Gurminder Bhambra is a sociologist who works in the field of postcolonial and decolonial theory, taking the perspective that colonialism did not end with formal decolonisation but continues to shape the world today. Bhambra argues that hiding the history of colonialism leads to xenophobic perceptions of migrants and then to immigration policies which exclude these same individuals. The common understanding of immigration holds that migrants, as ‘outsiders’, are not part of the common community of a particular state because they have not previously lived there and do not belong in its national historical story. This argument, says Bhambra, is then used to justify the exclusion of these migrants and refugees – if they have never been part of France, say, or Britain, then why should they have a special claim to become part of that state now, sharing its wealth and resources?
For Bhambra, the problem with this viewpoint is that it only looks at history as something national. The above argument thinks only of the history of France as a nation state or Britain as a nation state. Bhambra points out that if we frame history in this narrow way then of course migrants and refugees will not appear. Everything seems very different, however, if we remember that Britain and France are not simply nation states but have also been imperial states. We therefore have to look at the history of their empires and, if we do this, then the previously excluded migrants and refugees are much more likely to enter the historical story.
Bhambra has used a case study of India, drawing on the work of the economist Utna Patnaik, to demonstrate this point. A potential migrant leaving India today to emigrate to Britain may very well seem not to have played a part in Britain’s national history – they have probably spent their whole life in India and maybe their parents and grandparents have too. They might therefore appear less ‘worthy’ of claiming entry to Britain because they seemingly don’t ‘belong’ to this nation. However, this Indian migrant is very much part of Britain’s imperial history. Patnaik has calculated that Britain as an empire drained a total of nearly $45 trillion from India between 1765 and 1938 (this is 17 times more than the total annual gross domestic product of the United Kingdom today). With this history in mind, we can begin to see how this migrant’s plight today has probably been deeply affected by this exploitation. Who knows what the life of this Indian migrant might have been like had this wealth been allowed to remain in India, injected into its infrastructure and economy. Perhaps the migrant would not even feel that they had to migrate in order to improve their standard of living or sense of wellbeing.
Migrants, from this new perspective, become central figures in Britain’s history. Their history is entwined with Britain’s. Migrants therefore, Bhambra argues, should not be categorised as ‘outsiders’ and excluded from states on these grounds.
Selected Readings and Resources:
See Bhambra’s book, The Refugee Crisis and Our Connected Histories of Colonialism and Empire.
You can also listen to a lecture that Bhambra gave at the Refugee Studies Centre in Oxford on this topic: https://www.rsc.ox.ac.uk/news/colonial-mobilities-and-global-inequality-why-european-settlers-ought-not-to-be-regarded-as-migrants-professor-gurminder-k-bhambra.
Bhambra has just launched a new open-access project, called The Connected Sociologies Curriculum Project, which looks at how delving deeper into imperial histories may help us understand issues like race and citizenship which dominate political debates today: https://www.connectedsociologies.org/about/.