Reflecting on the Interplay between Race, Ethnicity and Migration

Published 25 March 2021 / By Bani Gill & Marie Mallet-Garcia

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Recent events like the Windrush scandal and the Black Lives Matter movement have sparked a global conversation on racial inequality and systemic violence. There is an urgent need to critically reflect on race, racialisation and ethnicity as embedded in, shaping and transforming diverse contexts of migration and mobility worldwide. This dossier builds upon this momentum (and draws on some of the contributions from the recent seminar series on ‘Race, Ethnicity and Migration’ organised by COMPAS) to reflect on these issues through the prism of Hispanism.

As such, the current context of a “migration crisis” in Europe lends itself well to the exercise. Since April 2015, when over 800 migrants perished in a shipwreck while crossing the Mediterranean Sea, the European Union has acknowledged that there was, indeed, a migration crisis (Panebianco, 2016). However, this state-centric language of ‘crisis’ portrays the refugees and asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East who attempt to reach Europe as the problem (Georgi, 2019). It also diminishes the historical and structural role played by increasingly restrictive European border policies that leave migrants with few safe and legal routes to migrate (Jeandesboz & Polly Pallister-Wilkins, 2016) and the macabre spectacles of policing and violent deaths that have marked the maritime border of the Mediterranean Sea.

Border deaths embody the violence that underpins these restrictive policies that aim to control peoples’ movements and prevent certain groups of foreigners – who are predominately non-white – from reaching European borders (Pécoud, 2019). In this respect, migration regimes in the Mediterranean and the European Union epitomise how race, racism and racialisation have become intertwined with broader migration and mobility issues. It is no coincidence that it is primarily the mobility of people from former colonised countries in the Global South that are restricted by being pre-emptively illegalised (De Genova, 2018).

The putative ‘migrant crisis’ has been characterised by large-scale border deaths, virulent policing practices, and acceleration of border regimes and has simultaneously been accompanied by the intensification of political polarisation in Europe, both within and across states, marked by a rise of welfare chauvinism combined with fierce nationalism (Georgi, 2019). Populist rhetoric ostensibly focuses on the legality of border crossing and authorised residence to construct ‘illegal’ migrants as particularly predisposed to immoral personhood, simultaneously fuelling paranoid discourses of economic competition, welfare dependency and imaginaries of cultural disharmony.

However, scholarship has amply demonstrated how immigration politics extends well beyond the border and questions of legality into the very heart and chassis of modern nation-states. As Anderson (2013, 2) argues, “modern states portray themselves not as arbitrary collections of people hung together by a common legal status but as a community of value”, such that renders unstable the very construct of categories such as ‘citizen’ and ‘migrant’ as gauged along ethnic, religious, cultural and indeed raced values. Even if the dominant discourse on migration by European States systematically dissimulates race due to what De Genova considers Europe’s “sanctimonious desires to renounce race as a residually race-ist article of faith” (De Genova, 2018, p.1769), it remains that the vast majority of those who perish on their journey to European shores are non-white migrants. In the same vein, it is non-white citizens who are reminded time and again to ‘prove’ their credentials of belonging beyond that of legal status by consistently and explicitly articulating and performing their distinction from those hyper-visiblised as the raced Othered.

Across the European Union, the racialisation of migrants has also coincided with their “Islamization” and rising levels of islamophobia, demonstrating how notions of race intersect with identities of religion, ethnicity, class, colour, gender, and language to produce differentiated and mutable experiences of domination and suppression. In this sense, “pure racism” is giving way to “intersectional racism, intertwined with and formed by the dynamic interdependence with other relations of oppression (Georgi, 2019, p.101). Additionally, racism has itself taken on a new proxy, that of ‘nationalism’. Its tenets rest on the idea that there is a strong bond between certain groups of people (linked by a sort of social contract) that does not exist with certain migrants who seem too ‘different’ ever to be able to co-exist. Worse, these migrants are often seen as changing the social fabric of their host country, thereby prompting the resurgence of nationalist feelings advocating for the exclusion of bodies racialised as foreign.

Several scholars have remarked that race and ethnicity are relational, relative, and socially constructed identities. Yet, the reification of such identities in state and popular registers has real and consequential effects on migrants that include profiling, policing, exclusion, xenophobia, violence and even death. The Mediterranean Sea has become the nucleus of such conflicts and tensions, “where precarious movements are both the result of restrictive migration policies and forces of defiance” (Schwarz and Stierl 2019, 668), for the sea has also become synonymous with resistance, immense political struggle, and humanitarian intervention. As such, the Mediterranean migration ‘crisis’ highlights fundamental issues faced not only by Southern European countries but also reflected elsewhere primarily due to the historically charged structural conditions of inequality and their impact upon the unfolding dynamics of race and migration pulsating across the globe. Such frictions are not limited to the border, in a context where borders are being simultaneously multiplied, externalised and internalised in public debate, as core liberal principles of ‘rights’, ‘equality’, and ‘freedom’ itself are reassessed (Anderson 2013).

Whilst Euro-American contexts have direct histories of slavery and colonialism that manifest in contemporary migration policies and border regimes, hegemonic representations of race intersect with localised histories of difference to produce racialised postcolonial spaces across non-white contexts such as Africa and South Asia (Pierre 2013, Gill 2019) as well. In the dossier presented here, scholars from across geographical locations, institutional affiliation and disciplinary training engage with the analytical optic and lived reality of race and ethnicity to understand better the present and, indeed, the future of the contestations over human mobility.

This text has been prepared as a chapter for the Mélanges de la Casa de Velázquez.


Ansems de Vries, Leonie and Carrera, Sergio and Guild, Elspeth (2016) Documenting the Migration Crisis in the Mediterranean: Spaces of Transit, Migration Management and Migrant Agency. CEPS Paper in Liberty and Security in Europe, No. 94, Available at SSRN:

Bulmer, Martin and John Solomos (2018) Migration and race in Europe, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 41:5, 779-784, DOI: 10.1080/01419870.2018.1426872

Fiore, Teresa and Ernest Ialongo (2018) Introduction: Italy and the Euro-Mediterranean ‘migrant crisis’: national reception, lived experiences, E.U. pressures, Journal of Modern Italian Studies, 23:4, 481-489, DOI: 10.1080/1354571X.2018.1500787

Gill, Bani (2019) In the Shadow of Illegality: The Everyday Life of African Migrants in Delhi. Unpublished PhD Thesis, University of Copenhagen