Reflecting on the past, explaining the present and thinking about the future: Snippets from the Migration With (out) Boundaries Conference (6-7 October 2017)

Reflecting on the past, explaining the present and thinking about the future: Snippets from the Migration With (out) Boundaries Conference (6-7 October 2017)

So, continuing from Anis Fellahi’s last post, I am excited to share some highlights from our second day (07 October 2017) at the Migration With (out) Boundaries Conference.

With the program scheduled to begin promptly at 9.00, we had to be at the conference venue by 08.30 for breakfast and registration. Being a Saturday morning and given how jet lagged I was, I would have preferred to stay in bed a little longer. There was however, no chance for that, since Anis and I had embarked on this journey across the Atlantic to share our research findings with fellow migration scholars.

The day’s proceedings started with encouraging opening remarks by Dr. Stephanie Nawyn from Michigan State University. She emphasized the importance of migration research and of our contributions as migration scholars to this currently hot topic. The conference panel presentations then followed.

The Panel Presentations

The presentations were divided into four sessions under which a total of nine panels ran concurrently. The panels touched on issues related to internal and international migration of Indian people, forced migration, migration law and policy, displacement and justice, motivations for labour mobility as well as how religion, language and identity issues influence migration and integration in host societies. The cases discussed in these panels covered Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas.

The first session had two panels running concurrently, one focusing on Indian migrants and the other one on “the spectrum of coercion”. Anis and I attended the panel on “the spectrum of coercion” which featured papers on forced migration induced by issues of identity, belonging and religion. The papers analysed various sociocultural dynamics that fuel forced migration in India and Nigeria. The role of caste-driven violence in India’s Haryana state as well as the role of the Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria in fuelling forced migration were extensively discussed during this session. What I found interesting about this session is that it empirically revealed the multifaceted nature of migration and the complex driving forces underlying it. It confirmed the need for context-specific migration research because the interplay of the factors involved in making migration decisions are too complex to generalize.

Our Panel: Motivations for Labour Mobility: New Insights from Three Country Cases

Our panel was part of the second session presentations. It featured Anis’ paper entitled “Aspirational factors driving rural youth outmigration in Algeria”, a paper by Aaron Brown from Ohio University which was entitled “Laborers in Limbo: The United States, Mexico and the Elusive Search for a new “Bracero System”, as well as my paper entitled “Networks and Opportunities: the post-2000 migration of Zimbabweans to the United Kingdom.” What these papers had in common is that they focused on factors influencing the agency of migrants at various stages of their migration trajectories. The presentations highlighted such sociocultural and ideological influences as family values, aspirations, local practices, and migrant networks as some of the main influencing factors.

Our panel discussant Dr. Lewis Siegelbaum referred to a book that he co-authored with Dr. Leslie Page Moch, entitled Broad Is My Native Land: Repertoires and Regimes of Migration in Russia’s Twentieth Century as a guiding reference for the panel discussion session. The book concludes with a call upon migration scholars to test the utility of the “regimes and repertoires” concepts in “examining other spaces and places” (Siegelbaum & Moch, 2014; 394). They define “regimes” as the “policies, practices, and infrastructure designed to both foster and limit human movement” (Siegelbaum & Moch, 2014;3) whilst “repertoires” are understood to be the “culturally-specific strategies, practices, and personal networks—to move, survive, and establish new lives” (Sokolsky, 2016). So, in his feedback Dr. Siegelbaum was basically looking to see if he could identify these “regimes and repertoires” in our papers. It was interesting to see that though addressed to different extents in our papers, “regimes and repertoires” were identifiable. In my paper on the post-2000 migration of Zimbabweans to the UK, an example falling under “regimes” is the November 2002 UK introduction of new visa requirements for Zimbabweans following a sharp increase of Zimbabwean asylum seekers, and an example falling under “repertoires” are the migrant networks that encouraged and facilitated the migration of many of the respondents in my study.  In the case of Anis’ paper on rural youth outmigration in Algeria, the limited scope and efficiency of government development policies  that are meant to create employment for the rural youth can be taken as examples of “regimes”, whilst the deep-seated culture of migration as well as migrant networks are examples of “repertoires”.

Adopting this structure for the discussion made it more engaging and lively as the two concepts became the guiding and common ground for the three presentations in this panel. Our session lasted for one and half hours, after which it was time for the lunch break.

Lunch Break: Presentation by Refugee Lansing

To bridge the theory/practice boundaries, the conference organizers included a presentation and photo exhibition on refugees in the Lansing city of Michigan. The presentation was done by a volunteer-run association called Refugee Lansing which runs “a storytelling project celebrating decades of refugee resettlement in mid-Michigan”. Among the volunteers in the project are professional photographers, writers and journalists who collect and share “success stories of refugees in Lansing”. According to one of the presenters, they are trying to change the narrative in the current US political climate from ‘us versus them’ to ‘us being them’. The discussion that ensued highlighted the sensitivity of exposing refugees in the media, particularly the complexity of choosing what to show as symbols of ‘success’ and how much to expose, bearing in mind that such exposure contributes to the public discourse and perception of migrants.

The last two sessions

After the lively lunch presentation and discussion, we were back in the panel presentations.

Anis attended the panel on “Religious Others in migration” as well as the one on “Immigration, Community, Identity” whilst I attended one on “Language, Literature, and Discourses” and another one on “(In) voluntary Movements in Neoliberal Times”. The panel papers under these sessions covered such issues as Syrians in America, Lutherans in the Caribbean islands, and Jewish populations during the 19th and 20th centuries; a teacher perspective to managing interactive practice with English language learners; a study of languages that are “left behind” in migration.

Concluding Remarks

Following a full day of listening to migration issues addressed from various perspectives, using case studies from different parts of the world, it was time for Dr. Steven Gold from the MSU Department of Sociology to wrap up the conference. His concluding remarks were delivered under the title “Choosing a career in migration studies during a period of hostility to migrants”. Dr. Gold commended us for the various empirical contributions that we are making to the field of migration. He reminded us that in the current climate under which “migration is seen as a menace, negative and threatening”, migration scholars have the responsibility to contribute in advising policy makers. There is therefore a need for more context-specific migration research if this responsibility is to be effectively shouldered.

Siegelbaum, L. H., & Moch, L. P. (2014). Broad Is My Native Land: Repertoires and Regimes of Migration in Russia’s Twentieth Century. Cornell University Press.

Sokolsky, M. (2016). Broad Is My Native Land: Repertoires and Regimes of Migration in Russia’s Twentieth Century. By Lewis H. Siegelbaum and Leslie Page Moch. Journal of Social History, 50(1), 244–246.

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