How can scholars tackle the legacy of colonialism in migration studies? Last year, a small group of critical development studies scholars at ISS sought to reflect on this challenge by collectively reading and discussing the book Migration Studies and Colonialism that explores exactly this issue. In this article, we share our observations and discuss two things that we consider vital in meaningful discussions on the topic: the need to move beyond simplistic notions of European colonialism and the importance of meaningful engagement with scholars from the ‘Global South’.
While it is difficult to make generalizing claims about the broad field of migration studies that attracts scholars from various disciplines, one can confidently state that we have not yet adequately addressed the colonial legacies that continue to colour research and discussions on migration. It is in light of this that a group of scholars from the ISS got together in November last year to discuss a book that critically explores the issue. We hoped that in discussing colonial histories and migration studies, we could better understand our collective unease with the way in which we may reproduce colonialist harms through our work.
The book we discussed, ‘Migration Studies and Colonialism’ by Lucy Mayblin and Joe Turner (2021), is written as an intervention that is meant to place colonialism and its critique at the centre of discussions in migration studies. Moving beyond a critique of migration studies, the authors echo the call for action to dismantle the field’s contribution to the reproduction of coloniality – one that has been growing louder thanks to contributions by migration scholars engaging with postcolonial and decolonial thought.
Instead of reviewing the book, we chose to highlight our collective reflections on the unease many of us face in trying to engage with decolonial ideals, aspirations, and/or commitments as early-career researchers working on highly polarizing topics. Most of us identify as women of colour who come from the so-called ‘Global South’; we research migration, child sex tourism, or humanitarian intervention within academic institutional structures in the Global North. Coming from these diverse backgrounds, we offer input for the discussion on how to grapple with colonial legacies at the university and beyond through deep, collective, and horizontally organized reading, which is important in itself as a counter-current against fast academia.
These are our insights stemming from our discussions:
- We need to acknowledge non-European experiences and legacies of colonialism
Mayblin and Turner argue in their book that colonial histories should be central to understanding migration praxis. They warn against what they call “sanctioned ignorance of histories of colonialism”, which leaves scholars and practitioners with theories that are inadequate in explaining the present state of migration regimes and moreover normalize the use of dehumanizing terms (such as ‘illegals’) that appear to be objective rather than historically and culturally emergent (p.3).
As they attempt to frame their discussions in a global manner, the authors rely on intellectual legacies from the Americas (North and South) and engagement with scholars from Asian and African traditions (p.4). They acknowledge that as ‘white’ academics working in British higher education institutions, they write from particular perspectives that may result in readers spotting limitations and omissions.
And we did. In our discussions, the tension between appreciating the thematic discussion of colonial histories and the wide brush used to portray international migration studies was consistently present. As we delved into each chapter, we found that the telling of specific colonial histories still placed Europe at the centre of the discussion. One participant for instance remarked during our conversation about Chapter 3 that “[the authors] make a solid case for why race and colonialism are intertwined with and shape migration. I do, however, feel the perspective adopted is still Eurocentric. It’s important to note that colonialism is not only European.”
We concluded that by emphasizing their critique of Eurocentrism reproduced through coloniality, the book showcased not only a tendency to limit and equate colonialism to Europe but also a limited take on Europe as a monolith. Another participant observed, “One Europe – as if there is one Europe, one type of colonialism, no differentiation.”
While we acknowledged the inclusion of geographical contexts and topics that are not commonly discussed in the historicizing of colonialism and migration, such as the mentioning of former colonized nations in the construction of international refugee regimes (Ch. 5), Mayblin and Turner’s focus on Europe’s colonial history reinforces a lack of acknowledgement of non-European experiences and legacies of colonialism.
To offer a more balanced picture, we feel the need to highlight topics important to the diverse contexts we come from or work with. These include South-South migration, indentured labour, and transnational solidarities that were instrumental in the independence of many formerly colonized nations. Otherwise, by limiting ourselves to a critique on a seemingly monolithic Europe and its (lasting) systems of categorization, the ‘Global South’ continues to be present as an ‘object’ in the retelling of the colonial histories (Quijano 2007). Interestingly, this discussion forced participants to reflect on our roles and commitment as researchers to actively unlearn and challenge the ‘subject-object’ relations between the ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ prevalent in knowledge production. By centring colonial histories within migration studies, both the authors and the readers should reflect on their positionality, roles, and choices in the retelling of histories.
- We need to be transparent about our inclusion of ‘voices from the Global South’
Mayblin and Turner acknowledge that literatures problematizing mainstream migration studies exist but are often still inaccessible or unaccounted for, partly due to structural inequalities within higher academic institutions. They write on pages 4 and 5: “This book seeks to showcase some of this work for people who research migration yet never encounter such perspectives… Our aim is not that you cite this book, but that in the future you cite some of the scholars discussed within it.”
