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Positioning Academia | Who is a migrant? Choosing a human security approach to rehumanise migration

Contemporary policies and discourses on migration largely overlook human dynamics of migration and focus on migrants as a policy problem to be ‘dealt with’. A human security scope is a sustained call for a major overhaul of how we think about human mobility towards rehumanising migration, writes Ali Bilgic.

Through this series we are celebrating the legacy of Linda Johnson, former Executive Secretary of the ISS who retired in December last year. Having served the ISS in various capacities, Linda was also one of the founding editors of Bliss. She spearheaded many institutional partnerships, promoted collaboration, and organised numerous events, always unified in the theme of bringing people in conversation with each other across divides. This blog series about academics in the big world of politics, policy, and practice recognises and appreciates Linda’s contribution to the vitality of the ISS.

What is a migrant? No, you have not misread it. I mean migrant as a ‘thing’. Migrants, including refugees, are painted as undesirable, opportunistic, criminal. They are framed by politicians as washing over the European continent’s shores like a tsunami. They’re seen as a faceless mass coming to take away jobs and threatening a Western way of life. They are seen as ‘things’, not humans. They are treated as problems, not as humans.

What is a migrant?

A ‘migrant’ is needing a diploma to prove your worth.

A ‘migrant’ is needing a bank account to qualify for a visa.

A ‘migrant’ is needing a language test score that ensures integration into the job market.

A ‘migrant’ is needing a statement, along with a return flight ticket, to give to the border police, who needs to be convinced of intent.

A ‘migrant’ is needing to submit evidence to the asylum case officer who relentlessly seeks gaps and lies in the evidence.

A ‘migrant’ is a threat lurking in the woods, close to the beach, waiting for the next boat.

A ‘migrant’ is the 2,000 euros that moves that boat towards the waters.

A ‘migrant’ is a good transferred in containers.

A ‘migrant’ is a charity remembered occasionally.

A ‘migrant’ is an economic burden to the welfare services.

A ‘migrant’ is a generous contributor to the welfare services.

A ‘migrant’ is the difference that allows nations to claim to be multiracial, diverse societies.

A ‘migrant’ is the difference that ensures the doom of the nation.

A ‘migrant’ is the colour of one’s skin.

A ‘migrant’ is the accent you have.

A ‘migrant’ is hidden under shiny thermal blankets.

A ‘migrant’ floats in water or sinks to the depths.

The ways in which migrants have been ‘handled’ revolve around the same mentality: a migrant as a thing. Policies, statistics, working papers, or endless conferences bringing together law enforcement agencies, charity appeals, and so on, make us see migrants as things—objects which are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for ‘us’ depending on which ‘things’ we are talking about, and, in fact, who we think we are.

There is another question that the existing frames of mind conceal, push away, and encourage us to forget on a daily basis: who is a migrant?

A ‘migrant’ loves those left behind.

A ‘migrant’ misses those left behind.

A ‘migrant’ gets sick.

A ‘migrant’ gets angry.

A ‘migrant’ helps.

A ‘migrant’ thinks.
A ‘migrant’ worries about the future.

A ‘migrant’ strategises about the next move.

A ‘migrant’ forgets about being a migrant.

A ‘migrant’ is reminded of being a migrant.

A ‘migrant’ wants to live.

A ‘migrant’ struggles to be a part of the new country.

A ‘migrant’ finds it too easy to blend in.

A ‘migrant’ wants to be invisible and unrecognisable.

A ‘migrant’ wants to shout, ‘I am here, see me!’

A ‘migrant’ suffers, fears, cries.

A ‘migrant’ creates, trusts, laughs.

After all, a migrant is no different from so-called natives, locals, citizens, the nation—all those ‘non-migrants’. However, policies, discourses, cultural codes, social processes, the economy, a piece of paper (or lack thereof) quickly turn a migrant into a thing. Once migrants are converted into a thing, they are easier to deal with, to lock up, to deport, to silence, to give a food voucher, to pester, to patronise, to dominate. All the complexities stemming from ‘whoness’ of a migrant can be discarded.

When I decided to study migration, it made me uncomfortable to take the perspective of ‘whatness’, which still enormously shapes the International Relations’ (IR) take on migration by ignoring the ‘whoness’ of migrants. That’s why I have adopted a human security scope, which, in my opinion, is the closest framework in IR through which the ‘whoness’ of migrants can be brought about. It has never been a straightforward task to understand the whoness of migrants, as it brings up complexities and ever-changing human social, cultural, and psychological dynamics and forces us to shed light on them. An analytical nightmare is due because the whoness of migrants defies neat statistical models, insightful forecast analyses, carefully thought-out policy strategies. All the stuff we are expected to produce if we would like to be heard by the ministries… and who wants to be ‘irrelevant’?

However, this is an endeavour that is worth pursuing. It requires talking to migrants, listening to them, hearing about their worlds, reading their stories, watching their experiences with the sliver of hope that maybe I as an analyst, and as a migrant, can understand a small portion of who a migrant is and aspires to be.

This is not only an analytical, but also a political choice. Although human society has moved across the world since, well, they evolved to stand on their two legs, the global modern nation-state system has reconceptualised humans on the move as migrants and converted them into things. As human mobility could not be stopped as a social inevitability, cultural, economic, and psychological tensions have emerged between the realities of whoness of migrants and political forces that repeatedly reduce migrants to a whatness. Human security understands these tensions and challenges them in favour of the former.

Human security encourages us to look at human mobility not as a policy problem, statistic, diploma, language test score, bank account, or charity project, but a process that brings together and separates global human society. Human security is not a solution—it is a prism through which it dissolves into a rainbow of endless colours of being human. It is a call to perform a major overhaul of the way we understand human mobility by focusing on humans as humans. It encourages us to listen to them and see which of those problems allegedly created by migration would remain intact, unhurt, uncracked once the words of migrants hit them.

About the author:

Ali Bilgic served as Prince Claus Chair in Development and Equity on the topic of ‘Human Security and Migration’ between 2017 and 2019 and is currently Emeritus Professor at the ISS. He is Reader of International Relations and Security at Loughborough University, UK. Read a post he wrote for Bliss here.

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