Europe needs the philosophy of migration

This article is cross-posted from Alice News


Migrating rights is the initiative of the Inter-Thematic group on Migration (ITM), a one-year long project that has begun on the day of the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 10 December 2018. The aim of this initiative is to raise awareness about the rights of migrants and rights-violations. To achieve this aim, the initiative is calling for reflections from migrants, and is doing so on important dates such as Human Rights Day (10 December), International Migrants Day (18 December) and World Refugee Day (20 June), among others. Migrating rights is a research and dissemination initiative that is aimed at stressing the connections and the disconnections between migration and human rights. It involves two dimensions. The first dimension concerns the rights of migrants and raises questions related to how their rights are experienced in different spaces, such as at home, in the place of migration and in the countries of emigration. The second dimension stresses the rights that migrate from subjects – or migration without established rights – by questioning why human rights are embodied differently by the same person in different places, and how to approach this shortcoming. This text is a short contribution toward the second dimension and stresses the philosophical and political continuity in understanding migration.

Western thought lacks a philosophy of migration and this is reflected in several contexts of inhumane conditions experienced by migrants. For example, these may include when migrants are approaching Europe, and are rejected before reaching its physical borders, or when they are racialized as inferior human beings (Mezzadra and Nielsen). This philosophical vacuum also affects the institutions of western liberal democracies as it undermines their cultural humanism: the current wave of so-called right-wing populism is one such consequence which is affecting democratic regimes by making them increasingly authoritarian and morally disruptive institutions. In this vicious circle, as denoted by Allsopp, the “debate over immigration reform is more characterised by populist scaremongering than by its rich philosophical insights”. This has become symptomatic to the point that one of the first initiatives that is being taken by current right-wing governments is to attack migrants in order to discipline society on a politics of fear. Examples of this include Matteo Salvini’s rejection of ships containing migrants along with Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban”. These examples make it clear that this philosophical vacuum is a weakness of both the executive as well as the judicial branches of government. In fact, the judiciary is faced with an inability to respond to and to maintain the executive decisions of these extremist, xenophobic and racist leaders under democratic control. Western (representative) democracies are not prepared to cope with the inhuman consequences that they may entail because anti-migration politics leads to a reinforcement of institutional racism, while an anti-migrant political discourse strengthens the divisive racialisation of people in society thereby intensifying segregation and social conflict. This also leads to a negation of the expectations of increased “security” for those allegedly “entitled” to human dignity as “legit citizens”, as well as to a worsening of rights deprivation of racialized people, including migrants. In other words, without a philosophy of migration liberal democracy moves towards its constitutive political weakness, and, as mentioned by Clennon (2016), this is a way to easily keep the continuity of reiterations of brutal and inhuman mistakes rooted in history.

This political trajectory is facilitated by an atmosphere of rejecting migrants that is being implemented by European countries and the European Union. Initiatives and legislation for the “management” of migrants, such as the Permanent EU Relocating Mechanism, focus on the “crisis” facing Europe as opposed to approaching the “problem” from “migrants’ subjectivities”. The agreements established by the EU with non-EU member state countries such as Turkey, or the intervention in other countries such as Niger, go even further in treating migrants as problematic “objects”, as they are enforcing a system to keep migrants away from European soil and therefore are “managing the crisis” by externalising operations. Here we witness the extension of Eurocentric colonial history and modern capitalist logic, which are bringing forward what has previously happened during the simultaneous development of the (selective) enlightenment and colonialism. Nonetheless, precisely because of its history and its philosophical trajectory, European Philosophy has the moral duty, besides the intellectual, economic and political capability, to address migration from a more substantive perspective based on a deeper intercultural understanding.

From a methodological point of view, it seems necessary to engage in an interdisciplinary debate where philosophy is open to other disciplinary knowledge such as those of the social sciences, among others. It is the duty of philosophers to dig down into the deep roots of meanings and to unveil their implications. Philosophy is supposed to give sense to humanity, however this mandate seems to have been usurped by science with its hyper-specialization. Scientists today are able to provide many answers to political questions that were once only provided by philosophers. Despite this, philosophy remains fundamental for allowing society to progress in a holistic prosperity. Without philosophy there is only expertise where then the constitutive relational dimension of human nature tends to be lost, as is the case when migration is considered to be a mere social dynamic that needs to be managed according to existing resources.

Moreover, it is necessary that a foundational connection between colonialism and migration be found. M. K. Gandhi provided a radical intercultural perspective that undermines the violent colonial connection between epistemology and ontology, therefore criticizing the systematic use of violence as a method of diversity management. This approach resonates with the relational ontology in the west and the Ubuntu philosophy in Africa that entails co-presence and inter-subjectivity, which makes sense if a connection is established between philosophical and political subjectivity. Also it cannot be elaborated without a postcolonial approachable to identify – and struggle against – the colonial roots of the ontological negation of racialized people, including those that migrate. In order to recognize the humanity, dignity and rights of these subjectivities, philosophy must start from them to be able to reconstitute its roots. Despite the fact that this must be a slow and struggling process, it is one that is urgently needed. Furthermore, studying migrants’ subjectivities in Europe offers many special opportunities for Western philosophy to reconsider other forms of racism and xenophobia.

This philosophy needs to start from the body and mind of migrants’ subjectivities, a phenomenological approach that is hence necessary to structure and validate ontological paradigms. The first step is to assume that philosophy goes much further than the western capacity to philosophize (Dhawan), and that it requires an epistemological shift towards global cognitive justice (Santos). Philanthropy, when it maintains the power relations between subjects intact, is an instrument that may be used for the legitimation of the colonial and racist status quo. Meanwhile, the philosophy of migration must question the essence of these power relations and it must sketch a rearrangement based on “listening” and leading to mutual learning and recognition (Ribeiro).

Attempts of western philosophy to progress towards migration, although very precious, are still incomplete. Di Cesare rightly underlines the superiority of “being over having”, which implies a hospitality that is not centered on the possession of place. Baccarini questions the hierarchy between space and time in order to locate the “nomad anthropology” in time, rather than in space, and thereby shape a radical approach to hospitality. Benhabib links individual and collective rights to hospitality in a moral cosmopolitan perspective. These and other approaches miss fully engaging with migrants as subjectivities that are politically entitled to contribute to shape the philosophy of migration and that are thereby entitled to contribute to epistemic and social justice. Postcolonial and anti-racist scholarship still has much to contribute to the philosophy of migration, however, every one of these efforts will remain abstract without allowing migrants to provide structural insights.

Meet the author

Cristiano Gianolla is a researcher at the Centre for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra and is a member of the research team of the project ECHOES European Colonial Heritage Modalities in Entangled Cities – funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No. 770248, of which this article is an outcome.

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