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Is migration studies failing to defend migrant rights?

With more than 3,000 post graduate students studying migration in Europe each year, a more holistic approach to teaching migration must be part of the solution to help uphold migrants’ human rights, argues Agata Patyna.

Agata Patnya
30 July 2012

“Migration”, “human rights” and “Europe” may not be the most popular phrases among the British public at the moment, but for migration students the combination of the three reflects one of the most fascinating and important areas of academic and policy debate in recent years. Questions relating to migrants’ human rights are the subject of intense discussions all over Europe, both at the national and EU-wide levels. This discussion prompted the “Migration, Human Rights and Security in Europe” student conference, which recently took place at University College London (UCL). At the conference, students from across Europe shared their research and debated the role that academics can play in defending migrants’ rights, asking, is migration studies failing to defend migrant rights? As we heard about the difficult realities faced by migrants in Europe a consensus emerged: international human rights law can play a key role in countering increasingly strict state policies and a more holistic approach to teaching migration, leading to a more varied evidence base, could greatly strengthen this process.

The conference took place on a backdrop of fears about illegal migration and the association of migrants with terrorism, extremism and crime. A recent Ipsos Global poll found that the majority of Europeans think that migration has a negative effect on their countries and favour stricter immigration controls and tighter security measures. This public perception finds expression in recent policy developments, such as the introduction of readmission agreements with third countries which has previously been raised on openDemocracy. These developments have caused concern among human rights advocates and migrant communities over the potential erosion of migrants’ human rights.

The interdisciplinary approach was key, since our conference was born out of the frustration of several students on UCL’s MSc in Global Migration who felt that different migration-related academic disciplines fail to “talk” to each other. Studies favouring a more overarching politico-legal framework tend to lose sight of the more personal issues faced by migrants which are covered by the more “anthropological” approach and vice versa. In law courses, students learn how migrants who don’t meet the strict refugee status criteria but still cannot be deported to their home countries might find themselves in a legal “limbo”. However, this perspective rarely considers how lack of legal status affects migrants’ day-to-day lives. Conversely, while social science courses often address the realities of migrants “liminal” status they often fail to consider the legal processes which give rise to it. With this in mind, we wanted to create a forum for students from different disciplines - law, politics, anthropology, human rights, and security studies - to share their research with others they might not normally come into contact with, a need reflected by a range of recent student initiatives, such as the Oxford Monitor for Forced Migration, a new interdisciplinary online journal.

Although political elites often try to portray immigration as a “national” issue, the conference demonstrated that many problems are very similar across different European countries. Stine Laursen, a Danish PhD student in politics and migration studies at the University of Sussex, argued that when it comes to irregular migration even Scandinavia can no longer be seen as an exception. For a long time, Scandinavian countries “ignored” the problem, but in the recent years it has become obvious that irregular migrants are present in Sweden, Denmark and Norway, and not in small numbers. In Norway, a nationwide debate about the rights of irregular migrants took place last year following the publication of "Illegally Norwegian", a book by Maria Elena, a young woman from Russia who lived with irregular status in the country for 8 years and was subsequently deported, despite learning fluent Norwegian and fully integrating into the society. According to Stine “it was the first time people in Norway realised that you could live there for years without proper papers”.

Stine’s presentation generated a debate between our participants from different disciplines as to what being “irregular” actually meant in reality for migrants. Although “irregular” is a legal category, and covers those who “owing to unauthorized entry, breach of a condition of entry, or the expiry of his or her visa, lacks legal status in a transit or host country”, the degree to which the law is enforced through detention and deportation depends on the extent to which irregular migrants are perceived as a problematic category in public discourse. The perception of migrants as criminals and “invaders” may not only lead to increased reporting of migrants by their neighbours and employers, but can also create an ever-present fear of detection, preventing migrants from interacting with public bodies and institutions. Fearing deportation and state violence, migrants are often forced to work in very precarious conditions where they are vulnerable to exploitation.

Several other speakers showed how public discourse and policy affect irregular migrants’ everyday lives, demonstrating that although irregular migrants may legally have certain rights, they are often unable to realise them. Roberta Bova from the University of Bergamo spoke movingly about the problems faced by irregular migrants in Italy when trying to access health care. Although all migrants have a legal right to emergency health care and should be able to access it without fear of deportation, the police often use intimidation techniques such as parking their vans by emergency clinics. Consequently, many migrants avoid any contact with medical practitioners fearing they might be picked up by the authorities. Natasha Posner and Oonagh Skrine from London’s School of Advanced Studies gave similar examples from their interviews with migrants who use the services of Praxis, an East London support charity. They recounted stories of people living in a legal limbo for years, without access to jobs and struggling to find quality legal assistance. Rahila Gupta has already reported on London’s “invisible migrants”.

Almost every session ended with the same question: “So what can we do?”. Many speakers argued that we should keep faith in the human rights laws we have created and insist on their implementation. Although they won’t entirely stop governments restricting migrants’ rights, they can still force them to provide some degree of protection. The implementation of this protection is partly in the hands of lawyers and judges, for example when it comes to interpreting the 1951 Refugee Convention in the way it was originally intended: with a humanitarian, and not a security perspective. Yet the third sector and civil society must also to take action, especially when it comes to protecting migrants’ socioeconomic rights such as the right to health and housing. Claire Lougarre from UCL provided an example of such an intervention in the case of International Federation of Human Rights Leagues v. France where a complaint by a human rights NGO led to the European Committee on Social Rights affirming states’ obligations to provide health care to children of irregular migrants, forcing the French government to change its policy in the area. Perhaps a similar approach could be used to challenge destitution among asylum-seeking and migrant children in the UK, as exposed in a shocking report recently published by The Children’s Society?

Anne Kalt from UCL stressed the role that academia, whether public health or social science, should play in this struggle: “we don’t always have an open ideology but we try to create an evidence base that can shift the way migration is talked about”. A more holistic approach to teaching migration should be part of the solution to help uphold migrants’ rights, especially given how many migration students there are in Europe. When circulating information about our conference, we identified almost 80 Masters and PhD programmes around the continent which relate to migration, and there are undoubtedly many more. Assuming each institution has 20-30 migration or human rights students (a very modest estimate) we are talking about at least 3,000 students every year. A holistic approach to migration studies has the potential to equip those who focus on migrants’ every day experience, and whose research might eventually inform the work of the third sector, with greater awareness of the available legal avenues. Through initiatives such as our conference, students can add to the current evidence base in an innovative way by piecing together research from various areas. Law should be an element of every migration studies course not only because it can provide effective solutions to individual migrants’ problems, but because it can also impact on policy-making. A more holistic approach can similarly benefit law students by providing them with an insight into the real impact which legal frameworks and decisions have on migrants’ lives, and by giving evidence of the various ways in which migrants’ human rights might be defended.

The full conference proceedings will be published by UCL’s Migration Research Unit in early autumn.

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