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In October 2016, Hussein and I met over coffee at a Tunisian pastry shop in the north of Paris to follow up on his administrative battle with the French government. We had spent months filing paperwork together, building the strongest possible case for his asylum application. Hussein had fled Sudan in 2002 with a fake passport and settled in Athens after a long journey through Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey. In 2015, forced to leave Greece, he traveled through the Balkans and Germany with the aim of reaching the U.K. After arriving in Paris, exhausted and sick, he joined a few other Sudanese refugees in a makeshift camp established under elevated train tracks. This is where I met him. A few days later the camp was evacuated, and Hussein had to give his fingerprints and file an asylum application in order to escape deportation.

On that day in October, the unbearable wait and the autumnal rain had somewhat dampened his hope of receiving a positive answer from the French Office for the Protection of Refugees and Stateless People, or OFPRA. Warming up his hands on his coffee cup, he looked at me and said, “I know that I shouldn’t be here. I should be in the U.K. But they destroyed Calais, we cannot cross anymore. And I’m so tired of doing this.” Taken aback, feeling in Hussein’s comment some sort of apology for seeking asylum in France, I pushed for an explanation. He explained that since his country of origin, Sudan, had been colonized and exploited by the British Empire, he felt that if any country owed him asylum, it was the U.K.

At a time when the “migration crisis” is on everyone’s lips, migrants’ motivations for border-crossing and their choice of destination country are too often misconstrued and fantasized, if not simply disregarded. Yet these motivations matter because they might help us to recognize the African migrant as a fully political agent, a conscious human actor, a person responsible for and master of their own fate – and not just one more nameless, disposable body washed ashore by the sea. As suggested by Hussein’s apology, could the individual practice of migration from Africa to Europe be thought of as a claim for reparations—a claim for justice and a fair share of the spoils of colonialism? What would be the implications of such a perception for the migrant’s political status in contemporary public discourse?

“We are not blinded by the moral reparation of national independence; nor are we fed by it,” wrote Frantz Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. “The wealth of the imperial countries is our wealth too.” In his 1961 book, Fanon stressed the need for continued decolonization efforts in the shape of collective demands for reparations from the African people and its diaspora. Thirty years later, in April 1993, the debate was brought to the international stage by the First Pan-African Conference on Reparations for African Enslavement, Colonization, and Neo-Colonization held in Abuja, Nigeria. The Abuja Proclamation declared, “The damage sustained by the African peoples is not a ‘thing of the past’ but is painfully manifest in the damaged lives of contemporary Africans.” The moral and economic damages caused to the continent and its population have indeed materialized in the form of ­­– to name but a few – global racism, systemic poverty, and collective trauma. In 2000, African studies scholar Daniel Tetteh Osabu-Kle wrote that “under colonialism, the human and material resources of the continent were exploited to the benefit of the West, and that exploitation continues unabated during this era of neocolonialism. Compensation for all these must be included in the total reparation.”

Yet reparations appear very unlikely to be obtained through legal pathways. In fact, the doctrine of inter-temporal law, built into the text of international law, prevents the mere admissibility of the claim. As international law scholar Max Du Plessis explains, “Reparationists face the hurdle of showing that the conduct complained about was unlawful at the time it was committed.” In other words, for the perpetrator to be found guilty of charge by international law, that law must have been in effect at the time the damage was done. In the case of colonial damage, it was not.

In her 2019 article in the Stanford Law Review, “Migration as Decolonization,” E. Tendayi Achiume, professor of law at UCLA, writes that “justice in immigration from the Third World to the First must, in important part, be a function of the distributive justice and remedial implications of the failures of formal decolonization.” Joining her, I too argue that migration from Africa to Europe – from the decision to leave the mother country to the choice of the country of final destination – should be interpreted as deliberate, individual claims for justice. Since the 1970s, Europe has been increasingly rejecting, prosecuting, and deporting those the neoliberal rhetoric disdainfully calls economic migrants, namely those who are primarily seeking a better life. These migrants are defined in opposition to refugees, who, for their part, meet the various criteria imposed by the 1951 UN Refugee Convention – chiefly that they have been forced out of their country of origin by war or persecution. In contrast to refugees, who receive relative compassion and legal protection, economic migrants bring about suspicion and hostility everywhere they choose to settle. “A different conceptualization of migration is necessary,” writes Achiume, “one that treats economic migrants as political agents exercising equality rights when they engage in ‘decolonial’ migration.” Migrants, whether they are forced to cross borders or not, must be acknowledged as politically competent individuals. Achiume states that “Third World persons are entitled to First World inclusion” as a form of reparations. They are entitled. The First World owes them.

Migrants are nowadays criminalized to the point that the term “migrant” itself amounts to an insult. Within certain circles of volunteers, all migrants are called “refugees” out of respect, as if one needed to escape death to be entitled to cross borders. As if only refugees – who can prove they are such – are worthy of the Western world’s largesse. The refugee is seen as a passive and weak body pushed across borders; and the immigrant a profiteer, a thief attracted by the irresistible glow of running water and mass consumption. It is necessary then, and even urgent, that we deconstruct migrant categories, their tacit rankings, and the “white ruler” arbitrariness they carry within them.

In May 2018, former French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb gave a patronizing speech in which he lamented migrants, and particularly refugees, “benchmarking” European countries – choosing their destinations according to immigration legislation and welfare programs. The speech was deemed disrespectful and insulting by the Left, and generated a wave of public outrage. While I’m surely exasperated by its unabashed xenophobic rhetoric, I challenge Collomb’s statement by taking it further: what if migrants are benchmarking? What if they do choose the country where they want to live, and don’t surrender themselves to the good will of European saviors? White people do the exact same thing when “expatriating,” don’t they? Today, almost four years after he was granted asylum for ten years in France, Hussein is homeless and unemployed. He doesn’t speak French, and so must survive on a meagre monthly welfare check, alternating between the streets and cheap hostel rooms. The refugee status offered him only a momentary relief. Death threats from a dictatorial regime were substituted with hunger, loneliness, and depression. Yes, the reasons why he left his mother country were deemed acceptable, but his life – including the freedom of choosing where to settle and thrive – ceased to belong to him. Whether they are called refugees or economic migrants, Third World individuals daring to cross borders are denied their political agency. To me, this is simply one more deed of colonial dispossession.

Lea Coffineau is an MA candidate in Anthropology at The New School for Social Research where she is also a Zolberg Institute Student Fellow.