Systemic Racism in Migration Regimes


written by Kyilah Terry, Co-President, European Horizons Georgetown

Published as part of European Horizons’ Winter 2020 policy priority series on Combatting Systemic Racism.

Ulrich D’Pola Kamdem, The Economic and Financial Analysis View of Africa, August 2018.

Borders are often thought of as demarcated lines along sovereign territories, but they transcend geography and are also liminal spaces where an individual’s right to relief and livelihood is imperiled, and where the politicized form of life in the notion of citizenship is created and contested. The US and EU have both been criticized for implementing restrictive migration border policies that violate international standards and the rights refugees. Moreover, it seems like the two have created a feedback loop where one country’s policy influences the other, and not for the better. The Mediterranean Sea and the U.S.-Mexico wall act as borders in that they are physically located where two opposed realities come closest: life and death, as well as refugee status and its subsequent rights. This short paper aims to synthesize previous concepts and realities of borders in the transatlantic sphere by emphasizing the abject conditions that migrants undergo along the route, including racism, and their experience once, and if, they arrive.

Many scholars highlight the violence that migrants endure while emigrating from North Africa and Central America and arriving to Europe and the U.S. Several migrant narratives mention rape, electrocution, gunshot wounds, and knife attacks at the hands of border guards. These descriptions not only demonstrate how borders become a space of permanent exception where individuals are stripped of their rights and dignity, but also reveals how Black and Brown migrants are dehumanized and perceived as sites needed to be controlled through violence in the name of security. This illustrates that violence, which is often racialized in origin, transit and destination countries, forces migrants to continuously risk the arduous journey across geographical borders as well as social ones where the prospect of refugee status outweigh the threat of death.

On the other hand, borders can be spaces of reliance and resistance. While the EU and the U.S. have focused almost exclusively on policies designed to contain migrants in countries of origin (i.e. Libya and in the Northern triangle) at the expense of addressing protection needs, the closure of borders has increased the demand for, and use of, other border actors like smugglers. Borders have become a natural order that regulates the movement of people but in a politicized sense where refugees are “illegal”, humanitarian aid workers are the criminals and smugglers the true humanitarians. The portrayal of refugees is often extreme, as victims who need to be rescued or villains who crossed illegally; this portrayal is often a consequence of their skin color and position as ‘border transgressors.’ This depiction not only obscures their agency demonstrated in their own accounts of their journeys, but also reifies the power of the state to ‘secure’ borders. In an attempt at this latter point, the European Union has accused European fishermen and non-governmental organizations of trafficking in persons and they face up to 20 years of imprisonment. Border crossing and rescue effort criminalization by the EU is an attempt to control when and how migrants can move and be rescued, and poses the question whether rightlessness, defined by Hannah Arendt as the inability to make oneself heard, can be exacerbated by the very regimes that are believed to provide those rights?

If migrants survive the journey, the ones who live realize that their grueling passage could have been for nothing if they are returned or face discrimination when they settle. And despite international conventions, peripheral European member states and the United States have been accused of violating the principle of refoulment. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has called on Greece to investigate pushbacks at sea borders and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has called on the U.S. to end its family detainment and separation policy. While UNHCR and OHCHR acknowledges these States’ legitimate right to control their borders and manage irregular migration, they also state that the country should do so while respecting international human rights and refugee protection standards. However, these “appeals” seems to be merely virtue signaling to the international community. The calls do not address the role of violence between country’s asylum systems and migrants, mainly of color, who depend on these institutions and actors for survival.

The borders and regimes of nation-states, given legitimacy by the 1951 Geneva Convention and the following concept of refugee-ness, have allowed for the differentiation of people. For some the border signifies life, legality, and rights; and for others death, illegality, and rightlessness. The successful crossing of borders is a mechanism in which the former can be achieved; in the meantime, those undertaking the journey are positioned on the threshold.

Kyilah Terry is a 2nd year MA candidate at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service with a concentration in migration diplomacy and asylum policy and serves as the Co-President of the Georgetown chapter of European Horizons. Her research expertise includes forced migration and asylum regimes, the European Union, and international relations.



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