Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Introducing Postcoloniality and Forced Migration


Time to read

5 Minutes


Eva Magdalena Stambøl
Sharla M. Fett
Nina Sahraoui
Martin Lemberg-Pedersen
Lucy Mayblin

Guest post by Eva Magdalena Stambøl, Sharla M. Fett, Nina Sahraoui, Martin Lemberg-Pedersen and Lucy Mayblin. Eva is postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Criminology and Sociology of Law, University of Oslo and the Center for Transnational Relations, Foreign and Security Policy, Otto Suhr Institute of Political Science, Free University of Berlin. Sharla is Professor of History at Occidental College. Nina is Marie Sklodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Researcher at the CRESPPA, CNRS in Paris. Martin is Honorary Associate Professor at the University of Warwick. Lucy is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Sheffield. This is the introductory post of Border Criminologies’ themed series on 'Postcoloniality and Forced Migration' organised by Eva, Sharla, Nina, Martin and Lucy.

Walter Crane map of the British Empire in 1886
“Walter Crane map of the British Empire in 1886”/public domain:

This themed series is based on our recently published edited volume Postcoloniality and Forced Migration. The book brings together historians, political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists and criminologists to explore the postcoloniality of present-day forced migration and control across case studies from Europe, Africa, North America, Asia and South America. The chapters cover forced migration events and politics ranging from the 18th century to the practices and geopolitics of the present day. This themed series of Border Criminologies offers glimpses into seven of the book’s chapters.

European colonialism, and that of other empires like the Ottoman empire, were implicated in the forced movement of people from the 15th century onwards. From the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the partition of countries as part of empire-building or decolonization, colonialism instigated many involuntary population movements. The colonial powers instrumentalized colonial subjects in projects of spatial and social engineering and developed techniques to control the movement of peoples through surveillance, policing and registration. These coercive practices were made possible by coherent systems of thought centering around racial hierarchies, European supremacy, and the civilizing mission. Unsettling the usual presentist bias of forced migration studies, our book shows how colonial assumptions about the world as well as techniques of imperial control continue to permeate forced migration governance and control today.

Colonial continuities in present-day forced migration control

How are forced migration control policies today imbued with colonial legacies? The book explores this in two main ways: empirical and theoretical.

Empirically, the contributions to this volume are based on primary archival research as well as careful reading of secondary historical sources to understand colonial assumptions and practices, which are then traced and juxtaposed with empirical observations of present-day forced migration events and policies. The authors show how ideas of racial hierarchy underpinned both historical movements of people, like the resettling of freed slaves in Liberia, as well as current encampment and deportation practices in Tanzania, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, and the French overseas department of Mayotte. Moreover, political and economic structures and colonial patterns of resource extraction that gave rise to European industrial capitalism and modernity continue to manifest themselves in new forms in present-day commodification of mobility and its control, as exemplified through Italian energy and migration control in Libya, and French and EU policing of African mobility.

The book’s authors also draw on a comprehensive body of postcolonial and decolonial theory to make sense of colonial legacies in present-day forced migration governance. The ‘post’ in postcolonialism does not imply the end of colonialism, but rather the continuity of colonial ideas, practices and structures. Postcolonial analyses, thus, seek to question the alleged universalism of concepts, categories and theories that have emerged from the West. They contest socially constructed ideas about spatial and temporal difference – like the idea that some places are ahead in (civilizational) time and others need to catch up, which permeates theories across the social sciences. Decoloniality focuses on how colonial matrices of power continue to dominate, subjugate, dismiss and erase systems of knowledge. Contributions anchored in political philosophy and political theory, moreover, explore issues as diverse as what giving sanctuary meant historically and currently for states – India in particular – and how theorizing about refugees in Western academia without including refugees’ perspectives entails epistemological violence.

The blog posts

Historians Laura Rosanne Adderley and Sharla M. Fett explore the aftermath of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in the 19th century. Based on archival research, they detail how enslaved Africans were not so much liberated as ‘resettled’ by imperial powers in Liberian militias and British regiments. In their blog post, they connect and juxtapose the USA’s current border policies with such historical practices.

Also based on primary historical research, Ella Fratantuono explores migration policy and population movements in the Ottoman Empire from the 1850s, showing that migrants were welcomed to the Empire as part of projects of demographic, social and spatial engineering. She then shows how the instrumentalization of migrants for political purposes is a colonial continuity that manifests in present-day Turkish politics where Syrian refugees are used as a bargaining chip vis-à-vis the EU.

Clayton Boeyink, Nina Sahraoui and Elsa Tyszler draw together three seemingly very different case studies – the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, the French overseas department of Mayotte, and Tanzania – to illustrate how racial hierarchies inherited from colonial times are in fact still a guiding principle in current migration policies. Through historicizing their case studies, they are able to debunk the assumption about exceptionalism that underpins much research on present-day violent migration control and deportation.

Eva Magdalena Stambøl and Leonie Jegen build on secondary historical sources, online research and fieldwork in West Africa to demonstrate how what they identify as a key colonial continuity – namely the blurring between state and private corporate interests – manifests in present-day mobility policing. Such blurring is evident in the case of the French company Civipol co-owned by the French state and major security corporations, which is also a main implementer of EU aid to build the internal security apparatuses of former French colonies in Africa.

Mathias Hatleskog Tjønn and Martin Lemberg-Pedersen apply a postcolonial gaze on Libya, tracing how the complex entanglements of the colonial powers of the Ottoman Empire and Italy co-structure present-day interactions of Italy, Turkey and the EU when it comes to geopolitics of energy, arms export and externalized migration control.

Phil Cole critically interrogates Political Theory, asking whether political theorists working in the global North may be complicit in sustaining unequal and unjust power relations through excluding refugee participation in the theorizing of forced migration. While problematizing his own positionality as a European white male, he also criticizes familiar categorizations of refugees as either criminals or helpless victims. One solution, he argues, is that political theorists must work in partnership with those they theorize about, and they must learn how to speak with or be silent, instead of speaking for, refugees.

Speaking directly to the problem brought up by Phil Cole albeit from a bottom-up angle, Felicity Okoth demonstrates that, in fact, “the subaltern can speak” – and they can act. Based on fieldwork in Kalobeyei Settlement for refugees in Kenya, she explores the agency of migrants in navigating repressive migration policies and obstacles put in place to keep them from travelling.

A cross-disciplinary research and real-world agenda

Across the social sciences and humanities, new interest is now emerging in postcolonial and historical perspectives which have usually occupied a space on disciplinary margins. Especially, a new wave of postcolonial critique has been instigated within activist movements like Black Lives Matter, student-led campaigns to decolonize the university, and projects like ‘Why is my curriculum white?’. Our book is a contribution to disrupting forced migrations studies’ usual emulation of the topography of political power.  Overall, it unsettles Western thinking about geographies of displacement and concepts like the nation-state, border control and humanitarianism.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style):

E. Stambøl, S. Fett, N. Sahraoui, M. Lemberg-Pedersen and L. Mayblin. (2023) Introducing Postcoloniality and Forced Migration. Available at:https://blogs.law.ox.ac.uk/border-criminologies-blog/blog-post/2023/05/introducing-postcoloniality-and-forced-migration. Accessed on: 27/05/2024

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