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Grappling with unease – together: collective reflections on Migration Studies and Colonialism by Mayblin and Turner

How can scholars tackle the legacy of colonialism in migration studies? Last year, a small group of critical development studies scholars at ISS sought to reflect on this challenge by collectively reading and discussing the book Migration Studies and Colonialism that explores exactly this issue. In this article, we share our observations and discuss two things that we consider vital in meaningful discussions on the  topic: the need to move beyond simplistic notions of European colonialism and the importance of meaningful engagement with scholars from the ‘Global South’.

Photo Credit: Authors.

While it is difficult to make generalizing claims about the broad field of migration studies that attracts scholars from various disciplines, one can confidently state that we have not yet adequately addressed the colonial legacies that continue to colour research and discussions on migration. It is in light of this that a group of scholars from the ISS got together in November last year to discuss a book that critically explores the issue. We hoped that in discussing colonial histories and migration studies, we could better understand our collective unease with the way in which we may reproduce colonialist harms through our work.

The book we discussed, ‘Migration Studies and Colonialism’ by Lucy Mayblin and Joe Turner (2021), is written as an intervention that is meant to place colonialism and its critique at the centre of discussions in migration studies. Moving beyond a critique of migration studies, the authors echo the call for action to dismantle the field’s contribution to the reproduction of coloniality – one that has been growing louder thanks to contributions by migration scholars engaging with postcolonial and decolonial thought.[1]

Instead of reviewing the book,[2] we chose to highlight our collective reflections on the unease many of us face in trying to engage with decolonial ideals, aspirations, and/or commitments as early-career researchers working on highly polarizing topics. Most of us identify as women of colour who come from the so-called ‘Global South’; we research migration, child sex tourism, or humanitarian intervention within academic institutional structures in the Global North. Coming from these diverse backgrounds, we offer input for the discussion on how to grapple with colonial legacies at the university and beyond through deep, collective, and horizontally organized reading, which is important in itself as a counter-current against fast academia.

These are our insights stemming from our discussions:


  1. We need to acknowledge non-European experiences and legacies of colonialism

 Mayblin and Turner argue in their book that colonial histories should be central to understanding migration praxis. They warn against what they call “sanctioned ignorance of histories of colonialism”, which leaves scholars and practitioners with theories that are inadequate in explaining the present state of migration regimes and moreover normalize the use of dehumanizing terms (such as ‘illegals’) that appear to be objective rather than historically and culturally emergent (p.3).

As they attempt to frame their discussions[3]  in a global manner, the authors rely on intellectual legacies from the Americas (North and South) and engagement with scholars from Asian and African traditions (p.4). They acknowledge that as ‘white’ academics working in British higher education institutions, they write from particular perspectives that may result in readers spotting limitations and omissions.

And we did. In our discussions, the tension between appreciating the thematic discussion of colonial histories and the wide brush used to portray international migration studies was consistently present. As we delved into each chapter, we found that the telling of specific colonial histories still placed Europe at the centre of the discussion. One participant for instance remarked during our conversation about Chapter 3 that “[the authors] make a solid case for why race and colonialism are intertwined with and shape migration. I do, however, feel the perspective adopted is still Eurocentric. It’s important to note that colonialism is not only European.”

We concluded that by emphasizing their critique of Eurocentrism reproduced through coloniality, the book showcased not only a tendency to limit and equate colonialism to Europe but also a limited take on Europe as a monolith. Another participant observed, “One Europe – as if there is one Europe, one type of colonialism, no differentiation.”

While we acknowledged the inclusion of geographical contexts and topics that are not commonly discussed in the historicizing of colonialism and migration, such as the mentioning of former colonized nations in the construction of international refugee regimes (Ch. 5), Mayblin and Turner’s focus on Europe’s colonial history reinforces a lack of acknowledgement of non-European experiences and legacies of colonialism.

