Theresa May apologises to Commonwealth leaders at 10 Downing Street for the treatment by the UK Home Office of members of the Windrush generation, April 17, 2018. Daniel Leal-Olivas/Press Association. All rights reserved.
The image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi’s lifeless body on a Turkish shore is still vivid in our imaginations. It provoked protests all over Europe in 2015 and gave birth to the ‘#RefugeesWelcome’ campaign in Europe and beyond. The campaign has become an international movement which aims to construct welcoming communities for refugees in the global North amidst a political environment that undermines asylum-seeking rights and international protection clauses.
What is problematic about ‘#RefugeesWelcome’?
However, the discourse of ‘#RefugeesWelcome’ subtly undermines migrants’ political struggles in Europe.
The European migration control logic constructs a dichotomy between good migrants, those that Europe wants, needs and accepts, and ‘bad migrants’. The latter category includes ‘bogus asylum-seekers’, ‘economic migrants’, irregular border-crossers, and visa overstayers.
This dichotomy is deeply problematic. ‘Refugee’, as defined in the 1951 Refugee Convention, has always been a ‘good migrant’ to whom Europe’s doors will be open. There is no substantial ground to assume that this policy will change in the foreseeable future. A refugee in #Refugeeswelcome discourse is singled out as a ‘good’ migrant.
But many EU-level migration policies, such as the Dublin regulations against ‘asylum shopping’ in different EU countries, or policies prohibiting asylum-seekers from seeking work, are justified to prevent the ‘abuse’ of asylum systems.
The target of these policies are ‘bad migrants’ from the Global South, categorised by European sovereign authorities as migrants who do not need protection. Their criminalisation is normalised therefore – to protect the asylum system from so-called abuse.
The whole discourse fails to question how Europe has constructed a dichotomy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants and how this dichotomy has been used to justify draconian policies targeting all migrants, including asylum-seekers and refugees, in Europe.
Moreover, the #RefugeesWelcome discourse reproduces neo-colonial power relations between 'victimised non-white refugees’ and ‘white saviours’. By calling on European states and citizens to open their doors to ‘refugees’, #RefugeesWelcome bestows a strong agency on them. ‘Refugee’, on the other hand, is constructed as an object of hospitality, who is passively waiting to be welcomed.
This power relation between active Europe (or the global North) and passive refugees is construed in a neo-colonial context. Saving the non-white as ‘the white man’s burden’ silences and objectifies the recipient of European humanitarianism.
The hierarchy of rights
We need a completely different discourse regarding refugees. This new discourse should not only be conscious of the power hierarchy between the political community and the migrant, but should set out to avoid dichotomising migrant groups.
To achieve this, the initial step is to acknowledge that the 1951 Refugee Convention, which is concerned with the persecution of an individual for political reasons, does not reflect the realities of contemporary forced migration, often the consequence of a combination of political, economic, and social factors.
Furthermore, given widespread economic and social structural problems (such as discrimination, social exclusion, lack of economic opportunities), it can be a challenge to identify whose migration is ‘forced’ and whose is ‘voluntary’.
Conscious of this challenge, states have developed alternative legal categories such as ‘temporary protection’, ‘secondary protection’, and ‘protection on humanitarian grounds’. These other categories not only enable states to grant fewer rights to the migrants in question, but also legitimise the return of these migrants when conditions in their countries of origin are deemed ‘safe’.
The discourse of #RefugeesWelcome omits migrants who seek protection in Europe but do not fall into the category of the Convention. It singles out the Convention refugees as ‘good migrants’ deserving European hospitality. The problems and struggles of ‘other’ migrants are excluded from the discourse.
The second step to achieving an alternative discourse about refugees is to dismantle the hierarchy of rights by not separating refugees from other types of migrants. In this hierarchy among migrants from the Global South, Convention refugees occupy the top, and ‘illegal’ migrants remain at the bottom. They are close to ‘rightlessness’ as their detention and subsequent deportation is justified on the basis of ‘illegality’.
