“Let language not betray us”: immigration, enforcement and modern slavery | Annual Elizabeth Colson Lecture 2018

In public debate, employing the language of ‘anti-trafficking’ and ‘anti-slavery’ has become a useful way of managing tensions between borders controls and human rights. In the recent Windrush debacle for example, the claim that the Home Office initiated ‘hostile environment’ has resulted in injustice and deportation was refuted on the grounds that it targets ‘illegal immigrants alone, some of whom had been working in conditions akin to slavery’. This lecture will explore what is concealed and what is revealed by this language. Pretensions at historical detail can be deeply misleading. The mobility of transatlantic slaves was an involuntary but legal movement, while the mobility of migrants across the borders of the European Union is a voluntary but illegalised movement. I will argue that one of the key demands of slaves was ‘the right of locomotion’ (Wong 2009: 242). It is this that takes the invocation of slavery beyond the figurative. Yet it is precisely this demand that European governments are determined to ignore.