To offer a more balanced picture, we feel the need to highlight topics important to the diverse contexts we come from or work with. These include South-South migration, indentured labour, and transnational solidarities that were instrumental in the independence of many formerly colonized nations. Otherwise, by limiting ourselves to a critique on a seemingly monolithic Europe and its (lasting) systems of categorization, the ‘Global South’ continues to be present as an ‘object’ in the retelling of the colonial histories (Quijano 2007). Interestingly, this discussion forced participants to reflect on our roles and commitment as researchers to actively unlearn and challenge the ‘subject-object’ relations between the ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ prevalent in knowledge production. By centring colonial histories within migration studies, both the authors and the readers should reflect on their positionality, roles, and choices in the retelling of histories.


  1. We need to be transparent about our inclusion of ‘voices from the Global South’

 Mayblin and Turner acknowledge that literatures problematizing mainstream migration studies exist but are often still inaccessible or unaccounted for, partly due to structural inequalities within higher academic institutions. They write on pages 4 and 5: “This book seeks to showcase some of this work for people who research migration yet never encounter such perspectives… Our aim is not that you cite this book, but that in the future you cite some of the scholars discussed within it.”

We followed their sound advice. The references to perspectives, approaches, and concepts developed mainly by scholars from the Global South required the reading group participants to read and reflect beyond what was presented in the book. For example, in Chapter 5, Mayblin and Turner’s critical discussion on forced migration brought readers’ attention to Vergara-Figueroa’s (2018) elaboration to the notion of ‘deracination’. While the concept of ‘deracination’ has been widely adopted by scholars and activists in the Latin American and the Caribbean contexts, particularly in Colombia in relation to land dispossession, forced migration, violence, and rupture of communal ties caused by the prolonged armed conflict, it was still unfamiliar to most of the participants.

As an Ecuadorian researcher who was very familiar with the Colombian context was able discuss ‘deracination’ in more detail, the collective reading evolved into a space where thought processes and conversations moved from Mayblin and Turner to concepts and ideas developed in particular localities and historical contexts and their potential applicability elsewhere to reflections by participants on their own identities, voices, and research.  Reflecting on these discussions, one participant said: “I’m not doing research at the moment, but this book and discussion has made me more aware about my own internalized Eurocentric ideas, being more conscious about the spaces I am in and realize how we represent ‘the Global South’.”

However, one question remained after completing the collective reading: how did Mayblin and Turner choose what to include and exclude in the book? While the referencing of scholars from the Global South is important and welcomed by group participants, there is a lack of explanation on how they chose whose work to include.

In addition, Mayblin and Turner’s choice to reference these scholars as opposed to inviting them to contribute directly through an edited volume is also worth noting. While they state early on that they hope the book will lead migration researchers to reference some of the work they included, these decisions still positioned them as gatekeepers of knowledge production. Being more transparent about these choices would have allowed more open accountability towards the power hierarchies in knowledge production that they are critical of.


A way forward: the value of collective reading and reflections

We (try to) engage with ‘decoloniality’ and the responsibility to acknowledge the legacies of colonialism in our research to different degrees and in different ways. Most participants are used to applying a critical and historical lens towards the themes raised in the book but are less certain about taking up the responsibility of ‘doing decoloniality’. One participant for example stated that “I often encounter this question [of centring colonialism] in my field when working on development aid. I think we are aware of many of the problems mentioned, such as the topic of race, inequality, etc., but we don’t necessarily know what to do.”

This tension between recognizing ‘problems’ and feeling unsure of what to do and how to position ourselves as researchers from diverse backgrounds is at the heart of our ambivalence and unease when engaging with the book. This tension is also recognized by Mayblin and Turner, who decided against calling their book “Decolonizing Migration Studies”. Instead, they positioned it more broadly to support decolonization agendas within academic institutions. But as we show, tension, ambivalence, and unease can drive critical reflection and prompt change in practice.

While we did not start or end with a common commitment to decolonizing knowledges, there was a general agreement among us, as one participant stated, “… to actively participate and also to allow yourself to listen with discomfort.” Grappling with unease was the starting point for our collective reflections, and we left with concrete clues for conscious historicization and contextualization to avoid the broad brushstrokes that overlook other experiences and legacies.

