Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Dreaming in Dhaka: a postscript on the Global Forum on Migration and Development 2016

This adapted version of a blog by Kellynn Wee was first published on the Migrating out of Poverty (Singapore) site and is re-posted here to mark the start of the Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) 2017.

Building on an op-end I wrote with Kuda Vanyoro and conversations with sharp, wonderful colleagues, these are my immediate impressions of the GFMD 2016. (My experiences stem from attending two sessions on labour recruitment and global supply chains, another on migrant diasporas and entrepreneurship, and a final session on developing a gender-sensitive approach to the Global Compact.)

We still tend to talk about migrants as workers first, people second. 
This is a thread that runs powerfully through discussions pre-empting the Global Compact on Migration, and was particularly evident on Common Space Day. We talked about labour markets, push and pull factors, entrepreneurship, skills development and matching, recruitment fee regulations, and how migrants brighten local economies as a justification for their entrance into nation-states, employers, ethical recruitment–all of which are crucial topics–but we talked less about migrants’ changing family dynamics, socio-cultural incorporation and inclusion, intimate relationships, and reproductive rights.

Women aren’t just domestic workers.
This tends to be our default mode when we talk about women in migration. Firstly, this reverts to point #1: we see women migrants, first and foremost, as migrant workers. The second problem is that we have fallen into a familiar narrative of adopting domestic workers as the default ‘worker’, which in no way diminishes the urgency of the issues that surround domestic work, but crowds the spaces that we have to discuss women in labour migration. What about, for example, women who engage in embodied and intimate labour, such as migrant sex workers? This is a trickier and more divisive terrain to navigate, but important nonetheless. The third and most pressing problem is that a gender-sensitive approach cannot and should not be restricted to women as workers. Marriage migrants are a significant migration flow: in Singapore, one in five marriages are between a citizen and a foreign spouse. A foreign wife’s legal status is dependent on her husband and a rising number deals with shocking levels of abuse. Or what about ‘study mamas‘, women who accompany children who migrate to study abroad? We also did not discuss transgender women and queer women, and the specific vulnerabilities that they must grapple with. Will these women make an appearance in the upcoming Global Compact, or our future discussions about migration and women.

The host country plays a powerful role in setting the agenda. 
The candidness of H.E. Shahidul Haque, the Bangladesh Foreign Secretary and this year’s GFMD Chair, was a breath of fresh air. Playing both provocateur and realist, he was forthcoming, reflexive about the mandate of states, and eager to urge civil society to take a leading role in issues of migration in the years ahead. “How about a free, fair, and responsive approach, rather than safe, regular and orderly?” H.E. said at today’s Common Space speech. “The strength of every movement is the people, not the state. Have you ever seen a state lead a transformation?” he said at the GFMD Civil Society Days opening speech.  (It helps that he’s very quotable.) In comparison to last year, I thought this year’s Common Space had a relaxed openness to it, with civil society representatives and government delegates truly interacting, responding, and mixing, not just in the interstices of the conference, but within the formal spaces of the conferences as well.

Moderation and session structures are critical to the quality of the discussions.
Well-moderated discussions had several common elements: good timekeeping, critical in reining overenthusiastic speakers in; reminding delegates to ask pointed, concise questions; an ability to make thematic connections between disparate comments and questions; and, most importantly, the facilitation of interaction, rather than panellists’ monologues. In a room full of experts who have spent years working closely with migrants, it is, I think, less important for panellists to share statistics about rates of migrant abuse–an issue we can safely assume to all be intimately familiar with–and more important for a lively Q&A which will allow panellists and the floor to dynamically shape their responses in relation to each other, and to better explore topics of discussion.

Stories are crucial. 
And in many ways, this year, they shone. Poet Vanessa Kisuule’s performances were a gift: necessary, honest, funny, piercing; they felt organic, not shoehorned or tacked on, and I appreciated her active participation and reflection in the days following her poetry. The photo exhibition at the foyer–titled ‘The Best Years of My Life‘ and put together by Shahidul Alam–tracked the lives of Bangladeshi migrants to Malaysia, and glowed with open empathy. Nonetheless, however, I echo the comment we made in our reflection on last year’s GFMD. 

What is the role of research(ers) at the GFMD?
There are times where I itched, and tried, to temper abstract principles in empirical stories, data, and information. I think I talked often, for example, about how recruitment fee flows are gendered in Asia: women migrate through debt; men migrate through upfront fees. These have hugely different implications and will need different solutions. The perennial question of how to connect a global process to local contexts remains something that we will need to explore.

