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Beyond the Greece Boat Disaster: Tracing the Roots of the Migration Crisis

The Greece boat disaster, which took the lives of over 400 people, including nearly 300 Pakistanis, has brought out contradicting versions of the event from the Greek authorities and the survivors. While authorities say they saved hundreds of lives, survivors claim that not only did the Greek Coastguard do nothing for hours, but they also deliberately destabilized the vessel until it capsized. Though the incident is under scrutiny and we might (or not) witness some kind of accountability, we should not lose sight of what many call “fortress Europe”—a policy of actively humiliating, detaining, and fencing out immigrants and refugees. On an even broader level, we should not lose sight of what continues to define much of the Global North current politics: xenophobia.

The August 2017 leaked phone call between Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump comes to mind. During the call, Turnbull remarked that Australia had a policy of not letting anyone—not even “a Noble Prize-winning genius”— come into the country by boat. Lauding the harsh policy, Trump replied: “That is a good idea. We should do that too. You are worse than I am.”1

While the likes of Trump and Turnbull have been making headlines for their explicitly racist anti-immigrant policies, the situation was not too different in the preceding years and decades. In 2016, the Barack Obama administration spent $75 million to contain immigrants coming from Mexico.2 Long before that, in 1823, the Monroe Doctrine warned European powers “to respect the Western Hemisphere as the United States’ sphere of interest.” Over eighty years later, in 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt sent U.S. Marines into Santo Domingo to contain European colonialism in Latin America, followed by similar military incursions in Nicaragua and Haiti. A bizarre clash of colonialisms, the fight was actually about designating regions for colonization, about agreeing to colonize regions in an interest-sensitive and mutually beneficial manner.

In fact, in many ways, the ongoing xenophobic policies are representative of the settler-colonial principles on which the United States and Australia were founded. Both the United States and Australia came into existence at the barbaric extermination of non-white Indigenous people. No wonder the founding principles retain their essence in the attitude and policy measures toward non-white immigrating people.

In Greece, the media outcry around these tragedies, unfortunately, continues to be embedded in the here and now alone. The previous decade saw a number of similar tragedies, bringing no substantial change to the fortress mindset. In April 2011, more than 220 Africans lost their lives as their boat capsized a few miles away from Lampedusa. The year saw 1,500 people perish in the Mediterranean.3 In summer 2015, horrifying footage emerged of over 10,000 migrants plucked from the Libya-Italy route.4 April 18 alone witnessed 900 migrants drowning in the Mediterranean in their desperate attempt to reach European shores, while September 2 caused widespread uproar against European apathy when a 3-year-old Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, was found washed ashore in Turkey.

The coast of Malta, the Italian coast of Lampedusa, and the coast of Spain became sites of imagined futures distanced infinitely by the Mediterranean. The list of these stories is quite exhaustive, involving death, discrimination, and misery. A quick look at the migration and development section of a leading European newspaper would reveal stories of the following ilk: “Greek Police Coerce Asylum Seekers into Pushing Fellow Migrants Back to Turkey”; “Migrant Workers ‘Exploited and Beaten’ on UK Fishing Boat”; “EU Border Agency Involved in Hundreds of Refugee Pushbacks.”5

The Colonial Roots

What makes people from the Global South set out on such dangerous journeys? Even if they make it to a European coast safely, they could be subjected to brutal treatment, years-long hostile detention, and deportation. The obvious answer is war, perpetual poverty, and repression. Together, they produce a state of affairs in which risking life is the most rational choice. And yet, correct as this statement is, it fails to capture the historical conditions embedded so intrinsically in socioeconomic structures. These conditions have roots in colonial pasts and the subsequent ill-found decolonization and state formation processes.

It is hard to disagree with the proposition that the ambitions driving colonization were founded along three axes: colonial expansion, economic exploitation, and political repression. Take the Indian subcontinent, for instance, where the British East India Company first entered as a trading entity and gradually took on a political character, becoming the chief agent of British imperialism by the eighteenth century. British colonialism in India expanded from a trading company to a developing political outlook to, eventually, taking control of and ruling most parts of India for over two hundred years.

