Philosophies of migration

Migration raises more fundamental questions than 'should these people be here': it probes into the very essence of what it means to be human, as well as how we define our communities.

Jennifer Allsopp
16 September 2015

UK detention centre (photo: Jennifer Allsopp)The relationship between migration and philosophy is one that could easily be understated in the current ‘hostile environment’ towards migrants and refugees in the UK. Skimming through our national media or tuning into pretty much any politician’s speech, most people would recognise that the debate over immigration reform is more characterised by populist scaremongering than by its rich philosophical insights. Words like ‘foreign scrounger’, ‘illegal’ and ‘benefit cheat’ are certainly normative, yet are hardly applied with critical rigor. Meanwhile, fundamental questions of human liberty and dignity are debated by a flawed democratic political system and mediated by the signatures of bureaucrats somewhere in Croydon, London.

The recent ‘Minds and Borders’ event, co-hosted at the University of Oxford by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics (CARA) and the newly established Migration Museum Project, sought to explore this terrain. In so doing, it highlighted a range of ways in which a philosophical lens could be applied to enrich the debate over migration. As articulated by the Chair of the Migration Museum Project, Barbara Roche, ‘there’s a really strong story here’. Migration raises more fundamental questions than 'should these people be here': it probes into the very essence of what it means to be human, as well as how we define our communities.

The event was one of several which seek to explore the contribution of migration to diverse areas of British intellectual life: medicine, architecture, social sciences and the arts. The panellists stemmed from a range of backgrounds: Julian Baggini, writer and broadcaster; Meena Dhanda, Reader in Philosophy and Cultural Politics at the University of Wolverhampton; and John Worrall, Professor of Philosophy of Science at the London School of Economics. 

Over the course of an impassioned discussion, the speakers drew attention to three main areas where migration and philosophy intersect: the philosophical questions raised by migration; migrant philosophers; and the role of academics and academic institutions in advancing new ‘philosophies of migration’. The event suggested that if we want to move current policy debates beyond the limited realm of identity politics to consider other spheres alongside it, such as economy, race and the very value of human life, we need to be braver in our interpretation of the truth and in articulating our values.

Philosophy and migration

Migration in the modern world raises some of the most pressing philosophical questions. Many scholars have been keen to point this out, although it seems that, beyond the celebrity hype and twitter outrage at interventions by the likes of David Starkey and Richard Dawkins, the UK lacks a band of ‘public intellectuals’ or academic commentators on this issue. There are some exceptions. In a recent article in the Guardian, for example, Matthew Gibney, Reader in Politics and Forced Migration at the University of Oxford, draws on the work of political philosopher Hannah Arendt to raise the issue of the stripping of citizenship - or banishment - as being practiced by the UK government on an unprecedented scale. Gibney reports that whilst four people were stripped of their citizenship during WW2, Home Secretary Theresa May has ‘denaturalised more than four times that number of in the last three years alone’. Commonly presented as a pragmatic approach to tackling terrorism, this is arguably an issue that requires philosophic insight, and a step back from persuasive political rhetoric, to recognise its true significance for us all.

Though for centuries, philosophers from Kant to Walzer have debated questions of freedom of movement, state coercion and belonging, as Agnes Woolley has argued, these issues are given a new urgency in the context of climate change and the crisis of global capitalism, requiring us to face them with a ‘planetary consciousness’. Though only 3% of the world population are migrants, societies such as Britain dedicate huge resources to responding to the changing circumstances of people on the move. These responses have been highly securitised.

As I write, some 3,408 individuals are being held in immigration detention centres across the UK; having committed no crime, many face an indefinite threat to their liberty. At the same time, the Guardian reports that Isa Muazu, a refused asylum seeker from Nigeria who fears for his life if returned, lies on a mattress on the floor of an immigration removal centre having been issued an ‘end of life plan’ from the Home Office. He has been on hunger strike for more than 80 days protesting against his removal.

Philosophical speculation in the context of life and death may seem the least of our priorities. But we need to ask: what do these situations tell us about human dignity and the value of human life? How have a series of ‘yay’ and ‘nay’ votes in the House of Commons landed us here, to such suffering, sanctioned in our name, in accordance with a set of confused normative principles that we have supposedly ‘voted for’?

Over the course of the panel discussion, as in most public discussions of migration which I have attended in recent years, the main questions posed centred on identity. Baggini laid out the basic tenants of a communitarian approach to national identity and migration alongside a more liberal democratic stance. One way to stem the tide of increasing hostility towards migrants and refugees, he argued, may be to pay more attention to communitarian claims regarding the importance of integration, identity and community cohesion; this would ‘make asylum more palatable’. Yet for Dhana the question is one in which ‘origins’ and ‘identity’ matter less than the basic tenants of equality: ‘why do origins matter at all?’ she retorted, ‘we need to move away from culture to political economy terms’.

