Migration and minorities

Agency of forced migrants: Dealing with uncertainty in hostile migration contexts (session 2 of 3)

June 30, 2021 10:45
June 30, 2021 12:15

Ibrahim Soysüren, University of Neuchâtel; Nedelcu Mihaela, University of Neuchâtel


Inga Hajdarowic, Jagiellonian University, Poland

Maria Kanal*, Susan Rottmann**

*Jagiellonian University, Poland, ** Özyeğin University, Turkey

Lucy Hunt, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

Ibrahim Soysüren*, Mihaela Nedelcu,* M.Yasir Bodur**

*University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, **University of Kadir Has, Turkey

More and more restrictive policies are put in place against movements of people who are forced to leave their countries. In this regard the European Union and European countries are particularly actives. 

However, despite increasingly sophisticated technological-supported border control, these restrictive policies and measures did not stop forced migrants to cross borders. People still manage to enter Europe and ask for asylum in the countries of their choice even though the European Dublin System defines criteria of countries where they should apply for asylum. If they are deported from another country in Europe, elsewhere or to their country of origin, some forced migrants come back and introduce again their asylum application. Others successfully fight against their deportation or they continue living as undocumented migrants in the countries from where they are supposed to be deported. Some others “prefer” to stay in another European country. Many of these migrants live for months and years in liminal spaces (Sutton et al. 2011), such as neighbourhoods, camps, or squats, where they wait to move forward or for future solutions.

Existing scholarship shows that in such hostile contexts and conditions, forced migrants struggle to find solutions during different phases of their migration journeys: to cross borders, stay or move in a (new) host country, claim asylum and get it, integrate in a new society, learn a new language, study, find a job, fight against racism or discrimination, and so on. With the support of informal networks, migration rights organizations, ethnic communities, civil society grassroots initiatives, as well as digital technologies, they still manage to mobilize resources and develop different forms of agency – i.e. the “capacity to make a change” (Giddens 1984). 

This session invites to reflect on agency processes and mechanisms in the case of forced migrants dealing with various forms of uncertainty: with regard to (im)mobility situations, legal status, economic precariousness, transnational families, home and host countries socio-political contexts, etc. Therefore, we welcome papers based on theoretical insights and empirical studies and aiming to explore different aspects of forced migrants’ agency in European countries and at various stages of migration processes.


Mobilizing agency in the grassroots. The experience of Syrian refugee women in Lebanon 

Inga Hajdarowic, Jagiellonian University, Poland 

The ongoing military conflicts in the Middle East and the growing number of refugees pose new questions to academics and activists. Gaps in institutional aid and the critique of humanitarian assistance and development work have encouraged new initiatives that analyse existing mechanisms and create spaces of cooperation between those who are in need of support and those who provide it. Referring to the post-colonial critique, the initiatives opt for more grassroots and horizontal approaches that include diverse voices from marginalised communities and strengthen their feeling of subjectivity and agency. They support refugee political participation that can be practice on the grassroots level, even in the precarious and temporal context of Lebanon.

Although the majority of Syrians experiences precarious conditions, the women’s inferior position during peace times exposes them different types of oppression, as well as numerous challenges and opportunities of shifting gender roles. Many perceive the new roles as an additional burden that deprives them of security, femininity and previous benefits derived from being women. For others shifting gender roles open space for emancipation and therefore the ability to gain a voice in a community. As the redefinition of roles and the precarious life on the exile brings unprecedented struggles, women are in need of support, which may be found in the activities of non-governmental organizations and social initiatives. Among dozens of international, national and grassroots organizations offering support to refugee women, some are implementing more alternative approaches to humanitarian and development work. 

Who are the main actors behind those grassroots initiatives? How do they support refugees in developing different forms of agency? Where does this agency can be mobilized? I will answer these questions based on my doctoral field research with a Syrian women organisation in Lebanon, which aims at supporting refugee women’s participation. I conducted ethnographic research with a woman centre being the primary location for my research and Women Leadership program the main space of my observations. After accompanying women in their learning process, I complemented my observations and everyday conversation with in-depth interviews with 34 emerging Syrian grassroots women leaders.

Everyday agency. Rethinking refugee women's agency in the cultural context

Maria Kanal*, Susan Rottmann**
*Jagiellonian University, Poland, **Özyeğin University, Turkey

”Agency” and “coping” are two closely related categories through which researchers are increasingly analysing the experience of forced migrants. The ongoing debates about how to define them in psychology (El-Khani et al., 2017  Alzoubi, 2017; Phan, 2006),  anthropology (Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, 2017, Daǧtaş, 2018) and  sociology (Zaman, 2016) demonstrate that these concepts are important for the many diverse disciplines wanting to understand lived experiences .  Yet, scholars do not agree about the relationship between agency and coping, how to measure agency and how to interpret action and resistance while still accounting for patriarchal and class domination.Further, refugee women’s agency is often overlooked in main-stream research because it is most visible via private, everyday activities rather than public displays of activism. 

