The anthropologist as an agent of change by Parvathi Raman

Political action on migration requires collaboration between social groups and across disciplines, where we are informed by collective, open ended, and unconstrained, research. And this is certainly the approach we are taking, both at SOAS Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies and in the Anthropology department, where we increasingly include third sector organisations, poets and artists in transdiciplinary research projects. In disseminating our knowledge we now have to take a multidimensional approach.

As such, our outlook fits very well with aims of The Knowledge Quarter, which brings together one of biggest knowledge clusters in the world, and offers a unique opportunity for knowledge exchange, innovative collaborations and for sharing the latest developments in an eclectic range of disciplines.

 The ‘migration crisis’ and the ‘idea of Europe’

Over the summer of 2015, much of the European media, and a significant number of prominent politicians, were painting an alarming picture of a Europe under threat of invasion. The threat was presented as coming from the ‘swarms’, floods’ and  ‘hordes’ of migrants, who were travelling to Europe, mainly from Africa and the Middle East, many of whom were fleeing for their lives.

During the course of the summer, well over 3,000 people drowned in the waters of the Mediterranean, whilst trying to escape wars or famine, or trying to find a way to make a better life from themselves and their families.

The very founding principles of western democracy, supposedly built on ideas of individual rights and freedom, should have afforded a welcome to those coming to its shores. But for many in Europe, the ‘migration crisis’ seems to pose an existential threat. The prevailing rhetoric circulating in our newspapers, television and social media, suggests that it is Europe itself, its values, economy, and culture, that are in danger of being undermined, if not destroyed. Speaking on the migration crisis at the Economic Forum in Davos in January 2016, the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, declared that ‘the ‘very idea of Europe will be questioned’ if the crisis is not dealt with.

Meanwhile, as debate continues on whether Europe can afford to ‘let more migrants in’ people are still drowning in the Mediterranean. Whilst European leaders gathered at Davos, another 42 migrants, including 17 children, died in the Aegean Sea. This is the ‘deadliest January’ on record for migrant deaths in the Mediterranean. People are undeterred by the severe weather conditions, and the unseaworthy vessels they board to make their perilous crossings. Others face starvation in freezing weather at holding centres and refugee camps. Recent reports from places such as the ‘Calais Jungle’ are also a stark illustration of the unbearable conditions that some migrants currently have to endure. By any reckoning, this is a human tragedy of immense proportions, the outcome of the legacies of colonialism, contemporary western interventions, wars, environmental degradation and economic instability. And yet as the coverage continues, the ‘crisis’ has become strangely normalised, almost suspended in time, an ongoing dystopian backdrop to daily our lives.

The political rhetoric on migration has shifted significantly over the last half century. Since the mass movements of people that took place in the wake of the Second World War, migration and population displacement is no longer primarily understood in terms of rights and responsibilities, or even the needs of the labour market, however limited those understandings might have been. In Europe, migrants’ rights have been increasingly reframed. Governments seek to define who is allowed to move in increasingly restrictive terms, whilst those seen as ‘deserving’ of asylum or refugee status are most often viewed through the lens of charity.

In the process, we are asked to distinguish between the ‘victims and the villains’, as Bridget Andersen has termed it, to segregate those making these dangerous journeys into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ migrants. We are called upon to make judgements between the bogus and the genuine, the opportunist economic migrant and the suffering refugee, who has to be marked by trauma, distress, and loss to be seen as ‘authentic’. In relation to the migration crisis, Europe has built a moral economy based on a language of charity, tempered by a political agenda of austerity. In the process, ‘economic’ migrants have been demonised, and refugee status systematically undermined, whilst migration law has proliferated, and created ever more categories of ‘illegality’. A complex set of interrelated issues has been reduced to a scenario of ‘us’ versus ‘them’, ‘our’ values or ‘theirs’, ‘our’ safety and economic security versus ‘theirs’. This language has served to set up a dangerous scenario, making it harder to recognise our common humanity, or how the countries we live in are complicit in the causes of population displacement.

Where does the academic stand?

What can the anthropologist contribute to such a highly emotive debate? Unsurprisingly, many academics have recently been asked for their ‘expert opinion’ on the roots of the ‘crisis’. At the SOAS Centre for Migration and Diaspora Studies, we have had an unprecedented number of requests for academic commentary on the ‘migration crisis’ in Europe, for information on ‘migrant cultures’, or the causes of regional wars. For many of us who are diametrically opposed to the ways in which the ‘crisis’ is being represented, and how migrants are being dehumanised, it is an opportunity to provide a strong counter argument that challenges the unhelpful narratives currently being normalised in the public domain.

And the need for a counter narrative has taken on an even greater urgency, as the questions that are being raised have become more contentious, after the terrorist attacks in Paris, and the sexual assaults in Cologne. The issue of migration, or more precisely, the issue of who has the right to move, has become increasingly entangled with the problem of terrorism, ideas of a ‘culture clash’, and the austerity agenda.

