The education-migration nexus: unpacking the everyday lives of self-sponsored Cameroonian students in Flanders (Belgium)
As a young child watching most western soaps on the television, I thought that travelling to the West was the solution to all the problems of poverty. On arrival to Belgium, the imaginings of a stress-free life often do not align with the reality in the host country. As a Cameroonian, choosing to write on this topic stemmed from my observations and encounters when I just arrived in Belgium. Walking along the street on a fateful cold winter morning, I saw a familiar face, and I tried to greet and engage in a conversation as it’s the norm in Cameroon, but the friend was so busy that she did not notice me. On another occasion, our paths crossed again, but this time, after a class. In the course of our discussion, this friend expressed disdain that self-sponsored students were considered as economic migrants; meanwhile, they saw themselves as real students.
Among Cameroonians, the socio-cultural notion of 'bushfalling' is used to describe someone who has the intention to travel to the West, and a 'bushfaller' refers to someone who lives in the West. Travelling overseas or 'bushfalling' is an obsession for most young Cameroonians. Due to an increase in stringent migration policies as well as the rise in unemployment in Cameroon, the student route seems to be the most secure route to leave the country.
The concept of ‘cosmology’ has a long-standing history in anthropology. Derived from the ancient Greek ‘cosmos’ – order, harmony, world – and ‘logos’ – discourse – cosmology was historically intended as the knowledge or study of the structure and shape of the world.
In anthropology, cosmologies are conventionally defined as widespread representations of the world as a hierarchically ordered whole. Traditionally associated with the study of religions, cosmologies have progressively come to refer more generally to systems of classifications, and their related moral and emotional attitudes.
My Identities article, ‘Cosmologies and migration: on worldviews and their influence on mobility and immobility’, shows that this concept can be applied to understanding the hierarchical worldviews of a diasporic population, such as Eritrean migrants and their left behinds. In particular, the article argues that these worldviews are crucial to understand why people are ready to undertake very dangerous and complex journeys to reach their their 'promised land', as suggested by the Eritrean painter Ambasager Welday in his beautiful reinterpretation of the biblical exodus (see the image above).
If migration researchers feel unsafe participating in the public debate, what are the consequences for debate – and research?
I was just out of the TV studio after having finished an interview about a new book about social cohesion and migration that I had edited together with two colleagues. The interview went well, I was tired, it was late and I wanted to get home to sleep. Standing in the lobby of the Danish National Broadcasting Company I checked my email on my smartphone. I could see the headings of all new incoming emails, and the first of these included just one word: 'Liar'.
The email related to the interview that I had just carried out. At least this person had signed his email with a name that seemed to exist. Someone whom, when I looked him up, participated in discussions on the website of one of Scandinavia’s most radical right-wing organisations. In other instances, where someone – who disagreed beyond strongly with my research results - has sent me an email or even paper letters, there has not been any signature. Just a strong message of ‘you are wrong’.
I am not alone in having these kinds of experiences. In the spring of 2018 I carried out a survey among migration researchers in four Danish universities. The results of the survey are discussed in my Identities article, 'Boundary work: investigating the expert role of Danish migration researchers'. The survey focused on the researchers’ experience with participating in the public debate and experiences in that regard. The survey showed that Danish migration researchers were active participants in the public debate, for example by answering questions from news reporters, communicating research via TV and radio programmes, and writing articles for newspapers. Many researchers saw these activities as their duty; it was a way of contributing to a society that paid for their salary and which they wanted to keep informed and knowledgeable.
On 25 February 2020, the Danish newspaper Berlingske had a main story showing how leading party members of the Social Democrats have put pressure on experts critical of the Party’s politics. Both while being in opposition and now forming the minority government, leading politicians have contacted organisations and independent experts (Holst 2020). The newspaper reports how experts and researchers have been contacted by people working for the Social Democrats or from people within the ministries and given warnings. The issues at stake do not all relate to migration research, but some do.
