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Day 78, Year of #Mygration: The UN Global Compact on Migration must recognise the positive drivers of immigration

Written by Dr Kesi Mahendran, a social and political psychologist working on migration-mobility, non-mobility, belonging, integration and citizenship - including public narratives of European citizenship.

"Despite often being framed as displacement, human mobility has positive drivers and effects.  It creates new entrepreneurial opportunities, psychological expansion of the lifeworlds of individuals, opens up demographic, social and economic horizons for both movers and their host countries. In short, there are freedoms through mobility. Why then does any co-ordination of migration overlook this positive reality?  

"For example, we are engaged in the first real global dialogue to develop a Global Compact on Migration. The process has started well with the New York Declaration on 19 September 2016.  This recognises the need for a comprehensive approach to human mobility and enhanced cooperation at the global level. Since then senior officials such as Michele Klein-Solomon at the International Organization for Migration and UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres have called for the Compact to recognize the positive drivers and benefits of migration. Yet when the latest draft was published in March 2018, though it now includes references to the benefits of migration, it seems unable to truly appreciate migration as having not only ‘adverse drivers’ but positive drivers. 

"We all know terms of reference count - so why is the Compact narrowing its understanding of human mobility? One sensible answer is that the Compact is staying strategically focused to deliver against its agenda for sustainable development. The UN recognises the political expediency of keeping the lens firmly trained on ensuring the rights of individual migrants and refugees forced to leave their countries. Therefore the first step the Compact is taking is to understand structural factors and gathering the evidence needed. Understandable.

"Another more invidious answer is that this co-ordinated global institutional response is dominated by actors who are quietly and anxiously internalising the spectre of an anti-immigration public. This psychological threat not of immigration but of its public is occurring across the globe at all levels. Institutional actors imagine that whilst they might be able to see the positive drivers and benefits of migration.  The public, bar a small elite minority, are so preoccupied with threats to their identities, communities and jobs, they cannot.

"In the UK we have been starkly confronted with the limits of this perception of an anti-immigration public. The UK government faces a severe public backlash against its attempt to reduce net migration at any costs even to the point of deporting its own British Citizens.  Namely, citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies (CUKC) who arrived in the UK shortly after the British Nationality Act from the Caribbean carrying the same rights whether born in Montego Bay or Manchester.  The parameters of the British Nationality Act were eventually narrowed in 1971 under conditions of austerity and rising populist mobilisation against levels of freedom of movement from former colonies.  

"There is a strong perception that the same process is occurring again all over the world. Immigration, in particular freedom of movement, is creating a backlash from protectionist settled citizens.  In the face of this perception, we engaged with the public to find out their views on citizenship, belonging and integration. Our Placing Ourselves collaboration across cities in England, Germany, Ireland, Sweden and Scotland has begun to challenge the direction of media-commissioned public opinion polls.  We engaged publics in a dialogue about their own mobility crucially before we asked them about immigration and integration policy and their sense of European citizenship. The Placing Ourselves programme of research is revealing a diversity of opinions from the public who, rather than being static and protectionist, have their own degree of migration-mobility. The public’s degree of mobility counts. 

Six positions the public take on human mobility

"In our study we found certain publics had internaliaed human mobility as a progressive feature of the European Union project. This took the form of strong national identification combining with a pro-EU mobility position. Particularly evident in Dusseldorf and Dublin. To be Irish or German sat comfortable with freedom of movement.  Yet such movement was often confined to those who were recognised as other EU citizens.

"There was also a post-national position, found amongst publics in all cities where a strong identification with the European Union replaced national identity. We uncovered a public who explained that freedom came through mobility. This full ideational enactment of European citizenship involved a public who often revealed stories of living in several countries and their plans to move again.

"Equally we found participants who did not identify with the EU at all, (all but one of our Black and Minority-Ethnic participants did not identify with the EU at the time of our fieldwork). Such a public rejects the parochial parameters of the European Union in favour of global citizenship. This can be understood as a one world narrative adopted by a public who lived and engaged in their contexts, with a ‘bridges-not-borders’ worldview. 

"We certainly found the ‘nation-first/nation-great’ protectionist position that is preoccupying politicians – as well, perhaps, as overshadowing the Global Compact dialogue.  This position was found to be held by a minority of our participants.  Finally, we found highly imaginative citi-Zen position where free-movers moved from city to city seeing themselves as a part of each city they arrived in. Here we caught a glimpse of a public who see the world as a constellation of global cities where you could arrive and easily belong.

"So why were the publics in our ‘Placing Ourselves’ studies so diverse and not the polarized publics that institutional actors imagine? Partly because of the conditions of public dialogue that our political psychological research created. We deliberately cooled down the ‘hot cognitions’ on immigration by allowed individuals to speak first about what they felt they belonged to and their own degree of mobility. We used videos, images and stimulus vignettes to promote reflexive dialogue.  Critically we did not require our public to deliberate towards consensus. Our publics made free by the ‘resting place’ of these conditions, did not act entirely in a self-interested way relating to their economic circumstances and communities. Rather, their judgements on immigration related to working models of international relations.  Investigating these public models of international relations and how they relate to degree of mobility will be our next step.

Constructing perceptions of migration  

"Social media and new technologies facilitate direct democratic conditions. It is now public mandates that create the new borders across the world. Institutional actors who are concerned with co-ordinating human mobility need to engage with the methods and metrics which capture the creation of public discourse.  This requires bracketing off fears of an anti-immigration public and holding to the original formulation in its zero draft which sought to:

Promote an open and fact-based public discourse on migration in partnership with all parts of society that generates a more realistic and constructive perception of migration – Global Compact on Migration: Zero Draft February 2018.

"The worldviews of Commonwealth citizens and European Union citizens and the intercultural dialogue they have created are two large scale examples of the positive drivers of human mobility. In order to work towards safe, orderly and regular migration the Global Compact must not reduce itself to an overly technocratic objective of countering an anti-immigration public but must remain committed to its original ambitions for public discourse."

Kesi Mahendran is a social and political psychologist working on migration-mobility, non-mobility, belonging, integration and citizenship - including public narratives of European citizenship. A specialist in dialogical approaches, her research programme has developed collaboratively to understand the dialogue between citizens and governments on vexed political questions.

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