Migration, Agency, Aspirations and Perceptions

/Migration, Agency, Aspirations and Perceptions
Migration, Agency, Aspirations and Perceptions2019-01-21T16:56:34+00:00

Conceptualising Migrant Agency:

The Infrastructural Turn in Migration Studies

Marina Khan | PhD Candidate, Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University

International migration is a product of complex physical and organisational infrastructures. These infrastructures consist of the commercial migration industry, regulatory frameworks, migrants’ social networks, digital transnational connectivity, and support systems. Xiang and Lindquist (2014) explain “migration infrastructure” as “the systematically interlinked technologies, institutions and actors that facilitate and condition mobility”. There remains, however, a gap in exploring the role of migrants’ own agency in the ‘infrastructuring’ process, which hinders our capacity to conceptualise holistically the process of migration.

What is migration infrastructure?

The term ‘migration infrastructure’ stems from the fundamental significance of infrastructures to all aspects of life. Infrastructures are what define our society by “mediating exchange … bringing different people, objects, and spaces into interaction and forming the base on which to operate modern economic and social systems” (Larkin, 2013). More recently Xiang and Lindquist (2014) have identified migration infrastructure as consisting of five broad and interlinked dimensions: commercial, social, technological, regulatory and humanitarian.

Infrastructural developments in migration have paradoxically made mobility simultaneously easier and more complex. A host of commercial services operating alongside neoliberal migration policies have on the one hand created greater access to mobility. On the other hand, regulatory apparatuses operating in national interests such as labour market outcomes and security concerns have made migration more difficult (Xiang and Lindquist, 2014). Increase in transnational connectivity through the internet and digital devices intensifies this complexity. For example, the 2014 Regional Mixed Migration Secretariat (RMMS) report found that mobile devices and social media applications such as Facebook and YouTube were being used by irregular migrants to obtain information on migration routes and weather conditions.

States are constantly implementing strategies to manage the rate, scale, and pace of migration (Mcauliffe and Ruhs, 2017), while migrants learn to adjust their plans in the shifting political contexts (Aparna and Shanpendonk, 2018). Migration trajectories are often characterised by unexpected detours, contingencies, and reimagined objectives. Robertson (2017) for example, explores how infrastructural processes of language testing and housing markets shape migrant mobilities in Australia after arrival, as migrants move across visa categories. Swyngedouw (2018) discusses strategies that migrants develop, such as “not telling one’s life story in a bureaucratic environment” in order to not disturb bureaucratic processing. Sharing more details may elongate the migration process as migrants may be required to pass more bureaucratic hurdles (Meeus et al., 2018).  The infrastructural framing further neglects the processes involved in the proliferation of borders that are not only spatially defined but are also bureaucratic and temporal. For example, the paperwork and processing times involved in shifting visa statuses (Mezzandra and Neilson, 2013). As a result, infrastructural mechanisms, and migrant trajectories have become enmeshed in complex entanglements that need closer examination.

Migrant Agency and the ‘infrastructuring’ process

The central argument presented by the infrastructural turn in migration studies is around the significance and direction given to migrant mobilities through infrastructures. These include material and administrative architectures that condition migrant mobilities. However, what I am interested in is what Lin et al. (2017) describe as the “infrastructuring process”. Infrastructuring involves the shaping and morphing of the process of migration through the intermingling of a diversity of organisational frameworks that includes the migrants’ own agency. While migration infrastructures have been analysed as complex operational systems (Xiang and Lindquist, 2014), not many studies have looked at how migration trajectories intersect, utilise, and engage with diverse infrastructural domains within individual migration experiences.

