiming that making it to the finals was “not as important…as having the opportunity to state in poetry that millions of people are forced to leave their countries because of war, poverty and religion.” 

In Italy, it seems, the preternaturally talented refugee is the only narrow category of immigrant that deserves to be welcomed. The uncanniness of Refugees Got Talent may lie in the fact that it’s a competition, where the refugees’ talents are pitted against each other in order to produce a winner, the Most Deserving Refugee of All. To stay in your new country, Refugees Got Talent implies, you must have extraordinary abilities to offer and also be willing to scrabble against your fellow refugees for the entertainment of the comfortably established public. If you can’t or won’t participate, then you are rejecting a larger cultural precept: the idea that worth can be proven, and that people should be required to prove it.

Art by Ben Clarkson.

Why do we watch talent shows? Beneath the bric-a-brac of ventriloquist dummies and doggie bow-ties, they are all about social inclusion. They are about getting “normal” people together, whether clustered around the living-room TV or assembled on the stage. It doesn’t matter if you are a Carphone Warehouse salesman from Bristol (Paul Potts, Britain’s Got Talent), a troop of waste collectors from Manila (Junior New System, America’s Got Talent) or even a migrant on the brink of deportation (Gamu Nhengu, The X Factor)—anyone can take home the prize. The underlying sentiment of talent shows is the same one that animates corny sports movies and the speeches of politicians on the campaign trail: the promise of meritocracy. 

This is the hook that has made Simon Cowell millions from both the X Factor and Got Talent franchises. As he explained in Parade: “everyone comes in under an equal footing and that makes it a good competition.” His shows claim to go beyond the vapidity of the music industry, dispelling the idea that you have to look a certain way or have the right connections, instead emphasizing that what really matters is having skill, courage and determination. (Consider The Voice, a show in which the judges don’t even see what the contestants look like until they’ve heard the quality of their singing.) These talent shows are also as much about the journeys of their participants as the music itself, lacquered in the rhetoric of “dreams.” If you look at autobiographies of talent show victors, from Girls Aloud’s Dreams that Glitter to Susan Boyle’s I Dreamed a Dream to Leona Lewis’ simply-named Dreams, you may find a bit of a pattern, and an identical premise: that great ambitions exist to be fulfilled. In Refugees Got Talent, the stakes are inflated: The contestants are victims of war, and the dream isn’t for a record deal or a magazine cover, but simply to be allowed to live an ordinary life in a safe place.

The term “talent” could be applied to almost anything a person can do well, from elbow-licking to speed-eating. But while the competition may well be diverse, the adjudicators of concepts like “talent” tend to look alike and share a similar cultural background. (This was certainly the case with Refugees Got Talent, where the contestants were subject to the opinions of an all-white panel). In his Parade interview, Simon Cowell demonstrated the issues produced by having such a monolithic perspective. When asked about the difficulty of being a judge, he responded with an example: “When you’ve got an Eastern European balancing act, doing a triple thriller (or whatever they call them)…I’m thinking, I don’t really know much about that. Is that good or not very good?” Talent is thereby equated with familiarity—when the people in charge of assessing “talent” encounter artists from outside their bubble, they struggle to empathize with and understand their work, undermining the idea that everyone starts on “equal footing.” Broadly speaking, when thinking of a judging panel like the one on America’s Got Talent, the image conjured is fairly generic: The teeth are white and the dresses tight and the gender spread is about even, usually consisting of two celebrities and an older “industry guy” who “knows a star when he sees ‘em.” Cowell has long had a monopoly over this role, starting in Pop Idol, way back in the era when contestants wore bad jeans and leather jackets. He is a famously vicious judge: “Mr. Nasty,” the one you boo along to. But “Mr. Nasty” figures are popular, if divisive. Hell, we put one in the Oval Office, didn’t we?

Donald Trump is himself a former competition-show judge, and is appealing in the same manner as Simon Cowell, Gordon Ramsay, and half a dozen other notorious TV judges whose bullying is mistaken for honesty. Whether they loved or hated him, people loved to watch Trump whip out his finger guns and dish out his tagline: “you’re fired!” But over time, this pantomime-villain role revealed itself to be his actual personality, and The Apprentice set became the actual headquarters of his campaign. Simultaneously, the jurisdiction of Trump’s judgment has widened to include entire nation-states (“shithole countries”) and immigrant populations (“rapists” and “criminals.”) His declarations of worthiness or “fireability” have been enshrined in a series of cruel and life-threatening policies. And instead of being offset by a conciliatory Heidi Klum or Alesha Dixon, Donald Trump is flanked by Stephen Miller, a dangerous true believer and the probable architect of his boss’ most evil schemes.