As an academic, it is sometimes difficult to see how best to make your voice heard above the cacophony of complex issues that are unfolding.

How are we to disseminate the knowledge we produce more effectively? We have all felt the need to ‘do something’ about the human disaster that continues to unfold. Where should we position ourselves in a highly politicised, and polarising, argument, based in large measure on misinformation, questionable assumptions, and not least, conflicting views of our place in the world and our relationship, and responsibilities, to others?

Our classrooms are not immune to this wider environment. Students are visibly upset, and angry with what is taking place. They are demanding some action. They also want some reassurance that their degrees are useful for something beyond the ‘consumerist logic’ currently being forced onto Higher Education in the UK. They need to know that their learning also has the capacity to change the world. In the Department of Anthropology at SOAS, it is very evident that our students want to become anthropologists who are ‘agents of change’, rather than mere ‘objective observers’ and translators of cultural difference.

Our future anthropologists are also extremely concerned that academics are increasingly being pushed into echoing the language used by politicians, corporations and nongovernmental organisations, helping reproduce and legitimate policy initiatives and government strategy in the process.

The new focus on ‘impact’ within research agendas certainly puts pressure on us to take this route, as we are ‘persuaded’ into producing work that can ‘demonstrate’ evidence of ‘economic and social returns’ in exchange’ for government investment. For some academics and managers, this has been translated as contributing first and foremost to policy initiatives.

But for many of us, a policy driven research agenda raises serious ethical questions and depoliticizes a deeply political debate. Whilst helping bring about shifts in policy, no easy task in itself, can sometimes play an ameliorating role in limited areas, much immigration policy is now a part of an inhuman apparatus where legal channels of entry to Europe and elsewhere are being increasingly restricted. Border zones have become a part of a militarized operation to control the movement of people. This only serves to increase ‘illegal’ migration. Making so many migrant routes ‘illegal’ and criminalising migrants in the process, has led to the growth of a highly lucrative migration industry run by criminal syndicates, which only fuels the current crisis, and increases the dangers for those migrating. The trade in ‘illegal’ migration is now the fastest growing sector of transnational crime.

The concept of ‘illegality’ is deeply entrenched within western immigration policy discourse, and it is a major obstacle to reforming the system in any meaningful way.

Ethnography as intervention

 Anthropologists certainly can make a contribution to the debate on migration. We work with people on the ground, over extended periods of time, and we build our analysis from that perspective. We talk to the people obscured by statistics, and attempt to get to know them, and understand their lives. The best ethnographic work on migrants and migration, such as Ruben Andersen’s ‘Illegality Inc. clandestine migration and the business of bordering Europe’, or Nicholas De Genova’s ‘Working The Boundaries: race, space and “illegality” in Mexican Chicago’ move beyond ‘explaining’ a situation to a western audience, to offer arguments and analysis that help galvanise a readership towards a different point of view. Most of all, they underline the resourcefulness, creativity, and agency of migrants themselves, who are not in need of charity, but the removal of obstacles to leading a meaningful life.

Many anthropologists working on issues of migration employ mobile, multi-sited, ethnographic methods, travelling with their informants and experiencing first hand the problems they face, and how their journeys to Europe or elsewhere unfold. It allows us to excavate some of the many stories behind migrant journeys. This can give us a greater understanding of the complex and varied reasons behind why some people choose to leave their homes and go elsewhere to find safety, or work.

Good ethnography can also foreground the shaky basis on which dichotomies such as the refugee v the economic migrant are built. Real human beings do not fit neatly into proscribed categories. In reality, neither the refugee nor economic migrant is a discrete entity. The complex motives that cause people to move often mean that people who choose, or are forced, to migrate, are a mixture of what we understand as a ‘refugee’ and an ‘economic migrant’. And refugees who are fleeing persecution also come in search of work. It is ironic that the highly unregulated global labour market actively produces the conditions for the ever-increasing trade in ‘illegal’ migration.

A ground-up perspective has the potential to disrupt much received wisdom in the migration debate. It can highlight the effects of legislation, as well as societal attitudes, on both individuals and communities. It can also help shift public opinion, challenging ideas that migrants are predominantly a security risk, a drain on resources, or potential terrorists.

We can also intervene in debates concerning a fear of a ‘culture clash’, the study of culture being our more ‘traditional’ terrain. We can highlighting that cultures change, transform and are mutually constituted, not the pre given property of any one group. Sexual violence and terrorism are not the birthright of particular communities. Nor are entire communities of people either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but are made up of individuals with different morals, beliefs and motivations.

The Mythologies of migration

Anthropologists also have a role to play in challenging the migration myths that circulate and gain traction in the popular imagination.

