Human face painted with flag of European Union

Understanding migration

Bastian Vollmer

“The most interesting things are happening at the margins.” (Yuri Andrukhovych, Ukrainian poet). “Indeed”, I thought, while I was writing my book Ukrainian Migration and the European Union – Dynamics, Subjectivity, and Politics which is about to be published by Palgrave Macmillan at the end of this month.

Just before the riots started on the streets of Kyiv in late 2013, I was – in collaboration with a team of researchers – conducting research in Ukraine under the framework of the EUMAGINE (Imaging Europe from the Outside) project. In my new book, I address the situation of living in Ukraine and why people leave or stay, using the results of that research: a large-scale survey (2000 respondents), more than 90 in-depth interviews and field work in the selected research areas (Zbaraz, Western Ukraine; Novovodolazka, Eastern Ukraine; Znamyanska, Central Ukraine; Solomyansky, urban district of Kyiv). What I found during my research was tension and a high degree of frustration throughout the narratives of my interview partners. Already in 2012 it was boiling under surface of Ukrainian society. For a number of people in Ukraine the pressing questions that arose were: What to do in such a situation? To migrate or not to migrate? To take flight or to fight?

The Ukrainian people themselves are at the heart of my book – how they respond to and live with their specific environment or contexts. In 2013 and 2014 we witnessed one of those responses when anger erupted on the streets of Ukraine, namely the fight option, or as Hirschman (1970) put it, the ‘voice’ option. However, for a large number of people at an earlier point in time, flight or migration seemed the better of these two options. There is no simple reason behind the choice, as it involves a complex situation influenced by numerous factors and a multitude of uncertainties.

In other words, this book is about context and agency, or subjectivity. Using the case of Ukraine as an exemplification, I pose basic questions of selfness and subjectivity. So the opening lines of my book are: “Who am I? What constitutes myself? What to do with my life?” I posit that self-reflection is an ongoing process, a process of understanding that one is a subject. It is a journey of and to selfness. So selfness, or becoming self, is about movements, both within oneself and as a subject. Movement becomes therefore a condition of being and condition of becoming self. It possibly stands for an addition to Heidegger’s (1927) condition of ‘being thrown into a world’ (Geworfenheit).

However, the former kind of journey poses fewer issues than the latter. A journey as subject that involves migratory movements is an even more complicated and convoluted one: an interplay between subject and multiple contexts. How to reach the decision of migration – leaving the present context and imagining the future context? That is what I examine for this special case of Ukraine and its people.

I set out a hermeneutic approach of migration processes by examining the involved contextual factors (history, politics, socio-economics) and discourses (including the narratives of the people we have interviewed). Therefore, the book raises the classical determinants of migration but also adds new dimensions to our understanding of migration. It acknowledges the complexities and multi-layered problematique of people who consider leaving their countries, families and friends. It centralises subjectivity or ‘migrant subjectivities’. Socioeconomic inequality, omnipresence of corruption, narratives of disillusions, hopelessness, ‘getting ahead’ in life or living a more ‘calm’ and ‘secure life’ are categories that are mirrored in my Ukrainian interview partners’ imaginations and aspirations when considering a life in Europe and thinking about the place called ‘European Union’ (EU). No word about an imaginative luxurious life in the EU or a ‘promised land’ that is waiting for them. Instead, moderate imaginations of a potential future life in another place, such as the EU.

My book shows how the hermeneutics of migration are neglected: the perspective of the ‘stranger’ (Simmel, 1908) undermines the perspective of the ‘strange place’. Integration discourses undermine migration discourses. However, the perspective of leaving, of imagining the unknown and aspiring to a different life contributes to the understanding of migration and movement: a journey within oneself and as subject across state borders. Eurocentric visions dominate current discourses (as I have similarly argued in an introduction to a recent special issue that I collaboratively edited, see Vollmer et al. 2015), and this narrow sight reduces the understanding of migration as phenomenon and the intricate processes which are part of it.

References

Heidegger, M. (1927), Sein und Zeit. Tübingen: Niemeyer.

Hirschman, A. (1970) Exit, Voice, and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organizations, and States. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Simmel, G. (1908) Soziologie. Untersuchungen über die Formen der Vergesellschaftung. Berlin : Duncker & Humblot.

Vollmer, B. (2016) Ukrainian migration and the European Union – dynamics, subjectivity, and politics. Basingstoke & New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Vollmer, B., Sert. D. & A. Icduygu (2015), ‘Introduction: Eurocentrism and the field of migration research’, Migration and Development 4(2): 232-36.

Regions

Europe