The presidency of Donald Trump has exposed what happens when you mistake the staged theatrics of talent shows for a real model of meritocracy. Talent shows are really just dramas that happen to feature real people. The competitors’ difficult life stories are highlighted, and the huge heaving crowd is juxtaposed against the single pin-prick of the contestant on the stage, all to demonstrate how heavily the odds are stacked against each individual. This draws the audience in, practically forcing them to feel sympathy. (In fact, the smaller and more nervous the contestants are, the more audiences like it: stick a child belting Whitney Houston on stage, and watch them weep.) As we watch swathes of talented, committed people perform in these competitions, it feels natural to question why they haven’t succeeded before. It could have to do with the fact that artistic career paths are usually reserved for those who can afford them. It could be that they didn’t “dream hard” enough in the past. It could be that they previously failed to present themselves in a way that made them appealing to whichever talent scout or record exec happened to hear their demo. Talent show failures are portrayed in all their caterwauling glory, and subject to mockery by the judges, so we can laugh at them for deserving to lose.

The artificially constructed meritocracy of talent shows might seem like a mere ratings gimmick, but it’s also crept insidiously into immigration policies in the form of points-based systems. Recently endorsed by political bedfellows Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, the points-based approach would effectively make migration one big talent show, where immigrants are the contestants and “talent” is judged by the elitist criteria of education, English proficiency, age, and job prospects. Like a scoring card, the idea is that each applicant would accrue a certain amount of points in each category, and their total score would determine their status, marking a shift away from America’s current migration priorities, which, according to Trump, “discriminate against genius.” 

The idea of instituting a migration policy based on ability is by no means new. Entertained by Truman and George H.W. Bush, it was most notably pushed by John F. Kennedy, who touted it as an alternative to the overtly racist 1924 Immigration Act. In the face of a galvanized Civil Rights Movement, having national origin quotas that purposefully excluded workers from Asia and Africa looked antiquated, so Kennedy turned instead to the “neutral” criteria of “skills.” Lyndon B. Johnson took up the policy briefly after Kennedy’s death, but it was shelved following pushback from Southern Democrats who feared economic competition from immigrants. The parties settled on prioritizing family unification instead, which may at first sound more humane. But before we start celebrating their progressivism, it should be noted that their intent wasn’t to actually change the consequences of the racial quotas, just to accomplish the same thing by more subtle means. The family unification system allocated visas to the relatives of citizens who were already living in America. At the time, the United States was predominantly white and the demographics were expected (incorrectly) to stay roughly the same as people migrated in. Family unification was not intended to be revolutionary, as Johnson explicitly stated upon passing the bill in 1965: “it does not affect the lives of millions. It will not reshape the structure of our daily lives…” 

In eulogizing current merit-based systems, Trump has looked towards Canada and Australia. In both systems, potential migrants are not required to have job offers prior to arrival, but the criteria that determines “skill,” is similar, focusing primarily on education and work experience. The Australian points system is shaped largely around employer demands, where visas are distributed according to the availability of jobs. The problem with such an approach is that it has been coupled with a strict cap on permanent residency (160,000 immigrants a year), and its method of allocating points can be very discriminatory—for example, zero points are given to those over the age of 50, as well as those with only “competent” English skills. The Canadian system is rooted in the charmingly named “human capital model,” which values migrants who have skills that will “boost the economy long-term,” rather than meeting immediate employment demands. This has resulted in some difficulties with migrant underemployment: Many “skilled” immigrants, equipped though they may be with degrees in “respectable” fields, have struggled to find jobs for various reasons, ranging from employers’ lack of familiarity with foreign qualifications to workers’ lack of professional connections. This often leads immigrants to seek work elsewhere in the service sectors. At the same time, the reduction in “low-skill” workers has led to shortages in many labor-intensive technical fields like agriculture and construction. The solution, condemned as a “form of apartheid” by labor rights organizers, has been to admit temporary foreign workers (TFWs), who are tied to particular employers and are often denied the most basic working rights, while being unable to speak out for fear of deportation. 

Trump and his advisers have made it clear that they want to move sharply away from the family-based immigration model and toward some sort of points-based system. Family-based immigration has been relabeled in the right-wing press as “chain migration,” a conservative boogeyman for the perfectly legal and understandable movement of family members seeking to join other family members. The defense of the points-based strategy by Republicans has been somewhat predictable; Georgia senator David Perdue has cited its potential to boost the economy, while others, such as North Dakota senator Kevin Cramer, claim it as a bipartisan compromise because it does not explicitly slash immigration in absolute numbers. More than a compromise, what the points-based system represents for these conservatives is a means to disguise their naked prejudice against blue-collar (and mostly non-white) immigrants.

