“The Enigma of Arrival”

Migration Studies, Colonialism, and Coloniality
29 June 2021

In migration scholarship, colonialism has been in the air for a while. Since the “refugee crisis” of 2015, migrants and refugees have been moved center stage in public debates, political agendas, and policies.

Ayse Caglar
Ayse Caglar

At the same time, there has been an increasing engagement with colonialism in the mainstream of migration studies, particularly in Europe. There is no doubt that any unraveling of the interconnected dynamics and processes of migration and colonialism pose far-reaching challenges to migration scholarship. However, the lion’s share of this challenge lies neither in shifting the temporal and geographical scope to the times of colonialism and places with a colonial past, nor in exploring the colonial legacies in today’s dynamics. The major challenge of any engagement with colonialism and coloniality in migration studies lies in developing an analytical lens beyond the established repertoires of traditional and critical migration studies so that we can read the contemporary migration processes and regimes in relation to the unfolding of various colonial practices and tools of population control. Only by means of such a lens can we unravel the colonial gradient in the making and remaking of today’s migration processes and their control, including the governance of labor, mobility, and the borders.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the “closures” introduced to borders with a varying permeability and differential access to rights gave an additional push to the engagements with coloniality. The pandemic amplifies frontier policies; it holds a mirror to the existing fault-lines and structural inequalities. Every strict closure at its height ensured that borders remained differentially open to seasonal and temporary agricultural, domestic, and health care workers, with an armature of exceptional administrative and surveillance techniques in place. The increasing presence of flexible frontier policies and governance mechanisms, often grounded on vocabularies of belonging, deservingness, and biopolitics make the colonial gradient in today’s migrations, exclusions, and border management even more apparent. Making populations worthless through various forms of racialization is intrinsic to the appropriations and displacements, and their legitimization, that lie at the heart of today’s migration dynamics and processes, as they did in the colonial past.

Now some of us feel a stronger urge to reflect on the key concepts in migration studies and their multiple derivatives. Any engagement with colonialism and coloniality of migration and of power in migration scholarship cannot and should not stop short of a profound revisiting of a conceptual apparatus inherited from an entirely different age and epoch of theory building. The rallying cries for “decolonization” of migration scholarship are in fact demands to recognize and act against the discontents of generalized, universalized, and neutralized concepts of migrations studies that are indeed bound by time, space, and power. They are a clarion call to stop treating the theories of migrant displacement and settlement as if they were timeless.

Migration studies may be standing at a crossroads. One pathway might take us to the inroads of decentering knowledge production by confronting the coloniality of power in the contemporary migration dynamics and in our theories. If we do not want to turn the “decolonization” of migration studies simply into a metaphor, we might take the challenge of a deeply political path of reimagining Europe and migration processes in a truly global and relational perspective. Though unsettling, this might be the path for an extensive encounter with the enigma of arrival and its complexity. As in V.S. Naipaul’s novel, it might all be about reimagining, redefining, and coming to terms with how we came and come to be who we are. 

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