Etienne Balibar - Exiles in the 21st Century

On 19 February 2019, SOAS Department of Development Studies hosted Professor Étienne Balibar, the seminal French Marxist philosopher who has provided a critical lens to Race Theory. Balibar gave an emotive talk about ‘Exiles in the 21st Century’ providing a framework to understand migration patterns.

In line with many critical development theorists, Balibar points out that 21st-century capitalism drives many people towards illegal immigration. He explains that poorer people are forced to seek better employment opportunities elsewhere and this ‘law of population’ is particular to capitalism, creating a ‘surplus population’. Those familiar with Marx’s theories will know these terms but Balibar points out that they are useful in order to understand how the Mediterranean is ‘becoming a zone of death’.

Finding worth in a capitalist system

He argues that when the mainstream news talks about illegal migrants what they mean are a body of poorer people from a poorer part of the world who are trying to make themselves valuable in a system of capitalism.

Unable to find jobs at home, they seek employment in wealthier countries. Their aim is to make themselves valuable productive members of the capitalist system.

Capitalism has created this violent situation where migrants are caught in a double bind. As an unwanted surplus population, they are exiled on the fringes of societies.

Take the example of immigration from Pakistan. Many low-skilled workers have migrated to wealthier Western countries when development projects have transformed their societies leaving them jobless or homeless. This pattern is not an exceptional trend in migration flows around the world. But, as Balibar points out, racist ideas in the EU mean that these ‘illegitimate’ refugees are unwanted and marginalised.

Restricting workers’ rights

Joining the informal job market puts people in precarious positions where they have no access to labour rights. Even in countries where economic migration has been encouraged (UAE, Saudi Arabia etc.) workers are equally restricted.

Due to the Kafala system – which governs the conditions and processes for employment of foreigners – foreign workers are not allowed to exit or leave the country without permission from their sponsor.

Famously, employers take domestic workers’ and construction workers’ passports away from them.

In this context, the surplus population is given a purpose but on condition of their submission in a highly gendered and racialised environment. Many South Asian governments have placed ads in the Gulf Countries promoting their workers, stating men from the region are ‘strong’ workers who are ‘used to working in the heat’. Whilst in the Philippines, schools that train women to be domestic workers teach them not to look their employers in the eye as this might be seen as a form of aggression.

Some 66% of the workforce in Saudi Arabia is made up of foreign workers. Without access to unions, civil society, or any rights in the country, this ‘silent’ and ‘obedient’ workforce are not in dialogue with the government or civil society.

Still, is the EU really so different? Due to the mishandling of migration, including restrictive and inhumane practices, there are many illegal migrants in Europe who are just as prohibited as those living on the Kafala system. At the end of Balibar’s talk, it was pointed out that violent border restrictions leave migrants stranded on the Greek islands or, in some cases, these same borders are literally killing them.

Balibar’s talk invites the conclusion that migrants and refugees are the Exiles of the 21st Century when they are forcefully exiled from safety and opportunity.

Bella Saltiel is studying MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS.

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