Xiang and Lindquist 2014 state that “Migration infrastructure calls for research that is less fixated on migration as behaviour or migrants as the primary subject, and more concerned with broader societal transformations”. As such, migrants themselves take a back seat as the focus is not on how migrants move but how they are moved. Such framing discounts the role of migrants as active agents with social and material resources that they use to interact with the infrastructure. I argue that migrant agency is as much a part of the infrastructure as are its other social, commercial, regulatory, humanitarian and technological dimensions. Such agency involves critical human interventions such as decision-making, strategy, transgression, and aspiration (Collins, 2018; Folse, 2017; Spaan and Naerssen, 2018). These actions on the migrants’ part often determine which infrastructure services will or will not be used in order to achieve particular goals within their migration journey.

Migrants also impact the infrastructure in many ways. Del Savio et al. (2018) discuss migrants’ influence on what they identify as ‘cooperative infrastructures’ defined as “any material or immaterial technology that contributes to produce human goods”. For example, migrant communities in host countries can impact the social capital, economic and social aspirations of networks back home, which, in turn shape further migration processes. Migrant influxes can also impact and disrupt political and regulatory systems. Migrant activism is one of the key aspects in this disruption, which has been discussed by various scholars in different socio-political contexts. Robertson (2013) for example, has discussed how public activism from student-migrants contributed to regulatory overhauls and policy shifts in international education in Australia. Political activism in camps and borders has also been well documented in academic literature and so has activism over migrant space, place and identity. These examples reveal how migrants resist, shape and (re)create the migration infrastructure.

Schapendonk et al. (2018) similarly point to the transgressive powers of migrants through which they negotiate and navigate complex migration control mechanisms. Migrants’ opportunities do not only depend on infrastructural domains of facilitation and control but also on the skills they develop whilst “practicing mobility” by going through the processes of migration (Moret, 2018). For instance, Massa (2018) demonstrates how migrants ‘play’ with legal categories to shape their trajectories. Baas (2017) discusses how migrants switch between high-skilled, mid-skilled, and low-skilled visa categories in hopes to achieve particular visa outcomes. Janssens (2018) further highlights the importance of ‘performed identities’ – how migrants navigate different policy categories simply by embodying different identities at different places in different moments of time.

The above mentioned empirical studies provide valuable insights on migrants’ own roles in ‘infrastructuring’ their migration process. It is evident that investigating migration infrastructures and trajectories beyond points of departure and arrival, and dichotomies of temporariness and permanence reveals nuanced understandings of migrants’ own agency that is arguably missing from the literature on migration infrastructure.

January 2019

Why the global ‘migration gap’ matters

Mathias Czaika | Head of Department for Migration and Globalization, Danube University Krems

Human migration and mobility is a mass phenomenon: 258 million people currently live in countries they are not born, more than 700 million have migrated within borders and every year more than 1.2 billion people travel across borders for short term visits (United Nations 2017; IOM 2017; UNWTO 2017). But many more think about moving domestically or internationally to better their lives in one way or another. Up to the point of deciding about moving, most people can be considered part of a large but unknown population of ‘potential migrants’, which is people who – once in a while – consider migration as a real behavioural option.

A recent estimation of the global ‘migration potential’ through an international survey in which about 350,000 adults in 148 countries have been asked about their ‘desire to move’ internationally, has raised some attention. Based on this survey, Gallup finds that globally about 1.1 billion desire to move temporarily to another country (22% of world population), and that more than 710 million adults ‘would like to migrate to another country if they could’ (Esipova et al. 2017). This is a significantly larger number of people compared to the current global stock of international migrants, which is about 258 million and represents only about three percent of world population (United Nations 2017). Gallup and other commentators define the pool of people with a desire to migrate as ‘potential migrants’. However, as we see, this is not a realistic estimate of the number of future migrants. The discrepancy in the number of people who aspire to migrate and the much smaller number of people actually migrating reflects a ‘migration gap’, that is hundreds of million people who aspire for a better life elsewhere face unsurmountable economic, social, legal and other constraints that hamper realisation of migration aspirations. Consequently, the global ‘migration potential’ is much smaller than suggested by such a survey.