The story therefore connects well to my analysis presented in my Identities article, 'What makes an expert? Doing migration research in Denmark'. In the article, I outline four different types of migration experts who in different ways and with different weight have to navigate within a nexus of academia, the policy arena and the broader public. The first of these types is a positioning of the migration expert as one not offering any real solutions. This discussion stems from an internal debate within academia where a well-esteemed professor argued that a large part of research is becoming decoupled from ‘real politics’ and ‘reality’. The implication for him is a situation where the research community has created a ‘vacuum’, and in the absence of asylum and refugee researchers who can assist the decision-makers the politicians have begun to look for advice elsewhere.
When Rafael Railaf told me the story of his land in Southern Chile and his fight for it, I asked him, with some uncertainty, what moved him to a struggle that eventually led to two years of political prison and subsequent exile. He was silent for a few moments, and than said: ‘Porqué yo siento un dolor’ ('Cos I feel a pain).
Rafael’s narrative around the object of land has multiple layers that began to emerge when he connected it with ‘pain’. His statement pointed at the links between the materiality of places, politics and the existential dimension of lived experience. At the same time, it drew my attention to the borders that exist between persons in relation to speech and silence, for my understanding of the word ‘land’ (tierra) and what it actually meant for Rafael could only be partial: it was impossible for me to feel and think that word the way he did. This awareness was the starting point for the writing of my Identities article ‘Unexpected Places: Land, words and silence in a Mapuche family trajectory of (dis)placement’, which elaborates on the interplay between words and silence as something not only in the construction of narratives, but also in the making of (unexpected) places at the crossroad of different and interconnected landscapes.
Over 20 million immigrants from Latin America and the Spanish-speaking Caribbean arrived in the United States as part of the post-1965 immigration wave. Certainly, this migration wave had important and lasting demographic impacts in the US; in particular, it contributed to the significant growth of the Latino population. At 59 million, Latinos are the largest minority group in the US and they are projected to reach a quarter of the US population over the next few decades.
While Mexican immigrants have dominated migration flows from Latin America, Central American immigrants and their children are an important component of the post-1965 immigration wave. Central Americans arrived in the US in significant numbers during the 1980s and 1990s as a result of civil wars, political repression, economic instability and destruction caused by natural disasters in Central American countries. Today, Central Americans constitute the third largest Latino group in the US; moreover, the children of Central American immigrants who arrived during 1980s and 1990s have entered adulthood.
The Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred on 26 April 1986 in the Soviet Union. Children born before and after 1986 were at risk of developing different health conditions. For example, instances of thyroid cancer increased 40 times due to release of radioactive iodine. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, borders opened and many Western charities offered recuperation to affected children in host families abroad during summer. The idea was to take children out of contaminated territories and provide them with an environment free from radiation. Belarus was the most affected, having 23.5% of its territory contaminated with radioactive cesium and strontium. Italy was the most active in these recuperation programmes; it has hosted more than half of all affected children from Belarus.
The goal of my Identities article, 'Kinning as intimate disaster response: from recuperation in host families to educational migration of the Chernobyl children from Belarus to Italy', was to uncover what happened to these children and their host families over time. I demonstrate that one of the unexpected outcomes of Chernobyl children’s recuperation in Italy was their educational migration to Italy for further education as they grew up (some went on to attend high school in Italy; the majority of these went on to do their Bachelor and/or Master’s degrees in Italy, as well). I argue that educational migration became possible due to kinning – strong emotional bonds developed between the Belarusian children and their Italian host families over their repeated encounters during the humanitarian programme of child recuperation abroad. The concept of kinning has been used in the studies of transnational adoption (by Signe Howell) and domestic and institutional care work (by Loretta Baldassar and colleagues). My article applies kinning to the studies of disasters, migration and humanitarianism.
‘I hear people compare the immigration debate with the climate debate, and it does not fit quite well, because climate researchers are not faced with the same threats and the same hate as migration researchers, where the hate is very existential and often very personal’. This experienced migration researcher compares what researchers may experience in two fields of polarised social debate.