The hierarchy of rights is a powerful legal and political tool of sovereign authorities to comply with international legal procedures while limiting the rights of other migrants. Consequently, the hierarchy reconstructs the dichotomy of good migrants, those on the top, and bad ones, those on the bottom. #RefugeesWelcome cannot concern itself with the struggles of the latter.
The third step is to rethink migrants’ struggles by constructing a new concept called ‘protection-seeker’. ‘Protection-seeker’ refers to an individual who is forced to choose to leave the community in which s/he lives due to political, social and economic structures and power relations, climate change and other environmental processes that violate an individual’s right to life, well-being, and dignity or those of her family.
The term ‘protection-seeker’ covers, but is not limited to, Convention refugees. It refers to groups such as migrants from countries where political and economic problems are chronically entangled, social structures are discriminatory and exclusionary, and all those people who do not meet the 1951 Refugee Convention political criterion, but have had to leave their countries nonetheless.
‘Protection-seeking’ is a decolonising discursive tool. Primarily, it is based on migrants’ agency of seeking protection, not on a European agency that is empowered to grant this protection to migrants. As it is not a legal category, which can be used to create more hierarchies of rights by sovereign authorities, it does not dichotomise migrant groups based on rights. In contrast, rights are used to challenge hierarchies and dichotomies upon which most violent sovereign practices towards ‘bad’ migrants are justified.
Furthermore, the discourse of ‘protection seeker’ enables political questions such as how migrants’ protection-seeking movements have been obscured by European migration policies, and what protection means for different migrants.
Therefore, it encourages a way of thinking that truly focuses on migrants, not their legal status as defined by European sovereign authorities, and on their protection-seeking movement that does not end with crossing a border of a European state, but continues every day. Protection-seeking is the daily political struggle of migrants.
‘These Walls Must Fall’: a decolonial practice
An example of such a protection-seeking discourse is the UK-based campaign ‘These Walls Must Fall’. The campaign targets one of the most violent sovereign practices: the detention of migrants. Immigration detention, which is ‘unlimited’ in the UK, criminalises migrants, although they have not committed a crime, by incarcerating them. It is a policy that mostly, but not exclusively, targets those at the bottom of the hierarchy of rights, the ultimate ‘bad’ migrants.
The campaign was initiated by Right to Remain and encompasses a growing network of migrants, organisations, communities, people who are determined to end immigration detention. The discourse that underlines ‘These Wall Must Fall’ questions the sovereign practice of imprisoning non-criminal non-citizens.
This questioning is performed not on the basis of the humanitarianism and hospitality of ‘white Europeans’ towards non-white victimised migrants, but on a politically conscious logic. It challenges the politics that obscures migrants’ protection-seeking movement and inflicts emotional and physical violence. The language of rights is an important dimension of this struggle, as with #RefugeesWelcome. However, unlike the latter, human rights are articulated to challenge the hierarchy of rights and to pursue equality.
Consequently, ‘These Walls Must Fall’ is a real grassroots political struggle that is not only concerned with detention, but challenges oppressive structures and relations that are powerful in the Global North and that target non-white migrants. A letter of one woman migrant from Yarl’s Wood detention centre on World Women’s Day 2018 states:
Even when the laws are in place, often the patriarchal-based society we live in does not guarantee equal rights. We are not judged as equals even today, in practice women still suffer gender bias in the workplace, gender-based violence and so on. That is why some people have come to the UK, they are escaping gender-based violence in the country of origin, they marry out of their caste and their families will not accept them; they face discrimination and violence because of their sexuality. Yet they are being detained indefinitely with fear of being deported back to these situations.
Decolonisation of migrant struggles, as in the activism of ‘These Walls Must Fall’, shakes the logic that produces Europe as a hospitable, humanitarian, white power that grants rights to the ‘good’ migrants. The vibration is cracking the walls.