The Manchester Migration Lab – a reflection on journeys and the language we use to categorize them

Photo: Stefan Boness

Photo: Stefan Boness

The Faculty of Humanities at the University of Manchester at some point last year decided Manchester should become a beacon for research on migration – and made a substantial commitment to and initial investment into setting up the Manchester Migration Lab. Initially convened by Bertrand Taithe from the Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute (HCRI) and Uma Kothari from the Global Development Institute (GDI), I replaced Uma as co-convenor this September, not least because Uma is on research leave for an extended period of time – but also because I have engaged substantively through my research, my blog and in international media as far away as Brazil with the so-called European refugee crisis over the last two years.

The Migration Lab held a first brainstorming workshop on 5 December 2016, based around four core themes: borders, journeys, agency and home (a blog and audio recordings created by Caroline Boyd can be found here). I was asked to speak to the theme journeys at the workshop, and that made me reflect on some wider themes around the Lab.

Shortly before the workshop, I had been in Berlin and visited an exhibition called Uncertain States: Artistic Strategies in States of Emergency (an exhibition worth going to if anybody happens to be in Berlin before 15 January 2017). One section exhibited a single prized possession people who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s took with them on their journey. One exhibit in this section was the original of a text written by Bertold Brecht, then in exile in Paris, in 1937. The text, in the original called Über die Bezeichnung Emigranten, in its English translation starts as follows:

About the expression emigrants

I have always found the name they gave us wrong: the emigrants. That´s what you call people that leave. But we didn´t leave out of our own free will, choosing a new country. We didn´t come to another country to stay, possibly even for ever. We had to flee. We are the exiled, the banished. And not a home but exile shall the country be that welcomed us.

The text reiterates the importance of a theme I have commented about in the past once again: terms and categories and concepts do matter profoundly. It also made me question and reflect upon why the Faculty of Humanities was so keen to have and support a ‘Migration Lab’, and how we as academics committed to social justice (or those of us who are) should relate to that agenda – at a point in time when ‘migration’ has many negative connotations (and wrong usages of the term are omnipresent). Maybe the migration lab can serve as an opportunity to alter the terms of public debate, and I certainly would hope so. Personally, I think ‘solidarity lab’ might have been a more appropriate name, as I strongly believe that at this particular juncture in history, it is of prime importance to investigate the potential for contemporary forms of solidarity and activist citizenship, in particular in relation to those who lack rights that we claim are universal – populations of refugees, migrants and others on the move.

In fact, the short talk on journeys I gave at the Migration Lab workshop did involve two types of journeys that those who undertook them would not have referred to with the term migration, in a similar way, if for different reasons, that Brecht did not feel this term was appropriate.

The first were journeys in the times of socialism, journeys that allowed rural and often disadvantaged youth from Mozambique during a six-year-journey to east Germany a brighter future. This was a journey that helped in important ways define who they became, and, in spite of many difficulties and obstacles on the way, opened new and formerly unimagined possibilities for many who took part in it (as I have explored in detail in my book Legacies of Socialist Solidarity).

Such types of journeys for youth from the Global South do not exist any longer in the post Cold War word order, or only for very few who belong to a select elite. They have been replaced with journeys of youth from the African continent not in planes, but over land and via unseaworthy boats. Like their predecessors in socialist times, they look for a better future. Thus at the outset of their journeys are aspirations towards a better future, often coupled with despair about the situation in their country of origin (as I have argued in an article on those issues among Eritreans in Tel Aviv). And while the wider world sees these population groups as ‘migrants’ or ‘infiltrators’, many of them self-identify as refugees and lay claim to that label in public protests. We are refugees the Eritrean and Sudanese stranded in Israel shout at public rallies – and the same is true for long term asylum seekers in Germany who protest against dispersal policies. They, like Brecht, see themselves as forced into making their journeys by circumstances outside their control. And who are we, those who name and categorize their journeys, to ignore how they define themselves? They do not use the term refugee in its legal sense, but as a term that best describes their lived experiences – and ultimately in using that term, what they do is lay claim to some forms of citizenship rights, not of a country, but as a member of humanity.

A ‘Migration Lab’, whatever the merits of its name, based in a country whose Prime Minister is on record for saying: If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means seems to have its work cut out – not least in terms of combatting ignorance about the fact, put extremely well in a reader’s comment in the Financial Times, that major threats to our well-being, including climate change, epidemics, terrorism ‘are not started by citizens of the world but narrow-minded people with a blind belief of their superiority’ while ‘some of the greatest minds in any society are descendants of immigrants and refugees’. A prime example of the last part of that quote are people like Bertold Brecht and all those great minds in all fields of human endeavour who were prosecuted and expelled from Germany by narrow minded people with a blind belief in their superiority more than 80 years ago – and Germany has to this day not fully recovered from that loss.

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One Response to The Manchester Migration Lab – a reflection on journeys and the language we use to categorize them

  1. Pingback: The Manchester Migration Lab – a reflection on journeys and the language we use to categorize them | walkingborders

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