The concept of “merit” here is similar to the “talent” that is assessed on competition shows—it’s meaningless until it’s defined by the people in charge. Any immigration system can be understood as merit-based, in that they always reflect a nation’s priorities. (Germany’s priorities might look very different from, say, Qatar’s.) Unsurprisingly, it seems that Trump’s definition of merit will likely reward those who are most like him. In Gender, Migration and the Global Race for Talent, Anna Boucher discusses how the definition of “skill” used by governments with points-based systems tends to exclude women by devaluing female-dominated sectors, such as caregiving and hospitality, in favour of employees in male-dominated STEM fields. Likewise, conservative economist George J. Borgas argues that points-based systems of immigration are biased in favor of national-origin groups from “high-income, high-skill countries.” This is because wealthier countries can afford to equip their citizens with the skills to make them “desirable” in point-based systems, such as a high level of education. More recently, research conducted by Neil Malhotra and Benjamin Newman makes the case that Trump’s policy is a simple anti-Hispanic dog whistle to his supporters, in that “it constitutes a preference for those atypical of the existing immigrant population.” In their findings, those who scored highly as biased against Hispanics “cared much more about education and skills when considering the entry of Latinos.” At the same time, they were also “more likely to penalize a Hispanic immigrant for being low-skilled” than a white immigrant. This indicates that the demand for a merit-based system is more about prioritizing white migrants than it is about identifying “talent.” 

In Refugees Got Talent, the notion of meritocracy is upcycled into a gaudy aesthetic, and the machinations of talent shows serve as warped reminders of the injustices that asylum-seekers face. The competitive nature of free-market capitalism is made manifest on stage, as contestants are encouraged to prove their worth against each other. This creates the illusion that each contestant has been given a fair chance, while denying them the means to criticize the structures that rejected them, lest they be considered sore losers

But what happens to the losers of talent shows? Do they just go home? Do they return to the same nine-to-five as before? Do they manage to secure deals elsewhere? With the exception of a few noisy characters that end up as fodder for the tabloid press, these questions tend to go unanswered. But the stakes in the case of talent shows are comparatively trivial. The glaring holes in Trump’s proposed immigration plan are not. The people who will most likely lose out are those who previously benefited from family-based green cards, a demographic that constituted 66 percent of total migrant admissions in 2017. As in Canada, a points-based system may also give greater power to American employers to exploit their workers through temporary visas—as Trump has already done to his staff at Mar-a-Lago. As Suzy Lee recently explained in Catalyst, employers want immigration systems to be adaptable: “growing to meet demand during periods of expansion or native labor unrest, but restricted when not needed.” For America, this will mean a precarious labor market, where the flow of migration is permitted but only when rich people deem it beneficial, and only with the prerequisite that such workers are denied the benefits they deserve. 

Throughout his 25-minute address on this issue back in May 2019, Trump made no reference to what his strategy will mean for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States. Similarly, he made no mention of DACA recipients, popularly known as “The Dreamers.” What his proposal did disclose was a planned reduction in refugee admission to 10 percent, down from the current 22 percent. More recently, he has toyed with the idea of ending the refugee program entirely, or cutting admission to 10,000 and giving preferential treatment to those who help forward America’s agenda, such as Iraqi and Afghan citizens who work alongside the armed forces. He also championed Lindsey Graham, who has outlined his own brutish border security bill, one which would force asylum-seekers to apply from their home countries instead of in the United States. The bill would also attempt to override the Flores settlement, which limits the amount of time during which children can be detained, extending the duration from 20 days to 100 days, as well as making it easier to deport unaccompanied children to Central America without trial. By removing “incentive[s]”, he claims that the “humanitarian crisis will begin to repair itself.” This calls for some translation: by removing “incentives,” he means “make immigration hellishly impossible for almost everyone,” and by “repair itself” he means “go elsewhere.” 

So what happens to the “undeserving” refugees, the ones who are unable to sufficiently prove their “talent”? Their performance is always a disappearing act. They shuffle on stage to either derision or pity, before being swiftly shown out the door and out of public consciousness. Occasionally, they are used as examples by the media to further political ends—as Fox News did so with their misreporting of the “migrant caravans” just before the midterms. When faced with this kind of vilification, it’s hard to know what is worse: refugees being rejected for lack of “talent,” or the prejudicial notion that they are incapable of having it, or the presumption that they should have to display it in the first place before being permitted safety and freedom.

Refugees Got Talent is a microcosm of the talent show refugees are already playing when seeking asylum. Until we free ourselves from the notion that refugees should have to perform tricks before they can be permitted to live safely and securely, immigration systems will never be capable of dispensing justice. It doesn’t matter whether you call it a points-based system, a skills-based system, or a “human capital” system—right now, it’s nothing more than a bunch of cheap, tacky talent shows. 

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