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28 January 2023

Migration discourse is founded on colonial lies

by Anastasia Gavalas

Contemporary migration discourse shows us that we don’t really live in a “post”colonial world.


Notions of “civility” are a colonial lie. When the West ignores the plight of Palestinian or Afghan refugees, in favour of those who they deem civilised (White Ukrainians), it conveniently forgets its violent and emphatically uncivilised role in creating these “fractured presents”. The British facilitated the creation of Israel and the ongoing Nakba, leading to the mass expulsion and genocide of Palestinians. Meanwhile, the CIA covertly funded the mujahideen, an armed militia group which later morphed into the Taliban. 

Beyond being a re-writing of history, narratives of “civility” also hurt. As someone from the Global South whose community was colonised, I recognise contemporary “civility” narratives as an extension of the colonial period: colonisers frequently used the idea that it was necessary to “civilise” and “enlighten” indigenous communities as a means of justifying their colonisation. In fact, I believe that the notion of migrants having to be “hardworking” in order to be respected is a direct attempt to counteract the coloniser viewing colonised populations as inherently “lazy”, a narrative which was also used to justify and maintain colonial conquest.

Migration discourse: “Invasion”

These reflections have led me to further understand how much of contemporary migratory discourse is predicated upon colonial lies. Migrants are often scapegoated by being erroneously referred to as an “invasion”, and the movement of people across borders and into the UK is weaponised to feed into a media frenzy of outrage and paranoia. However, “when my country was turned into refugees as a result of British colonialism and a decades-long plot by NATO powers for Turkey to invade, no one cared”. My country, Cyprus, is still occupied and divided to this day. So much of our population is internally displaced, and so many people hold onto their keys in the hope that one day they will be able to return to their home. 

It hurts to see people up in arms about border-crossings, especially when their privilege allows them to remain ignorant as to actual invasions, occupations and colonisations: events that actually are responsible for much of the migration we see today. For instance, many Cypriots moved to the UK during the 50s, when Cyprus was still a British colony. The movement continued in the 60s, during the troubling, British-backed rise of Greek and Turkish ethno-nationalisms, and continued as a result of the 1974 Turkish invasion. Migratory movement is the undoubtable symptom of British colonial legacies. Let’s start treating it as such. 


Nicholas De Genova, The “Crisis” of the European Border Regime: Towards a Marxist Theory of Borders (Antipode, 2016) p8: reference to “fractured presents”. Accessed at https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/files/55614571/Mediterranean_Struggles_for_Movement_DE_GENOVA_Published_Apr2016_GREEN_VoR.pdf

Ramzy Baroud, How Britain Destroyed the Palestinian Homeland (Al Jazeera, 2018). Accessed at https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2018/4/10/how-britain-destroyed-the-palestinian-homeland 

Lindsay Maizland, The Taliban in Afghanistan (Council on Foreign Relations, 2023). Accessed at https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/taliban-afghanistan 

Roger Heacock, The Framing of Empire: Cyprus and Cypriots through British Eyes, 1878-1960 (Cyprus Review, 2011) p25-26: reference to Cypriots being viewed as unenlightened, uncivilised and lazy. Accessed at https://cyprusreview.org/index.php/cr/article/download/154/120/156

Migrants’ Rights Network, How a small migrants’ rights charity is using their lived experience to tackle division (Sludge Magazine, 2022): reference to “no one cared”. Accessed at https://www.sludge.online/migrants-rights-network

Bahriye Kemal et al, Exploring Cypriot Identity Series- Introduction (YouTube, 2021): reference to keys being kept. Accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rUFq8YX2IyE 

Unknown, Cypriots in the UK (Cypriot Federation, Undated): reference to Cypriot migratory patterns from 50s-70s. Accessed at https://cypriotfederation.org.uk/ukcypriots/

This blog post is part of our Words Matter x NSW series.