Re-Thinking ‘Risk’ in Migration

Published 12 February 2014 / By Esra Kaytaz, DPhil Social Anthropology

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The recent tragedies in the Mediterranean[1] and the Pacific[2] drew attention to the dangers of irregular journeys. Despite the dangers, migrants continue to take undertake risky, hazardous journeys.[3] Partly in order to explain this phenomenon, migrants interviewed in the media about their migratory decisions generally said they hade no choice due to conditions in their country of origin.[4] Although the word 'risk' was frequently featured in public discussions, as commentators contemplated why migrants 'risked their lives' to reach Europe, for instance, 'risk', however, is under-theorised in migration research.

fishing netIn my doctoral research, I use 'risk' as a theoretical tool to understand how Afghan migrants[5] in Turkey make decisions with regard to their migratory trajectory. My interviewees had also undertaken difficult journeys to Turkey. They recounted kidnappings, attacks by bandits, separation from family members, abuse from smugglers, ill-treatment by authorities and extreme physical duress on their journeys. Some had undertaken these journeys many times, often as a consequence of deportations. Given the difficulty of their journeys to Turkey, I asked them what they thought about irregular travel to Europe.

Hussein[6] said, 'One side of the illegal road is death, the other is life. I have seen so much suffering that I accept death.' He knew very well what the dangers of irregular journeys are; he had been on one for over two years that began when he fled Afghanistan for fear of his life as a 14-year-old. He thought that the possibility of a life in Europe, where he would be safe, complete his education and get a job was worth the dangers of the journey. When I met him he did not seem keen to pursue his asylum claim. In fact, he got support with and did eventually pursue his asylum application.

Suleiman, frustrated with being told that he should not have come Turkey, and instead sought asylum in a wealthier country said, 'People die at sea to escape Turkey, but what should they do? They have already waited here for years'. Shortly after this conversation, he tried to leave Turkey. He chose to confront the risk of the journey rather than continue to face challenges in Turkey as an asylum seeker such the difficulty of day-to-day survival, but mostly the sense of injustice and hopelessness he had with regard to the asylum procedure and uncertainty with regard to future.

Like Suleiman, many Afghans I interviewed thought about their future plans in the context of the unpredictability of their lives in Turkey and frustrated hopes for their future. And, as Ali said 'when your circumstances are uncertain, you can risk everything'.

'Risk' in Migration Theory
'Risk' is referred to frequently in migration theory regarding migrant decision-making. Migration is thought of a strategy to reduce or diversify risk, and certain strategies  are viewed as means of reducing risk.  These assessments of risk, however, do not always address how migrants perceive and evaluate risks subjectively, in the context of their social circumstances and cultural values.

tug of warOne of the challenges of using risk in migration theory is the conceptual confusion around it. Risk in quantitative research refers to the likelihood of an event occurring. In the context of migration, or most other social sciences, there are few situations in which uncertainty is quantified. In social sciences risk is most commonly used as synonymous with danger or uncertainty. In my research ‘risk’ refers to ‘a situation or event where something of human value (including humans themselves) has been put at stake and where the outcome is uncertain.'[7]

The anthropologist Mary Douglas introduced ‘risk’ as a conceptual tool in anthropology. Anthropologists have since used risk to understand decisions taken in the fields of public health and environment. In my research, I found that ‘risk’ is useful for understanding migrant decision making in two ways.

1) Risk perception has been used to explain divergence between 'expert opinion' and 'lay person’s behaviour' in particular policy areas. A similar approach is beneficial for understanding how migrants’ behaviours contradict expectations of policymakers. In instituting more restrictive entry policies, states could be said not only to prevent migrants from entering their borders but also to deter them from entering. Yet, migrants may still see the risk of irregular travel to and residence in these countries worth taking.

2) Understanding how people perceive risks when making decisions also helps to better situate their decision-making processes within the contexts of their social circumstances and cultural values.  As a result, it explains how people who are similarly situated may act differently. In the case of Hussein and Suleiman, for instance, both asylum seekers who faced similar challenges in Turkey, it explains why one decided to leave and the other decided to stay.





[5] The term ‘migrant’ is used to refer to Afghans of all legal statuses.

[6] All names have been changed to protect anonymity.

[7] Rosa, E. (1998). Metatheoretical Foundations for Post-Normal Risk. Journal of Risk Research, 1(1), 15-44. (p.26)