Nevertheless, identifying the scale of future migration is of key interest for political leaders and policy-makers who feel under pressure to ‘tackle the root causes of mass migration’ and to cut down on unwanted migration. How to estimate the true ‘migration potential’, and even more important, how to reduce future migration is the elephant in the room, as the complexity of migration processes and individual decision-making is still not well enough understood. Although studies on the effects and effectiveness of (restrictive) migration policy measures have become more numerous, the evidence base is still rather weak. A handful of studies have shown that migration policy has real but limited effects, but often results in migration outcomes not intended by policy-makers. This reflects the limited understanding of migration processes, in particular of the complex interactions of structural migration drivers and individual capacities for migration.

Migration can generally be considered as a function of three individual capacities for migration: the capacity-to-aspire to migration, the capacity-to-realise migration and the capacity-to-decide to migrate (Czaika and Vothknecht 2014). People with migration aspirations may be identified as ‘potential migrants’, as the Gallup Poll does. However, a more realistic definition of a potential migrant would be a person endowed with all three capacities rather than simply someone expressing a desire to migrate. People with aspirations for migrating will never be able to move if they do not have the material and immaterial means to realise, and ultimately, to decide to migrate.

We have to realise that the vast majority of people with an explicit desire to migrate will never leave their country. There is consequently a stark mis-match between the global demand for migration opportunities and the supply which is constrained, for instance, by restrictive exit or immigration policies in home and potential destination countries. This ‘migration gap’ is likely to grow in the future due to the increasing young population in the Global South—in particular in most of Africa—and restrictive immigration policy measures in Europe and beyond. A growing global population with a desire to migrate but without the capacity and realistic perspectives to realise it ends up in an aspiration trap. Downward adaption of aspirations, frustration, and fatalism not only leads to immobility of an acquiescent population disengaging in the advancement of their lives and the development of their countries and communities, but who is also reluctant to invest time and resources in future prospects and the prospects of their children. As a consequence, ‘downward adaptation’ of unfulfilled migration aspirations of millions of people may be more harmful for economic, social and political development of countries than if people would actually leave.

September 2018

The Syrian Humanitarian Disaster:

Understanding Perceptions and Aspirations of Practitioners and Refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey

Dawn Chatty | Emerita Professor, University of Oxford

Twice in modern history, Greater Syria (Bilad al-Sham) and its peoples have experienced massive displacement. In the 100 years between 1850 and 1950, Syria received several million forced migrants from the contested borderlands of the Imperial Russian and Ottoman Empires (Chatty, 2010). It is hardly an exaggeration to say that Greater Syria and the modern ‘truncated’ Syrian state was a place of refuge for ethno-religious minorities uprooted from their homelands, near and far, as a result of war, of arbitrary lines drawn across maps, and ethno-sectarian strife.

Then, a decade into the 21st century, Syria disintegrated into extreme violence triggering a displacement crisis of massive proportions.  The speed with which the country emptied of nearly 30 per cent of its population shocked the world and left the humanitarian aid regime in turmoil as agencies struggled to respond to the growing displacement crisis on Syria’s borders.

Each country bordering on Syria has responded differently to this complex emergency: Turkey rushed to set up its own refugee camps for the most vulnerable groups, but generally tolerated self-settlement of Syrians; Lebanon refused to allow the international humanitarian aid regime to set up formal refugee camps, preferring to encourage multiple informal settlements near areas of labour shortages; and Jordan openly accepted Syrians to self-settle for nearly a year, then reversed its policy and insisted upon the setting up of a massive United Nations refugee camp, thus distancing Syrians from urban areas and opportunities to establish livelihoods (Chatty, 2017).

Considering these varying responses to the Syrian crisis, a 12-month qualitative and participatory field study was conducted which engaged with practitioners, representatives of the hosting communities and refugees, addressing the perceptions and aspirations of practitioners, hosts and displaced Syrians in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Disparity in perceptions between practitioners, refugees, and hosting communities was widespread, but not equally so in the three countries. Across the board, what emerged was that history matters. Much of the discrepancies and inconsistencies which the study identified can be linked to historical social and economic ties as well as political relations between Syria and Turkey, Syria and Lebanon and Syria and Jordan.