[1] E.g. Mains et al. 2013; Achiumi 2019; Samaddar 2020; Fiddien-Qasmiyeh 2020

[2] For reviews, see e.g. Favell 2021; Stallone 2022

[3] Mayblin and Turner’s historizing of colonialism provides the starting point to their discussion of migration studies and the thematic exploration of modernity and development (Chapter 2), race and racism (Chapter 3), state sovereignty and citizenship (Chapter 4), asylum seekers and refugee regimes (Chapter 5), national and border security (Chapter 6), and gender and sexuality (Chapter 7).

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Mahardhika Sjamsoe’oed Sadjad is an interdisciplinary scholar in the field of international development and migration. Her research focuses on discursive and affective constructions of identities and belonging in The Netherlands, Indonesia, and broader region of Southeast Asia.


Zeynep Kaşlı is Assistant Professor in Migration and Development at ISS, affiliated with the Governance, Law and Social Justice Research Group. Her research interests include mobility, citizenship, borders, transnationalism, power and sovereignty with regional expertise in Turkey, Middle East and Europe.


Nanneke Winters is an assistant professor in Migration and Development at the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS), Erasmus University Rotterdam. Her research interests include im/mobility, migrant trajectories, and translocal livelihoods in Central America and beyond.



Haya Alfarra is a PhD researcher at ISS-EUR. Her research explores the role of diaspora as non-traditional humanitarian actors in protracted humanitarian situations, looking specifically at the role of Palestinian-German diaspora in humanitarian responses in the Gaza Strip, occupied Palestinian territory.





Mausumi Chetia is a PhD researcher at ISS-EUR. She researches on meanings of home and lived human (in)securities in context of disaster-related displacements in India. Her research is part of the Erasmus Initiative called Vital Cities and Citizens (VCC), under the theme of Resilient Cities.





Xander Creed is a PhD researcher at the ISS. Their work explores migration and asylum governance with a particular focus on the human dimension of (im)mobility, for instance through the lens of human security and feminisms.




Vanessa Ntinu is the Jr. Executive Manager of the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Centre for Governance of Migration and Diversity. She is interested in notions surrounding race, anti-Blackness, diversity, and migration laws and institutions.





Gabriela Villacis Izquierdo is a Ph.D researcher at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam in the field of development and humanitarian studies. Her current research is based in Colombia and focuses on the contributions of feminism(s) to humanitarian governance, with an emphasis on the potential of collective action and humanitarian advocacy.

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Addressing threats to scholars on the ground demands proactive measures from Academic institutions: Notes from fieldwork in Kashmir

Fieldwork is the most critical, and perhaps, the most demanding component of research, especially in difficult and hazardous contexts such as active conflict zones or nations with authoritarian regimes.

I started my fieldwork in June 2021, at a time when India was slowly recovering from a severe second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that had also affected the disputed region of Kashmir, where I was undertaking my research on the rise of anti-state socio-political movement in relation to the restructuring of land relations in this restive Himalayan valley. Although the entire region had been put under a strict lockdown – restricting public mobility and access to government offices – I steadily began my fieldwork.

​I had been cautious in interacting with people and gathering data because of the sensitive nature of my research and the region’s extensive hyper surveillance. Despite being a native of the place, I found it difficult to have people talk to me on record or being interviewed. At the time, there was a massive clampdown on political activists, human rights defenders, journalists, and lawyers who were critical of the state.

​Despite my cautious approach, I soon found myself under investigation by state police, who started querying for information about me from my family, friends, and acquaintances. They even visited my home to take my picture and additional information. It was suggested that I put my research on hold and resume it after the situation had calmed down. While the situation was still unravelling, I remained unaware of the extensiveness of the problem of state surveillance and continued traveling to different parts of the valley.

However, it became clear in the first week of September that I was not only facing the possibility of being detained by the state, but that the sensitive data that I had collected was also at risk of being accessed by state agencies, which would not only have violent consequences for me, but would also jeopardize the safety of my interviewees. The situation had escalated after the residences of four of my fellow journalists were raided by the police, and their documents, books, and phones were confiscated. As the state police was widening its crackdown, I was informally being informed from different sources that I was also at risk of police search and questioning.