In their 2018 collection of essays, Agrarian and Other Histories Essays for Binay Bhushan Chaudhuri, economists Shubhra Chakrabarti and Utsa Patnaik revealed that Britain siphoned out a startling $44.6 trillion from India between 1765 and 1938. They offer a rigorous account of the systematic extraction and transfer of wealth and resources from India, to the point that, despite making the second-largest export surplus earnings in the world in the first three decades of the twentieth century, India continued to suffer from a trade “deficit.”6 This fictitious trade deficit is only one of the many facades of colonial theft, the accounts of which are also offered by Tirthankar Roy, Shashi Tharoor, and Pallavi Das, among others.

As for political repression, the list of atrocities is countless, of which some of the most documented include the 1857 massacres across North India, the 1919 Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, and over a dozen more that took place in the run-up to 1947—each killing thousands of people, and displacing and dispossessing even more. And yet, massacres were only one, although the deadliest, of the many ways of repressing political opposition. Lasting, systematic repression of dissenting voices has persisted through the mobilization of the civil and military bureaucracies against people resisting. The local beneficiaries of the Raj were the cardinal sources providing numerical and non-numerical input to this three-axis schema.

Tragically, the unfolding of the colonial calculus—the interplay of expansion, exploitation, and repression—was not confined to a specific epoch. In practice, the legacy of colonialism remains embedded in political, legal, economic, and social institutions, the essence of which continues to haunt “post”-colonial nations even today. It continues to manifest itself in the multiplicity of modern-day repressions, whether that be colonial-era sedition and blasphemy laws or the blasphemy laws in India and Pakistan, Article 4 of the African Union Constitutive Act binding African countries to abide by the borders inherited from colonialism, or the gender-binary laws prevalent in erstwhile-British colonies in the Caribbean, Africa, and East Asia.7 The colonial enterprise also created property rights institutions, land tenure systems, tax collection arrangements, and a host of other sociopolitical institutions instrumentalizing the cleavages of class, caste, religion, ethnicity, and gender across the colonized world.8 Equally important, the military arrangements created during the colonial period as part of armed machinery (engaged with colonial wars abroad and brutal repression of dissent within colonies) are structures that to this day dominate the political and the economic in most parts of Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East.

In other words, the colonial epoch refuses to be a bygone epoch. It asserts itself as a permanence refusing to fade into the past. It is the permanence of colonial statecraft disguising itself in the today’s state structures. Indeed, the post in post-colonial is just as much post as the post in post-fascism, post-authoritarianism, or post-fundamentalism. It should, therefore, not come as a surprise that the systemic exodus of the peripheralized in the “post”-colonial” nations is largely due to the perpetuity of colonial statecraft. Those at the receiving end of this continuation today include the economically plundered, religious and ethnic minorities, political dissidents, and gender minorities. In many cases, the intersectionality of peripheralization produces even more gruesome conditions for the victims to seek nothing but survival in a space away from a tyrannical homeland.

The Imperial Roots

Even the obvious answer, as mentioned above, to the question of today’s migration and refugee crisis (that is, war, economic poverty, repression) has more to do with modern-day Euro-American imperialism than local reasons. Of course, this is not to exempt the local elite from their complicity, but to take a systematic view of international power relations producing conflicts, wars, and dispossession in much of the Global South. However, some question the role of Euro-American imperialism in escalating the refugee crisis. Some may find it debatable that the wars and dispossessions are a result of the clash of imperialisms, a consequence of tensions between imperialist blocs. Some may also point toward the global arms industry that benefits primarily from the growing violence. Some may identify the historical sectarian tensions in Muslim-majority places as well as the continuation of Cold War undercurrents as major driving forces in chaos and eventually migration.

What is not debatable, however, is that the vast majority of the Global South has been subjected to wars and conflicts for which they are not responsible. Whether it is Euro-American imperialism single handedly, a clash of imperialism, or the coming together of capital and hegemony, what is not debatable is that communities in the Global South have been at the mercy of international imperial relations playing themselves out in different epochs. From the decades-long Iraq War to the 2015 Syrian War to the 2021 Afghanistan debacle to the slow genocide of Palestinians to the countless low-intensity conflicts in Africa, the conditions for the outburst of mass migration have always been shaped by imperialist forces.

