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What does racism have to do with our migration politics?

Racism is a structural and systemic problem that strongly shapes the experiences and lives of non-white immigrants and people with refugee experience. BIPoC (Black People, Indigenous People, People of Color) continually call attention to the fact that racism remains deeply embedded in our society. But what exactly does racism have to do with the treatment of migrants in Europe and especially in Germany? We summarize the most important points here:

Demonstration for human rights

Words are important

Expat or migrant? There is actually not much difference between the two words. Expat originally comes from English word “expatriate” but is now also widely used in the German language. The Oxford Learner's Dictionary says that an expat is "a person living in a country that is not their own". A migrant is "a person who has come to live permanently in a country that is not their own."

Nevertheless, there is a crucial difference in how these two words are commonly used in daily life. When a White person sets out to find a better life and/or job in another country, that person is usually referred to as an expat by themselves and others . When a non-white person does the same, the person is a migrant.

The different choice of words is no coincidence; there is a clear hierarchy between the two words. The word migrant now has a negative connotation e.g. due to the media, while "expat" has a positive connotation. Togolese journalist Mawuna Remarque Koutonin writes that the word expat exists only to place White migrants above non-Whites. When a non-white person leaving their country is called a migrant and a white person is called an expat, it makes it clear that one is more welcome and better than the other.

A child in a wheelbarrow

Racist foreign policy

The Federal Minister of the Interior Horst Seehofer emphasizes again and again that we have to set a sign so that no more migrants try to come to Europe and Germany. In a 2018 interview, he said "a rejection [...] at the German-Austrian border would have led to a domino effect all the way to the EU's external border. This would have sent a signal." In this context, Seehofer also likes to contrast his deterrence policy with migration as a “problem”.

But it is not about deterring all migrants. Although the majority of migrants who came to Germany in 2018 came from another EU country, such as Romania, Croatia, and Bulgaria, these are not the people that politicians see as the "problem". The "problem" is the people who come from Arab or sub-Saharan countries. It is the people who are turned away at the EU's external borders in violation of international law on asylum. It is the people who have to live in inhumane camps on the Greek islands.

The division of who is allowed to come to Germany and who should stay away is not a coincidence, but the continuation of a centuries-old structure of racism that stipulates that White people are guaranteed more human dignity than non-White people. It is inconceivable that thousands of White North Americans would have to live in tents for years without adequate basic services.

Burning refugee shelter in Bautzen 2016
Burning refugee shelter in Bautzen 2016, source:

Racism in everyday life

Even for those who eventually manage to enter the EU (and specifically Germany) and obtain a residence permit, racism remains a constant everyday experience. This goes from everyday insults and micro-aggressions, to discrimination on the labor market, to life-threatening violence.

The "Chronicle of Anti-Refugee Incidents" has documented all attacks on asylum seekers and their accommodations in Germany since 2015. Since the last update at the end of 2020, the register counts 10,942 attacks (attacks include all attacks on shelters, physical attacks on people as well as public, verbal rallies and demonstrations against asylum seekers). This means that in the last 6 years there were on average 5 attacks on asylum seekers per day (attacks on non-asylum seeking migrants were not counted). Racism in Europe and Germany kills, not only on the migration route and at the external borders, but also inside the continent and country.

In addition, there is institutional racism. A study by the University of Tübingen shows that racism in the German labor market is a real problem for non-white migrants and people with refugee experience. This manifests itself in many different ways, e.g. discriminatory remarks in vocational schools and at the workplace, a more difficult job search due to bureaucratic measures, and social exclusion. The consequences are often unemployment, being forced to do a job for which one is overqualified, and severe psychological pressure.

What we can do

Racism is a complex issue that has been perpetuated for centuries in the context of the capitalist system. There are many facets that we have not been able to point out in this blog post. But in the end, there is one important conclusion: racism is a problem that needs to be solved by White people because we perpetuate it for our benefit, even if we are not actively racist.

There are many ways in which we can contribute to change. First, we should educate ourselves to understand our own learned biases. We can read books, listen to podcasts, listen to affected people, etc. In a previous blog post, we already compiled a list of resources to start with. Second, we need to have conversations with our White friends, family members, neighbors, etc. to "unlearn" racism from each other. The topic should not be taboo! Third, we can contact politicians and put pressure on them to fight racism structurally. Fourth, we can support organizations that already actively contribute to the fight against racism in Germany and Europe.


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