The inevitability of transnational racial profiling?

13 November 2013, 1610 EST

Today’s thought experiment: A foreign national is killed in your state, igniting emotional protests and a road blockade by members of his community. Your state is almost entirely economically dependent on tourism. There’s standard boilerplate for these events, right? You express regret, you pledge to investigate the murder, you vow that locals who violently attacked protesters will also be brought to justice.

Now imagine that it was a Nigerian national who had been killed. And the death may have been linked to rival drug gangs fighting over territory. Does the picture change? Recent events in BJP-governed Goa seem to suggest that it does. Within a few days, one Goan state minister had referred to Nigerians as “a cancer,” one MP stated that Nigerians were “wild animals” who were hopped up on drugs, and another pointed out that Nigerians misuse educational schemes, overstay their visas, and “try to boss over Goans.” The Goan Chief Minister referred to Nigerians as “huge and aggressive” and “seven feet tall.” The state government started a campaign to round up and evict Nigerians without proper documentation, a dragnet that also caught legal immigrants in its wake. Some Goan villages began to ban the rental of housing to “foreigners” (read: Nigerians). Of course, this sparked a nasty diplomatic row, as Nigerian consular officials made unsubtle remarks about the security of Indians resident in Nigeria. Late last week, the Goan Chief Minister doubled down, saying that it was not racism since “you will see that more Nigerians are involved in drugs.”

How might we look at this from an international relations perspective? How many incidents of “we wouldn’t want anything to happen to those pretty nationals of yours” occur between states?  How much does being Colombian or Albanian or Nigerian increase one’s risk of xenophobic targeting? And have we adequately recognized the implications of transnational crime networks for the treatment of co-national minorities?

I see two big social science stories here.

  • The construction of criminal nationalities. As we know, the Roma in Europe have been mercilessly hounded due to the public’s association of Roma with criminality (a hounding that extends to investigations and removals of Roma children). From what I’ve seen over the past decade, in Africa and elsewhere, anti-Nigerian bias has become a similarly socially acceptable form of racism … and, sure, I’ll link to that scene in the South African film District 9 that might have sprung to mind. But how does this happen? And is racial profiling always the outcome, or can we identify cases in which nationally-marked criminal networks exist alongside fairly neutral evaluations of the immigrant communities to which they are attached?
  • The interaction between transnational crime, rule of law, and immigration. As more details emerge on the events in Goa, this becomes less a Nigeria story and more a story of drugs and corruption in Goa. Because of Goa’s status as a party destination, crime has a necessarily transnational dimension. The police are accused of targeting raves and extorting foreign tourists, and more evidence emerges of links between drug cartels, politicians, and senior police officials. There are rising number of transnationalized spaces, of which tourist zones are only the most prominent. These present special problems for the treatment of immigrants and refugees, both documented and undocumented.

Feel free to use the comments as an opportunity to link to relevant literature or to self-promote. I’d love to know if work is being done in this area.