Migration studies: from dehumanization to decolonisation

Last week, an African man died in a London garden. He fell from a Kenya Airways flight, as the landing gear opened over Heathrow Airport. News reports highlighted the horror as he landed a metre from a sunbather with witnesses expressing sympathy for those who came across the body. The image’s caption describes how the force of his ‘frozen’ body ‘dented’ paving slabs.

Why was the ‘gaze of sympathy’ focused on the discomfort experienced by the sunbather, an Oxford graduate as the papers emphasised? Where was the focus on the African man? Why did he do what he did? Who was he? Why has this tragic death resulted in condolences and not more proactive action? These questions all point to broader discussions about the dehumanising of migrants. This dehumanization comes with a price. Research has shown that it deactivates social cognition processes in human brains, which spurs extreme violence towards groups when viewed through such a lens.

What can (and should) migration academics and practitioners do to engage in these discussions in a meaningful way? To address this question, we coordinated a participant-led session at the 15th Migration Summer School held at the European University Institute’s Migration Policy Centre. The Summer School brought together academics and practitioners working in various policy and humanitarian institutions around the world. We used this opportunity to create a constructive and safe space for debate, discussion and to foster critical reflection on this question.

In this short piece, we summarise these reflections and existing literature on decolonisation to outline what a shared, productive, decolonial agenda for migration research, teaching and practice could look like. Perhaps it is here, where the current racialised dehumanization of (some types of) migrants, and their possible emancipation, are located.