Commodification of racialised people through immigration systems

Decolonisation means we must interrogate not only the role of colonialism in borders, but also the relationship of colonisation and capitalism. Border regimes are where race, nationality and capitalism meet: they cement Global North/South apartheid and broker deals based on moving and restricting racialised bodies between territories.

Border and immigration structures are a mechanism to dehumanise and create the concept of the ‘illegal’ human, by restricting the ability to move freely. These structures also operate to dehumanise migrants, and render them vulnerable to racial capitalism: the process of deriving economic value from controlling People of Colour. 

Movement of racialised people across borders and against their will has its origins in colonial-era capitalist exploits, and continues to this day, for example via migration deals between states and private companies. True decolonisation and systemic change means identifying thriving colonial norms and dismantling them. States exert discrete and powerful forms of power and turn people into goods to be controlled by creating complex and expensive immigration systems.

Commodification of movement

Colonization laid the foundations for the constitution of the modern colonial world system, a system that functions on the basis of the racial ordering of populations on the planet.

R Lázaro Castellanos.

Commodification of racialised bodies is centuries old. The treatment of Black and Brown bodies as ‘goods’ to be exported was evident in Transatlantic enslavement, as well as the disproportionate number of Black and Brown people in prisons. Movement of racialised people, specifically migrants, is heavily regulated in a world of nation states and global capitalism. 

This commodification is clearly embedded in migration policy, including in deportation and detention schemes. Immigration controls are a mechanism to control, surveil and monitor racialised people. Increased strengthening of borders and migration deals seek to embed the idea of state sovereignty i.e. the idea the State can decide who is ‘deserving’ or ‘useful’, and determine who is welcome within its boundaries, and who is not. This is segregation of space, evident in deportation deals that are becoming more and more normalised. 

Mass deportation contributes to global apartheid. This is a system where mostly White and/or wealthy people have free, unrestricted movements (note the use of the word ‘expat’ to describe White, Western migrants) whereas dispossessed people largely from the Global South are subjected to racialised forced removal programmes. Borders and immigration systems are a way for Western powers to continue to exert their power “post” colonialism.

The Rwanda Bill is one of the most infamous examples in the current UK context. The UK has paid Rwanda over £200 million to “relocate” people seeking asylum and outsource its refugee protection obligations. In a recent interview with Novara Media, Joris Lechene discussed how colonial thinking is behind the Bill, and how it is a performance of imperialist power via the exertion of  violence and dominance over racialised people. This comes in the form of forcibly moving people to Africa or other parts of the ‘formerly’ colonised world. Imperialist nation states continue to exert the power to decide where People of Colour belong and how to manage them as assets.

Similar themes are being replicated in other border regimes: a defining feature of the EU Migration Pact is the ability for European states to move migrants between EU member states and allow countries to pay into a ‘common fund’ which can be used to pay countries outside of Europe to take migrants. Brokering deals of this nature to effectively offload migrants and transform people from the Global South into mere bodies or commodities to be exchanged.

It is no secret that immigration and asylum systems are run for profit. In the UK, the Government has paid private contractors like Serco, Clearsprings and Mitie millions of pounds to run cruel asylum accommodation, carry out racist surveillance, and operate militarised borders. Similarly in Europe, the EU and its member states pay huge sums of money to Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs) to provide “migration management services” including the collection of biometric data and “privately managed deportations.” For a few million pounds, there are multiple companies eager to take State money and trade in migrants and biological measurements in the form of biometrics

It’s not bad because it’s expensive, it’s bad because it’s cruel

The main opposition to plans where migrants, including refugees are being forcibly moved, like the Rwanda Bill has been  that it is too ‘expensive’ or ‘unworkable’. Many migrant advocates echo this language, signifying that commodification of immigration and asylum systems is acceptable.It should not matter how much cruel legislation or inhumane asylum accommodation costs. That should not be our main criticism. We should oppose something because it is immoral and unethical, regardless of how expensive it is, especially when People of Colour are being moved like chattel.

This is why we interrogate the economic framing of migration, most often encountered in the language of ‘contribution’ and ‘hard working’. Migrants are diluted down into bodies to prop up the economies and other institutions of the destination country, and “post”-colonial people are told they have to effectively earn their place in the very same countries that colonised their Global South origin countries.

There is no price that can be placed on human life, nor should we categorise people into levels of belonging based on where they were born or their identities. Borders and immigration systems are about segregation and categorisation. These must be dismantled through the process of decolonisation

Check out Refugee Action’s ‘Most Wanted’ campaign to learn more about the companies profiting from migrants’, including refugees’, misery.

Further reading

Scroll to Top