top of page

René Micallef : “All Are Migrants”. How About Me? [1]

Some days ago, a French friend of mine, who is very interested in genealogy and ancestry, showed me the results of a DNA test his sister had just performed. He knew his family had Mediterranean roots but had just discovered he had ancestry in Egypt and the Middle East and was very excited to share it with me. Given the biology studies I did in a “previous life” (before becoming a Jesuit and plunging myself into migration studies and the theological and philosophical ethics of immigration policymaking), I immediately told him that through his sister, he had access to the mitochondrial DNA lineage, but that if he wanted to know more, he should take the test himself and see what the Y-chromosome haplogroups have to say about his forebears.

Most of our Fellow Citizens Cannot Be Considered ‘Immigrants’

In his book Exodus, Paul Collier speaks of his German grandfather (who adopted a French-sounding surname to avoid discrimination and nativist persecution in post-WW1 Britain), and also of the different national passports his “postnational” family uses when travelling, given his cosmopolitan career and personal history. By recognizing himself as a migrant having migrant ancestry, Collier guards himself from accusations of racism and xenophobia in order to make a strong claim: most people in our world are not migrants, and even well-educated migrants like himself prefer things to be that way, since they depend on the people around them feeling rooted in a particular culture, and because they appreciate the different milieus they inhabit on account of their heterogeneity which can only be guaranteed by the abiding and overwhelming presence of “natives”.

Collier’s aim in this 2014 book is to convince his readers not to dismiss too quickly as xenophobic, jingoistic, bigoted or fascist the fears and concerns of many of our fellow citizens when faced with current mass migration, and hence to resist the tendency of demonizing the other. I agree that we need to establish a space for rational debate on a taboo subject, before hard-core populists and nationals take over the debate, but not at any cost. His point on the enduring importance of nationality, like that made by Craig Calhoun in Nations Matter, is well taken. Yet, I find Collier’s attempts to argue that very few of our fellow citizens can be called “migrants” quite problematic.

For instance, Collier tries to make arguments in favour of immigration restriction in the UK, based on claims that “70 percent of the current population of Britain are directly descended […] from the people who inhabited Britain in pre-Neolithic times” (p. 59). This claim is based on a book by Barry Cunliffe (Britain Begins, 2012), which in turn is founded on popular-culture interpretations of studies of R1b haplogroups by Bryan Sykes (Blood of the Isles, 2007) and Stephen Oppenheimer (The Origins of the British, 2006) which were already outdated when Cunliffe’s book was published. Y-chromosome haplogroups are better at tracing waves of migration in history, since until quite recently, males were the most mobile sex (though today, almost 50% of world migrants are female). Putting aside the outdated genetics shunned by my interior biologist, the ethicist in me senses here a “naturalistic fallacy” while the history buff inside me calls to mind some of the horrible episodes in 20th-century world history when genetic “facts” were used to determine political “oughts”.

As Connected as an Island

Islands like Britain or Malta (where I hail from) may have an “insular” mentality, but often are amnesic of their cosmopolitan histories, since sea routes and waterways have often connected human populations better than overland routes through most of human history. There is however a distinction between the “is” and the “ought” that is important to note, since they need not be connected. A human group might have migrant ancestry and decide not to identify with modern-day refugees and migrants. Another may have strong claims of autochthony while seeing itself as open to others and even “anamnestically solidary” with the destitute people on the move in its backyard.

An oft-cited passage from the Bible (Leviticus 19:34) brings the “is” and the “ought” together: “The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God”. What brings the “is” and the “ought” legitimately together in this text, however, is the rejoinder “I am the Lord your God”, which is not a pure statement of scientific fact, but a normativity-laden phrase that connects descriptive claims regarding ancestry and national identity to prescriptive ones born from a moral project. Israel choseto be the people of a liberator God after being saved from perduring strangerhood and slavery, and hence felt committed to a moral project linked to this choice and this religious belief: an ethics of solidarity and reciprocity. In a more secular context, phrases like “this is the Europe you chose, born out of the ashes of two World Wars” could have a similar function today, reminding us that the Europe whose benefits we enjoy is built on a moral project of reciprocity, respect for human rights and solidarity, after the horrors of the 20th-century ethno-nationalism.

Many Ways of Being a Migrant

To be sure, once we situate our history within a choice and a moral project, it can gain moral significance and point us to an “ought”. Unlike my French friend, I am not particularly interested in my genealogy and ancestry. Yet focusing on our history and ancestry as a people can help us chose to see ourselves as migrants and to be solidary with today’s people on the move. Much like Collier, I recognize my migrant ancestry and my postnational personal history, but for me, seeing myself as a migrant is primarily a choice that I make and that the 97% of the world population who are not “on the move” can make as well.


René Micallef, SJ, is a Maltese priest and member of the Society of Jesus. He lives in Rome and teaches Moral Theology and Social Ethics at the Faculty of Theology of the Pontifical Gregorian University, specializing in topics such as migration, conflict, human rights and the sources of moral reasoning. He holds degrees from universities in Malta, the UK, France and Spain, and a doctorate from Boston College. During his studies, Fr Micallef has been involved in Hispanic prison ministry and has collaborated with NGOs such as the Jesuit Refugee Service; he has known and befriended refugee and immigrant families since his childhood.



bottom of page