Reflecting on migrant journeys

Published 18 December 2012 / By Nicholas Van Hear

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One of the curious features of migration studies is that not much attention is paid to actual migrants’ journeys.  The focus tends to be on what happens after migration – in terms of integration, exclusion and so on in destination countries.  Of course, there is work on what drives migration in origin countries, and why people make decisions to move.  But there is little analysis of what happens in between this ‘before’ and ‘after’ – the migrant journey itself.  This is in contrast to the substantial coverage of migrant journeys in novels and film, in journalism, and in other media and literature.

This relative lack of critical analysis of journeys prompted us to organise a seminar series on this subject.  As we hoped, the series stimulated lively discussion around the topic. Here are just a few thoughts that the series prompted.

In the opening seminar Roger Zetter set out what he characterised as conceptual challenges in researching journeys.  Journeys are on the face of it time-limited, finite experiences.  But when does the journey start – in the mind, with planning, decision-making? And when does the journey end – with arrival, reception, integration?  We need to consider duration – how long the journey lasts: is it short or long, one way or back and forth?  Is it linear, circular or fragmented?  What are the drivers and forces that motivate and shape the journey?  What about modes of travel – who can travel by what means, and what resources are needed to move? What strategies do migrants use en route? How can we characterise those on the move – in terms of class, generation, gender, ethnicity, and other social cleavages?  Are there differences between individual and group experiences of journeys?  There are methodological and ethical challenges too – how do we research journeys?  Do we explore them retrospectively, after the event, or do we tag along as people travel?  What about the ethics of researching journeys that are dangerous for migrants and which incur the repressive actions of states?

Contributions to the series addressed some of these issues.  We heard about journeys from Eastern Europe, in and across West Africa, and over the Mediterranean, and about smugglers, connections and networks in contributions by Melissa Siegel, Hannah Cross, Thanos Maroukis and Sorana Toma.

A theme that emerged explicitly or implicitly in several contributions – but particularly strongly in presentations by Shahram Khosravi with his ‘auto-ethnography’ of illegal travel and Jonny Steinberg with the tortuous story of a Somali migrant who made his way to South Africa – was that of power and powerlessness, and of agency in the face of considerable constraints.

This issue resonates to some degree with the so-called ‘new mobilities paradigm’, which does consider journeys and seeks to encompass interconnected movements of things, ideas and values as well as of people.  In the mobilities literature, reference is made to global mobility’s fast and slow lanes shaped by differential access to resources and power.  The well-endowed (in terms of money or network resources) pass through fast lanes, while the less-endowed are held back, are stranded, and experience more friction and drag.

The radical geographer Doreen Massey, writing in the early 1990s, succinctly articulated much the same point:

'Different social groups have distinct relationships to this … differentiated mobility: some people are more in charge of it than others; some initiate flows and movement, others don't; some are more on the receiving-end of it than others; some are effectively imprisoned by it.' (Doreen Massey, ‘A global sense of place’, 1991)

Such a perspective could lead to an uncomfortable conclusion –that migration studies seems to be more concerned with those who have the means to reach affluent countries than with those who do not have such resources and who must settle for other journeys, migration experiences, destinations and outcomes.  This further underlines the need to give class and power more scrutiny in migration research.

The series wound up with a panel discussion (Mette Berg, Franck Duvell, Iain Walker, Nando Sigona and Nick Van Hear) reviewing this and other issues raised in the series.  As well as the relationship between power, resources and mobility, the discussion touched on differences between continuous and fragmented journeys and between epic and routine journeys, together with the notion of journeys as modes of being and belonging.

The seminar series was convened by the Flows and Dynamics of Migration cluster at COMPAS. Some of the talks will be available as podcasts in the new year and we are thinking of exploring the question of migration journeys further in a follow-up workshop.