Climate change and migration are among the most polarised fields of public opinion and political mobilising; however, both fields depend on scientific knowledge for argument. Political adversaries refer to opposite research results as the 'truth' of the matter, and describe the same research results as either politically skewed or totally objective.
Interviews with different generations of migration researchers in Norway about their research communication show that they often are interpreted as 'being political' when disseminating their results to the media or taking part in public debates:
When people hear that my research topic is international marriages, a spark lights up their eyes, quickly followed by the comment, ‘Oh, living with a foreigner must be difficult...’ When I ask, ‘Why do you think so?’, people quickly answer with ‘cultural differences’, but pushing further, language differences is also mentioned as one of the biggest issues that concern people. So, what is it about language and culture that make it difficult for people to understand each other? Don’t we all have different cultures? Will knowing a spouse’s language help? Is there anything else that makes it difficult for people to connect and understand each other?
Having those and many other questions in mind, I conducted my research on marriages of Russian-speaking women from former Soviet Union countries, who live in Japan and are married to Japanese men. I did not intentionally ask participants to talk about differences in customs or ways of living, but no matter what we discussed, the conversation would eventually reveal how spouses experienced and compared each other’s languages and cultures.
My Identities article, ‘International marriage in Japan: reconstructing cultural toolkits in marriages between Japanese men and women from the former Soviet Union’, introduces the voices of Russian-speaking wives and Japanese husbands, and explores their thoughts about marriages and culture. I analyse some of my participants’ remarks about their communication with spouses, such as Lyubov, who described the way she talked with her husband:
The external definitions we are given, i.e. how others define us, become an inescapable part of our internal self-definition. Such external labelling is more effective if it is done with institutional legitimacy and governmental authority. This separation of a population into ‘us’ and ‘them’ can have serious consequences for people from subordinated groups.
A clear example of this kind of external labelling can be observed in the frequent reports of the Swedish National Agency for Education concerning 'educational underachievement' of students with foreign background in Sweden. This labelling primarily indicates a negation of everything ‘Swedish’. According to this understanding of Swedishness, not all of those who were born or brought up in the country are Swedes. A Swede is born of parents who are native-born ‘Swedish’, has a ‘Swedish’ appearance and name, and speaks Swedish without a foreign accent. Secondly, in these reports, the offspring of immigrants, a very heterogeneous population in terms of country of origin, class background, length of residence in Sweden and age at arrival, are lumped together as one homogenous group and labelled 'students of foreign background'.
What the recipients of these reports (which are widely broadcast in the media) understand is that these students always lag behind those of 'Swedish background', thereby putting a strain on Sweden’s educational system. Such descriptions hide the internal variability between young people in these categories. and indicate the ‘racial inferiority’ or ‘cultural backwardness’ of young people with an ‘immigrant background’. This also fails to take into account the growing proportion of young people with migrant parents who do not define themselves (at least not initially) by their migrant background.
Pro-social identities and hospitality towards migrants: lessons from a small Southern Italian town that opened its doors to refugees
In the summer of 1998, 300 Kurdish refugees landed at the Ionian coast and received help from the local inhabitants of Riace, a small Calabrian town. Ever since, refugees have been hosted in houses that were abandoned by local emigrants looking for work abroad or elsewhere in Italy, and leaving behind an impoverished ‘ghost town’. Over time, local NGOs and the municipality have developed a comprehensive settlement programme for up to 400 refugees at a time. Refugees, in turn, bring new life into this once-dying town, and the settlement programme is combined with projects aimed at the socio-economic revival of the local community . Curious to find out whether the welcoming attitude towards refugees (Sasso 2012) was genuine and how the support for them was generated, the first author of the Identities article, 'Local identity and the reception of refugees: the example of Riace', decided to live in one of the abandoned houses for a period of 5 months.