I am both optimistic and wary (and weary. Goodbye forever to 6 am wake-up times! I say fervently). It has been an exciting few days, with many ups and downs, coloured with lots of frustrations and Twitter rants and furiously whispered conversations with people at tea tables and in the audience, but also with moments of delight and joy, and a conviction that some conversations are, at last, moving forward and taking flight. Warm, warm congratulations to the Bangladesh team for pulling off a fantastically organised conference on a tremendous scale. Until we meet again.

Monday, 26 June 2017

The elephant in the room: Why should global civil society care about academia?

By Kellynn Wee,

Data. Research. Facts. Evidence. In this world’s age of migration, these terms are so often used as hopeful synonyms for ‘truth’. We would like these truths to calibrate policy-making, to buttress justice, to make compassion viable. Numbers, fed from databases, would tell us which populations are moving, and how quickly; interviews, immaculately conducted by social scientists, would tell us why.

These truths often arise from international organisations, transnational activist networks and policy-oriented think tanks, which produce working papers, research reports and policy briefs that jerk back the curtain to reveal grim realities: migrant slums; the exploitation of children; the trafficking of women. Beyond this, however, another set of truths—less immediately interesting, and more abstract—is held in abeyance: the theories, ideas, and concepts that mark the work of academia. While the researchers who work on both may be the same, they often present their truths differently. In academic journals and conferences, pre-fixes and suffixes bristle to demarcate new theoretical thresholds: mobilities, (im)mobilities; precarious work, precariousness, precarities, hyper-precarities…

The response to these ideas is often, understandably, let’s get on with it. The re-christening of construction work in Qatar is unlikely to make the tangible realities of work for Bangladeshi migrant men any safer. The perception that academia—neutral, neutered—is irrevocably divorced from the realm of policymaking is reflected in the processes of international fora. For example, the upcoming Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), held 29 June to 1 July in Berlin, divides their count of academics from civil society practitioners.

But why should civil society care about academia? What does academia have to offer? What are the ethical responsibilities of migration researchers in geography and in sociology to global civil society? Does academia have an ethical responsibility in the first place?

To answer this question, we must ask another one: in this tiredly post-truth world, what do we still consider to be true?

There is an old story: get a group of people to close their eyes and reach forward to touch an elephant. One describes the feathery ear, another the tough belly, a third the whisking tail, a fourth the stump of a leg. They are all correct. They are all partial. It is, still, an elephant.

One of the critical ideas of academic scholarship is that reality does not offer up truth, neat as a dinner dish, but that truths create realities. There is no curtain, no stage, no lightning-strike revelation. Data does not mirror reality, but produces it. The more words we have for the elephant, the better we are able to understand it.

We can choose to see migration flows in numbers, counting every body that crosses a border, and that is one kind of truth, a truth that bristles with threat. We can choose to see migration as the result of complicated geopolitical ties, or as intertwined with development, or vested with entrepreneurial spirit; as waves, or infestations, or as tides, a push-pull as constant as the world. All of these truths exist, elbowing each other gently, simultaneously. (This is of course, not to say, that poorly-done research—and out-and-out lies—do not exist. Some people, for example, will swear up and down that an elephant has feathers and is out to take over every job currently available in your country.)

In global civil society, we are guilty of assuming a particular kind of truth: that, firstly, only one exists. And that, secondly, more information, better information, neutral, evidence-based, and unbiased information—a more robust truth—will help us to find it. This truth, ideally, would fix the gaps we already think we see.

What good, self-reflexive academia can do is to dislodge this idea. Our realities—and any radical potential for transformation in migration policy—are critically shaped by what we know and the ideas that we can put together to describe this knowledge. A constructivist approach allows us to acknowledge that data and research are not neutral, but are shaped by bias, methodology, and flows of funding. Flipping the relationship between “data” and “policy”—allowing research and its competing, conflicting truths to exist without needing to become revelatory evidence—opens up new and creative ways of thinking about potential policy interventions. There are no better truths; there are only many.

Part of the Migrating out of Poverty research focuses on the migration industry. If we analyse migration brokers and agents—who are often profit-oriented and help to facilitate, curtail, and shape migration—with an eye to uncovering exploitation and forced labour, then that is of course what we will see. The framing of ‘problem’ and solution’ fits nicely over the contours of this sort of (undoubtedly still invaluable) research, which supports punitive, regulatory measures in response. Hence: zero recruitment fees; licensing; the end of informal brokers; demerit points.

