Decolonizing the discourse on migration

Lorraine Leete

Decolonizing the discourse on migration

“For a society without racism” Madrid, 12 November 2017. (Credits: El Colectivo de Migrantes Transgresorxs-Ayllu)

The walls put up to stop migration from the Global South1 are not are not only physical, but also legal. After individuals manage to enter Europe from the Global South – by crossing militarized borders and making dangerous sea crossings – one of the only means of obtaining legal status is by requesting “international protection” from the State. This not only reinforces the paternalistic relationship of European states to the Global South, but it also negates the significant role that European states and their economic interests (not to mention climate change) play in influencing migration trends. Unsurprisingly, people are overwhelmingly migrating from low income countries to the countries that dominate global economics and politics, such as Europe and North America. Despite the myriad of reasons why individuals migrate north, if they wish to stay legally once they arrive, they must show that their own State persecuted them or failed to protect them, and that they merit the “protection” of a European state.

Through the asylum procedure, European states, migrants, and their advocates negate any responsibility of Europe and North America and shift the focus to Southern States’ failure to protect women, LGBTQI+ individuals, ethnic and religious minorities, political dissidents, journalists, etc. In purporting to offer protection, European states position themselves as benevolent bastions of equality and democracy – despite their continued economic exploitation, participation in conflicts and support for repressive regimes in the Global South, as well as marginalization and rising hate crimes against migrants, LGBTQI+ individuals, women, and others within their own borders. These tactics of diverting attention away from their own crimes are all too familiar for Palestinian rights activists facing the pro-Israeli lobby.

And as with Israeli policies against Palestinians, the physical and legal barriers that prevent migration to Europe from the Global South are rooted in thinly veiled white supremacist notions of maintaining the status quo and “protecting the European way of life”.2 The status quo to be protected is one in which white men dominate economically and politically in virtually every European country. In many European countries race and nationality are intricately linked, and migration from the Global South is portrayed as a threat to an imagined white national identity. Indeed in Greek, the word for nation – “ethnos” – is the root of the word ethnicity. To reduce this threat, legal migration from the Global South is denied, except for those who subjugate themselves to this white European rule.

This situation is amplified in Lesvos, where the natural geographic barrier to the European continent makes anonymity impossible. Because undetected irregular migration is virtually impossible, everybody who arrives to Lesvos from Turkey must claim international protection or face immediate return to Turkey. In Lesvos, there is a race to the bottom, wherein the more oppressed and weak one can prove that they are, the faster they will be able to access basic services, dignified living conditions, and permission to leave the island.

To break down these barriers, as advocates for migrant rights we must move away from the patronizing narrative of “protecting” refugees, and recognize the autonomy and agency of individuals and families to move where they choose. We must stand in solidarity with individuals who cross borders and walls without asking permission.

1 A distinction is necessary, as migration is not similarly restricted for Europeans and North Americans migrating globally.

2 Jennifer Rankin, “MEPs damn ‘protecting European way of life’ job title”, The Guardian, 11 September 2019.