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Immobility as protection in the regime of immigration controls

Immigration regimes have never been about ‘protecting migrants’ – they are and always have been about maintaining power over them. When will we starting naming them for what they are?

From protest at Yarl's Wood Detention Centre. iDJ Photography/flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

To better understand present-day efforts to end ‘human trafficking’ or ‘modern-day slavery’ we need to examine the first restrictions on human mobility, instituted following the abolition of the slave trade and slave labour relations in the nineteenth century. Like today’s anti-trafficking policies, this initial organisation of border controls centred on a narrative of ‘rescue and protection’ in order to normalise the regulation of people’s immigration. However, far from protecting anyone, these restrictions created the racialised and gendered image of the ‘immigrant’ whose entry and stay in a country’s territory was, and still is, to be controlled and exploited.

Imperial and nation-state logics on human mobility

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, both imperial states and states attempting to nationalise their sovereignty enacted different restrictions on human mobility, albeit for different reasons. Imperial states ruled by making those subjected to their powers of taxation, levies, and forced labour into their subjects. The more subjects the state had within its territories, the more people whose labour it could exploit, the more wealth it could amass, and the more power it could wield. Imperial states thus facilitated the movement of people into and across their empires. Indeed, they were actively involved in such movements, often on a massive scale, even as they then immobilised most people through labour relations of unfreedom. European empires, since the late fifteenth century, actively engaged in moving people through systems of slavery, debt bondage, penal transport, servitude, and, in late imperialism, nascent immigration regimes.

Immigration controls within the British Empire were intimately connected to the replacement of the slave trade.

Immigration controls within the British Empire were intimately connected to the replacement of the slave trade with indentured contract labour, mostly from British-colonised Asia. The pejoratively termed ‘coolie’ labour system rested on a legal requirement for workers to labour for a contracted period of time, usually five years but sometimes shorter or longer. During this period, they were tied to the contracting employer and were not free to change either their employer or place of work.

The first efforts to regulate the immigration of subjects of the British Empire took place on the colony of Mauritius. In 1835, the same year that slaves were freed on Mauritius, the local British Council passed two ordinances regulating the migration of people from British India. These ordinances, meant to regulate and discipline ‘coolie’ workers from India, would only admit ‘coolies’ who had permission from the governor of the colony. And in India, in 1837, the British Indian government laid down specific conditions for the lawful movement of people leaving from Calcutta as ‘coolies’, such as the presence of a signed labour contract.

Importantly, both sets of controls were carried out in the name of protecting the ‘coolies’. ‘Coolies’, like ‘victims of trafficking’ nowadays, were portrayed by the British as uneducated and naïve simpletons, who were going to be duped by unscrupulous emigration brokers. Thus, the British presented immigration restrictions as necessary to ensure both that the movement of ‘coolie’ workers from British India was ‘voluntary’ and that they, unlike the slaves who preceded them, were ‘freely’ selling their labour power.

In the late nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, the formation of the world’s first nation states intensified pressure to enact more and more regulations and restrictions on mobility. The first national controls on immigration began in the Americas, where former colonies had successfully transformed themselves into ‘self-governing’ states, which by the late nineteenth century had nationalised their sovereignty.

Each of these new nation states announced their newfound national sovereignty by enacting racist immigration controls, often with a highly gendered component to them. With the institutionalisation of the idea that ‘nations’ were cross-class units of homogenous so-called races, states became intent on regulating and restricting the movement of negatively racialised people into their territories and in regulating the sexual ‘respectability’ of the women they allowed to enter. For example, the first constraints against people’s free entry to the United States – the 1875 Page Act – expressly barred the entry of two categories of persons: ‘coolies’ from China and women deemed to be ‘prostitutes’.

Consequences in the present day

Today we have a globalised system of immigration controls in which it is nearly impossible to move freely across now-nationalised borders, particularly for those left with little but their labour power to sell in the globalised capitalist marketplace. Border control measures have been rationalised as efforts to protect migrants and to ‘end trafficking’. Today, as in the past, the trope of ‘rescue’ is a powerful one in legitimating even murderous actions against those rendered as immigrants.

Without national immigration policies, there would be no such group we know as immigrants who could be subordinated, scapegoated and abused – or rescued.

The greatest danger to people trying to cross national borders is the immigration policies and policing of nation states. The categories that nation states slot most migrating people into – ‘illegal’ or ‘temporary foreign worker’ being two of the largest – are the greatest threats to their liberty. Being categorised as ‘illegal’ or ‘temporary’ is what entraps a growing number of people on the move into substandard working and living conditions while severely limiting their rights and mobility. Thus, national immigration policies legislate the conditions that make some people ‘cheap’ or even ‘disposable’. Simply put: without national immigration policies, there would be no such group we know as immigrants who could be subordinated, scapegoated and abused – or rescued.

We learn about none of these real-life dangers and exploitations from the ever-multiplying accounts of ‘human trafficking’ and ‘modern-day slavery’, however. The discursive state practice of ending trafficking or ‘modern-day slavery’ is wholly reliant on the acceptance of the legitimacy of national immigration regimes. It depends on these regimes’ lack of concern with the gross disparities and exploitation organised by capitalist social relations: relations of which human mobility – and state constraints against it – has always been and remains an integral part. Anti-trafficking policies do a great disservice to migrating people, especially those with the least options. They do much to divert our attention away from the practices of nation states and employers and to channel our energies in support of a law-and-order agenda of ‘getting tough’ on ‘traffickers’.

In this way, anti-trafficking measures are ideological: they render the plethora of immigration and border controls as unproblematic and attempt to place them outside of the bounds of politics. The reasons why it is so difficult and increasingly dangerous for people to move safely or to live securely in the places to which they move is brushed aside in the rush to criminalise ‘traffickers’ and ‘send home’ (i.e. deport) ‘victims of trafficking’. Today, as in past discourses of ‘protecting coolies’, the discursive practices of ‘anti-trafficking’ spectacularly fail the needs of people by failing to call for their free mobility across space and their freedom within nationalised labour markets.

A longer version of this article appeared the Anti-Trafficking Review.


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