A Postcolonial Analysis of the 21st Century Migration Discourse

by Wong Yong Li


The very naming of a form of critical studies as ‘postcolonial theory’ reveals an understanding and reading of world history relative to the period of colonization. Within postcolonial theory every event before the 18th and 19th century is interpreted as part of a precapitalist, precolonial society and we interpret events after these centuries as part of a society that has survived the period of colonization. Thus one key question that is often raised within postcolonial studies is if we are really living in a post-colonial era—where colonization and colonialism is truly over.

This essay takes one event that occurred historically in the postcolonial era—the influx of migrants into Europe in the 21st century—and critically reads it in relation to the period of colonization.  As we interpret this specific event of migration through postcolonial theory, we would then answer the question of whether colonization and colonialism is truly over. For the purposes of this essay, the author would define colonization and colonialism here as the imbalance of power where “Europe was always in a position of strength, not to say domination”.[1] Thus with this definition, this essay will interpret the event of the influx of migration in ways that exposes how Europe is still in a position of strength and domination even until today.


The narrative of the migration ‘crisis’

The event of migration into Europe in the 21st century is a broad topic. From the human rights violations conducted by the externalization of border policies to the assimilationist integration policies, the complete domination of European governments over migrants who have been framed as “outsiders”, “non-natives” have led postcolonial scholars to identify migrants as the new group of “Subalterns”. Within postcolonial studies, much attention has been given to the framing of the individual migrant, the person involved, but not of the framing of the event itself. This essay thus focuses on the way the story of the migration ‘crisis’ is told and aims to use it as an example to reveal the power dynamics of Europe and the Middle East played out in the migration discourse.

In Europe, it is the Western media and academia that largely drive the migration discourse and framing of the migration crisis. In large Western newspapers such as CNBC, it is reported that “a million migrants arrived in 2015”,[2] while the International Organisation of Migration highlights that “the number of international migrants has doubled from 75 million in 1965 to an estimated 150 million in 2000”.[3]

What is portrayed in the quotes above is a huge number of foreigners have entered into the West. Figures like “over a million per year” and aquatic metaphors such as “floods” and “waves” highlight the scale of this migration and its unprecedented nature. This ‘phenomenon’ of migration has been represented as one too big for governments to ignore and also too sudden. It is perceived as a ‘problem’, a sudden event, a ‘crisis’ that must thus be ‘resolved’.

One way we can critically evaluate this narrative is to reanalyze knowledge production in the migration discourse. Epistemologically, the media and academia use statistics to substantiate the large scale of this migration. Since the use of absolute statistics is typically an empirical research approach based on actual figures, it has often been associated with notions of academic neutrality because conclusions drawn from numbers should be regarded as ‘facts’. Through the lens of postcolonial theory, we are however told to be wary of notions of ‘academic neutrality’. All academic knowledge produced by a researcher who has some form of distance from his subject will always be “tinged with and impressed with, violated by” political means and agenda, especially in countries whose positions in power relationships are of Domination rather than Subordination.[4]

The use of statistics is not as neutral as it seems as many questions can be asked regarding the interpretation of these empirical figures and if any significant details surrounding these figures have been overlooked or not taken into consideration in the discourse. While these figures are absolute numbers, they are inextricably linked to other figures such as global population figures. Migration scholars have discovered that currently with 150 million people living globally outside their native countries, this figure represents 2.5% percent of global population, a proportion consistent from the 1960s. The figures presented today do not reflect a huge jump from past years or decades. In fact, in certain decades of the 19th century, the number of people migrating superseded current figures.[5]

This raises the question of whether the current flow of migrants is a sudden unprecedented problem or if migration was always part of human history. A deeper study into migration figures suggests that such migration of such large scale existed as early as the 18th century and certainly cannot be fully explained by a simple cause-effect relationship as portrayed by contemporary migration discourse.[6] The incidence of migration is not simply a sudden result of a war or an economic depression but rather a continuous phenomenon in human history. Neither should one view the ‘migration crisis’ as an abrupt interjection of a problem in European history.

This portrayal of the migration phenomenon as a ‘crisis for Europe’ reveals to us in two ways how Europe still retains its dominant colonial position in an era supposedly post-colonial.

First, since migration is a crisis that befell upon Europe, it portrays Europe as the unfortunate party victimised by the large influx of Middle Eastern immigrants. What is conveniently forgotten here is that Europe is not the only victim of a phenomenon that has lasted for centuries. In fact, the victim/culprit position was reversed in the 18th century when migration was largely a result of colonialism. As European countries expanded their imperialistic ambitions, most of the ruling classes from the West migrated to their colonies. In contrast to Europe who could attract global attention on their ‘plight’ and victimized position today, the colonies in the 18th and 19th century were silent as Europeans migrated into their land in large numbers.[7]

The contrast of silence from her colonies against the loud criticism by Europe today resembles Said’s description of how “Only an Occidental could speak of Orientals”.[8] Cesaire also echoes similar sentiments—“It is the West that studies the ethnography of the others, not the Others who studies the ethnography of the West.”[9] What both writers are trying to express is the unequal positions of power that Europe and the Middle East occupy since the 18th century until today. The lack of attention and remembrance by the global community of such a migration history during the period of colonialism exposes the lack of power of Western colonies to speak for themselves. The process of knowledge production with regards to the field of migration has been dominated by the one-sided stories of the West.