We seem to be having the same discussion over and over again. Why is it that British politicians - and indeed the British public - remain so fixated on issues of identity? Given the critical challenges posed by forced displacement, a simple question arises: can we really afford to keep concentrating our thinking so heavily on the question of who is on the 'inside' and who is on the 'out'? 20,000 have been counted dead at Europe’s frontiers since 1989. More than 2 million Syrian refugees, mostly children, have been forced to flee their homes to neighbouring countries. Isn’t the warlike scale of this suffering a more morally compelling place to start our enquiry into the common good? 

Migrant philosophers

For Worrall, the link between philosophy and migration is primarily one of how migration shapes philosophical thought in a way that enriches society. Focusing on an analysis of the life of Sir Karl Popper, a refugee who fled Nazism in Austria, he argued that Popper’s openness of scientific thought and willingness to apply it to real life concerns stemmed from his migratory history: it was his own ‘war effort’. Dhanda too argued that her own development as a philosopher was shaped by her experience as a migrant. She gave a compelling account of arriving in Oxford in 1987 as a Commonwealth scholar from India to complete a PhD in philosophy: ‘a new world had opened to me...I had the freedom to leave the Bodleian library in the evening without fear of being attacked; I thought suddenly my life expanded as a woman’. Yet she went on to explain that this was not matched by her experience: the discipline was heavily dominated by men and she was haunted by the experiences of her fellow migrants. In Oxford, Dhanda became involved in the nascent campaign to close Campsfield immigration removal centre, a centre – and a campaign – which will lament, rather than celebrate its 20th anniversary this month. ‘In this haven’, Dhanda explained, ‘there were prisons’. 

Identity has remained an obstacle to Dhanda’s pursuit of philosophical enquiry. Beyond the challenges of being a migrant woman studying philosophy in Oxford, once she began teaching she was surprised by the expectation that, being from India, she ought to be an expert in Indian philosophy. Yet it is philosophy, Dhanda argued, that ultimately allows us to break down barriers and see beyond identity politics: ‘Philosophy is a form of resistance because the freedom of thought I have allows me to engage with you on so many levels...origins become immaterial. It’s the ideas beyond pigeon holing. I carry this spirit with me in my classrooms’. 

New philosophies of migration

Debating philosophy and migration at the Oxford event, surrounded by University alumni, I was reminded of the key role that universities and a whole host of other ‘classrooms’ play in cultivating an appreciation of migration. This is a value that has been challenged in recent years by a number of scandals and policy changes concerning international students. Elsewhere, students have campaigned for universities to become more welcoming to other categories of migrants, such as the Equal Access campaign, led by Student Action for Refugees (STAR), to have asylum seeker students welcomed on the same terms as British national students. Meanwhile, CARA continues to foster the continued practice of refugee scholars in the UK and beyond. Universities have a key role as institutional citizens in fostering a more intelligent and multi-faceted debate about migration in Britain and in providing an, albeit flawed, 'haven' to international students such as Dhanda, in addition to persecuted scholars who have been forced to flee.

On the backdrop of suffering caused by migration control at the individual and societal level, as has been well documented on openDemocracy 50.50, the event also struck me as a call to arms. How can thinking alone help us to break down existing paradigms of 'us and them', giving us more space to tackle other pressing global issues? The full attendance and rich debate that ensued the event certainly suggest that there is an appetite for a more thoughtful approach to migration policy in Britain, one led by a philosophy of what is good rather than a politics of fear. But at what level should these debates be occuring?

When fire-fighting the latest ill-conceived policy from the Home Office, it’s certainly hard to find time to philosophise and start thinking ‘on what values would a fairer migration policy be based’? But this event demonstrated that value-based arguments do have a role to play, they are important. For one, normative critiques are a clear way of demonstrating the inconsistencies and inhumanities of the current system. Alongside a host of other voices, philosophers, academics and students more generally need to speak up louder in this politicised and populist debate; a public migration debate which is often based on lies rather than any meaningful sense of truth. For as Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt said: 'Political questions are far too serious to be left to the politicians.’ 

This article was first published in November 2013.

Read more articles on openDemocracy 50.50's platform People on the move which publishes research-based articles and migrant testimony seeking to shift the focus of public debate on migration away from borders, security and control, to developing migration policies that are fairer and more equitable. See also Unlocking Detention: the voices of those inside

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