Migrants’ Rights Network: In this migration crisis, common humanity isn’t enough. We need to reimagine who ‘we’ are

by , under Katherine Tonkiss

That migrants are talked about in dehumanising language is intensely problematic. But common humanity isn’t enough to create lasting change in how we view migration.

Katherine Tonkiss*

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One of the dominant features of the national discourse concerning the plight of the Calais migrants in recent weeks has been the dehumanising language applied to the men, women and children risking their lives in desperation to find lasting safety. This reached its peak with Prime Minister David Cameron referring to ‘swarms’ of migrants attempting to reach the UK and Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond describing the ‘threat’ of ‘marauding’ African migrants.

Migration rights advocates have been right to call out this language and to reintroduce the quite obvious and seemingly non-problematic notion that migrants are human beings, just like ourselves, and that as such they deserve to be treated as human beings. But it is equally true that calling on a common humanity is unlikely to create lasting change in the treatment of migrants. 

This is because our relationships with our fellow human beings are deeply shaped by a national model of citizenship which we layer on top of our common humanity to differentiate between those we can sympathise with, and those to whom we think social justice applies and who we think have a justified claim to membership of our political community. We live in a nationalistic social order which constantly reproduces the exclusions that compromise the basic human rights of migrants in places like Calais. This order allows us to judge that some human beings are more important than others.

George Kateb has characterised patriotism as a dangerous and violent ‘mistake’. We can extend this argument to the plight of migrants around the world, and to help explain why migration is constructed as a ‘crisis’, rather than simply a normal part of life. It is seen as a crisis because it challenges the exclusions that national systems of membership continuously reproduce, while all the time those same national systems rely on migrant labour to stimulate economic investment and to sustain their welfare states.

If we’re serious about deconstructing this notion of a migrant crisis to recognise the rights of migrants as our fellow human beings then we need to also be critical of our national regimes of citizenship, or how we define who ‘we’ are. By clinging to the national citizenship model we are reproducing lines of exclusion which lead to and worsen migrant crises. Reimagining not only migration as a normal part of life but also the nature of membership in society as far more fluid and mobile is necessary to move beyond the current crisis in a lasting way.

We don’t just need to call out our common humanity with those in need beyond our borders. We need to re-imagine the very basis of community and membership in order to re-imagine how these borders are defined.

Read original posting here.

This piece was reprinted by Migrant Tales with permission.

* Katherine Tonkiss is a Lecturer in Sociology and Policy at the School of Languages and Social Sciences, Aston University. She is the author of Migration and Identity in a Post-National World and has research interests in the ethics of migration control, UK immigration policy, and post-national theories of membership.