In contemporary debate, it seems that little subjects are as misunderstood as migration. While people often misjudge its scale and definition, such differences often lead to actors holding divergent views on how to address and conceive it. When someone thinks about a migrant, one often limits its thinking to refugees, labor migration or students. The reality is that the forms of migration often vary much more into streams that are either understudied or ignored. At its core, a migrant is often defined, regardless of other factors, as an individual crossing a border. Yet when referring to the definition provided by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), it already becomes clear that the term is much broader: it defines a migrant as a term for anyone having to displace themselves from their home or place of residence temporarily or permanently. This includes the situation of internally displaced people, tourists, border captives, and a host of irregular cases. Possibly this definition’s most important addition remains that the term is undefined in law. And while seemingly comprehensive, this specific definition also serves the purpose of informing this Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO)’s mandate, making it highly targeted. This is where a very contentious point comes in: that of institutionalising and governing migration.
Hence the argument of a highly dual nature of the subject, perceptions already vary between actors, purposes, institutions and cultures. This idea is carried through in political debate, popular opinions, states, and even those seeking to assist the process like NGOs, all seeming to have differing and often conflicting perceptions: Liberal and conservative, academics and politicians, a migrant’s experience and academic research, all often present opposing narratives of the same phenomenon. While one actor might argue that the permanent residence in a country-x could benefit it in the long run, others will seek to argue that its short-term costs will outweigh this future benefit. And through such oppositions, little clarity is often found on what the situation of a given migrant will yield, or is at the moment, but more importantly, such oppositions can often drift off from their subject matter’s reality.
What might be even more problematic for a migrant than the existence of a debate over his/her/their situation, are actors that become unaware of their situation entirely. While it remains a highly public topic in most world region’s news outlets, the information distributed on migration can often be regarded as either not demonstrative enough, inconsequential or tone death. At the example of interpretative levels of debate such as political understandings, it seems that discourses surrounding migration have sought to converge into a few main axes. Those can be split up by political affiliation of a given observer, like the aforementioned question of cost and benefit, but those can also be put into general categories as NGOs and national asylum systems often do. In most cases, this then leads to a lack of nuance in its discourse, yielding a much less accurate representation of a migrant’s reality. A more malignant danger in such cases is that we start analyzing the field on its own terms. The departure point is then already based on the arbitration of migration flows, which can leave a disconnect between one’s perception and the ‘real’ situation.
For this issue, these questions entail above all a need for caution. Within the upcoming articles, many will explore renewed perspectives on existing flows, or will make an intervention into existing debate. And while this remains already challenging enough, given the subject-matter, what will be a strong secondary objective is to make such interventions avoid the biases and arbitrations of contemporary debates, or even better, call them out. This is important not only for the accuracy of such writings, but also because at its core migration studies observes the movements of individual people, and while some streams might not be so highly consequential in their lack of focus – for example the study of tourism flows – others with highly individualised challenges do require an attention to detail, no matter from which perspective they are studied.
Maurits is a final year Ba. International Relations student at King’s College London, currently interning at the UN International Organisation for Migration.
His particular interests of study and writing include international security, migration, human rights law and international relations theory.