Many displaced Syrians in Lebanon had been previously working in the country for many years in the construction and agriculture sector of the economy, and did not feel that they were refugees.  The continuing armed conflict in Syria meant that many of the Syrian workers’ wives and children fled Syria and came to join husbands already working in Lebanon for some time. Those with jobs, feared losing them once it were known that their families had joined them, contributing to the distress, and isolation of many of these Syrians.

Syrians also sense a growing level of social discrimination, especially in Beirut. They articulate a fear that the Lebanese population associates them with a rise in criminality. Curfews in over 40 municipalities (out of more than 1,000) and growing reports of vigilantism have meant that many Syrians are afraid to go out at night, to work overtime or to mix with the Lebanese population. Syrians with no savings are accepting very low wages in order to provide their families with food. Many Syrians – despite their long association with Lebanon over decades and, often, close kinship ties – are feeling frightened and cut off from Lebanese society.

Lebanon has allowed previous levels of Syrian participation in the economy to be restored, and is benefitting from this policy (Turner, 2015). The non-encampment policy has meant that Syrians have tended to self-settle in areas of the country, which they had previously worked in seasonally. However, the opportunities for exploitation were clearly evident in the lack of humanitarian support in providing shelter. Very little evidence emerged from the interviews of host community involvement in any ‘survival in dignity’ activity on an individual basis; NGO activity was limited to charity work and local civil society efforts in Beirut organized by middle class Lebanese and Syrians residents in the country. The UNHCR’s very slow uptake of cash assistance to the most needy and vulnerable Syrians in Lebanon has resulted in large numbers of women and children being seen on the streets of Beirut begging – something which is regarded with little sympathy by Lebanese.

Most Syrians appreciated Jordan’s initial response to the humanitarian crisis and mass influx of people into the country as open, generous and hospitable. Many of the initial forced migrants had kinship ties in Northern Jordan or well-established social networks. However, within a year into the crisis, the Jordanian government restricted access to the country and actively prevented some from entering (unaccompanied male youth) or actually returned others (Palestinian refugees from Syria). It also requested that UNHCR open a refugee camp in Jordan (Verdirame and Pobjoy, 2013). This change in Jordanian government policy was attributed to lobbying by tribal elders from the north of the country who were concerned that their hospitality to many of their Syrian kinsmen could not go on indefinitely, thereby threatening relations between Syrians and their rural, Jordanian hosts.

The host community in Jordan is bombarded with information in the print media regarding the negative influence of Syrian refugees in the country. At the same time, there is a widespread acknowledgement that Syrians are skilled workmen, especially carpenters.   Nonetheless, employment in the informal sector has created stress, even though it brings in much needed funding. Syrians who are working are fearful of possible arrest as they have no work permits – even though they are largely replacing Egyptian, not Jordanians, in the work force.

The camps that the government permitted the UNHCR to build severely restricted refugees’ freedom of movement and freedom to work (Turner, 2015).  The bailout system (European Council, 2016) – buying Jordanian sponsorship to leave the camps legally – only enables those Syrians with access to capital to leave (Jordan, 2016). The poorer Syrians – perceived as threats to low wage hiring practices, particularly in terms of living daily wages – are thus consigned to the camps and away from any potential competition with Jordanian wage labourers.

Nonetheless, Jordanians generally do recognize that the country benefits (from international aid) from its expenditure on refugees and that a significant percentage goes into direct government projects to assist Jordanians (Bellamy et. al., 2017). Many policy makers express recognition that Syrians are contributing to the Jordanian economy in a greater fashion than is widely being written about in the local press. At the start of the Syrian crisis, the unemployment rate had dropped by 2% due to the surge in wealthy Syrian business men (over 200) gaining permits to open factories in Jordan and undertaking to employ Jordanians (estimated at about 6,000) in these factories (Stave and Hillesund, 2015).

