Europe will not be able to effectively handle the current migrant crisis until it faces up to its colonial past, a sociologist from the University of Warwick will tell a major conference in Prague today (28 August).
Professor Gurminder Bhambra says current policies are undermining the very promise of cosmopolitanism by ostracising migrants and perpetuating the view that they pose a threat to Europe.
This stance stems from a neo-colonial attitude, claims Prof Bhambra – who is due to speak at the European Sociological Association’s biannual conference – and the failure of Europe to come to terms with its colonial past and postcolonial present.
She said: “The migrant crisis – or tragedy – currently playing out on, and within, the borders of Europe cannot have escaped anyone’s attention. Imagine, however, if those 2000+ black and brown bodies being washed up on the shores of Lampedusa and across the northern Mediterranean were white – would the outrage be stronger, more vociferous? Would we be lobbying our governments to do more to help these people rather than to do more to make our borders stronger?
“The UK’s Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, recently talked about ‘marauding migrants’ coming to Europe and threatening our quality of life. In a similar vein, Jürgen Habermas – one of the most prominent and respected commentators on the question of Europe – has suggested that “the painful transition to post-colonial immigrant societies” within Europe is occurring alongside “the humiliating conditions of growing social inequality” associated with the pressures of globalized labour markets.
“The gap in living standards is not a natural gap. The economic motivation that drives poorer people to migrate has been produced and continues to be reproduced by policies emanating from richer countries. Europe’s standard of living and social infrastructure has not itself been established or maintained separate from either, the labour and wealth of others, or the creation of misery elsewhere.
“The failure to properly account for Europe’s colonial past, cements the political division between legitimate citizens with rights and illegal migrants without rights. If belonging to the history of the nation is what traditionally confers rights upon individuals (as most forms of citizenship demonstrate) then, I argue, it is incumbent upon us to recognise the wider histories that would see migrants as citizens and provide different ways of addressing the crises that we face.
“If we want a different Europe in the present and the future, then we need to narrate the colonial past of its constituent countries and the implications of the colonial past in the very project of Europe itself. We need to acknowledge the imperial past as the very condition of possibility of Europe and European countries today – with all the rights, duties, and obligations to reparatory justice that that entails.”
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