Current pre-fieldwork protocols inadequate to ensure researchers’ safety on the ground

​Given that state authorities often confiscate all electronic devices, including phones, computers, and hard drives, and force you to give up all passwords as part of the interrogation process, I discovered few resources for protecting and securing research data in such scenarios. As a researcher, I knew I had very little legal options and protections.

I was also informed that my name had appeared on the list of three dozen researchers, scholars, journalists, and activists that had been put on the ‘no-fly’ list and faced the risk of passport cancellation. As a researcher, I had followed all the required procedures to ensure that the research I was undertaking was done in an ethical, responsible, and safe manner. However, when I became aware of the state machinery creeping in on me, all the existing guidelines and protocols appeared inadequate.

The data and privacy management plans the institutions expect researchers to follow fail to include the possibilities of scholars facing detention or confiscation of their research material, especially when researchers can be detained without trials even on the flimsiest pretext of holding contact details of an interviewee or a document deemed ‘anti-state.’

​It appears that the pre-fieldwork safety evaluation does not reflect the possibility of incarceration, material seizure, or travel prohibitions. These assessments, it appears, only look at the level of threat, nature of possible hazards, and ethical issues. There is no training to prepare or inform scholars what to expect from the institutions in situations where they are detained or restricted from traveling..


Prioritising researchers’ safety is possible with bold and proactive measures by academic institutions

Conducting research has become increasingly difficult for many scholars in growingly illiberal and authoritarian countries like India, where scholars are actively targeted.  Recently, an anthropologist at University of Sussex, Filippo Osella, was denied entry and deported from the country. Many others have been jailed and remain incarcerated for years. Many scholars, especially from Kashmir, who study in universities across the globe have faced intimidations and raids from state agencies, with many unable to return to even visit families, let alone conduct any research. The government is actively censoring all forms of research to erase the facts, and their documentation, on the ground.

As scholars, these are critical challenges to address, given that governments are increasingly targeting researchers, thereby making it harder to undertake any kind of study, especially those deemed critical of the state.

One conceivable agreement that universities and critical research institutes like the International Institute of Social Studies (ISS) can establish is to set up mechanisms with governments, through their embassies or other state organisations, that make them the guarantor of academicians’ and researchers’ safety, especially for those undertaking research in places like Kashmir. Universities must make governments pledge their support for establishing such mechanisms through legally binding bonds or MOUs.

If such requests to ensure safety of scholars are not met, institutes must discontinue undertaking any research in countries that refuse to ensure the safety of scholars and academics. This will guarantee that the government doesn’t only say it’ll provide a safe atmosphere for researchers to undertake research, but also holds them accountable if something goes wrong. This idea will be key for securing protection of scholars and academics, who otherwise lack any immunity from the state onslaught.

When the going gets tough: duty of care and its importance by Siena Uiterwijk Winkel

Safety and security for students and staff traveling in complex, remote and hazardous areas is important but often taken for granted at universities. In order to create an embedded, inclusive and efficient policy, it is key to have more exchange of good practice examples among universities and to talk about what is needed in this respect. This article argues these points through discussions that happened in a seminar organised by the ISS on ‘Safety and Security Abroad for Universities’ in cooperation with the Centre for Safety and Development (CSD).

The death of Giulio Regeni, a PhD student at Girton College, Cambridge, in 2016 had a major effect on safety and security policies at the universities in the UK and beyond. Giulio was murdered whilst conducting research in Egypt. There is a growing awareness that universities not only have a legal duty of care towards their students and staff but also a moral obligation as an employer and an educator to provide appropriate support, assistance, training, and to create safe working conditions. Calamities that befall staff and students, such as traffic accidents, muggings, hotel fires, kidnappings, terrorism and natural disasters, not only affect the individuals concerned but they can have an impact on the entire institution. Whether it is academic staff doing research in complex regions or going on visits to partner institutions, students writing their research papers in remote areas or support staff visiting projects in hazardous places, an inclusive safety and security policy should assist staff and students by guiding them to keep risks at minimum.

