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Do Europeans see African “migrants” as strangers to humanity?

The term "migrant" conveys the remains of a colonial anthropology which sometimes refers to the category of slave or that of dangerous foreigner, writes the professor of clinical psychology Daniel Derivois.

The media and political discourses concerning those who are called "Unaccompanied minors" lead to questions about the place that they occupy in the collective imagination. The traumatic experience of Mo Farah, quadruple Olympic champion in athletics under the British banner, who tells in a documentary broadcast by the BBC on July 13 how it arrived illegally and underage in the UK illustrates this point.

The question deserves to be asked in a XXIe century in which the figure of the "migrant" is the subject of many projections in the host societies. It is all the more crucial as these young people – “without a legal representative” in the host country – are sometimes perceived as an external threat, sometimes as individuals with no history who need to be civilized and assimilated. They are sometimes used as cheap labor to exploit in the form of modern slavery.

Study the “others”

When, in the nineteenthe century, Western epistemology was confronted with the need to study the "others", two major disciplines had emerged: Orientalism to study the "Great Civilizations" and Anthropology to study the cultures of subjugated and oppressed peoples.

This anthropology – historically prior to “symmetrical anthropology” ou "reciprocal" – which would serve and reinforce racial, slavery and colonialist ideologies, notably made an "other" “inferior”, amputated of his humanity. Over time, this “other” will be embodied by several figures, in particular that of “migrant” in the XNUMXst century.e century. The term migrant, as we understand it in the prevailing Western imagination, covers above all the nationals of peoples formerly colonized by western host societies.

A German, English or American “migrant” in France is not perceived in the same way as a Senegalese, Syrian or Algerian “migrant”, for example. A "Westerner" who migrates to a "Southern country" is not designated as a "migrant", but as an "expatriate". In short, the choice of words conveys implicit signifieds which determine the relations between the peoples of the world.

Thus, if we assume that the signifier "migrant" conveys the remains of a colonial anthropology, a reflection is necessary on the signifieds "slave" and "foreigner" with which this signifier can resonate.

A familiar, non-threatening figure

If the "migrant" refers to a slave, it is probably a become familiar. In the past, certain slave societies made a slave whoever was foreign to their territory, but from the moment he had become a slave, he left the status of foreigner to become a familiar. "The characteristic of the slave is his character of exteriority to kinship, which allows his domestication, his familiarity, including his fictitious assimilation to the family like other dependents of the head of the family (children, single women, etc.), even the maintenance of emotional relationships, which will never endanger the established social order. The slave can willingly be the object of an attachment, as long as this is not the threat of a social transgression ". Domesticated, the slave can then serve as easy labour. He is still dehumanized, but is no longer seen as an identity threat.

Today, in our host societies, some bosses have attitudes or behavior towards migrant minors that seem fall under the legacy of slavery. As these young people are in precarious conditions (without papers, psychological distress, etc.), they constitute for them labor that is easy to exploit to the detriment of respect for labor rights.

In an establishment that welcomes unaccompanied minors in a region of France, the educational teams report the case of a young person who works 7 days a week, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., without a break and without a pay slip. This young man is convinced that he has every chance on his side to “obtain papers”. “Come and work for free 19 Saturdays a month, said another boss to another young person from this same establishment, and I will give you a certificate for the prefecture”. Another bakery boss goes so far as to threaten a young person to call the prefecture or his school if he does not accept the working conditions. We can also cite these young undocumented migrants to whom delivery people (home meal delivery) sublet their account.

Many young people agree to work under these conditions in order to have a privileged link with an adult (parental figure), a professional activity, a savings, and when possible pay slips that can fill out their files to obtain a residence permit at their majority. These young people are thus caught between their motivations and working conditions. Their status as adolescents or young people is obscured by the condition of a migrant-slave who has become familiar.

A fantasy danger

If, in the imagination, the "migrant" refers more to a foreigner, it is fantasmatically an enemy, someone potentially dangerous, even a terrorist, who comes from outside, and to be wary of. Indeed :

“The slave does not have the same role as the foreigner who would be the object of xenophobia, rejection or structural aggressiveness. For, at the same time as he is symbolically and definitively excluded, the slave is also the familiar, the servant, who we know, like the dog, will remain in the place assigned to him. »

The foreigner is the subject of many fantasies. Sometimes serving as a scapegoat for a society struggling to think about its cohesion or "its disturbing strangeness", it feeds all the amalgams to the point of passing off minors in danger to be protected as dangerous minors to be excluded from the community of men.

The passage, with the Act of March 14 2016 (Law No. 2016-297), from the expression "unaccompanied foreign minor" to that of "unaccompanied minor" thus requires deep reflection on the potential meanings conveyed behind these expressions used to designate these young migrant children and adolescents in our globalized societies. Is it enough to change the word to change the place assigned to them in societal and institutional fantasy?

To what, then, could the term refer in the Western collective unconscious migrant ? When we see the exploitation of certain young people by certain bosses in the host society, when we see the way certain young people are sold at auction in Libya or are exploited in pimping networks in the societies of departure, transit and welcome, it is necessary to put to work the hypothesis according to which they would represent in the collective imagination a slave.

When we see that in the context of the multiple health, social, economic and security crisis, certain media and politicians are pointing the finger at "unaccompanied minors" as potential terrorists, it is necessary to put to work the hypothesis according to which they would represent dangerous outsiders in part of the collective psyche of the host societies.

These two hypotheses (the migrant as a domesticated slave and the migrant as a dangerous stranger) deserve to be tested in social work and in society in general. Their elaboration can lead to a better positioning in relational and transferential dynamics. In any case, whether they are perceived as easy labor slaves or as dangerous foreigners, there is a hiatus in the genealogy of Man. It's as if there were two parts of Humanity that couldn't come together. A humanity cut off from a part of itself. To perceive the migrant as a stranger to Humanity is not to consider him as belonging to the great human family. To perceive him and to treat him as a slave is just as much to deprive him of his humanity. But you have to be dehumanized enough to in turn dehumanize another human being.

In its historical essay on racial order, A. Michel has shown how Europeans had difficulty recognizing a relationship between slaves and themselves. This element says a lot about the difficulty of host societies (States, professionals, citizens or others) in welcoming young migrants as their fellow human beings, and entitled to the same rights as all human beings. It also says a lot about the difficulty some child protection professionals have in seeing young people as mere adolescents who could be their children, brothers, sisters, nephews or nieces. Could this be due to the implication of a slave and a stranger to our common humanity which function “off” in the term “unaccompanied minor”?

As the Nobel Prize for Literature says Toni Morrison, “There are no foreigners. There are only versions of ourselves, many of which we haven't bought into and most of which we want to protect ourselves from”.

We must then ask ourselves why we continue to call them "unaccompanied minors" even though we say we are beginning to accompany them, once their minority has been assessed and admitted into the child protection system. We must ask ourselves about the legacy of colonial anthropology in our gaze on these young people. Faced with the violence of this designation, which contradicts the support mission, shouldn't we call them “newly accompanied minors”?

Daniel Derivois, Professor of Clinical Psychology and Psychopathology. Psy-DREPI laboratory (EA 7458), University of Burgundy - UBFC

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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