Second, the framing of North-South migration as a crisis justifies the harsh restrictionist policies implemented by European governments to resolve the ‘crisis’. Since the inflow of immigrations has been portrayed as an unprecedented problem of a scale never seen before in history, it must be ‘resolved’, controlled and curbed. If we view the influx of immigrants today as part of a migration phenomenon integral to human history, the question would not be how we should resolve the problem but rather how we should deal with it. More effort would be then placed on how governments should aid society in accepting the presence of more foreigners (policies of integration) rather than attempting to control the movement of humans (restrictionist policies). These two types of policies have large implications for colonial relations because while policies of integration are Europeans governing European societies, restrictionist policies are a case of Europeans governing Middle Eastern societies. Restrictionist policies tend to encroach on the authorities of other nations and remind us of the domination of local and tribal governments that precedes colonial rule.

The first part of the essay has focused largely on the presentation of the migration crisis from the perspective of Western media and academia. In migration discourse, Western media and academia have “adopted the position of the expert” which attributes them “the position of power” as scholars of Subaltern and Orientalist studies have argued.[10] Would giving the disempowered, the research objects a voice then gives us some hope in reversing these power dynamics around?


Attempts at hearing voices from the other side

 The second part of the essay focuses on a film that aims to give the disempowered research objects a voice. Created from the camera phones of refugees, the film was celebrated to “record on camera phones the things and places no camera crew could ever get to: the dealings with people smugglers, the terrifying sea voyages, the secret scaling of border fences, the thousand-mile treks to freedom, or, at least, comparative safety.”[11] What distinguishes this film and gives it its anticolonial stance is its unmediated, raw footage of migrants that escapes the framing and editing of Western media. A contention however surrounding the film was its use of language. The interviews and dialogue were in the native language of the migrants but the film was completely subtitled in English, the foreign language for these migrants.  Such a film reminds us of Thiong O’s analysis of the written and spoken word. While Thiong O highlights the “colonial alienation” that exists due to the disjunction between the language used to write and speak and the “language of real life” for the African child who studies in a European language, there is similarly a disjunction between the reality expressed in the language of the subtitles (written) and the language of the dialogue (spoken) in the film.[12]

It is easy to criticise the film for not being truly a piece of anticolonial documentation. Such criticism was raised in an interview with a migrant who replied that if the video was not produced in the universal dominant spoken language of English, the plights and stories of many migrants could not be globally heard. The migrant’s response is emblematic of the dilemma every Subaltern or marginalised voice that aims to carve out a speaking position for itself faces. If postcolonial or anticolonial studies are concerned with giving the Subaltern a voice that represents his truest form of reality, it should be spoken with a language of his “real life” that unfortunately is often incomprehensible to the global audience and thus continues to remain unheard.

The postcolonial criticism of this film brings to mind Spivak who questions “the project of giving a voice to those written out of history”.[13] Claiming that there “is [not] a non-institutional environment”,[14] she proves how the possibility of recovering the subaltern voice in a way which is not essentialist is questionable. Yet what Spivak does is to argue on theoretical grounds and present the theoretical reasoning for why there are “specific problems in the construction of a speaking position for the subaltern”.[15]

The dilemma of the film gives us the opportunity to provide another reason for Spivak’s conclusion that the project of recovering the subaltern voice is problematic. This other reason can be understood when we combine Thiong O’s analysis of language with our reading of the film.

Because of the necessity for the Subaltern voice to be heard, such documentation produced must be mediated in some form or the other into a foreign language that can be understood by the global audience. As Thiong O highlights, “language carries culture, and culture carries, particularly through orature and literature; the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world. How people perceive themselves affects how they look at their culture, at their politics and at the social production of wealth, at their entire relationship to nature and to other beings.”[16] Language is not just a medium of communication but appears like a mirror, reflecting a specific interpretation of reality to the audience. As the voice of the migrant gets translated into a foreign language, what is expressed is not “true reality” as how he experienced it—it becomes a series of images distorted by a culture that was a product of a world foreign to him. In such a world, the migrant is always portrayed homogenously as a destitute asylum seeker whose rights are constantly violated and who is completely disempowered.

It is not the author’s aim to argue that the film is exaggerating the plight of the migrants or undermine the migrants to be not as desolate as the world makes them out to be. What this analysis is trying to show is that the film is no longer a piece of documentation that presents to us the voice of the migrant in “its truest reality”. The addition of the written word in a foreign language through the medium of subtitles exposes the film to a foreign culture, foreign system of values where it must occupy some kind of space, some position relative to the dominant discourse.  The position that it now occupies is one of a complete opposite to the position of a ‘threat’ of a culprit that victimizes Europe, as how the Western media portrays them to be. Instead, critics of the film have pointed out and even praised how the film portrays the migrant in his reality as a victim. A film that could possibly add to the migration discourse an alternative voice from the usual perspective of a marginalized, silenced migrant ends up in one of the positions of the binary opposite in a world which regards the migration issue in two polemic ways: either recipient countries victimized by the sudden huge floods of immigrants or migrants victimized by recipient countries who strengthen border control. This brings us back to Spivak who argues how recovering the Subaltern voice in a non-essentialist manner is perhaps a futile project.

This part of the essay has used the film that serves as an attempt to recover the voice of the migrant to put Spivak and Thiong O in conversation with each other. The author here shows how Spivak’s critique of the postcolonial attempt to recover the subaltern subject can be strengthened and understood in another dimension—through the dimension of language analysis that Thiong O provides. The need for the film to be reinterpreted and translated reflects a practical problem in recovering the voice of the migrant—it should be done in a manner that allows the voice to be understood. Yet in doing so, the film is exposed and mediated through a foreign language that as Thiong O argues carries a culture that is inevitably foreign to the migrant but more insidiously inextricably tied to the dominant discourse. Thus, by having the film mediated through subtitles in a foreign language, the film must and will occupy a position within the dominant discourse which in this case is one of a complete binary opposite to the position taken by Western media and academia as seen in the first part of the essay.

One fact however that could still preserve the “voice” of the migrant in the film are parts of the film that are not mediated by language—that is the moving pictures. After all, the medium of the film is unique in how it presents reality as directly seen by the camera phone. Without the editing of pictures by an entertainment company, this film could possibly capture aspects within the experience of the migrant during filming that provide an alternative perspective outside dominant contemporary migration discourse. One could pay more attention to the pictures and especially what is caught on camera off-focus in order to “hear” the true “voice of the Subaltern”.


Conclusion and Reflections

This essay answers the research question asked at the beginning of whether the power dynamics of colonization since the 18th century are still prevalent today with an affirmative yes. Upon examining the way the event of migration is framed in the migration discourse, the essay reveals how migration discourse is still largely dominated by the European voice and falls easily into a Manichean dualistic structure.

The author is highly grateful for the opportunity to write this essay which has added much to the author’s own critical reflections with regards to her academic writing. The author is humbled by the realization of how easy it is to fall prey to the temptations of taking positions of power as the expert in studying an object and thus had decided to not study the framing of migrants who are individuals and should not be objectified in any instance. Instead, the author attempts to be careful in selecting the event of migration and migration discourse in the media and academia as her research object.

In the process of writing, the author realizes the dominance of language and how certain words when used in the beginning of an essay becomes a framing for the rest of the essay. Indeed, by using Thiong O’s theory of language, the author herself has fully elucidated his argument of how language carries a fixed set of perceptions that transmits a certain world view and interpretation of ideas and events.


[1] Edward Said, Orientalism (London: Penguin), 51.

[2] Holly Ellyatt, “1 million migrants arrived in Europe in 2015: UN” [online: web], updated 22 Dec 2015, cited 22 Jul.2016. URL: http://www.cnbc.com/2015/12/22/one-million-migrants-arrived-in-europe-in-2015-un.html

[3] Nyberg-Sørensen, N., N. Van Hear and P. Engberg-Pedersen (2002a) “The Migration– Development Nexus: Evidence and Policy Options. State-of-the-Art Overview”, International Migration 40.5 (2002): 3–48.

[4] Said, 27.

[5] Hein De Haas, “Turning the Tide? Why Development Will Not Stop Migration,” Development and Change 38.5 (Sep 2007): 819-841.

[6] Nyberg-Sørensen, N., N. Van Hear and P. Engberg-Pedersen, 6.

[7] De Haas, 822.

[8] Said, 210.

[9] Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, trans. Joan Pinkham (New York: Monthly Review Press, ),  71.

[10] Peter Childs and R.J. Patrick Williams, Introduction to Post-Colonial Theory (New York Harvester Wheatheaf, ), 22.

[11] Gerard O’ Donovan, “’Exodus: Our Journey to Europe’ revealed the terrifying reality of being a refugee,” [online: web], updated 11 Jul 2016, cited 22 Jul.2016. URL: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/tv/2016/07/11/exodus-our-journey-to-europe-revealed-the-terrifying-reality-of/

[12] Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, (Harare, Zimbabwe: Zimbabwe Publishing House, 1981), 13-14.

[13] David Huddart, Postcolonial Theory and Autobiography, (Oxford: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2008), 130.

[14] Gayatri Spivak, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman, (New York: Harvester 
Wheatsheaf, 1994), pp.66–111.

[15] Huddart, 130.

[16] Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 13.

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