Syrians in Turkey come from a variety of backgrounds and social classes. The first wave of Syrians to seek sanctuary in Turkey crossed over from the Idlib province into the Hatay region of Turkey – a province of Syria acceded to Turkey in 1938 by the French Mandatory Authority in Syria. Thus, many of these Syrians had close kinship connections as well as linguistic and cultural connections. They were received as misafirs (guests) and generally self-settled in the towns and villages of the province (Dağtaş, 2017).

Many of the displaced Syrians we interviewed were concerned with the negative imagery of ‘dirty’ and ‘uncouth’ Arabs, commonly articulated by middle class Turks – a holdover of stereotypical animosities embedded in late Ottoman society. Furthermore, many Syrians remarked that Turkish observers had difficulty differentiating between the poor rural Syrian refugee population in their country and the nawwar (gypsies). Gypsy communities in Turkey, Iraq, and Syria are widely disparaged.

At the local level, a growing number of citizen groups and associations are working to cultivate a more positive approach to displaced Syrians. Neighbourhood public kitchens providing free meals and bread to the poor was common in Istanbul and in Gazianteb. The importance of the third sector – charitable organizations and religious / Sufi based associations – in providing assistance has been growing and is beginning to be acknowledged in research (Danış and Nazlı, 2018).

Lack of communications and poor understandings of the situation of Syrians led to demonstrations, arrests and a dozen or so deaths in the autumn of 2014, and again in 2017. Some Turkish citizens thought that refugees from Syria were being given salaries by the Turkish government; others felt that Syrians were working for lower wages (their Turkish employers did not have to pay taxes) and this was driving out the unskilled Turkish workers who had no safety net when they lost their jobs to Syrians. These concerns have bubbled away over the past five years and re-emerged in 2018 leading to much political speculation (Cunningham and Zakaria, 2018). Many felt that more transparency on the part of the government in terms of what Syrians were entitled to would have relieved the critical situation and growing discriminatory attitudes.

The disparity in perceptions among refugees, members of local hosting communities and practitioners is especially pronounced in Lebanon and Jordan where the international humanitarian aid regime is the most active. It is ironic that Turkey, the one country which has not requested assistance from the United Nations Refugee Agency, seems to have managed the process of providing assistance without, to a large extent, undermining refugee agency and dignity. Overall, in each of these states, successful self-settlement and sustainable livelihoods were seen as fundamental to creating conditions for local accommodation and potentially a return and re-integration into Syria when conditions permitted.

September 2018

Perspectives on causes and consequences of migration:

Foresight exercises in Central and South-Eastern Europe

Lucia Mýtna Kureková | Research Fellow, Slovak Governance Institute

Low public acceptance of migrants in Central and Eastern Europe

It has been a challenge to find consensus on how to address the migration crisis in the European Union. On a political level, countries in Central Europe in particular refuse to commit to accepting a portion of incoming migrants from other EU countries facing large numbers of asylum seekers and immigrants. Indeed, Gallup World Poll of Migrant Acceptance in 2016 showed a deep gap in public acceptance of migrants between Central and Eastern European (CESEE) countries and Western Europe. In an index ranging from 0, being low to 9, being high, public acceptance in CESEE is 2.77 versus 6.73 in Western European countries. What might be the reasons for the low public acceptance of migrants in CESEE?

Foresights from across CESEE countries prior to the migration crisis

In a recent past (2012 -2014), SEEMIG project researched important aspects of migration management and migration policy in a set of Southern and Central-Eastern European countries:  Austria, Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Romania. A particular aspect of research involved organizing foresight exercises about future migratory and demographic trends in each project country, focusing on labour migration and workforce mobility. The foresight exercises aimed to discuss and identify the main drivers of labour migration processes and develop positive and negative scenarios of likely future pathways by 2025 along the key drivers. These foresights, in essence, represent perspectives on causes and consequences of migration.

