The political viability of anti-immigrationism

European nations increasingly look to the physical space of African nations for potential solutions to their racial and demographic anxieties.

Image credit Jack Zalium via Flickr (CC).

Political pressure regarding migrants in western countries remains ambivalent and highly contested, representing one of the most dominant sociopolitical issues some of the countries face. In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, caught between the vice grip of anti-immigrant demands of his party’s right-wing (and an election on April 9th), and the country’s activist groups and political left, recently withdrew his plan to force out roughly 40,000 black African migrants. However, this has been framed as a demonstration of political peril, “trapping nationalist leaders” between the demands of the xenophobic and the progressive, relegating black peoples to the role of pawns in a chess match between white peoples more interested in the ethnic purity and image of moral integrity than the well-being of migrants and refugees.

Africa is the site of anti-migrant policy testing writ large; the West, including Netanyahu and Israel, have used African nations as sites where they have implemented mass deportations; police raids of suspected migrants; and even voluntary repatriations; or in the case of Israel, paying black Africans money to leave Israel. These represent a form of racism passing as immigration control, and are becoming incredibly commonplace as Europe looks to the physical space of African nations for potential solutions to its racial and demographic anxieties.

Netanyahu’s reneging on forcibly expelling black African migrants from the country comes just months after Israel enacted a policy to pay black Africans money to leave the country or face imprisonment. As far back as 2013, Israeli politicians introduced a bill offering migrants US$3,500 to leave the country, demonstrating the recycling of migration “management” tactics over time. Recently, Israel has begun recruiting civilians to temporarily serve as inspectors to aid state authorities in the expulsion of black Africans, demonstrating Israel’s expressed and determined efforts to remove them from the country. However, the presence and availability of Uganda and Ethiopia as “third countries” to which they deport African migrants and refugees,  as a backdrop—and Africa more broadly—signifies the centrality that access to Africa maintains within Israel’s larger anti-immigration policy.

This shouldn’t be framed as a story about the difficulties of being a conservative leader in the West who is dealing with migration, stuck between anti-immigrant sentiment on the right and activist pro-immigrant groups on the left. Unfortunately, the political possibilities racism offers have proven to be more than enough to sustain actual debate rather than outright opprobrium and social rejection. These ideas have currency and political utility, and pro-immigrant groups have had trouble appealing to the “moral authority” of conservative politicians who want racial purity in their countries.

Israel and Netanyahu have reached a point where their anti-black tactics have met considerable opposition from protestors and the political left. However, these gains are quite rare. In the US, President Trump allowed a government shutdown to rage on because of Democrats’ unwillingness to fund the construction of a wall on the southern border with Mexico. In August 2018, France passed a strong anti-immigrant measure  satisfying the public who thought that French immigration policy was “too lax.” These thinly veiled racist conceptions of what it means to be French have been part of the French political landscape for years and has continued to give white French people a sense of demographic anxiety that fuels the debate amid the growing concern of im/migration. Furthermore, France and the EU have not only enacted policies within their borders, but have moved to implement migration policies and activities within Africa. This political exploitation of migrants in Europe provides some public cover that serves as justification for Europe to physically extend its borders southward through African sovereign nations.

Under intense pressure from the EU, Niger passed the anti-human trafficking law in 2015, allowing its military to arrest and jail migrant smugglers, and the authorities to bring migrants to the police or the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the UN agency responsible for coordinating (anti-)migration activities in Africa. This  anti-human trafficking law in Niger has been incredibly effective. At the zenith of migration through Niger in 2015, approximately 5,000 to 7,000 migrants traveled through the country to Libya, but the criminalization of human smuggling and trafficking has reduced those figures to about 1,000 people per week, according to the IOM. In other words, these anti-migration efforts are working, as they stifle black movement. Politicians can show that they are blocking Africans from moving to Europe at all costs and show how their policies are “working” there; providing specious justification for continuing border projects including the expulsion of black peoples—often via racial profiling, assuming all blacks are migrants without papers.

The viability of these anti-immigrationist policies and the ascendant power of the groups who peddle them, is sustained by the aggravated anxieties of Europeans wanting to preserve their perceived entitlements to neoliberal pursuits without many of the individuals who support that lifestyle through their exploited labor. Marine Le Pen along with the populist right-wing party Dutch leader Theirry Baudet, among others across western Europe, have advocated xenophobic, racist sentiments and endorsed anti-immigrant and anti-migrant policies in their countries, and have called upon Europe as a whole to fortify its borders. Beyond this, anti-immigration and xenophobic policies of Europe with respect to black Africans has been able to lean on the assumedly “non-racial” and “technocratic” migration projects within Africa.

The anti-immigrant xenophobia endorsed and ratified by Netanyahu, Trump, Macron and others illuminates how politically favorable the current social climate is to these racist and xenophobic policies, even as we experience a more “woke” social era. If anything, cases like Matteo Salvini using effective populist tactics to nudge Italy to fully embrace the far right and its anti-immigrant leanings, indicate how Europe’s historical, geographic and economic proximity to Africa will continue to serve as lynchpins in the uneven racial relationship that Europe has enjoyed at the expense of black peoples. Many African nations, most of which are former European colonies, largely remain sources of extractable material and socio-political resources for European powers. Even in the case of countries like Israel and the US with anti-immigrant leaders who have faced pressure from rights groups, they can still impress their anti-immigrant base and activists by playing political football with human beings. With Netanyahu stumbles through the political minefield in his shaky reelection bid, supporters and detractors of his anti-immigration policies will pay close attention to how he uses his new right-wing coalition around anti-blackness and xenophobia to secure votes in the upcoming April 2019 presidential election.

Further Reading

Making Europe White… Again

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