Migration and minorities

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

June 30, 2021 15:00
June 30, 2021 16:30

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


Liala Consoli, University of Geneva, Switzerland

Nesa Zimmermann, University of Geneva, Switzerland

Lorraine Odier, Lucie Schaeren, Association Refliefs (Lausanne), Switzerland

Daniel Mekonnen, Geneva-based Independent Consultant & Leiden University, the Netherlands

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.


Exploring the nexus between migrant’s legal status, cross-border mobility and life satisfaction through a longitudinal and mixed methods study

Liala Consoli, University of Geneva, Switzerland

Undocumented migrants have to deal with a situation of ‘involuntary immobility’: if they visit their family back home or travel to other countries they are at risk of being refused to re-entry their country of residence. Previous studies highlighted the multiple negative consequences of this immobility on their emotional, family and social life (Bravo 2017; Fresnoza-Flot 2009; Pila 2015).

Over the last decades, many European countries implemented selective regularization programs. The aim of this paper is to understand how those regularization programs affect cross-border mobility practices (return visits and travels toward third countries) and how these practices affect migrants’ well- being. What are the cross-border mobility practices of undocumented migrants, as well as recently regularized migrants? How is the gain in freedom of movement experienced? What does this new freedom of movement mean for migrants?

Qualitative and quantitative data were collected between 2017 and 2020 in Geneva, Switzerland, simultaneously with the implementation of an extraordinary regularization program (Operation Papyrus). Undocumented and recently regularized migrants were proposed to respond to two questionnaires at a time interval of one year (n=464). A subsample was selected to undergo qualitative interviews (n=39). This study is part of the Parchemins project.

Our preliminary results indicate that despite limited cross-border mobility, not all undocumented migrants are fully immobile and that visa policy shapes their mobility practices. Regularization increases the capacity of individuals to decide whether to move or not. We observed an increase in return visits and mobility toward third countries after regularization. The new freedom of movement is experienced as a mindset change comparable to ‘getting out of jail’. This new freedom leads to important changes such as renegotiating transnational care arrangements, readapting projects for the future or engaging in new social and transnational activities. Further analyses (the results of which will also be presented) will assess the impact of an increase in the practice of return visits on life satisfaction.

Forced migrants’ many layers of vulnerability and agency: redesigning the human rights framework

Nesa Zimmermann, University of Geneva, Switzerland

The Swiss and European legal framework’s stance on migrant agency is fundamentally ambivalent. On the one hand, the law strongly rewards and even demands agency: more and more, it is expected that migrants, also from the forced migration context, adapt rapidly to their host society and gain financial independence as quickly as possible. On the other hand, the law obstructs migrant agency in various ways, by limiting access to education and the job market or imposing various limits on the free movement of migrants. Even more absurdly, in some contexts, the legal system values a lack of agency, seen as a special vulnerability and “worthiness” of protection. To obtain a residence permit, therefore, migrants need to constantly navigate between vulnerability and agency.

My contribution proposes to analyse this interplay between vulnerability and agency within the particular context of young unaccompanied migrants, drawing from the practical experience of the Law Clinic of the University of Geneva, which has been working in this field for the last two years as well as taking into account theoretical human rights perspectives on migrant vulnerability and migrant agency. I will analyse the role that conceptions of vulnerability and agency play in the legal framework concerning young unaccompanied migrants, both within the asylum system (RMNA) and falling outside of the asylum system, mainly because of their country of origin (MNA). I will focus particularly on the transition to adulthood, a moment strongly marked by the loss of special protection regimes limited to those deemed particularly vulnerable, especially child migrants, and sudden demands of independence and agency placed upon the young person, that create new vulnerabilities in turn.

I argue that this highly problematic situation is largely due to a binary conception of vulnerability and agency prevalent in the legal framework, including in international human rights law. Two aspects are particularly problematic: first, vulnerability and agency are often seen as mutually exclusive opposites. Second, vulnerability and agency are too often treated as “absolute” labels linked to “objective” factors such as age. Refuting this simplistic understanding, I propose to view the concepts of vulnerability and agency as being interrelated, most often simultaneously present, and best understood in terms of overlapping and intersecting layers. From a normative perspective, this has two important implications which I will develop in my contribution. First, we need to redesign the legal framework in a way that takes into account both, the agency of subjects deemed as vulnerable, the paradigmatic example being migrant children, thereby designing protection in a way that is not paternalistic or stigmatizing. Second, we have to ensure that the legal framework takes into account the vulnerabilities of agents deemed independent, resilient and non-vulnerable, the paradigmatic example being young adult male migrants, making sure that they do not fall outside the protection of human rights in a process of “othering”. This is not only a question of social justice, but ultimately one of guaranteeing the effectiveness of international human rights law.