Through the ethnographic fieldwork of the first author, we soon found out that there are various economic, demographic and political factors underpinning the success of Riace’s reception programme. The article being discussed aimed to examine how the people in Riace created and enact a local identity of hospitality. In the article, we analysed the type of ‘identity work’ that the Riace inhabitants and local leaders are involved in. Far-right politics and anti-immigration parties often present refugees as a threat to the local identity due to their different cultural or religious background, and a strong national identity regularly goes together with the rejection of newcomers (Bansak et al. 2016). Theoretically, social identities are often conceptualised in terms of group boundaries and processes of boundary drawing (‘who belongs to us’; Wimmer 2009), but they also deﬁne speciﬁc norms, values and beliefs of ‘who we are as a community’. The case of Riace shows that when the content of the local identity is pro-social and a community deﬁnes itself in terms of hospitality, community members are inclined to act, think and feel in that way (Reicher et al. 2010). In agreement with this ‘social identity perspective’, our research demonstrates that a strong local identity can go together with the inclusion, instead of the exclusion, of newcomers.
Interviewer: ‘What do you think it means to be British?’
Miriam: ‘It is a passport. To be British now, I’m sorry to say this, but it is a passport. That is it. That is what being British means to me… I have lost faith in the country which I used to call home. I have lost faith, I have lost trust. Every single bit of pride that I had to be calling myself a British citizen has almost gone out of the window. They have basically sucked every single bit of love for the UK out of me.’
Miriam’s husband had been in the UK from his teens but was recently forcibly removed from the country, after a traumatic period incarcerated in immigration detention. The authorities have advised Miriam that she should choose between staying in the UK alone or leave to be with him. She’s choosing the latter:
‘I just said stuff it, if England don’t want me to live here, I will live in any country in the world with him, and that is it.’
In 2019, Musée d’Orsay held an exhibition on Black Models, and the National Museum of the History of Immigration held a year-long exhibition on the musical contribution of migration to Paris and London. Why do we need a specific show to give black models an identity and an exhibition to demonstrate the contribution of post-colonial migrants to popular music?
In my Identities article, 'The whiteness of cultural boundaries in France', I explore the underpinnings of France’s relationship to the culture of the Other, through the scope of whiteness. I contend that whiteness can be defined as a kind of capital embedded in the routine structures of economic and political life and is therefore a relevant concept to analyse French cultural policy.
For some migrant farm workers, exiting their state-approved contracts can provide an everyday means to refuse poor working conditions and evade coercive immigration and employment controls that are endemic to the agricultural streams of Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program. Exiting their employment, an action that workers refer to as ‘escape’, puts at risk their right to legally reside in Canada.
However, in my Identities article, '"Escaping" managed labour migration: worker exit as precarious migrant agency', I examine how workers’ first-hand depictions of ‘escaping’ employment reveal new insights into how workers may claim a space of belonging that contradicts their experiences of status-based vulnerability.
By leaving the farm and by extension Canada’s state-managed labour migration regime, workers are both refusing a life of precarity and embracing an unknown future where hope and chance may reveal a happier and more desirable life.
I am sitting in the office of a refugee support and advocacy organisation in north-England to interview a refugee about her experience. The focus of our conversation is not on why Faith fled her country or how the charity helped her integrate in the UK. Instead, we talk about how she started working as a caseworker for one of the main refugee third sector organisations. When Faith walks into the office, people might think she is a client waiting for an appointment. They might initially be surprised when she sits down on the other side of the desk as they fail to recognise her as the professional worker that she is.
Stories about refugees and employment tend to highlight the significant obstacles in accessing the labour market (Kone et al. 2019). Lack of recognition of qualifications and home country work experience, short-term interventions by job agencies and language barriers all contribute to unemployment and deskilling. Many professionals end up in manual jobs in factories, catering or care. Refugees are overrepresented in so-called ‘3D jobs’; those that are Dirty, Dangerous and Degrading. Or they find work in 'ethnic niches', segments of the labour market with an overrepresentation of certain ethnic groups, such as the taxi industry or Ethiopian and Afghan restaurants.
