It’s time to decolonise the migration sector

Colonisation is a central part of migration; It shapes why it occurs, how it occurs and where people move from and to. My personal background and work prior to joining the migrant justice sector has largely concerned the relationship of migration to colonialism. I am Goan, with multiple generations of my family born in Kenya before migrating to Britain from the 1960s, and so my family history is deeply intertwined with colonial patterns of migration and the histories of the British and Portuguese empires. Despite this, it is often left out of migration discourses. This is why I believe we need a decolonial approach to migration, beyond simple shifts in language and mentality.

Our modern world is shaped by colonialism, which has legacies outlasting formal independence for many colonised countries. This includes trade routes and migration patterns. Legislation in the metropoles of declining Empires adapted in response to restrict the movement of their current and former colonial citizens. In Britain, an example of this was the 1968 Commonwealth Immigrants Acts, which was introduced to prevent Kenyans of South Asian heritage, like my family, from migrating to Britain in the late 1960s. This legislation accompanied appeals to Canada and India to take some of these migrants to reduce the numbers of people arriving in Britain. As a result, much of my Grandma’s side of the family have lived in Canada since. 

I often think about how much colonialism has shaped these patterns of movement and how we find and remember family histories and cultures. My cousin has been building a family tree, which includes photos of gravestones and baptism documents from Goa in Portuguese. My Grandad spoke Portuguese, in addition to Konkani, Swahili and English, because he went to school in Goa under Portuguese colonial rule. This reflects the nature of Portuguese colonialism in Goa, which is the reason why I have a Portuguese surname and my family is Catholic.

For me, part of decolonising migration is also moving beyond seeing the world as nation-states, as this is a structure that was imposed on much of the world by European countries. Borders were drawn on maps far away by colonisers, which has legacies in how different communities have been forced into postcolonial states and forced to move as a result of these borders.

This reflects in how most of my family identify themselves as Goan, rather than Indian, which is common for Goan Catholics. This is shaped by the different histories of Goa in relation to much of British-colonised India, including the way that Goa was annexed by India in 1961. In my opinion, decolonising migration also means working beyond the nation-state model that necessitates hard and arbitrary borders. This system necessitates a world defined by nationalisms that uphold a singular national identity above all.

By refusing to acknowledge colonialism and the way it shapes the experiences and identities of migrants, including how the dynamics of colonisation have forced migration and then limited the movement of the same communities, the migrant justice sector is doing a disservice to migrants.

I learnt more about the legal practices of excluding racialised (post)colonial citizens through my research on the Asian Youth Movements. They centred anti-racism and the role of colonisation in their anti-border activism and operated in the 1970s and 1980s. Within this, they foregrounded the economic aspect of colonisation and migration, where the British Empire decimated local industry and oriented it towards Britain. This left countries like India and Pakistan with a large workforce but insufficient industry to employ them after Independence. As a result, many citizens of the Empire and former colonies migrated to Britain in response to post-war calls to rebuild the country, yet the Government moved to restrict their settlement when economic downturn meant that they became disposable.

My personal history plus my research has made it incredibly evident to me that the legacies of colonialism and ongoing imperialism are significant push factors for migration. I find it surprising and concerning that so few in the migration sector recognise the root causes of migration in these systems of oppression.

It is also through this research and the work I have done on what decolonisation should look like in universities that I recognise that true change can only come from abolition. Reforms that appeal to a harmful and historically exclusionary system and simple rhetoric of “decolonising our minds” do not address the extractive and exploitative relationship between the economies of the Global South and the former colonial powers, for example. After all, the Home Office originated to oversee colonial businesses, including plantations reliant on enslaving people.

This is why I want a shift towards anti-colonialism in the migration sector. This involves not just understanding the role of colonialism in producing certain approaches to and language used about migrants, but also what the responsibilities Britain has towards migrants should look like. For example, easier, simpler migration routes for citizens of the former British Empire, the role of Britain in full decolonisation of these countries, which shapes migrants’ push factors, such as reparations. This is also why I appreciate MRN’s approaches of being lived experience and values-led and the principle of solidarity – we cannot decolonise migration if we understand it to be distinct from racial justice, climate justice, anti-militarism movements and other anti-imperialist movements in the Global South today. 

In the essay ‘The idea of a borderless world’, Achille Mbembe discusses how, in Africa, borders are a product of Western colonisation. He links borders to racial justice through colonisation’s prison-like restraints on movement that turn colonised populations into “potential illegal migrant[s]” and facilitate movement only for the purpose of labour exploitation. The ongoing structure of the nation-state and the strict borders that it requires have allowed these conditions to continue beyond formal independence. 

Similarly, I believe that the only way to decolonise migration is by recognising and targeting the systems of oppression that underpin people’s global movements, including abolishing borders. While this seems far from reality – unrealistic to some – it is utopian thinking that enables us to reimagine worlds beyond the oppression that is normalised in our present. Otherwise, reforming the violent system of borders upholds the same White supremacy produced by colonisation. In response, I join Mbembe in calling for a borderless world through decolonisation.

by Lauren Fernandes

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