What can anthropology say about refugees?

by Sean Chou

Source: debatingeurope.eu.

Source: debatingeurope.eu.

On Christmas morning, over 40 people attempted to cross the English Channel to reach the UK, in small boats and dinghies. Migrants included children and are claimed to have had different nationalities, such as Afghan, Iraqi and Iranian.

In recent years, attitudes to refugees have hardened. Across Europe, hardline right-wing governments in countries like Poland and Hungary have blocked discussions of refugee quotas; in 2015, Hungary erected a wire fence along its border with Serbia.

Closer to home, evidence suggests that the UK has also hardened its attitudes to refugees and immigration, with the 2016 EU referendum result to leave the EU largely seen as a call to end mass immigration, where the Leave campaign campaigned with the message to ‘take back control’.

Given the media attention and public awareness of refugees and immigration, it’s worthwhile to ask what perspectives anthropology can share.

Firstly, the refugee issue should be seen in a global context. Since the 1980s, globalisation has accelerated the connectedness between countries, due to neoliberal economic growth, international development and spread of global communicative technologies. However, the trajectory of increasing expansion and technological development has simultaneously created social and cultural upheaval, by undermining traditional cultural categories of homogeneity that nation states have been built on. According to Arjun Appadurai, minority groups have increased their presence with the help of communicative technologies, and their multitude threatens the privileges that majority groups have traditionally enjoyed. Hardline immigration policies can therefore be seen as a protective, reactionary response to fears of losing privilege to the perceived ethnic Other.

Nevertheless, this argument can be expanded even further. The territoriality of the nation state creates the distinction between the domestic interiority and the external Other. However, this dichotomy has itself been undermined by historical waves of immigration into the UK from Commonwealth countries. The recent Windrush scandal in 2018, where the Home Office was found to have been deporting people who had settled in the UK for decades after immigrating from the West Indies, demonstrates how difficult it is to define who belongs and who is excluded.

The nation-state creates its own borders and defines its identity by who it excludes. However, decisions about who it excludes are arbitrary and partial. As Home Secretary, Theresa May vowed to bring net immigration to below 100000; the failure to fulfil this promise demonstrates the contradictory nature of the issue, where there is a mismatch between hardline rhetoric against immigration and actions taken to placate such concerns.

It can be argued that the UK is part of a wider, Western world which struggles to deal with refugees and an eminent immigration crisis. In the US, a second child migrant, believed to have Guatemalan nationality, was reported to have died in immigration custody after attempting to cross the border between the US and Mexico.

Such reports indicate how the refugee issue cannot escape the racial dimension. Along with other Western countries, the UK as a nation state is intrinsically built into racial notions of whiteness; the privileges enjoyed by the majority white population must be accepted before proper solutions can be discussed.




Appadurai, Arjun. (2006). Fear of small numbers. Durham: Duke University Press.

Norton, Holly. (2018). What anthropologists can tell you about the US border immigration crisis. The Guardian, [online]. Available at: https://bit.ly/2zVfwZn.

Juliette Gautron