The ISS organized a seminar on ‘Safety and Security Abroad for Universities’ in cooperation with the CSD. During this seminar, the University of Amsterdam, the University of Copenhagen and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) shared their experiences and ongoing work to create safer working conditions for researchers in the field. During the discussions, we wrestled with the question of how can we limit risks and provide appropriate support to our researchers without interfering with academic freedom.

Marlies Glasius, a professor at the University of Amsterdam, responded to the lack of existing literature on working safely in countries with authoritarian regimes by collaborating with others to put together a much-needed, co-authored and freely downloadable volume on the topic. The book deals with the importance of good preparation, risk assessment and clear instructions for field work. It also touches on the possible mental impact of working in complex and potentially hazardous research arena.

Daniel Thomas Mosbæk Jensen of the University of Copenhagen works as a mobility officer and focuses on the road towards creating an inclusive safety and security policy. He shared that in order to create support for such a policy in the organization, one should involve different internal and external partners. Clear agreements about each department’s responsibilities concerning risk assessment and insurance should be discussed and formulated in order to make the policy effective.

From IDS, having worked on this topic for many years, important issues were discussed by Tim Catherall and Mustafa Roberts. One key point was that in the UK, universities have a legal duty of care. It is illegal not to abide by the duty of care as an employer. This is also applicable in The Netherlands, although there is less awareness about the implications of such a duty than seems to be the case in the UK. IDS have a university safety and security strategy that is embedded in the organization. The various departments such as the project support teams, risk management sub-committee, the executive board and external travel booking partners have their own set responsibilities.

These range from being responsible for risk assessments and filling in travel notification forms to providing security reports and real-time alerts about safety and security. As every department within the organization has its own responsibilities, it is relatively easy to outline expectations to traveling staff. IDS’s safety and security strategy is based on corporate risk management policy and on a risk register. This risk register involves risk assessment as part of the proposal-writing phase of any project. All the steps within a project that involves travel are based on the outcome of the risk register. This means that if a high-risk level is identified, additional training is provided, previous academic experience in hazardous areas is considered and the necessity for the travel is carefully scrutinised. The policy includes a travel notification procedure that results in a clear overview of who is where and when. So in situation of crisis, the university can find out fast and easily who is in the specific area and who might be in danger.

During the presentations and discussions at the end of the seminar, several key questions came to mind. Whose duty of care is it? What could be the role of donors in enhancing risk awareness? Where does the duty of care stop? What is the right balance between limiting risks and providing appropriate support without interfering with academic freedom?

In the end, we need to be more risk aware. It is time to take sensible and proportionate action within universities to ensure that our staff and students are well-trained, supported and equipped to do the work we ask of them. The duty of care is as global in its implications as is any aspect of university business. The fact that both students and staff operate ever more internationally and thus venture increasingly into potentially hazardous, complex and remote environments in the course of their work and study, brings new challenges to the university in terms of ensuring that the infrastructure provided matches the evolving needs. Are we doing enough in this respect?

Do you have an opinion on this or an experience to contribute? Please share your thoughts in the comment section!

Image Credit: John Payne on Flickr

sienaAbout the author:

Siena Uiterwijk Winkel is an AMID trainee working as a policy officer at ISS. Her background is in Peace and Conflict studies with a specialization in Child Development and Protection. At ISS she works on Outreach, Engagement and Impact of research.

Are you oversimplifying? Research dilemmas, honesty and epistemological reductionism by Rodrigo Mena

During a recent field trip to South Sudan, a question haunted me: How can I tell the story of this place accurately without reducing in my research the lived experiences of people I engaged with? Epistemological reductionism can be a challenge for scholars, and this post explains that the reasons for epistemological reductionism are complex and contextual, moving beyond just a personal limitation of doing research.

