Europe’s ‘ineffective’ migration policies work well for white supremacy

Cover image by European Commission via Wikimedia Commons

by Iriann Freemantle

This blog post describes how white supremacy works through European approaches to ‘manage’ migration from Africa (and from the Global South more generally). White supremacy is not only a prejudiced belief system but a power structure that actively oppresses black people and denies them equal opportunities and rights. While this sometimes takes militant forms, the mainstream version of white supremacy is much more pervasive. Although still violent, it is rhetorically softer and avoids explicit racial bias. Yet, its basic premise remains: that whiteness is the gold standard of humanity while blackness is different and inferior, and can be treated accordingly. This blog post discusses five key features of modern white supremacy in European ‘migration management’: colourblindness, dehumanisation, racial terror, segregation and co-option. 

Speaking back to Theory

In March 2023, 25 AMMODI members and associates met to discuss the research, topics, categories, theories and methodologies of Africanist migration research, including structural inequalities that play into what is researched, written and heard about. The workshop, entitled “Speaking Back to Theory. Africanist Migration Research Beyond the Categories”, took place in Accra and Cape Coast and was funded by the DFG Point Sud programme. This post is based on the author’s presentation during the workshop, and is part of an AMMODI blog series in which we summarise and showcase examples from our discussions. The workshop programme is available here.

Activists and researchers regularly despair about European claims that migration management saves lives, creates opportunities and works towards more legal migration pathways. First, because Europe’s policies have not reduced undocumented migration but rather made it more dangerous. There are still no real legal possibilities for the types of migrants currently moving ‘irregularly’. Second, because Europe’s commitments to ‘universal, indivisible and interdependent’ human rights seem to clash with the violence it routinely uses and supports to keep migrants ‘at home’. 

Europe’s commitments to ‘universal, indivisible and interdependent’ human rights seem to clash with the violence it routinely uses and supports to keep migrants ‘at home’

So why do European governments stick with these policies? Political economy approaches rightly argue that corporate and political actors benefit from and spur on  the ‘fight against irregular migration’. This includes, inter alia, companies who sell surveillance technologies to FRONTEX, the European border and coast guard agency, or political parties who seek to gain voters by taking a categorical stand against immigration from the Global South. However, aligned with Winant’s argument that ‘race and racism are not excrescences on the capitalist system; they are constitutive of that system’, I suggest that these and other ‘profits’ of migration management are subsidiary to its overarching function: the reproduction of white supremacy. Migration management does not, as it claims, make African lives safer and better but is very effective at reproducing global relations of racial inequality. 


‘Europe and Africa have close economic, cultural and geographical ties. Our shared history, proximity and interests bind us together’

EEAS, 2022

For the most part, contemporary white supremacy no longer sounds explicitly racist. Pretending to be progressive, it discursively relegates racial discrimination to the past and carefully avoids any mention of ‘race’ or racism. The ‘colourblind’ narrative is that society now offers a ‘clean slate’ where individual merit and effort, not race or origin, determine life chances. This discursive erasure of race enables the denial of racial discrimination, disparities as well as past and present ‘trauma perpetuated within a racist society’: the colourblind premise is that if ‘race’ doesn’t exist, ‘racial inequality’ doesn’t either, and therefore does not have to be addressed

Colourblindness features prominently in the official narrative of a ‘partnership of equals’ between Europe and Africa. With a heavy emphasis on leaving the past behind and focusing on the future, European governments and the European Union rarely ever mention colonialism or other forms of past (or present) racial oppression. 

An apartheid notice on a beach near Cape Town, South Africa, 1976. Photo by Keystone via Getty.

This absolves Europe from responsibility for the challenges Africa faces and sequesters European wealth as if it had no relation to past and present exploitation. Ultimately establishing Africans as the source of their own problems, this treats inequality as unrelated to past and present forms of European domination. This allows Europe to ‘empower’ and ‘support’ Africa, reinscribing a long-standing, uneven power relationship where a naturally more advanced and prosperous Europe guides Africa, ‘behind’ only because of itself, towards a better future. 

