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Migration complexity requires a less conditional compassion

We must not replace misleading and dehumanising portraits of migration with mono-dimensional accounts of vulnerability and victimhood, which paradoxically continue to set those on the move apart from us.

Small migrant camp set up in woodland in Calais in October 2017, one year on from the demolition of The Jungle where 8,000 migrants lived. Joe Giddens/Press Association. All rights reserved.

At the end of a set of academic talks that dwelt heavily on the UK’s hostile environment for immigrants, an audience member raised their hand. “Why do individuals still want to come to England then if it’s so hard for them here?” One panellist recounted their personal story of how they moved to the UK “for love”, following a family member who had already emigrated from West Africa to the United Kingdom. Others drew on various experiences. They spoke of how the desire to be with family and friends made no journey insurmountable and no sacrifice too much. Our shared need for meaningful and caring human relationships was the overwhelming reason people gave for tolerating appalling conditions in Calais before moving onwards across the Channel.

While for many this is undeniably the case, nevertheless, presenting such a one-dimensional picture of migration to an open and interested audience seemed to me like a missed opportunity. At a time of deepening scepticism about migrants and their motivations, I ask myself what indeed are the potential risks of presenting singular explanations for human movement?

Understanding migratory dynamics around the world and across Europe requires a much more diverse set of explanations. In their countries of origin, individuals might flee persecution and violence, suffocating state policies, or the stasis of struggling economies. They might leave to protect their lives, but keep moving to enhance them. Some might wish to remain close to the country they left but be pushed further afield by familial expectations or financial obligations. Others might face disapprobation by choosing to leave their communities behind.

Alongside moving for family, people make decisions based on where their language skills will be rewarded, where they think they will find a job, where they know a population of their co-nationals already exists, and, as well as many more reasons, where they hope they can access key social services, education, support and protection. Throughout their journeys, they move away from restrictive policies, racist police and publics, impenetrable job markets, and endless other sources of insecurity and anxiety.  

Like us, migrants are not purely sentimental beings. Decisions around their direction of travel can involve enormous trade-offs and enormously hard choices. It is through accepting the texture of these movements, however, that we are able to relate to people as we see in them the features of our shared humanity. Part of building grounded and rounded relationships depends on this ability to recognise the range of emotions, skills and characters we all display. It involves acknowledging that individuals on the move share elements of each and every one of us: that they are complicated, ageing, growing, changing, and certainly imperfect. 

By focusing on those individuals who would appear superficially as the most enriching for our societies – or the least threatening – we establish certain norms around those acceptable to admit.  This risks demonising the less ‘emotive’ arrivals, and those who are not content when one goal of their journeys has been achieved. It leaves far less space for the multi-facetedness of human behaviour and changeable human interests. As great people have long cautioned, there are inherent dangers to the single story.

On the other hand, failing to acknowledge this complexity has enormous political risks. It constitutes a missed opportunity for an honest and compassionate discussion about the drivers of migration. When we frame support for open borders and a greater freedom of movement in terms of helping people reach their families, all it takes is one story when that is not the case to throw that narrative and those who tell it into disrepute. We are then dismissed as naïve, out of touch, and unrealistic, and our ability to bridge ideological and political divides is seriously undermined.

More seriously this risks shattering trust in the arguments for an end to criminalising migration. There are times when strategic essentialisms are necessary. But when we are given the rare time and space to publicly nuance narratives around migration, isn’t it important for us to push in the opposite direction?

One alternative

One alternative might involve encouraging a less conditional compassion. This should resonate with people’s understandings of migration, but seek to overlay this with strong arguments for empathy and openness.

Across the spectrum of opinions on migration it is recognised that one reason why people move is to better their economic situation. If we deny this, we foreclose the ability to shape the debate around it in more compassionate directions. If we admit these mixed motivations, seek to explain them with and through the voices of those on the move, and begin to counter the denigrating reaction that people have to these mixed motivations, we might have a broader and longer-lasting impact with our advocacy.

The same goes for other factors influencing people’s journeys. If we do not tell and respond to the full story, we cannot engender ethical principles that will hold up to scrutiny and objection.  

How the predicaments that individuals face are understood, and how their characters and needs are framed, absolutely underpins the ways that governments and citizens respond to their arrival and whether they feel compelled to welcome and assist people.

In working to change this, however, we must not replace misleading and dehumanising portraits with mono-dimensional accounts of vulnerability and victimhood, which paradoxically continue to set those on the move apart from us. Instead we might think of ways to inject humanity and honesty into discussions on human mobility, to bridge the gap crudely evident between left and right, ensuring in the process that our responses are genuinely sympathetic to the complexity of people’s experiences and emotions.

About the author

Georgia Cole is a research fellow at the Margaret Anstee Centre for Global Studies at Newnham College, Cambridge. She explores questions about the value of refugee status and alternatives to asylum. 


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