Last year, I was in the northern part of South Sudan researching how small villages cope with drought amidst the armed conflict affecting the country. The villagers taught me how to select (and treat) the best leaves of trees to prepare soup. This ‘soup’ of leaves would be their only meal for the day. They told me their stories; they shared their water and experiences. I had been trying to learn as much as possible about the country, its history, and its reality.

However, a question followed me around: How can I tell the story of this place accurately, doing justice to people’s everyday experiences? How can I answer any research question adequately without oversimplifying a large and complex reality? Inspired by a post of Andrew Quilty, I reflect here on reductionism and oversimplification in academia.

Aware of my blind spots, language barriers, cultural and historical ignorance, and positionality, I realised that despite my best efforts and intentions, there will always be there an epistemological reductionism: The way of knowing a reality and presenting it to others (through papers, reports, blogs) will always suffer from a methodological attempt to reduce its complexity into simpler and smaller parts.

Beyond insiders and outsiders

This reductionism does not only apply to me as a foreign researcher or outsider, but also to local people, researchers, and journalists. Discussing this concern with an Afghan colleague and friend in Kabul, he reflected that he feels the same in his own country. We talked about how each person has a position, positionality, and angle, and that our jobs (and that of journalists, too) entail the need for reduction.

Multiple processes and moments guide the reduction process. Our research questions and data collection instruments do their part. Before them, the decision of what to research often aligns with the funds available and politics of what can be funded, by whom, and for what. Supervisors and research groups also play a relevant role trimming what will be researched, presented, and how. By the end of the process, journals and book editors also influence what is said and how it is said.

The idea is not to address this complexity in depth, but to argue that this epistemological reductionism is contextual and more complicated than just a personal limitation of doing research.

collecting leaves 2

Collecting leaves in South Sudan

How to do research considering this reductionism?

These reductionisms and limitations do not discredit the relevance and value of research, but invites more reflective, humble, and honest research. We need to be careful of which discourses we are reproducing and from where we get our stories. South Sudan or Afghanistan, two countries mentioned here, are beautiful countries, with people living their lives in a way as normal as possible, like in every other place. They are also facing crises and war, but we cannot reduce their realities only to these last facts.

We also need to be humble, but at the same time confident. What we know about these places is not nothing, neither everything. Our research needs to be as focused as possible—clear on our angle and what we can achieve. Our positionality needs to be acknowledged, as it will change over time.

Most importantly, we need to be honest. Sometimes the problem is not the ignorance of the epistemological reductionism, but the overcompensation of it by making our results more prominent or representative. The pressures to publish, to present results that fit with the theories and own ideas can also lead to not being honest. When we present results not totally aligned with our interviews, observations, sources, and sound analytical methods, we are harming by presenting to others a reality that is not—although always imperfect and limited—‘evidence-based’[1]. Our results might be used by policy makers, educators, and others, but by not being honest, any practice coming from it can be damaging. We need to be honest with our number of participants, research limitations, methods, analyses, and results. In other words, we need to be honest about what we can say, aware of the reductionism and the tendency to overcompensate for it. Interesting and necessary would also be a discussion over what are the structural forces in academia that make us dishonest sometimes.

This entails patience. Doing research in this way might mean having less comprehensive results; however, by being replicated or linked with other results, building a chain of “lesser results, we start to get to know places and processes better. Overcoming the epistemological reductionism mentioned here is not a matter of not facing it, but how we through doing research become aware of it and of the consequences of not doing so. What do you think? How do you work around these reductionisms?

[1] Relevant for another discussion is the question on what is evidence based, which evidence, for what, and from where. The recent case of fake articles being published in relevant journals to show flaws in the system can lead to a further and relevant discussion (see more at: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/10/new-sokal-hoax/572212/)


About the author:

Rodrigo (Rod) Mena is a socio-environmental researcher and PhD – AIO at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University Rotterdam. His current research project focuses on disaster response and humanitarian aid governance in complex and high-intensity conflict-affected scenarios, being South Sudan, Afghanistan and Yemen his main cases. Experience conducting fieldwork and researching in conflict and disaster zones from in Africa, Latin America, Europe, Oceania and Asia.