Words Matter


Colonialism and imperialism cause displacement.

Colonialism and imperialism cause displacement.

The history of empires and colonialism forms the foundation of contemporary migration. 

Our Words Matter campaign focuses on debunking harmful anti-migrant tropes and their origins. We also think if we are to effectively tackle border violence and inhumane immigration systems, we must understand the root causes and push factors of migration. One of the instrumental causes is the legacy of colonialism, and it’s mentioned a lot at MRN because the majority of our team and board have been impacted by the legacies of colonialism.

The terms ‘colonialism’, ‘colonisation’ and ‘imperialism’ are thrown around a lot, but what do they all mean, and why are they important in migration advocacy? 

Defining imperialism, colonialism and colonisation

There is some debate into how these terms are defined. Some would argue they have subtle differences, while others use them interchangeably.

Imperialism is the overarching theory that fuels colonialism, while colonialism or colonisation is the economic, social, and political process of control and domination. Colonialism involves the occupation of land, extraction of resources, and destruction of indigenous cultures. Western knowledge systems are deemed “superior” to that of colonised populations, who are dismissed as “backwards” and “primitive”; the so-called “progressive” “enlightened” values of the West are contrasted with the “regressive” values of colonised populations. This is evident in the words of Josep Borrell, the EU foreign policy chief, that Europe is a ‘garden’ and the rest of the world a ‘jungle’, threatening to ‘invade’.

Imperialism encompasses a range of modes of control and domination, including formal colonialism, where colonial powers have direct control over land and politics, and neocolonialism, where colonial powers retain control over nominally independent nations, for example through monopolising trade e.g. the Congo, and granting development aid that rewards certain political and economic orientations: the IMF only grants loans to Global South countries that agree to impose austerity on their own populations. Colonialism is therefore understood as a subsection of imperialism.

Why does it matter?

European colonialism is the foundation of the modern world. It encompasses the history in which European nations explored, settled and exploited vast areas of the world including North, South and Central America, most of Africa, Asia and Australia. From the late 15th century, European states colonised areas with the intent of exploiting people and natural resources, creating new markets and enforcing their way of life, infamously known as the ‘civilising mission’.

Colonialism often involves “divide and rule” tactics, which is a strategy where the colonisers seek to turn local populations against each other along racial, ethnic or religious lines. It often involves the “racialisation” of religious identities, and the internalisation of colonial identity labels, such as in Cyprus and India/Pakistan. In Cyprus, the British imposed labels of “Greek” and “Turk” to divide the island’s Christian and Muslim populations, whilst in South Asia, Hindus and Muslims were turned against each other, which culminated in the partition of India along imagined racial lines. 

Colonialism continues to have repercussions to this day, due to legacies of imperial looting and theft of resources, wealth and people, that leave “formerly” colonised countries under-resourced and dispossessed. Debt is a widespread issue: much of the Global South relies on aid from and trade with former colonies, leaving them reliant on their former colonisers. Displacement is also a direct result of colonisation, as the conditions of poverty, partially brought about by colonial underdevelopment, and conflicts originating from colonialism cause people to flee.

The reason why we specify Western colonialism here is because, simply, it has the largest ongoing impact on our society and across the world today. Western colonialism provided the blueprint for subsequent forms of domination and exploitation. In addition to controlling most of the world at the peak of colonialism versus non-Western empires, like Japan, most ongoing settler colonies, such as in the Americas, are the product of European colonisation.

Furthermore, the shift from formal colonialism to more indirect imperialism has, in many cases, replaced non-Western rule with Western imperialism. For example, the Japanese colonial domination of East and Southeast Asia has been replaced by what many see as US imperialism, which is particularly visible in the number of military bases in the region and the role of the US in shaping many postcolonial governments, particularly in a pro-capitalist orientation.

Our emphasis on Western colonialism is not to deny the existence and real effects of non-Western imperialism, but rather reflects what is still the most significant imperial force in our world. Colonialism has shaped (and continues to shape) our modern world and has a significant impact on migration through displacement, whether forced or voluntary in some capacity. It has also contributed to the way migrants are treated, perceived and talked about in this country, as a “burden” and as “backwards”, in need of “integrating” and perpetually “foreign”. This is why we emphasise the impact of colonialism throughout our work: it is essential that we highlight the structures involved in pushing people to migrate and that impact people throughout their experiences of migratisation.

Scroll to Top