Words Matter



‘Decolonisation’ has become a buzzword in the West in recent years. It has increasingly and mistakenly been co-opted by EDI to mean greater representation for representation’s sake, which merely upholds the status quo. In this explainer, we will discuss what decolonisation actually is. 

What is decolonisation?

‘Decolonisation’ is the process of undoing colonisation. It involves meaningful systemic change. It requires returning land stolen from Indigenous peoples, and reparations for looted wealth and deliberate underdevelopment. Decolonisation also involves the revival of Indigenous knowledge systems and cultures, including oral traditions and languages, and rejecting so-called “universal” truths which actually only reflect a narrow view of history from the perspective of colonisers. Decolonisation centres the agency of colonised peoples that colonialism denies.

The end goal of decolonisation is not about representation within Global North institutions, but a redistribution of power away from the Global North. It is about removing the power to control and destroy colonised communities and their ways of life.

So how does decolonisation relate to migration?

During colonial rule, colonising nations impoverished colonised countries by under-developing industry and depleting natural resources. European imperialist powers (like Britain) left them with political conflict stemming from deliberate policies of societal division to weaken anti-colonial resistance. This now means that migrants are sometimes forced to travel  to the Global North to flee conditions that are rooted in colonisation. 

The laws we have in Europe have since worked to restrict these (predominantly racialised) populations from travelling to and settling in the Global North. This includes the Commonwealth Immigrants Acts in 1962 and 1968, which removed free entry and settlement for citizens of the Commonwealth or British Empire. In mainland Europe, internal freedom of movement in the 1960s and 70s was explicitly caught up in the exclusion of migrants from former colonies.  Additionally, the labour of migrants from the British Empire and public wealth amassed through colonisation were essential in building the NHS, yet healthcare costs and surcharges, as well as anxiety around the Hostile Environment, have shut the same populations out of these services. When we compare the reception of racialised and White migrants and who these policies implicitly or explicitly affect, it is clear that there is a hierarchy of belonging.

Therefore, decolonisation must include change on an international level: a world where people are free to move but also free to stay, rather than being forced out of their homeland or denied entry to Europe by the very countries that decimated their homelands.

Conclusion: “Decolonisation “here” is intimately connected to anti-imperialism elsewhere

As more terms rooted in radical and revolutionary processes become co-opted and watered down, we must be intentional with the language we use. To use ‘decolonisation’ to mean ‘diversity’ does a disservice to the people globally who are still resisting colonialism and imperialism. It also gives the impression that more is being done to undermine oppressive structures than in practice. Therefore, decolonisation does not just mean the acknowledgement of these colonial roots, but a world where historical geographical imbalances and borders are no more.

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