However, refugee women’s seemingly basic activities and new routines are pivotal for rebuilding safe spaces after being uprooted and are of crucial importance for the wellbeing of families and communities. If our understanding of agency is not culturally sensitive and broad enough to include different person-based perspectives, we may mistake patience for passivity or reliance on God for resignation. Therefore, we argue that negative/positive and passive/active dichotomies for human action are not universal, but should be applied contextually.  Additionally, it is important to examine how agency supports coping.  .  

Our research examines the extent to which gender and culture are shaping coping processes and manifestations of agency. Based on qualitative, in-depth interviews with Syrian refugee women in Turkey we will present specific coping strategies and signs of agency in the everyday struggles of Syrian families. Two main categories of women’s agency that this project focuses on are home-making and religious-based activities.  We argue that a close, ethnographic look at Syrian women’s everyday lives reveals active efforts to create hopeful and fulfilling lives.

Learning to navigate ‘unsettlement’: How and why refugee youth in Greece engage with post-compulsory education

Lucy Hunt, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

In recent years, Greece has seen a steady flow of young forced migrants arriving at its hardening borders. Having often left conflict-affected or impoverished areas, their dream of life in Europe is one of safety and possibility: whether educational, social or financial. However, despite having family or hopes in Northern or Western Europe, they find themselves caught in Greece behind both physical and administrative borders. They do not know if or when they will be permitted to leave this context of ‘unsettlement’, which forces them to readjust their plans; whilst simultaneously navigating marginalisation and the uncertainty of the ‘here and now’. As they do so, educational spaces become implicated in various ways, as they offer possibilities for both present and future stability.

This presentation thus explores the role of education in young refugees’ navigation of their new and unsettled social ‘seascape’ (cf Vigh), as they re-imagine and re-make their futures. It draws from ethnographic data generated over eight months of fieldwork with refugees in Thessaloniki - involving interviews, focus group discussions and participant observation as a volunteer teacher - for a doctoral project which explores the challenges and meaning of learning spaces for forcibly displaced youth (aged 15-25). The presentation is based around three young people’s stories, and as such follows Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot’s portraiture technique. Overall, it aims to demonstrate how rather than being passive victims of circumstance or under-achievers, refugee youth are in fact active and strategic navigators of their constantly shifting environment. Furthermore, the portraits exemplify how education can provide both immediate support and a basis for ‘multiple possible futures’ for young newcomers (cf Dryden-Peterson).

Agency and survival practices during the Covid-19 pandemic: the case of sub-Saharan migrants in Istanbul

Ibrahim Soysüren*, Mihaela Nedelcu,* M.Yasir Bodur**
*University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland, **University of Kadir Has, Turkey

The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed several Nation-states to take extraordinary measures such as banning mobility and closing borders. This has reduced the possibility to migrate but also has made more difficult the living conditions of migrants in transit and host countries. 

In the case of irregular migrants, this is particularly striking as they face deportability. At the same time, they are unable to find jobs opportunities because of the fact that economic activity has drastically reduced in many sectors. This unexpected and forced exclusion from urban metropole labour markets and uncertain atmosphere has pushed some of irregular migrants to look for jobs elsewhere, and in other sectors of activity. In this context where face-to-face interactions were limited because of imposed curfews, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have opened up new possibilities for finding a job.

As part of a comparative research project on the use of ICTs by sub-Saharan asylum-seekers in Turkey and refugees in Switzerland (funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation within the NCCR on the move), this study is based on semi-structured face-to-face and online interviews and observations conducted in Istanbul and some other Turkish cities. They are combined with data from observation of a few Facebook groups, different websites as well as WhatsApp discussions and messages.

It examines the case of Sub-Saharan African migrants who use to live in Istanbul but have been pushed to look for employment in other regions. For most of them Turkey is a country of transit chosen because of its geographical situation. They intend to continue their journey for Europe. Some of them do not exclude the possibility to ask for asylum to stay in the European country of their choice. However, while waiting (or trying) to cross the border, they live and work in Istanbul, sometimes for several years, with often precarious legal status and economic conditions. 

As a metropole, Istanbul provides them with some advantages such as more anonymity, job opportunities and relatively higher salaries compared to the rest of Turkey. However, as pandemic has made almost impossible to find new jobs and many migrants have also lost the ones they had before, they were pushed to extend zones where they were looking for employment opportunities thanks to internet and social media platforms. Some of them were able to find new jobs in rural and peripheral regions, although they need to work longer, and with lower wages. 

In our paper, we will consider these efforts as survival practices and analyse them in relation with migrants’ agency. While doing this, we will emphasize the importance of the ICTs in crises as they allow to overcome restrictions related to the pandemic and enable migrants to look for new jobs beyond face-to-face relations. Finally, we will argue the analysis of migrants’ agency must take more into account survival practices put in place in challenging conditions produced by crisis contexts.