We Are Facing a Crisis of Belonging

How one little-known theory of ‘belonging’ can help us understand why anti-migrant sentiment is on the rise.

James Nicol
May 16, 2020 · 5 min read
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Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

In a globalized world, it remains a stubborn paradox that nationality and nationhood retain their preeminence as markers of identity. Reflexively, we each feel a sense of belonging to certain places — most acutely to where we call home and which forms an integral part of our self-definition.

Whenever we meet someone ‘different’, or hear the clang of a peculiar accent, the question ‘so where are you from?’ is never far from our lips. One might even say that nationality, or belonging to a certain land, is trumps in the game of identity.

Over the past two months, we have seen this game play-out in practice. Country after country have called their citizens home to safety and deployed mass-repatriation schemes, while barring entry to those not deemed to adequately belong. At first glance, such measures were entirely reasonable, even morally imperative. We are in the midst of a global health emergency. Necessary precautions must be taken.

Yet, this crisis has not suddenly halted the past decade’s insidious creep of nationalism and anti-migrant sentiment into mainstream politics. Instead, the fear surrounding Covid-19 has only provided further cover for governments and private citizens to target and persecute migrant communities.

In early March, the Serbian government issued special orders restricting the movement of migrants and asylum seekers within the country, while Serbian citizens were exempted from the same measures. In neighboring Hungary, President Orban has shuttered asylum procedures in the two transit zones on its border with Serbia, and has squandered no opportunity in attempting to shift the blame for Coronavirus onto migrants and foreigners.

The U.S. has announced that it will immediately deport back to their country of origin any migrants and asylum seekers arriving outside of designated ports of entry. Brazil, in the midst of one of the world’s worst refugee crises of the past decade, has closed its border with Venezuela.

Counter-terrorism police in the UK are investigating accusations of far-right groups spreading ‘fake news’ blaming Muslims for spreading the virus. Australia has reported rising verbal and physical assaults against people of Asian descent. While African communities in Guangzhou have faced rising hostility from locals as authorities warn of a potential second-wave of imported cases.

At the heart of all this tension is the simple question — who belongs and who does not?

In certain areas of Africa, the salient descriptor in this debate is autochthony. Etymologically speaking, autochthony describes those people who are ‘of the soil itself’. In this, it refers to an ideology that assigns ownership, entitlements, and rights to those who can claim an original connection to a given land and thus ‘belong’ to that territory.

In Western discourse, we have tended to root similar debates in terms of simple racial/ethnic/religious prejudice or as the consequences of competition — Homo Economicus fighting off the invaders to keep his job, status, and influence.

Yet, despite its near-total absence in Western media coverage, there is a growing body of research applying the concept of autochthony to Western contexts.

Bambi Cueppens, of Belgium’s Royal Museum of Central Africa and Peter Geschiere, Professor of Anthropology at the University of Amsterdam, two widely cited researchers in the study of autochthony, assert that in a European setting, autochthonous beliefs are primarily motivated by two underlying factors.

First, is the conviction that a nation’s welfare state should be reserved for those people who really belong in the country. That is, ‘real’ citizens whose families and ancestors have lived there for generations. Second, is that it performs as a kind of protest against a perceived globalist government system that has lost touch with ‘local sensibilities’ and prioritizes ‘foreigners’ over a country’s ‘own people.’

While analysis of European autochthony has largely focused on attitudes within only a small subgroup of countries, notably Belgium and The Netherlands, it is hardly a stretch to attribute these two motives, at least in part, to some Coronavirus related anti-migrant backlash.

As governments around the world scramble to widen social safety nets, large segments of the public are still excluded or neglected. Questions of who to prioritize and who even deserves any help at all are bound to multiply.

As the virus continues to spread, it is only natural to see a turning-inwards from the international community as self-preservation, the foundation block of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, kicks in.

In some countries, a sharp re-focusing on essential facts and functions has exposed cracks in the most brittle migrant myths.

In the UK, there appears to have been a near-universal reappraisal of the importance of migrant workers to a fully-functioning NHS, upon the news that Boris Johnson’s primary hospital carers were both migrant nurses. In the U.S., managing a steady pool of migrant workers has become thrust front and center among efforts to maintain a strong food supply chain. However, as the crisis drags on for what is now likely to be an excruciatingly protracted period, there is ample time for myopathy to return.

Despite the glut of news pieces and articles opining that Coronavirus is fundamentally changing the ways in which we live and think, it is just as likely that we will slowly retreat to our comfortable pre-crisis heuristics.

As economies sink into recession, it will be all too easy for nationalists to feed an underlying discontent at financially supporting the plights of other nations. Social welfare, income support, and tax breaks funded by catapulting government debt cannot stretch indefinitely. At their distended limits, questions of entitlement and deservedness will rear their heads once again, ugly as before.

At times like these, we look to safety and often inwards. There really is no place like home. And, at present, most of us have no choice. But we must not allow our own desire for security and belonging to be warped by fear into prejudice and exclusion.

As Jacinda Arden, whose leadership as Prime Minister of New Zealand has been lauded around the world, would say, be strong, but be kind.

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