Taking decolonising seriously – the problem with migration studies

24 September 2020

 With Black Lives Matter gaining new momentum in the past months, movements to decolonise education and the academy have also become more visible. Several academics have lamented that decolonising has become a buzzword which, if not given the correct attention it deserves, risks becoming watered down and co-opted (Moosavi, 2020). This threat also exists within (critical) migration studies. What would it mean to take decolonising in migration studies seriously? In this short piece, taking ‘integration’ as an example, I argue that many concepts in migration studies are colonial. More controversially, I argue that if we are serious about decolonising, we need to take aim at the onto-epistemological foundations of migration studies as well.

Decolonial theory brings together theory and praxis as well as a multitude of positions and concerns. Although it is impossible to summarise these complex debates here, I will try to give a very brief outline of what ‘decolonising’ might mean. Broadly, the decolonial movement aims to recentre colonialism, empire and racism, which are often obscured from view. It argues that these are not historical events committed to the past; they are epistemological and ontological systems that are deeply embedded in the local and global levels that constitute the present. Intellectual decolonising argues that coloniality is embedded in the academy and that we need to work to overturn its enduring structures of inequality that mean certain perspectives and groups (i.e. from the global North/West) are privileged over others.

In the social sciences, there appears to be a wide gap between the study of migration and the studies of empire, coloniality and racism. There is little research that explicitly brings these areas of knowledge together. Bhambra argues that in migration and refugee studies, “the one thing that appears to be missing is a historical contextualisation.” (Bhambra, 2017). These ‘inadequate histories’ mean that some people have the present-day privilege of ‘citizenship’ and others –  ‘migrants’ or ‘refugees’ – are denied, even though many of the latter two categories of people were at one time citizens of European empires. Is it this amnesia within European politics, reproduced within migration studies, which enables people of colour coming to Europe to be labelled as ‘migrants’.

The whole concept of migration is racialised and reproduces racist hierarchies. As Bhambra (ibid.) argues, “the line of mobility… is an explicitly racialised line that emerges in the context of decolonisation and the movement of darker citizens to the metropole.” The movements of (wealthy) white people are clearly not labelled ‘migration’ but rather ‘mobility’ (Çağlar, 2016). My doctoral research, which explores how people experience ‘integration’ courses in Belgium, affirms that many people feel that the label of ‘(im)migrant’ is stigmatising. This being the case, don’t we need to radically re-think the ontological foundations of migration studies?

Now I will turn to the concept of migrant ‘integration’, which is at the heart of my doctoral research. It is such a common word in the migration field both inside and outside the academy; yet there is no agreed upon definition of what it means. I argue that it is often used unreflectively, emblematic of how it has become ‘common sense’.  This is dangerous because it has an underlying (neo)colonial logic.

It is taken for granted in Western Europe that (poor, unprivileged) ‘migrants’ need to ‘integrate’ for the best socio-economic, political and cultural outcomes. This integration imperative is applied to both individuals and particular groups. This ‘grouping’ is highly problematic – it draws boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and assumes that everyone with the same nationality or religion shares the same or similar characteristics. It asserts some fundamental difference between ‘migrants’ and ‘citizens’, which elides the histories of colonialism.

 And just how does one ‘integrate’ oneself and into what exactly? One of the biggest problems with ‘integration’, is that it assumes that there is something like a ‘native’ standard of behaviour that ‘migrants’ should strive towards. And yet, even if people attain the impossibly high standards that are set for them, they have still not arrived; they are always in a liminal space in the process of arriving (Boersma & Schinkel, 2018). Colonial and racist hierarchies mean that you are not one of ‘us’, even if you were born here and have the same nationality. In Western Europe, ‘integration’ implies a colonial understanding of ‘society’ that is white, problem-free and homogenous (Schinkel, 2017, 2018, 2019).

Even if we dismiss the concept of ‘integration’ as (neo)colonial, as scholars we still need to engage with the academic and policy discourse that have many social and legal consequences. The work to expose concepts’ colonial foundations and logics is crucial. Yet as a discipline we cannot stop there. Scholars and policymakers often ask what are effective ways of doing migrant integration, instead of asking what harm these measures and this framing of the ‘problem’ could be inflicting on people. The critical scholars who engage with the latter, do not tend to take aim at the ontology of migration studies, however. But if we are to begin on the journey of decolonising, it seems inevitable that this is a conversation we need to have.

What would migration studies look like if we take decolonialising seriously? I think it means we push back against dehumanising legal and policy categories that centre the nation state and conveniently forget the histories of empire. I think it means we expose the inherent coloniality and racism embedded in our border regimes, and the hypocrisy of a European Union that fails to protect those seeking refuge. I think it means changing the way we teach ‘migration’ so that the next generation of scholars, activists, policymakers and politicians have different frameworks to talk about people moving. And yes, I think it means we need to ultimately dismantle ‘migration studies’.



Bhambra, G. K. (2017). The current crisis of Europe: Refugees, colonialism, and the limits of cosmopolitanism. European Law Journal, 23(5), 395–405. https://doi.org/10.1111/eulj.12234

Boersma, S., & Schinkel, W. (2018). Imaginaries of postponed arrival: On seeing ‘society’ and its ‘immigrants’. Cultural Studies, 32(2), 308–325. https://doi.org/10.1080/09502386.2017.1354047

Çağlar, A. (2016). Still ‘migrants’ after all those years: Foundational mobilities, temporal frames and emplacement of migrants. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 42(6), 952–969. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369183X.2015.1126085

Moosavi, L. (2020). The decolonial bandwagon and the dangers of intellectual decolonisation. International Review of Sociology, 0(0), 1–23. https://doi.org/10.1080/03906701.2020.1776919

Schinkel, W. (2017). Imagined societies: A critique of immigrant integration in Western Europe. Cambridge University Press.

Schinkel, W. (2018). Against ‘immigrant integration’: For an end to neocolonial knowledge production. Comparative Migration Studies, 6(1), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40878-018-0095-1

Schinkel, W. (2019). Migration studies: An imposition. Comparative Migration Studies, 7(1), 32. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40878-019-0136-4



Marie Tuley is a doctoral researcher in sociology at the University of Sussex. Marie is also affiliated to the DESIRE research centre and the RHEA research group at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Her project investigates how newcomers experience integration/citizenship courses in two regions of Belgium. Marie’s research interests include: post-structural discourse theory, decolonial and postcolonial theory, feminist theory, queer theory, gender, identities, racism, and nationalism.

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