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Migration governance as white saviourism: A colonial legacy or a post-colonial power trip?


In response to the infamous campaign against Joseph Kony in 2012, Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole coined the term ‘White Saviour Industrial Complex’. This described the unequal power relations that privileged white outsiders enforce on Africa in an effort to ‘save’ them (from who or what has never really been established). The term has since become associated with charity, philanthropy and aid, as forms of ‘doing good’ by white populations for non-white populations. In turn, however, this has created severe power imbalances and racial discrimination between the two groups. 


Conceptually, white saviourism also exists in the context of migration, though many may not see it as such. International borders control and govern migration, making those who wish to migrate subject to a varied set of rules and regulations that stem from the legal to the contractual to the humanitarian. These regulations vary and are largely set by countries that receive migrants, most of which are located in the Northern hemisphere. Data from IOM’s latest World Migration Report 2022 shows that North America, Europe and Australia receive the most international migrants. Most receiving countries also happen to be former colonial powers, while a majority of the migrants they receive happen to be from countries they had formerly colonised in South Asia, Africa and Latin America. 


This is not a mere coincidence. The origins of white saviourism in migration governance lie in this very colonial past of many Western receiving and non-Western sending countries. The former opened their borders to citizens of their former colonies in an attempt to make ‘amends’ with their colonial past, but with the real purpose of benefiting their own labour-driven economies. The latter migrated in an attempt to rebuild their lives post-independence in countries they ‘shared’ a forced past with, albeit a murky one. 


But as economic migration from the former colonies began to rapidly increase, so did the sophisticated forms of border control and restrictive immigration regimes. Immigration and student visas, work permits, spousal sponsorships and the like became the key mechanisms implemented by the host to retain control over what it had now lost. These mechanisms held a dual meaning; firstly, as a form of doing good vis-a-vis prosperous white Western countries ‘allowing’ those from poorer, non-white, non-Western people into their borders and saving them from their bleak futures; and secondly, continuing to maintain their control over former colonies by keeping the decision of who enters and leaves solely in their own hands.


These forms of control gave the decision-making power to the ‘white saviour’ – immigration officials, employers, refugee processing agents, etc. – to decide who to save and who to reject, for reasons only they had control over. An application for economic immigration, asylum, refugee status, temporary work, or even a student or tourist visa, was seen by those controlling the decision as a cry for entry into a better life, not as a genuine right of free movement that all individuals had. The global North had to think of you as worthy of saving, rather than as people who have an equal right to move freely.


It is white saviourism that also underpinned this ‘pick and choose’ attitude that Northern countries so openly showed towards those fleeing wars and conflict. The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 exemplified this most prominently. Afghans were not deemed as deserving to be saved by the Western world, with thousands left stranded in the country due to chaotic refugee regimes and weak commitment on the part of the white saviours. But only six months later they welcomed Ukrainians fleeing the war with open arms. This contrast was even more glaring as only Ukrainians who were white or of European origin were given preferential treatment by Western countries, and racialised persons trying to cross borders to safety were held back and treated with disdain. This attitude of selective saviourism led many to question why a global migration governance system looked at everyone differently.


There are several other examples of post-colonial white saviourism by former colonisers which illustrate the fickle and racist nature of migration governance. The Windrush scandal in the UK, for instance, was steeped in Britain’s colonial ties to the Caribbean. In 2018, over five decades after their arrival, thousands of first-generation residents of Caribbean origin, who were brought to the UK to fill labour shortages, were suddenly deemed illegal immigrants and threatened with deportation. Other examples include the attitude of Western nations during COVID-19 towards their mostly non-white temporary foreign workers, which led to precarious personal and professional outcomes for many in the health and food supply sectors. Furthermore, European pushbacks of refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean led to countless deaths of those formerly colonised but still seen by the white Western world as undeserving because of their skin colour. 


Ironically, many Western migrant-receiving countries also use white saviourism to promote legal migration and refugee admission, vis-à-vis maintaining the ‘benefits’ of immigrants for receiving states. This amounts to a sales pitch. It is also clear that Western receiving countries continue to see themselves as saviours of those looking for better lives, due to their power to control entry into their borders. So, it is us migrants who must abolish this narrative. 


Migration does not ‘save’ anyone from economic tumult, climate change, war or disease. It is a choice made by individuals based on a number of different factors. And not everyone chooses to migrate, or indeed, has the ability to migrate. Migration governance does not take any of these factors into account. It instead creates further barriers to free movement because the power rests in the hands of only the host and not the migrant.


Therefore, migrant rights must include the ability of migrants to question decisions made by others about their future. From life-threatening scenarios such as forced detention – which amounts to unlawful imprisonment – to being denied refugee status or being rejected for a student visa, migrants must have the legal and moral space to challenge the ‘white saviour’. But above all, we must question and ultimately abolish this attitude of ‘saving’ others. The call for open borders must be seen as a human right and not as a form of saviourism – white or any other colour. 

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Themrise Khan

Themrise Khan is an independent development professional and researcher with over 25 years of practitioner and policy-based experience in international development, aid effectiveness, gender, and global migration. She has worked with a vast spectrum of multilateral and bilateral organisations, INGOs and civil society organisations, with a number of publications and articles to her credit. She blogs, speaks and writes actively on notions of decolonization, North-South power imbalances in development, race relations and immigrant citizenship and integration. She lives in Pakistan and is an active tweeter @themrise.

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