“They take care, but they take our freedom” Views and experiences of people concerned by the refusal of a status of residence in Lausanne

Lorraine Odier, Lucie Schaeren, Association Refliefs (Lausanne), Switzerland

The failure to obtain refugee status at the end of an asylum procedure in Switzerland often opens up a long period of uncertainty for those concerned. For those without the possibility of return, this refusal also means a drastic reduction in access to fundamental rights, as well as forced immobility: they do not benefit from any legal or administrative recognition in Switzerland and find it impossible to open a new asylum procedure in another European country, due to the Dublin agreements (de Coulon, 2019). However, according to some estimates by the Federal Statistical Office, almost 9,000 people live in Switzerland in this situation (SEM, 2017). What resistance strategies do they implement? How do they cope with these constraints on a daily basis? What do they have to say about migration policies in Switzerland? These are the questions that guide the project called “Voices of Resistance”. Combining sociological and artistic approaches, it aims to make heard inaudible voices through the creation of a radio documentary with people in this situation. Inspired by an ethnographic approach, this documentary project draws on a methodology based on numerous meetings with a small group of people concerned by the issue, recorded interviews with them and the organization of collective workshops, for example around singing.

Within the framework of our intervention, we propose to present our working approach and the challenges of the co-construction of a radio documentary between a sociologist, an artist, five people concerned by the refusal of a refugee status and as many translators, who have themselves lived through a forced migratory journey. Then we will develop the three axes of the research work of this project:

  1. Firstly, we will look at what the people concerned have to say about migration policies and their application,
  2. Secondly, we will discuss what they identify as the greatest obstacles to a minimum of dignity in their daily lives and the strategies they use to overcome them.
  3. And thirdly, we will come back to important aspects of the process and the reflections that we have jointly carried out on our postures.

The migration-integration nexus and rising levels of inequality in Europe: Interrogating the catalyst role of agency and empowerment of forced migrants

Daniel Mekonnen, Geneva-based Independent Consultant & Leiden University, the Netherlands 

The ever-growing number of forced migrants, mainly refugees, in Europe has given rise to higher levels of inequality, with far-fetching consequences for broader societal objectives of harmonious coexistence (Waal 2020; Wernesjö 2014; Mekonnen 2020). Preliminary research findings on this issue indicate that existing integration schemes have proven unresponsive to newly emerging challenges posed by the unfolding European “migration crisis” (D’Amato 2011; Sandoz 2018; Hercog & Sandoz 2018; Rellstab 2015; Drzewiecka 2018). At the centre of this debate rests one major bottleneck related to agency processes and mechanisms concerning the integration of newly arriving refugees. The processes portray a conspicuous absence of refugees themselves from policy debates that affect the direction of their new lives in their newly found homes. Based on the above preliminary observations, this papers calls for a new framework of understanding and a methodological approach of integration premised on perspectives from both sides of the aisle: one that listens directly (not through intermediaries) to the heartbeat of refugees themselves and another one that listens to that of the host communities. 

The above can be achieved, among other things, by aligning integration with the discourse of “development as freedom,” as championed by Sen (1999a; 1999b). This argument can go as far as establishing another stronger link with “a right-based approach to integration,” as promoted by various United Nations consensus documents, all of which emphasise on the need for a people-centred approach to integration, in contrast to that of a state-centric approach (Nadai 2016, 47; UNHRC 2013; Cherti & McNeil 2012; Drilling 2019; Randell 2016). A genuine commitment to “a rights-based approach to integration” is nothing more than the quintessential requirement of egalitarianism. The starting point in this regard is that of giving refuges meaningful access to participation, representation, agenda-setting power, adequate protection under the law, and influence over policymaking and policy implementation on matters related to their own future lives in their newly found homes – so to say enhancing their “capacity to make a change (Giddens 1984). 

Without limiting itself to theoretical reflections of agency and empowerment, this paper engages with empirical observations based on data gathered from newly arriving Eritrean refugees in Switzerland, in particular that of community leaders and grassroots activists. The discussion revolves around a key research question of: Is there a need for “attitudinal shift” in the field of policy making related to the integration of newly arriving refugees in a way that takes into account the requirements of agency and empowerment of refugees in an egalitarian manner?