By Ray Ja Fraser,
The UK Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond recently warned that African migrants “pose a threat to the standard of living and social structure of the UK and the rest of Europe.” Hammond also went on to use the term “marauding” to describe the migrants’ presence in the Calais (France) area. For many, his comments come across as cold and callous, and several Labour candidates rightly condemned Hammond’s comments as “alarmist…unhelpful…and dehumanising.”
However, somewhat overlooked by observers is how myopic and decontextualized Hammond’s demonization of migrants really is. The Foreign Secretary’s use of marauding, a term defined as “going about in search of things to steal or people to attack,” seems mighty rich, considering the history of the British Empire, which at its peak was the largest formal empire that the world had ever known. An empire so vast that “upon it, the sun never set.” Yes, but only because God would never trust the British in the dark.
What exactly was the domain of the glorious Empire? One of the best descriptions comes from James Flory, the protagonist in George Orwell’s semi-autobiographical first novel, Burmese Days (1934). Flory, a British officer in colonial-era Burma, tries to woo a young woman with his thoughts on imperialism. The woman asks, “what is imperialism?” In response, he quips, “imperialism is going to other people’s countries…killing them…and stealing their things.” Succinct, to the point, and nearly synonymous with marauding as utilized by the Foreign Secretary Hammond.
Of course, Empire would never acknowledge that it engaged in outright marauding, since it often wore the cloak of civilizing the benighted heathens or the white man’s burden. Yet, even within that context the focus on theft and plunder is relatively clear; as noted within a famous quote by Bishop Tutu, “when the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said ‘Let us pray.’ We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land!”
Was it not under the UK’s and NATO’s burden of humanitarianism and civilized responsibilities that Libya was destroyed, ceasing to be a functional state, and is now the launching point for so many of the boats and migrants heading to Europe? And whence come so many of these migrants? From the Middle East and beyond (e.g. Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan), where modern day equivalents of Francois Georges-Picot and Mark Sykes continue to greedily draw maps outlining their nations’ spheres of control, domination, and extraction. Or from across sub-Saharan Africa, where migrants flee the shackles of poverty imposed by a global neoliberal economic order predicated on exploitation and inequality or the tyrannical repression of brutes and strongmen installed and supported by the west.
Hammond’s comments claiming threats to standards of living and social structure are likewise short-sighted, misplaced, and rather hypocritical, if one pauses for only a moment to think about the UK’s (or the West’s) historical effects on the standards of living or social structures of the people’s of the Global South.
Consider how prior to falling within the clutches of the British Empire, India had 23% of the world’s wealth, a figure that would dramatically drop to below 4% after the British left. Or consider how, prior to colonialism under the British, India accounted for 27% of world trade, a figure that dwindled to less than 2% by the end of colonialism. Sure Hammond and his ilk haughtily point to the railroads. But be sure to ask, “who built them? And for what purpose?” Focus Hammond. Social structures and standards of living…[i]
Shifting westward, and south of the Suez, Hammond’s comments on supposed threats to standards of living and social structure appear unlearned, if one considers the great famine of 1888-1892 in the Horn of Africa (of course, one can refer to the Bengal famine or the Irish Famine where western imperialism and policy are likewise implicated). Occurring mainly in Eritrea, the immediate triggers for the famine were animal disease (rinderpest), drought, and pestilence. The diseases were introduced and spread by the Italian colonial army and the animals they brought, and many Eritreans claimed that the Italians deliberately spread disease to facilitate their conquest of Eritrea. Estimates suggest that over 90% of the animals in Eritrea perished, food production failed almost completely, and a large percentage of the total population died or was forced to migrate. Recovery was painstakingly slow, and for many years after the end of the famine there remained dramatic shortages of animals and food. In addition, the Italians (and later the British) implemented a policy of deforestation that would reduce Eritrea’s forest areas by nearly 70%. It was in these conditions that the Italians were able to conquer the whole of Eritrea, ushering in apartheid and oppressing the population. After the Italians were defeated in WW2, the British entered the country. When first approached by the Eritrean civilians, the British contemptuously stated,”[we] didn’t do it for you, ni–er!” and duly carried on the pillaging. Again, Hammond. Focus. Social structures and threats to standard of living…[ii]
Overall, Hammond’s comments are rude and inappropriate. In addition, they utterly fail to contextualize both the historical (colonialism) and current (global economic order) ways in which western and European standards of living are premised on the depredation and exploitation of the Global South. Moreover, Hammond overlooks the numerous ways in which the UK and the West have been, and continue to be, the authors of the great tragedies and nightmares from which so many of the world’s migrants flee.