What we have found, however, is that migration brokers in Singapore, Indonesia and India are not (only) slavers and traffickers, but are (also) creditors, translators, protectors, ex-migrants themselves, navigators of seasonal uncertainties, or vehicles to speed migrants through labyrinthine bureaucracy. They act as they do not only because they believe migrants are less or are products or are exploitable but also because their practices are shaped by lines of credit and debt, or because they too are peddling a particular, peculiar kind of hope. In Singapore’s migration industry, for example, women migrate through debt-financed migration, in which a loan extended by a prospective employer travels all the way back to Indonesia to become capital to allow women to migrate as a livelihood strategy. But these lines of debt and credit are not a singular river; as they cross nation lines, they multiply, criss-cross, expand like deltas, meet with undercurrents, holding agent, worker, and employer in a web of liability and risk, ultimately creating a set of conditions in which workers must be coaxed or controlled for the continued possibility of future migration from countries of origin.

If we focus on understanding the social and cultural world of brokers and migrants, then this might actually open up more room for innovative policy interventions. Global civil society has the advantage of overcoming nation-states’ preoccupation with governing within their own borders. By bypassing closed state systems entirely, civil society might, for example, immediately, transnationally, and flexibly collaborate with brokers themselves instead.    

There are no easy policy recommendations that come from this partial perspective of the migration industry, but an acknowledgement of these many truths. Gently elbowing. The elephant comes into better view.

Academia is not a panacea, but adopting its tenets of multiple truths allows us to better understand the world in which we work. To go forward, we need to do two things: first, academics must themselves consciously broker their own knowledges. Second, the perception of the value of qualitative research must change.

Firstly, researchers must be cognisant of the ways that their work affect social and political realities, and to seek to translate their research beyond conventional forums and outlets. The academic industry does not reward researchers for communicating their work to mainstream media outlets, policy-makers, civil society, or the general public. Doing so does not secure contracts, citation counts, or project funds. This, amongst many other factors, creates a situation in which researchers are, first, disinterested and disengaged; and, second, unable to broker their own knowledge in ways that render it accessible to non-academics who might need that knowledge most. No doubt this is a systemic issue, borne from an increasingly precarious academic industry, but migration researchers can do more to describe their experiences with that elephant in ways that others would be able to use to compare with their own.  

Secondly, the perception and value of qualitative research in civil society spaces should move beyond proffering up decontextualised “stories” and “case studies”. When one makes a call for data in civil society, one is often asking for large-scale quantitative data or longitudinal panel studies. These, of course, are important; but it is also timely to recognise that qualitative and ethnographic work move beyond the scattered stories of small-n samples and can instead offer new ways of seeing.

Now the hide, rough to the touch. Now the long nose, the wet snout, curiously searching.  

Image credit: Blind monks examining an elephant, Hanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Why don’t all migrants return in times of crisis?

By María Hernández-Carretero

In the early 2000s, numerous migrants arrived in Spain, attracted by the prospects of finding a job in the country’s booming economy. They quickly grew to represent 11% of the total population in 2008, from 2% in 2000. But when the financial crisis hit and Spain topped Europe’s unemployment rates, immigrants became disproportionately affected – 35% were jobless, compared to 22% among people with Spanish or double nationality. Years earlier their labour had been needed and welcome, but as discontent set in some Spaniards started calling for unemployed (especially if also paperless) migrants to “go back” to their countries of origin, now that no jobs were to be found. Some did leave Spain, whether to return to their country of origin or seek better luck elsewhere. Yet many others stayed.

Faced with an economically bleak and politically hostile landscape in Spain, why did so many immigrants choose to stay all the same? This question was part of the starting point for my chapter in Hope and Uncertainty in Contemporary African Migration where, focusing on the case of Senegalese migration to Spain, I look into why for some, deciding to emigrate can be easier than returning home.

Is return a better alternative to staying?
“Even though you didn’t find what you were looking for here, you can’t go back just like that! If you do, what are you going to do with your life, then? […] Going back now without certainty... And you’re at an age when you’re no longer allowed to make mistakes. You shouldn’t make mistakes. Do you understand? Since you made a mistake by coming here, don’t make a mistake in your return!”

Babacar*, like many other migrants, arrived in Spain in the 2000s hoping he would find the opportunities to build himself a better future. By 2012, he had neither a job nor reliable prospects of finding one, but he did not consider returning to Senegal empty-handed to be a viable option. He would go back if he had the necessary savings to start his own business, he explained, but returning with no money and no certainty that he could sustain himself would for him be senseless: it would only compound his failure at making it in Europe and, as his words above express, amount to a double mistake.