Foresight as an analytical method combines policy analysis, strategic planning and futures studies. It is based on participatory approach and systematic, future-oriented vision-building process with the aim to mobilize actions (Gavigan and Scapolo, 2001). It can be organized with a use of varied methods (qualitative and quantitative). In the SEEMIG project, qualitative methods – brainstorming, brain-mapping and scenario-building – were used. Importantly, SEEMIG foresights involved three types of stakeholders: (1) decision-makers, (2) experts, and (3) migrants or civil society representatives, who were brought together to discuss migration futures in a series of workshops resulting in scenario development. Looking at the results of the foresights in retrospect provides an interesting journey into discourses and salient issues in the respective countries, prior to the migration crisis.

A number of themes were discussed in foresight exercises (Mýtna Kureková, 2014), some of which are outlined below.

… it’s the economy

A key single driver of future migration trends identified in all countries were economic conditions,  conceptualized primarily as labour market conditions – levels of employment and economic activity.  Other aspects related to the broader levels of development, integration into global production networks, quality of life, wage levels and labour market conditions were also considered as important aspects of economic conditions affecting migration in all directions (“in, out, and trans”).

 … migration as an opportunity or as a challenge?

Foresight exercises in each country differed in the way in which migration was discussed and whether it was perceived as an opportunity or as a challenge. A more positive attitude to immigration prevailed in Italy, Austria, Slovakia and Slovenia. In Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Hungary, a negative perception of emigration of national workforce, uncertainty of return migration and doubts about the ability to attract migrants from outside the EU were strongly present. Return migration and successful integration into home markets, often in the form of entrepreneurial capital, was often conceptualized as an important aspect of the future envisaged in positive scenarios.

… immigration seen as inevitable, but not always desirable

SEEMIG countries which already attracted higher shares of immigrants saw continued inflows of immigrants also in their future scenarios (Austria, Italy, Slovenia). In these countries, immigration was to be continued due to established networks and historical and cultural ties with specific countries of origin. However, not all SEEMIG countries perceived migration as inevitable or desirable. The Serbian participants did not see Serbia as an immigration destination for foreigners in the medium-term future. Similarly, immigration was not part of the future expectations of the Romanians. Foresight discussions had similar features in Bulgaria, where, moreover, immigration, especially by asylum seekers, was perceived negatively.

… ambivalent perception of free mobility in the EU

Perceptions of the free mobility of labour in the European Union in the SEEMIG migrant sending countries were rather negative. Emigration of the labour force was in some countries perceived as a threat to the prosperous future development due to brain drain (Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Hungary). Furthermore, the lack of highly skilled workers, such as engineers, medical personnel, and teachers, was also attributed to the free labour mobility within the EU and the unequal pay between EU member states (Bulgaria). In other countries (Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia, Italy), free mobility was discussed as an opportunity and as a tool to deal with labour shortages and to respond to shifts in economic demand.

… reforms of national institutions seen as essential

Across countries, political stability, national legal and administrative framework and its capacity to create incentives and opportunities were seen as factors likely to shape migration futures in a positive way. Good governance, opportunities for self-realization under equal conditions and societal attitudes open to diversity are likely to lead to a decline in emigration of educated nationals, to a rise in return migration and to immigration that brings benefits to host societies (Hungary, Slovakia, Italy, Austria). Erratic policy-making and a lack of societal consensus about future development were highlighted as factors that bring in uncertainty and incentivize emigration (Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Italy). In Slovenia, Serbia and Romania, local governance structures and regional self-governance institutions were identified as bodies that can effectively deal with problems at lower governance levels.

All-in-all, national foresights revealed the range of perceptions about future migration and labour market developments in each country. They reflected the diversity of the countries involved, shaped by particular historical trajectories, experiences with closed borders, EU accession landmarks, geographical positions and levels of economic development. It is clear that migration is a topic that has multiple faces within particular societies.  Further research is desirable to learn more about the roots of public acceptance or refusal of immigrants and positive versus negative views about migration in European societies.

September 2018