Though economic refugees are acknowledged by the United Nations, they are accorded few of the legal protections and asylum offered to political, religious, and national refugees. In this paper, I connect this unequal protection to the history of European imperialism. Drawing on the French colonial case, I will explore how imperial labor systems, which drew justification from racialized conceptions of colonial workers as unskilled, indolent, and content with impoverished living standards (and thus immune to market pressures), have shaped modern day understandings of economic refugee as a legal category. In the colonial moment, these depictions justified imperial labor policies while masking the systemic violence of the empire and the deep structures of economic inequality it created across the globe. In the modern day, I will argue, these stereotypes have been remobilized in debates about migrant workers and postcolonial immigration. Above all, I contend, earlier stereotypes of colonial workers have legitimized legal codes that dismiss the rights of economic refugees and deny economic impoverishment as a basis for asylum status.
Elizabeth Heath is an associate professor of history at Baruch College. Her research focuses on labor, race, and the role of empire in the development of capitalism in modern France. Her first book Wine, Sugar, and the Making of Modern France: Global Economic Crisis and the Racialization of French Citizenship, 1870-1910 (Cambridge, 2014) and won the Alf Andrew Heggoy prize in 2015 for best book dealing with the French colonial experience from 1815 to the present from the French Colonial Historical Society. She is currently writing a book entitled Invisible Empires: Colonial Commodities, Capitalism, and the Modern French Self, which explores the role that colonial territories, producers, and products played in the emergence of distinctive forms of perception and cognition that aided the development of French industrial capitalism between 1750 and 1970.