Return, as leaving, is indeed largely a matter of resources and opportunities. Access to financial, monetary or social resources makes it easier to go back, whether temporarily to assess the conditions for a more durable return, or to stay permanently. Possible income sources or housing security in Senegal, or an open door to re-entering Europe, all decrease the uncertainty associated with cutting the migration project short. Migrants who, for example, had saved money, started a business or built (and paid-off) a house in Senegal, had a family business there they could lean on, or had permanent residence in Spain or Spanish nationality faced an easier choice between staying or returning.

Lat, another Senegalese migrant, explained that whether going back to Senegal was a preferable alternative to staying in Spain at the time of the crisis really depended on what one was returning to. Going back to the same situation that one left back home could be “worse” than staying in Spain, he assured me. Landing back in Senegal without savings to start one’s own business and without prospects of finding employment in a setting with few employment opportunities is not simply a regression to the point of departure – a point of livelihood uncertainty and bleak future prospects. Returning in such circumstances can, as Lat explained, in many ways be even worse. It is a regression compounded by the failure of having had the highly-coveted chance of improving one’s situation through migration but failed at doing so, and having to admit that defeat and lack of progress in front of one’s family and wider social circle. In this sense, returning empty-handed would not only be a failure but a risky undertaking too.

Return as the time to show results, not take new risks
When Babacar talks about not wanting to make a mistake in his return and relates this to his age and the original act of emigration, he is pointing to a way of thinking common to many Senegalese emigrants: return is the point when the success of the migration project is evaluated – especially by migrants’ social circle back home. Since at the time of speaking he feels that leaving in the first place might not have been the right decision, it is all the more important for him to not return as a failed migrant, with no savings from his time abroad and no prospects of making a living in Senegal. From Senegal, Europe and more generally “the North” represents a place of wealth and opportunities. Lavish foreign lifestyles fill TV-screens. Successful migrants and businesspeople bring back money, gifts, flashy clothing, electronics and home appliances, cars, business investments and even materials to build houses. The idea of the West is associated with money and opportunities on which those coming back are expected to have cashed and then at least partly redistribute among others back home.

Babacar also refers to the fact that, while it is acceptable for youths to explore and take chances to build their future, adults are expected to display responsibility through solvency and the ability to provide for their families. Return is therefore not the time to take new risks. Neither is it, for most, something to be done impulsively or rushed, lest one disappoints one’s social circle and loses face in front of all for having been unable to display proof of a successful time abroad. In this light, an unprepared, unsuccessful return might, in fact, be a worse prospect than staying in Europe. Abroad, one can continue struggling alone, away from the judging gaze of one’s social circle back home. Remaining in Europe also allows keeping alive the hope that better times might still lie ahead.

Giving up Europe, giving up hope
“What I was looking for, right now . . . there is none of it: work. There is no work. But . . . Africa is always difficult. Here, it’s difficult, I know. But Africa is always difficult. Because over there, your family is there, you’re seen, you’re surrounded by ten people . . . and they see you, and you have nothing to give them. [He pauses, then chuckles] But when you’re here, they don’t see you. But you can talk to them and relieve them. Give them hope. For . . . yes, give them hope to wait . . . that one day things will be good. And they can feed on that hope.”

The words of Pape, another migrant, reflect how returning to Senegal without having met one’s migration goals would mean putting an end to the hope that not only migrants but also their families have placed on the migration project. They also illustrate how important this hope is for families in coping with everyday hardship in Senegal. Given the huge, and increasing, difficulty of entering Europe for would-be migrants, many of those who have already succeeded in entering are reluctant to relinquish the possibility to stay in or re-enter Europe. Irregular migrants, especially, could not return to Europe after leaving. The images along Europe’s borders suggest what a profound loss of effort, hope, time and resources this would represent. The difficulty, or impossibility, of crossing the border is likely to make it less attractive to leave Europe in times of hardship to assess prospects for returning back home. This has been shown to be the case along the US-Mexico border where, as border security increased, Mexican migrants with residence permits in the US continued to circulate back and forth between the two countries, while fewer irregular migrants did.

Confronted with the choice of enduring a precarious life abroad and facing the shame of returning empty handed, some might therefore choose the former – or at least delay the latter as much as possible. As some described it, patiently enduring hardship abroad while keeping open the possibility of a different future signals perseverance and masculinity through a commitment to finding the means to forge oneself a good life and help one’s family. By contrast, many fear that going back without achieving this would appear as merely giving up this quest and the hope it bears.


*All migrant names are pseudonyms.
The photo is by María Hernández Carretero and depicts posters advertising the services of the Concerted Immigration Company, from Canada. They offer the opportunity to continue one's studies in "France, Europe and Canada". They claim to be the "leader in the industry of permanent and student migration." It was taken on the campus of the University Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar.