By Felicia Sarling

Undocumented, irregular or unauthorized migrants that are denoted illegal status by state authorities suffer inhumane treatment at militarized border zones in many parts of the world. Typical treatment of illegalized migrants in Western states is prevention of entry, spatial containment in detention centers and forced deportation. Deaths occur in all three situations, but most commonly when migrants try to enter a country.

According to minimalist estimations, at least 34,000 people have died since the year 2000 while trying to enter European territory. In reality, the number is probably a lot greater since many deaths are unaccounted for. Anthropologist Barak Kalir argues that there is intentional apartheid-like segregation of migrants, often based on ethnocultural background. In his article “Departheid. The Draconian Governance of Illegalized Migrants in Western States”, Kalir introduces the term Departheid to describe the ideology that seems intrinsic to strict mobility regimes and their policies. It implies that the great number of casualties at borders, family separations and harsh conditions in detention centers are not unintended side effects of big migration waves, nor are they consequences of unpreparedness, but rather direct and intentional effects of current migration policies. The introduction of this term is a way of shifting perspectives and seeing the issue for what it is: a series of crimes against human rights.

Why does the way we speak about migration policy matter? Language plays an important role in guiding our reasoning, and the choice of words alters what kind of emotion is embedded in the meaning. Social psychologist Albert Bandura identifies several psychosocial maneuvers of moral disengagement that allows individuals to justify harmful behavior. One of these maneuvers is euphemistic labeling, in other words, sugarcoating. By choice of words, one can make even the most destructive actions seem respectable. A typical example is the euphemism “collateral damage” that downplays the severity of harm inflicted on civilians during military operations. As borders across the world become increasingly militarized, one could argue that related deaths are to be considered collateral damage. However, according to Kalir, this kind of harm is a direct effect of the implementation of the Departheid ideology hence it cannot be considered unintended. The risk of death is systematically produced at harmful borders, in detention centers where suicide and self-harm is common, and not least in the life-threatening places to which illegalized migrants are forcefully sent back. The discourse on migration policy today seems to drastically undermine the suffering that is caused by it. Kalir begins his article by quoting Confucius: “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their proper name”. 

While the inhumane treatment of immigrants is brushed off, downplayed or dismissed as the responsibility of others, the threats immigration poses to the receiving country are all the more discussed. When politicians, parties and governments articulate an issue as an existential threat, language is a powerful tool used for the securitizing speech act. The verbal framing of immigration issues influences how the message is received by the public and what opinions they form. Many anti-immigration movements and parties tend to frame immigration as a societal security issue, in other words, a threat to the collective identity. Immigration typically evokes fear of, for example, a new religion overshadowing the locally dominant one. However, this fear is a selfish one when cultural preservation means deprivation of others’ human rights. 

One of the main rhetoric strands that Kalir identifies as public justification of oppressive migration politics is that immigrants are portrayed in dehumanizing ways, e.g. as criminals or parasites. Dehumanization is also a maneuver identified by Bandura as a form of moral disengagement that reduces personal responsibility. In addition, speaking of illegalized immigrants as less than human is a prime example of the securitizing speech act. If illegalized migrants are not publicly spoken about as humans, the public is less likely to see them as such. Migration is often framed almost as a natural phenomenon, a great destructive force that we need to protect ourselves against. Kalir identifies the common use of aquatic metaphors as “flooding” and “migration waves”. This sort of rhetoric fools us to think that the fate of the migrants is out of our hands, and we can only try to stop it from overflowing our own land. Migration is articulated as a threat by xenophobic movements to elicit fear and anger from a population. Evidently, skilled speakers throughout history have been successful in planting these emotions in their target masses to promote their politics. Fortunately, language is a tool that can be used to re-humanize the people who migrate, wherever they may come from and whatever the reason for their journey may be. In order to change the way people think about migration, the language surrounding the topic needs to be adapted. 

If not mainstreamed, I do hope that the term Departheid gains attention and sparks a new direction of debate. Whether Kalir has come up with the “proper” term to describe the current migration policies in Western states, I alone cannot determine. However, I do believe the concept contributes greatly to the migration discourse because it shifts focus, blame and attitude. Considering the many forms of violence migrants in Western democratic states suffer, something must be fundamentally wrong in the very politics of mobility. There are laws and policies that force desperate migrants to cross dangerous border zones illegally. Migrants risk drowning in the Mediterranean Sea in weak rubber boats because they are escaping dangers that are worse than what they face in the ocean. They are not misinformed or ignorant of the danger that awaits in militarized border zones. People will exercise mobility and borders will be crossed whatever the cost. It is up to our democratic state authorities to determine if the cost must be human life.

Cover photo: Brian Lundquist

Felicia Sarling is a student of the Peace and Development program at Uppsala University. In her spare time, she writes poetry and fills her private journal with anecdotes her future children will probably cringe about.

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