In insisting that restrictive immigration policies ultimately protect migrants from dying and foster development in Africa, migration management regenerates longstanding narratives of white care and control to save Africans from themselves. Colourblindness also manifests in Europe’s alleged openness to legal migration. Premised on the fiction that migration policy is free of prejudice, entry criteria for migrants are now ostensibly not about race, but about skills. At the same time, Europe actively sabotages access: through setting criteria so that few Africans can qualify and through criminalising those who move without authorisation, incessantly recording and publicising ‘irregular’ movement to justify further restrictions against inherently threatening, burdensome Africans. Effectively, all this allows Europe to say “yes” to black equality in rhetoric but “no” in practice. 


‘You can’t have a lifestyle as we have in Europe without working like Europe. We should also ask: Is that even possible in the extreme climate or with those traditions? Do all Africans even want this? One thing is clear: Human rights must guarantee a dignified life to every human being in the world, regardless of where he was born, where he came from and what he is contributing. But there is no legal right to a good life anywhere in the world: for this, Africans have to work hard as well’

Former German chancellor’s ‘personal representative for Africa’, 2017

European migration management not only dehumanises when it carries out or sponsors physical abuse of migrants. In fact, this violence is made possible by underlying discursive dehumanisation: constructing black people as lacking morality, reason and an inherent drive to succeed, all key characteristics of being human. This is particularly noticeable in European campaigns to raise ‘awareness about the dangers of irregular migration’.

Sign in Detroit, Michigan, 1942. Photo by Arthur S. Siegel via Wikimedia Commons.

Here, migrants’ alleged unawareness is only superficially cast as a deficit of information, but substantially as evidence of their lacking humanity.  Whether it’s a mother who ‘is tired of seeing her son…sleep late every day’, dreaming about dangerous migration when he could become a successful welder at home, a rapper who likens irregular migrants to ‘parasites’ or a returned Burkinabe who says that ‘I went on an adventure to look for money…but…everything I was looking for abroad, by the grace of God and with support of the IOM, I can have it here’, these narratives employ the whole arsenal of racist stereotypes: of lazy, irresponsible and ignorant Africans, rudderless without white guidance. 

Racial Terror

“I have definitely learned my lesson. I am ready to go home.” 

Returned migrant in transit in Niger, 2018

Like lynching in post-abolition America meant to demonstrate the limits of black freedom, forcing migrants into inhumane ‘irregular’ journeys is a form of racial terror: it places (and displays) black people in violentunsafeundignified and disempowered circumstances to reject and punish their aspirations for equal opportunities and rights. Widely disseminated, this disciplines Africans who move and those who stay behind into the lesser place allotted to them, both physically and symbolically.


“Stay in our country and feed on what we have”

Gambian migrant returned from Libya, 2018

Europe’s ‘root cause’ approach is a policy of segregation, joining a long line of historical projects where white people promoted segregation that disadvantages black people as a mutually beneficial ‘win-win’ solution. Examples include Apartheid’s ‘bantustans’ where black South Africans could allegedly experience their ‘own kind of development’ or American efforts to ‘liberate’ freed slaves by sending them back to Africa. Proponents of migration management similarly claim that keeping Africans at home promotes development. In reality, it impairs migrants’ safety, opportunities to progress,  livelihoods, African economies as well as accountability and trust between African citizens and their governments.  


“We have made it very clear that we do not support anything illegal and anybody who feels this country does not offer him what he should be offered as a citizen, and decides to defy the desert and the Mediterranean, is doing it at his own risk”

Niger’s President Muhammadu Buhari at joint press conference with visiting German Chancellor, 2018

To enforce segregation, Europe has updated another long-established white supremacist strategy: to create division amongst racialised populations and to reward some African ‘partners’ with status and resources for acting against the interests of those trying to move (up). Sheth calls this ‘a multiracial white supremacy’ where some ‘men and women of color have been invited into the offices of White Supremacy to share in the destruction of other men and women of color’. For example, European cooperation on migration control in Niger has benefitted state authorities as well as private actors on both continents while making migrant journeys more dangerous and diminishing local economies reliant on mobility.


White supremacy claims that only white people are fully human and, as such, entitled to corresponding rights and dignity. Through dehumanising black people, Europe can reconcile its liberal commitments to human rights and global progress with the horrifying violence inflicted on migrants: if you’re black, the law is not for you, rights are not for you, because they are only for those whose humanity is fully acknowledged. White supremacy is incompatible with black equality, migration management is irredeemably compromised.

About the author

Iriann Freemantle is a research consultant and Associate researcher at the African Centre for Migration & Society at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. This post is based on an ongoing work and a book project with Loren B. Landau.

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