50.50: Opinion

Europe’s migration policies are about limiting Black freedom

OPINION: Border policies and hellish journeys are meant to control African movement in space and time

Iriann Freemantle
18 November 2022, 11.21am
Migrants rescued from a boat, in the port of Corigliano Calabro, Italy
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Alfonso Di Vincenzo/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News

Europe’s approach to migration from the Global South reproduces global hierarchies that deny Black and Brown people equal access to opportunities and participation. Its migration policies are not just ‘shaped by racism’ – they are racism.

In categorising almost all African migrants as ‘irregular’, Europe legalises, endorses and enables their exposure to extreme forms of violence en route. This is contemporary racial terror meant to deter migrants not only from physical movement but from having aspirations to improve their lives in the first place.

To ‘manage’ mobility from Africa, European governments and the EU collaborate with a range of actors in different sectors, including humanitarian assistance, defence and knowledge production. They want more border control to prevent “dangerous journeys”; more opportunities in countries of origin “so that people do not feel the need to risk their lives”; and, ostensibly, more legal alternatives to come to Europe.

Activists and researchers despair that this response is empirically ill-informed, vastly blown out of proportion and in utter disregard of human rights. With migration ‘management’, Europe vows to protect while effectively achieving the very opposite; more surveillance and control demonstrably exacerbate the risks of migration, and not just in Europe. What’s more, legal migration channels still do not exist despite Europe committing itself to them. Instead of being ‘protected’, African migrants move and live in perilous and squalid conditions. Along the migration route, they are often robbed of the last shreds of dignity and subject to unspeakable violence.

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Scholars and practitioners have variously deemed this seemingly contradictory approach “delusional”, “self-defeating” and “blind”. Some consider migration management to be driven by the corporate actors who profit from building walls, supplying drones or managing detention centres. They are not wrong.

The ‘limits of Black freedom’

The extreme dehumanisation that takes place in the name of ‘managing’ migration must give pause for thought. This is clearly more than an ill-informed or greedy attempt to control mobility. That the journeys of ‘irregular migrants’ are hell-like is no coincidence, but is meant to control African movement in space and time. The aim is to instil in Black people the idea that they must not move beyond the places and prospects white people have mapped out for them. Every time European actors don’t respond to distress calls, ignore requests to allow migrants to disembark from boats, or pretend that migrants are not actually within Europe, they are attempting to mute Africans as agents who can imagine, critique and claim global futures.

Like the lynching of Black people in post-civil war US, irregularising migration and the actions this enables are meant to demonstrate ‘the limits of Black freedom’. Like the racial terror of the past, irregularising migration takes lives and in so doing, introduces its own form of discipline that resonates way beyond the individuals involved. It instructs those who consider venturing out to lower their expectations and settle for less. In many cases, simply to still be alive must be enough. Lynching also often targeted those who aspired to move, or had already moved, economically and socially ‘upward’.

This is not all. The dehumanisation is not limited to its most visibly violent excesses. Premised on the social and legal construction of the racialised ‘irregular migrant’ as lacking in both morality and reason, migration management reproduces spatial and temporal forms of bordering intrinsic to racism. Three mutually referential, global and enduring racist master narratives provide its script: that Black people are backwards, archaic “human beings without humanity”; that they need white people to ‘progress’ into the future; and that Black and white people cannot thrive and coexist safely in the same spaces.

The world over, these narratives have enabled racist policies. They vary, but are consistently drawn upon to offer segregation as a response to the perceived threats posed to the hegemonic racial order. This is based on a two-pronged argument. First, that segregation is not (or not only) required on account of a natural racial hierarchy, but that everyone is better off apart. Second, that Black and white coexistence endangers both groups, albeit in different ways. White supremacists have often produced and broadcast the danger that Africans ‘find themselves in’ when they ‘transgress’ into ‘white’ spaces.

Europe’s root cause approach to the issue of migration and active ‘irregularisation’ of movement promotes segregation between Africans and Europeans too. Migration management externalises control and refugee protection. It fortifies borders. For the vast majority of ‘irregular’ migrants, opportunities for legal movement do not exist. Migration management delegitimises mobility as a strategy to improve one’s life and claims people would be safer and better off at home. Migration management systematically enforces segregation with terror.

Europe’s approach to migration from the Global South reproduces global hierarchies that deny Black and Brown people equal access to political and economic participation and indeed to life itself. Fundamentally, it considers Africans claiming their equality as physically and symbolically out of place.

This article is based on ongoing collaborative work on racism and temporal and spatial forms of (b)ordering, including a joint book project with Loren Landau, professor of migration and development at the University of Oxford and research professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s African Centre for Migration & Society

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