The Ecological Roots

Another crucial driver of escape that we have started to pay attention to, albeit slowly, is the ecological crisis. Today, when we talk about the climate crisis engendering conditions for human flight, we are talking about droughts, floods, rising sea levels, heat waves, more and more extreme weather conditions, forest fires, and air and water pollution all depriving humans (particularly those in the Global South) of food, shelter, livelihood, and basic living conditions. We are also talking about diminishing agricultural lands, soil infertility, dilapidating housing structures, evaporating rivers, and shrinking forests. But we hardly pay serious attention to the inevitable relationship between the ecological crisis and mass migration. Even when we do, as the international NGOs and a host of environmental organizations sometimes do, we only urge humankind to make donations to rescue the poor who are being affected by climate change. Why do we not have a rigorous discussion on economic and political processes destroying ecology and, thus, causing misery and migration for the global poor? Why do we not establish a direct relationship between reckless industrial practices and the consequent abandonment of homelands by those in the Global South? Why do we not look at the fossil fuel industry, the automobile industry, and the global agribusiness as the chief producers of conditions forcing the marginalized to seek refuge in the Global North? Finally, why do we not view globalized, financialized neoliberalism as the direct source of today’s migration crisis?

One apparently welcoming change is that many of the states in the North have started to shift to renewable energy, with countries in Scandinavia aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050. The question, however, remains: Will this shift to so-called sustainable futures overcome the climate crisis and subsequently address the migration crisis? In other words, are we developing these renewable energy technologies to let business-as-usual thrive? Or are we making radical transformations in the economic systems and using these technologies to help us in that process?

Clearly, the fascination with privatized, large-scale sustainable energy, and technological messianism is, at best, an innovative distraction purported to evade the foundational questions: the Global North-led hyper-consumerism and total apathy to the health of the biosphere. The result of such sustained anti-ecology dominion is the oppressive pillaging of nature, bringing the planet to a point where there have never been more carbon emissions and much of the damage done is already irreversible. One glaring consequence—in addition to the accelerated extinction of non-human and plant life—has been the large-scale South-North migration.

Today’s Othering and Right-Wing Populism

Today’s immigrant policies and political discourses across most parts of the Global North are reminiscent of a colonial Othering, a colonial Othering that reveals itself, in its glory, at the behest of right-wing populism.

In her Empire’s Mobius Strip: Historical Echoes in Italy’s Crisis of Migration and Detention, Stephanie Malia Hom explores the colonial roots of Italy’s contemporary migration crisis, arguing that the control of the mobility of nomadic Bedouin tribes was central to the longevity of the Italian empire. So much so that the empire declared a state of emergency against their movement in 1930, dispossessing and displacing more than one hundred thousand Bedouins from their homeland in Libya. This was followed by imprisoning them in the Cyrenaican concentration camps, characterizing conditions “made for deathly living,” eventually causing at least forty thousand Bedouins to perish by 1933.9 The colonial control of mobility and the ruthless treatment of nomadic tribes, she argues, is the template of discriminatory, anti-mobility tactics that today’s Italy exercises against migrants on an even wider scale.

These tactics, rehearsed and mastered for centuries in their respective colonies, are, by and large, common to most West European countries today. Although their exercise has been prevalent for centuries, with decolonization bringing no significant break, these tactics manifest themselves much more vigorously during periods of right-wing populist governments. Here, the ostracization is, ironically, inclusive enough to bring both the inflowing migrants and the already existing Black and brown communities into the Otherizing calculus. Margaret Thatcher’s populism in late-1970s Britain, for example, effectively constructed Caribbean men as “muggers” as part of a strategy of mobilizing racism to divert attention from the planned dissolution of the welfare state.10 Today, whether it is Trump calling for building walls and banning immigrants from Muslim-majority countries, Viktor Orbán normalizing xenophobia, Marine Le Pen yearning to get “France back” from immigrants, or dozens of mainstream politicians tightening border control, these policies and discourses are reminiscent of the colonial construction of the inferior, racialized Other. Right-wing populists only bring this colonial legacy out in its most unfiltered, unapologetic form. Is the notion of today’s “fundamentalist,” “uncivilized” immigrant “contaminating” European culture not, after all, a continuation of the colonial duality of “Occidental civility versus Orientalist barbarity”?