The most common myth circulated by recent media images is one that asserts ‘Europe cannot cope with the numbers coming’. If Europe chooses to close all but a handful of routes to the Continent, it is self-evident that large numbers of people are going to be channelled into increasingly restricted areas. This may well cause some initial difficulties in terms of organizing shelter and food. But the stark truth is that these ‘bottle-necks’ are the result of severely restricting people’s movements, not of the numbers coming. If resources were diverted from ‘border controls’ to facilitate migrant resettlement, the situation could also be very different. And with its aging population and falling birth rate, Europe needs migrants. The resources are there. But they need to be distributed according to different priorities.

If we turn our gaze away from Europe, the self-inflicted inconveniences of a European ‘migration crisis’ seem relatively minor.

There is a real ‘migration crisis’ in the contemporary world, but it isn’t primarily in Europe. The dominant European powers are pushing the crisis to the European peripheries and beyond. The countries that bear the brunt of people fleeing from wars and instability and the consequences of climate change, are places such as Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Pakistan. In particular, Turkey is currently being targeted to take on more of Europe’s ‘dirty work’. It already hosts over 2 million Syrian refugees, and has also agreed to stop migrants crossing its western borders into Europe. Turkey will now take back migrants whose asylum claims in the EU have been rejected. In return the EU has given Turkey large grants totalling over 3 billion Euros, and promised preferential treatment for Turkish citizens.

Overall, the Global South bears the burden of accommodating a growing number of displaced peoples, at great material cost, and this is causing increasing human suffering. There are currently another 4 million refuges in the Middle East alone. With the wars and instability that now encompass the Middle East and parts of Africa, the number of displaced people in the world is only set to increase.

Engaged research, transdisciplinary exchange.

Given this wider context, the anthropologist has to do more than demythologise and translate. We have to emphasise the role of ethical practice, and speak as moral beings. The issues surrounding a migration crisis are first and foremost political. They can only be addressed through building radical alternatives. Opening our borders so migrants can travel safely would be a start.

In demonstrating an alternative politics of migration in action, it is migrants themselves, including ‘illegal’ migrants, who often lead the way. Many of them are reinventing the world around them, however encumbered they might be by the political and social obstacles that surround them. In ‘Contesting Citizenship: irregular migrants and the new frontiers of the political’ Anne McNevin describes how groups like the ‘Sans Papier’ in France are evolving political structures that circumvent the draconian measures of states, and provide networks and strategies that offer support to each other and resistance to state violence. They also practice forms of citizenship that align with lives that are increasingly transnational, which are not accommodated by the contemporary frameworks of nation states.

There is also much we can learn from our students. At SOAS, they conduct campaigns alongside migrant workers, asylum seekers, and those held in detention such as SOAS Solidarity with Refugees and Displaced People, SOAS Goes to Calais, SOAS Detainees Support and Justice for Cleaners. In addition, our students organise transdiciplinary conversations and use multiple formats to disseminate knowledge, such as spoken word, music and theatre. Although they are aware of the ethical dilemmas with such work, (indeed this is often the focus of classroom discussion) they don’t let this lead to a paralysis. Our students illustrate that the biggest ‘impact’ our teaching and research can have is by producing a new generation of scholars who are capable of critical thought, and have the capacity to engage with the world.

Who has the right to move?

Ultimately, the ‘migration crisis’ needs a political debate about who has the right to move. A global elite enjoys a mobility largely unimpeded by border controls. But as a transnational world becomes more connected, it is done at the price of growing inequality, and increasing restrictions on the movements of the world’s ‘others’, most often its racialised ‘others’. As currently exercised, border controls for the world’s ‘others’ simply do not work. The ‘migration regime’ makes the world a more dangerous place. And the belief that we in the West have the right to decide who has the right to move, and to where, is perhaps one of the most hazardous myths of our times, endangering thousands of lives, and making some lives more worthy of saving than others. We are all entitled to use our creative capacities to transform our lives for the better, and that includes the right to freedom of movement.

The simple fact is that open borders are already a reality, not some future utopian dream; but at the moment only some are afforded the luxury of being able to move safely, whilst others have to face making clandestine and dangerous journeys. We need to afford everyone the right to move safely. For that, we need to rid the world of a highly discriminatory approach to immigration. In working towards that goal, we all have the potential to be agents of change.

As the French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stated at Davos, the ‘very idea of Europe’ is indeed being questioned, but not because it is under threat from migration. It is because the ‘migration crisis’ is Europe’s ‘constitutive outside’, an image reflecting back its colonial past, its contradictory economic base, its foreign policies, and the hierarchical and power laden foundations of its claims to equality and freedom, which are raced, classed, and gendered. In the Europe of today, just as in the historical past, the freedoms of the few continue to be won at the expense of the many.