Portrayals of migration

by Romane Branthomme (BSc Government)

After taking part in the CIVICA Engage Track, and focusing on migration, I have come to believe that many of the issues facing host countries are reification of political discourses.

To me, migration as an ongoing phenomenon can no longer be conceptually separated from its perception as a crisis and temporary emergency. Most issues faced by migrants are caused because migration is perceived as such.

Romane Branthomme, LSE student

Human mobility and migration are two different concepts. The former is a fact about human life and the latter is a political, social and economic issue. Migration in Europe has been perceived as a challenge for host countries for a while now. Refugees as well as economic migrants have been part of headlines at least since 2015, and I personally will always remember the picture of the young Syrian boy lying dead on the beach in Turkey.

Rather than migration being as issue itself, it is rather the portrayal of migration which causes problems. Consequently, host countries sometimes struggle to understand and tackle issues faced by migrants when settling in a new country. 

My interest in migration studies has grown stronger from a public research project led by the think tank Autonomy and Dr Paul Apostolidis which focused on analysing the social-reproductive needs of migrant workers in London in three industries – caring, delivery and the sex industry. Those needs correspond to the care work individuals need to do to regenerate the labour’s power to work and ensure the people they are responsible for also meet their needs.

As a philosophy and politics student, I enjoyed experiencing the field work side of political science studies.

This research was introduced to me by Dr Paul Apostolidis in my CIVICA Engage Course, “GV262, Contemporary Political theory”. Paul’s initiative to give us the opportunity to apply our theoretical knowledge to a concrete research project deeply changed my experience of the module and made me realise how important political theory notions can be to policymakers.

As a philosophy and politics student, I enjoyed experiencing the field work side of political science studies. I am deeply convinced it was a decisive step in my education, and rapidly helped me acquire new opportunities. Among other things, digging in the literature on sex workers’ needs provided me with a niche perception on the consequences of border controls on migrants which help me convey a convincing research proposal for a successful master's application to Oxford. This project also led me to contribute to the CIVICA Engage Track programme, which through interdisciplinary teachings, aims at promoting civic engagement among European youth.

This project aimed at conceptualising “nocturnal commons” which are spaces, open at night providing for migrant workers’ social-reproductive needs. My own part of the project focused on conducting a literature review targeted on London sex workers in collaboration with two fellow students. As we divided topics between ourselves, I took a closer look at issues related to the complexification of migration statuses.

By participating in this public research, I realised that the binary employed in public discourses about migration, mainly the alien vs citizen binary, is outdated. The increasingly complex and malleable use of borders in the EU and the UK impacts migrants working in precarious industries in very different ways, according to their immigration status. My interest was especially triggered when I discovered how the multiplicity of legal migration statuses has created entrenched differential rights and work conditions.

By diving into individual sex workers’ stories, I understood that migration status plays a structural role in access to formal labour, health, and safety.

Interestingly, however, while legal statuses of migrants have multiplied, public perception of migrants has remained binary, and maybe even increasingly so. This main finding shows that Europe’s challenge with migration goes beyond simply being a polarised and dividing issue within public opinion. The complexification of the legal statuses forces researchers and policymakers to be wary of implementing policies that would have very different impact across the increasingly diverse migrant population. Overall, policy makers treating "migration" as a sole issue should bear in mind that their policies affect a plurality of groups of migrants.

By diving into individual sex workers’ stories, I understood that migration status plays a structural role in access to formal labour, health, and safety. Principally, I came to question the relevance of only analysing migration immediately post-entry, as physical borders tend to extend through the system of visa statuses. While the physical act of entering a territory can be delimited, I believe entering a state is a long and discontinuous process that creates disparities.

To further investigate this issue, I read COMPAS’s publication by Spencer and Triandafyllidou: Migrants with Irregular Status in Europe. The authors analyse the complex legal lives of irregular migrants, but their focus on migrants’ experience after they have already arrived in a new country could be misleading. The way migrants arrived on a territory decisively shapes their future. Thus, an account of institutionalised border controls is essential when addressing the difficulties faced by irregular migrants. The authors claim they go "beyond a vision of irregular migration as a crisis or a temporary emergencybut I think migrants are so impacted by border controls precisely due to the idea that there is a migration crisis which appears to need to be better regulated. To me, migration as an ongoing phenomenon can no longer be conceptually separated from its perception as a crisis and temporary emergency. Most issues faced by migrants are caused because migration is perceived as such. 

I wonder if the language used in European security legislation has influenced public opinion against migration, or whether the causal relation is inversed.

My participation in this research combined with the late 2021 events at the Belarusian-Polish border led me to think that migration is so politicised because it is associated with threats to national security. Having read Neocleous’ Critique of Security, I realised how concepts of national security and identity are historically tied. For instance, the use of national identity vocabulary exemplified by the USA PATRIOT Act within security legislation logically excludes non-citizens from being actors and subject to protection provided by the state. Further, I wonder if such language penetrates the national subconscious, inducing a extension from perceiving migrants as a threat to national security to a source of constant economic and cultural insecurity, as portrayed by the Brexit vote in 2016?

Most importantly, this research findings led me to another question, which I believe is of paramount importance for the future of the European Union. I wonder if the language used in European security legislation has influenced public opinion against migration, or whether the causal relation is inversed. I believe answering this question could inform future EU migration policies as human mobility is set to rise with climate change-induced migration.

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