Colonial ignorance and the hostile environment: What does #BlackLivesMatter mean for refugees?

With Refugee Week taking place in the midst of Black Lives Matter protests across the world, we spoke with Professor of Cultural Studies Kirsten Forkert about her recent research and the connections between colonial legacies, global conflict and those forced to flee their countries to seek protection in Europe.

Kirsten Forkert
Professor of Cultural Studies

BLM protests

We are celebrating Refugee Week at a time when the #BlackLivesMatter protests and the campaigns to remove the statues commemorating slave traders have provoked much discussion in the UK about legacies of colonialism. What are the connections between these colonial legacies, global conflicts, and those who are forced to flee their countries to seek protection in Europe? This was explored in our AHRC-funded research project, Conflict/Memory/Displacement, which has recently been published as a book entitled How Media and Conflicts Make Migrants. The book explores how we understand global conflicts as they relate to the "European refugee crisis", and draws on a range of empirical fieldwork carried out in the UK and Italy including analysis of news media, a survey with young people about their news consumption and perceptions of global conflicts, social media analysis, interviews and theatre workshop with over 30 refugees in the UK and Italy.

Through our media analysis of the representations of conflicts in UK and Italian newspapers, we found that conflicts outside the West were only covered if they were of interest to Western nations, either because of resources (such as oil and gas) or because the conflicts threatened to lead many refugees to seek protection in Western nations.  The wider context of these conflicts was rarely discussed, nor was the long history of Western military interventions or colonial occupations in these countries acknowledged, meaning there was no sense of global responsibility for these legacies of exploitation and violence. This meant that when people from these countries sought protection, it was as though they arrived uninvited on Western shores, with the tabloid press in both countries painting them as opportunistic abusers of Western benevolence. In our book, we discussed this disavowal of responsibility as a form of post-colonial ignorance which Barnor Hesse has termed ‘white amnesia’ (1997) and Paul Gilroy has termed ‘postcolonial melancholia’ (2004).

In contrast, the refugees we interviewed in both the UK and Italy were quite aware of the histories of colonialism, and the continuities between these legacies and present-day global inequalities.  For example, as one of our participants pointed out:

“Zimbabwe doesn’t make a single gun. We fought amongst ourselves using guns made in the UK, made in the Soviet Union, made in Europe”. (interview, April 2017)

Our participants were also aware of their lowly position within the hierarchies of immigration regimes, because they were at the sharpest end of the hostile environment. This came out in discussions about who was an expat and who was a migrant, and here xenophobia connected with racism:

If a white person comes to Nigeria, that person is an expatriate but if it is not then you are a migrant” (interview, April 2017).

They also made links between these hierarchies, colonial legacies and their experiences of the hostile environment: not being allowed to work, being housed in substandard housing managed by G4S in the UK or in reception centres in Italy; in the UK, having to sign in at immigration reporting centres regularly (with risk of deportation a continual possibility) and continually being subject to suspicion and discrimination by members of society:

You never mention we are asylum seekers because if you did, they’d speak to you like a contagious disease” (interview, March 2017)

Even for those who had gained stable immigration status, the discrimination continued (and again, questions of citizenship connect to questions of race)

“I have never felt 100% British because of the way people of my colour are represented in the media” (interview, March 2017).

Notably, the Windrush scandal took place after our project fieldwork, but it raised many similar questions about race, citizenship, colonial legacies and the hostile environment.

As we celebrate Refugee Week, it’s important that the urgent questions that are now being asked about racism and colonialism be applied to our understandings of global conflicts, how these conflicts are represented or the people who flee them, and the cruel mechanisms of the hostile environment. In the spirit of the protests, it’s equally important that we find ways to actively challenge the ignorance and amnesia that are a result of those colonial legacies, and to dismantle the hostile environment.