In my Identities article, ‘A window of opportunity? Refugee staff’s employment in migrant support and advocacy organizations’, I present the findings of my research into a very distinct employment 'niche' for refugees: the niche constituted by organisations that have asylum seekers and refugees as their client group. Based on interviews with refugee staff in the UK, the Netherlands and Austria, I argue that the concept of 'ethnic niche' fails to capture the particularities of the employment opportunities offered by the refugee third sector.
In recent years border walls have been built in different parts of the world in order to stop irregular migration. However, barriers for migrants are not only constructed physically but also discursively in political discourses. It is known that restrictive policies in Europe are accompanied by exclusionary discourses on national citizenship for immigrants, depicting them as either ‘deserving’ or ‘undeserving’.
Empirical studies have demonstrated that the representation of immigrants and their citizenship in policies plays an important role in how these policies are received and acted upon, both by the host community and the immigrants themselves (da Lomba 2010; Stewart and Mulvey 2014). As such, studying political discourses might contribute to the understanding of the socioeconomic and political incorporation of immigrants into the host community.
In the study presented in my Identities article, 'The labyrinth towards citizenship: contradictions in the framing and categorization of immigrants in immigration and integration policies', my co-author and I aimed to fully grasp how immigrants were framed in immigration policies in Belgium. Although previous studies have treated immigration and integration policies as distinct fields, we argue that a combined analysis of these two policy domains is needed in order to comprehend the full complexity of immigration policy. By mapping the different representations of immigrants in the wider policy field, we found that this is much more complex than the generally adopted contrast between deserving and undeserving suggest.
Many Western expatriates are routinely exposed to being labelled laowai (老外 in Mandarin, literally ‘old foreigner’) in mainland China. According to a 2007 report in People’s Daily, Chinese users of the slang term laowai feel it shows their respect and intimacy for Westerners (‘Is 'Laowai' a Negative...' 2007). This Chinese interpretation was empirically verified by a 2015 research article (Mao 2015).
But some people on the receiving end feel that laowai is a stereotype-laden form of ‘othering’, defined as discourses that create a boundary between insiders and outsiders. Why are these interpretations so different? Why do Westerners feel resentful when they are addressed as laowai?
In order to address these questions, we focused on American expatriates living in mainland China, often regarded as prototypical ‘Westerners’ there. We conducted in-depth interviews with 35 American expatriates who ranged in age from 19 to 36 years, varied in sojourn length from six months to ten years, were in different occupations and of diverse racial categories (White/Chinese/Latino/African Americans). By inviting these Americans to reflect upon their intercultural experiences in mainland China, we explored their interpretation of the term laowai.
‘We know that they have sentiment [against] Chinese. The May 1998 fall is just ... an event that compounded whatever my mom ... whatever my parents say is really true.’ (Winarnita et al., 2018).
A recent interest in the growing Chinese-Indonesian diaspora has drawn attention to the powerful experiences of many women who were forced to leave Indonesia during the May 1998 riots. To avoid being raped, many Chinese-Indonesian families sent their daughters out of country to try and ensure their safety. Thousands of these women remain abroad, living as exiles in other countries.
Our research on Chinese-Indonesian women in Singapore and Australia, as discussed in our Identities article, 'Narratives of exile twenty years on: long-term impacts of Indonesia’s 1998 violence on transnational Chinese-Indonesian women', uncovered many stories of exile and suffering.
In times of rising nationalism, expressed through growing support for anti-migration and anti-globalisation political parties, the nation seems under question in its unifying thrust.
Historically, the nation has emerged in association with a given ‘people’, defined in terms of common myths, language and ethnicity (Smith 1986), who claims sole entitlement to a given territory (Gellner 1983). With the ongoing demographic transformation, spurred in great part by international migration, the question is whether and how the nation might change because its ‘people’ is changing.
In normative terms, civic, liberal and multicultural nationalism have tackled this issue, offering various ways of reconciling nation and diversity. Yet, the recent upsurge in the Western world of what can be called ‘white nationalism’, i.e. the (re)claiming of the nation as the privileged property of the white dominant group, openly challenges these normative projects.