In their unconscious attempt to keep alive the colonial legacy of controlling the Other, Western Europe, the United States, and Australia currently view neighboring countries or islands as fences to contain migrants and refugees. For Western Europe, these “fences” include Libya and Morocco (but also Turkey); for the United States and Australia, it is Mexico and the islands of Papua New Guinea, respectively. These countries, it appears, are considered entities whose policy toward the mobility of inflowing migrants can be held hostage to the whims of the North in exchange for money. Consequently, these “fences,” these “transit countries,” today host detention camps, information centers, and a many other similar misnomers, with the result that they themselves have become sites of immigration. In other words, in their pursuit to keep themselves insulated from the previously colonized, most countries in the Global North, at least partially, “outsource” the job of containing the incoming Other and, therefore, also overburden economically struggling nations.

Conclusion: Uprooting the Conditions Driving Migration

Are such concerted efforts to keep immigrants out an attempt to erase reminders of a colonial past, on the grounds of which much of modern-day European wealth and social structures were created? Is it a psychological evasion from historical guilt, a defense mechanism seeking refuge in amnesia? The defining moment of the contemporary migration and refugee crisis is the normalization of dying in a truck trailer, at the back of a lorry, or in a drowning boat. Those who survive have a high chance of being subjected to inhumane treatment at detention centers and possibly experiencing some kind of permanent psychological damage.

To most countries in the Global North, however, the migrant’s act of seeking life outside of their homeland is perceived as the result of immediate, local circumstances, detached from colonial pasts, imperialist wars, the ecological crisis, and the systemic underdevelopment of the Global South. In this framework, migration is perceived as an act of “choice,” an aspiration to experience social mobility, with no account of the historical and contemporary conditions dictating such a “choice.” Contemporary right-wing populists further conceal these historical conditions, despite aggressively employing colonial racial vocabulary. As long as the roots remain concealed, as long as the conditions driving mass mobility keep thriving, neither the Greece boat disaster nor even the most meaningful of efforts will bring substantial change.


1. Greg Miller, Julie Vitkovskaya and Reuben Fischer-Baum, “‘This Deal Will Make Me Look Terrible’: Full transcripts of Trump’s Calls with Mexico and Australia,” Washington Post, August 3, 2017.
2. Kim LaCapria, “President Obama Is Giving Mexico $75 Million to Build a Southern Border Wall,” Snopes, September 22, 2016.
3.Mediterranean Takes Record as Most Deadly Stretch of Water for Refugees and Migrants in 2011,” UNHCR, January 31, 2012.
4. Achankeng Fonkem, “The Refugee and Migrant Crisis: Human Tragedies as an Extension of Colonialism,” The Round Table 109, no. 1 (2020): 60.
5. Katy Fallon, “Revealed: Greek Police Coerce Asylum Seekers into Pushing Fellow Migrants Back to Turkey,” Guardian, June 28, 2022; Karen McVeigh, “Migrant Workers ‘Exploited and Beaten’ on UK Fishing Boats,” Guardian, May 17, 2022; Katy Fallon, “Revealed: EU Border Agency Involved in Hundreds of Refugee Pushbacks,” Guardian, April 28, 2022.
6. Shubhra Chakrabarti and Utsa Patnaik, eds., Agrarian and Other Histories Essays for Binay Bhushan Chaudhuri (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).
7. Ammar Ali Jan, “It Is Time for India and Pakistan to Repeal Their Sedition Laws,” Al Jazeera, February 20, 2020; Asad Ali Ahmed, “Specters of Macaulay Blasphemy, the Indian Penal Code, and Pakistan’s Postcolonial Predicament,” in Censorship in South Asia: Cultural Regulation from Sedition to Seduction (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009), 172–205; Fonkem, “The Refugee and Migrant Crisis,” 56.
8. Fonkem, “The Refugee and Migrant Crisis,” 57.
9. Stephanie Malia Hom, Empire’s Mobius Strip: Historical Echoes in Italy’s Crisis of Migration and Detention (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019), 3.
10. Encarnación Gutiérrez Rodríguez, “The Coloniality of Migration and the ‘Refugee Crisis’: On the Asylum-Migration Nexus, the Transatlantic White European Settler Colonialism-Migration and Racial Capitalism,” Refuge: Canada’s Journal on Refugees/Refuge 34, no. 1 (2018): 17.