Global Development Institute Blog

This blog originally appeared on the Manchester Migration Lab website

Blog by Hannah Haycox, PhD Candidate, Sociology, The University of Manchester

“We are far more united and have far more in common than what divides us” (Jo Cox)

This week, I was delighted to attend the very first Migration Lab conference at The University of Manchester. Experts from a variety of backgrounds all joined to discuss their responses to the conference theme of a ‘World on the Move: Migration, Societies and Change’. Throughout the three days, similar questions seemed to circulate: Is the current ‘World on the Move’ a new development? Hasn’t the world always been on the move? And if so, do public discourses and state responses to such movements ever truly evolve?

The conference environment was filled with passionate keynote speakers and delegates keen to present their own expertise on a variety of issues. The real-life consequences of the Brexit vote were tangible, particularly during the first day of the conference. Campaigners, third sector practitioners and researchers all collaborated in a discussion of the potential ramifications for EU citizens living in the UK. In the recent context of divisive rhetoric and politics, the act of resisting the categorisation of migrants as ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ was continually echoed across talks.

Resisting Dispossession and Engulfment

Professor Nina Glick-Schiller opened the conference with an inspirational talk on resisting nationalism and systems of categorising ‘who belongs’. To do this, Nina framed migration studies within the socio-political conditions of urban regeneration. This situated processes of migration in the context of competition between cities for global investment. Nina’s case study exhibited how refugees and impoverished citizens were suggested as beneficiaries of private investment. However, once the funding was granted, it was ultimately used to support gentrification. The neighbourhoods in which both vulnerable groups lived were subsequently criminalised, resulting in their forced displacement.

However, rather than focusing on questions of belonging which fuel movements of nationalism, Nina’s case study emphasised the similarities between both displaced groups. These experiences of being dispossessed of both their housing and community united migrants and displaced citizens. In effect, this established the basis of their sociability. Grassroots activism and an acknowledgement of similarities in their experiences of dispossession were thus potential opportunities for resistance. To young researchers such as myself, it was inspiring to see such a renowned academic reinforce the importance of activism. Furthermore, after eight years of austerity in the UK and a rhetorically poisonous anti-immigrant Brexit campaign, it was brilliant to hear solutions to resisting such divisive politics.

This theme of dispossession wasn’t limited to Nina’s talk only; such experiences were interwoven throughout the entire conference. Similarly to Nina’s focus on dispossession, Professor Peter Gatrell described migration as a form of both literal and metaphorical ‘engulfment’. In his keynote, Peter provided a historical reframing of European history by placing processes of migration at the centre. This involved revising the dichotomising of East and West Germany prior to reunification as insecurity characterised migrants’ experiences across both sides of the Iron Curtain. By exposing the constraints that have been imposed historically on migrants by government regimes, Peter offered a form of resistance in suggesting how migrants may subvert these controls and impositions.

It was fitting that Peter’s keynote closed the conference as it seemed to summarise the continuing narrative of dispossession appropriately. The absence of a thorough history of Europe through the lens of migration in itself speaks of dispossession; migrants are perceived as marginal figures in national narratives, rather than central to the formation of nation-state history. Just as Nina dismantled the dichotomising of migrants and local citizens in impoverished areas, Peter worked to offer new perspectives on Europe through the lens of migration. Both papers gestured towards a process of erosion; whether that is erosion from community spaces as in Nina’s talk or a systemic marginality in nation-state history. In the current context of the UK’s refusal to guarantee EU migrants’ citizenship rights, this erosion of both experiences of belonging and legal entitlements acquired further significance throughout the conference.

Learning from History

To understand such processes which enable the legitimisation of dispossession and engulfment, we must turn to history. Two sessions particularly highlighted this: Professor Alice Bloch’s keynote on inter-generational transnationalism and Dr Caitlin Nunn’s workshop on Syrian refugee youth. Alice’s fascinating keynote focused on the impact that history has on the transnational connections of second generation refugees whilst Caitlin’s powerful workshop included oral testimony from Syrian refugee youths. By understanding the origins of how categorisations of belonging occur, we can expose their artifice. During a time in which the government has abolished the Dubs scheme to resettle unaccompanied children stranded in Europe, we must now more than ever unite to resist such divisions. As Nina stated in her keynote, ‘Don’t mourn: Mobilise’.

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.