We followed their sound advice. The references to perspectives, approaches, and concepts developed mainly by scholars from the Global South required the reading group participants to read and reflect beyond what was presented in the book. For example, in Chapter 5, Mayblin and Turner’s critical discussion on forced migration brought readers’ attention to Vergara-Figueroa’s (2018) elaboration to the notion of ‘deracination’. While the concept of ‘deracination’ has been widely adopted by scholars and activists in the Latin American and the Caribbean contexts, particularly in Colombia in relation to land dispossession, forced migration, violence, and rupture of communal ties caused by the prolonged armed conflict, it was still unfamiliar to most of the participants.
As an Ecuadorian researcher who was very familiar with the Colombian context was able discuss ‘deracination’ in more detail, the collective reading evolved into a space where thought processes and conversations moved from Mayblin and Turner to concepts and ideas developed in particular localities and historical contexts and their potential applicability elsewhere to reflections by participants on their own identities, voices, and research. Reflecting on these discussions, one participant said: “I’m not doing research at the moment, but this book and discussion has made me more aware about my own internalized Eurocentric ideas, being more conscious about the spaces I am in and realize how we represent ‘the Global South’.”
However, one question remained after completing the collective reading: how did Mayblin and Turner choose what to include and exclude in the book? While the referencing of scholars from the Global South is important and welcomed by group participants, there is a lack of explanation on how they chose whose work to include.
In addition, Mayblin and Turner’s choice to reference these scholars as opposed to inviting them to contribute directly through an edited volume is also worth noting. While they state early on that they hope the book will lead migration researchers to reference some of the work they included, these decisions still positioned them as gatekeepers of knowledge production. Being more transparent about these choices would have allowed more open accountability towards the power hierarchies in knowledge production that they are critical of.
A way forward: the value of collective reading and reflections
We (try to) engage with ‘decoloniality’ and the responsibility to acknowledge the legacies of colonialism in our research to different degrees and in different ways. Most participants are used to applying a critical and historical lens towards the themes raised in the book but are less certain about taking up the responsibility of ‘doing decoloniality’. One participant for example stated that “I often encounter this question [of centring colonialism] in my field when working on development aid. I think we are aware of many of the problems mentioned, such as the topic of race, inequality, etc., but we don’t necessarily know what to do.”
This tension between recognizing ‘problems’ and feeling unsure of what to do and how to position ourselves as researchers from diverse backgrounds is at the heart of our ambivalence and unease when engaging with the book. This tension is also recognized by Mayblin and Turner, who decided against calling their book “Decolonizing Migration Studies”. Instead, they positioned it more broadly to support decolonization agendas within academic institutions. But as we show, tension, ambivalence, and unease can drive critical reflection and prompt change in practice.
While we did not start or end with a common commitment to decolonizing knowledges, there was a general agreement among us, as one participant stated, “… to actively participate and also to allow yourself to listen with discomfort.” Grappling with unease was the starting point for our collective reflections, and we left with concrete clues for conscious historicization and contextualization to avoid the broad brushstrokes that overlook other experiences and legacies.
 Mayblin and Turner’s historizing of colonialism provides the starting point to their discussion of migration studies and the thematic exploration of modernity and development (Chapter 2), race and racism (Chapter 3), state sovereignty and citizenship (Chapter 4), asylum seekers and refugee regimes (Chapter 5), national and border security (Chapter 6), and gender and sexuality (Chapter 7).
Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.
About the authors:
Mahardhika Sjamsoe’oed Sadjad is an interdisciplinary scholar in the field of international development and migration. Her research focuses on discursive and affective constructions of identities and belonging in The Netherlands, Indonesia, and broader region of Southeast Asia.
Zeynep Kaşlı is Assistant Professor in Migration and Development at ISS, affiliated with the Governance, Law and Social Justice Research Group. Her research interests include mobility, citizenship, borders, transnationalism, power and sovereignty with regional expertise in Turkey, Middle East and Europe.
Nanneke Winters is an assistant professor in Migration and Development at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her research interests include im/mobility, migrant trajectories, and translocal livelihoods in Central America and beyond.
Haya Alfarra is a PhD researcher at ISS-EUR. Her research explores the role of diaspora as non-traditional humanitarian actors in protracted humanitarian situations, looking specifically at the role of Palestinian-German diaspora in humanitarian responses in the Gaza Strip, occupied Palestinian territory.
Mausumi Chetia is a PhD researcher at ISS-EUR. She researches on meanings of home and lived human (in)securities in context of disaster-related displacements in India. Her research is part of the Erasmus Initiative called Vital Cities and Citizens (VCC), under the theme of Resilient Cities.
Xander Creed is a PhD researcher at the ISS. Their work explores migration and asylum governance with a particular focus on the human dimension of (im)mobility, for instance through the lens of human security and feminisms.
Vanessa Ntinu is the Jr. Executive Manager of the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Governance of Migration and Diversity. She is interested in notions surrounding race, anti-Blackness, diversity, and migration laws and institutions.
Gabriela Villacis Izquierdo is a Ph.D researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam in the field of development and humanitarian studies. Her current research is based in Colombia and focuses on the contributions of feminism(s) to humanitarian governance, with an emphasis on the potential of collective action and humanitarian advocacy.
Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.