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Migration matters

24 October 2017

Politics has a tendency to distort the facts, creating dividing lines between people and ideas in the interests of a single agenda. For Bristol’s researchers, this presents a unifying challenge.

One look at the news suggests that the rate and the challenges of human mobility are becoming increasingly pronounced. More people are traversing geographical borders, leading to fears about the scarcity of resource and stark divisions in wealth, increasing suspicion and hostility towards those who find themselves seeking life elsewhere, whether by choice or circumstance.

The result has been a rise of anti-immigrant Republican attitudes in America, the resurgence of Far Right movements in the West, and growing anti-European sentiment in post-Brexit UK, as politicians capitalise on mounting levels of uncertainty. Terminology that was originally created for the purposes of state administration – migrant, citizen, labourer, asylum seeker – has been absorbed into political and public discourse, damaging human relations and limiting our understanding.

Reading between the lines

The reality is far more complex, as are the circumstances and experiences of the people behind the labels used to categorise, and often sideline them. Despite what headlines suggest, the number of international migrants as a share of the world’s population has remained the same in recent decades – a mere three per cent. There appear to be more people moving because the world’s population is greater than ever before.

‘For humans, to be alive is to constantly move through both time and space. Mobility is also, and has always been, an integral and essential part of humankind’s economic, social, cultural and political life. Mobility is an irresistible fact of our existence and to be able to move freely is good. But in an unjust world, it’s also an unearned and unequally distributed privilege’, says Professor Julia O’Connell Davidson, co-director of the new Bristol Institute for Migration and Mobility Studies (BIMMS), one of seven new Specialist Research Institutes that seek to strengthen Bristol’s presence as an agenda-setting voice in some of today’s most important conversations.

Professor O’Connell Davidson adds: ‘It has always been the mobility of those who lack social and political power – slaves, servants, the poor, women, children – that has been controlled and restricted, and the reasons why are obvious: freedom to move allows the subordinate a chance to escape from domination, to evade control, or to subvert the social order. To control mobility is to control people and preserve a particular social – and global – order.’

BIMMS is home to cutting-edge research on many different aspects of the impact of those controls today – from the thousands of deaths they are currently leading to in the Mediterranean, through the assumptions about ‘integration’ that underpin new restrictions on spousal immigration, to the ways in which ordinary people forge lives and identities in the face of such controls. It is also at the forefront of research on historical and cultural dimensions of migration and mobility, bringing together academics from law and social sciences, and arts and humanities to address conceptual and theoretical issues as well as the experiential – the numbers and the people.

This interdisciplinary approach is relatively novel in the field of migration studies, where the lines of enquiry have tended to follow the patterns set by policy agendas – families have been studied separately to students, child migration as separate to labour movements, and the experience of poverty and inequality of ‘citizens’ as distinct from ‘migrants’. Whereas the reality is that these categories are not necessarily an accurate reflection of people’s lived experiences.

Such evidence-based insights into the patterns of human mobility across time and place are vital in challenging the prevalent and often pernicious narrative around migration. They also reveal a far more fascinating picture than the two-dimensional image of migration we have become used to.

There are social historians looking at colonialism, the British Empire and its relations with China and India; English researchers exploring literary representations of race in Black British and African American writing over the past four decades; lawyers studying questions of citizenship and deprivation; musical historians investigating the displacement of European musicians during the 20th century and the relevance of music in diasporic communities; sociologists looking at the anthropology of migration and cross-cultural marriage; arts scholars researching the interplay of nationalism and medieval poetry; and epidemiologists looking at the health impacts of migration.

As BIMMS co-director Professor Chris Bertram points out: ‘The breadth of work across BIMMS reflects the complexity of the issue of migration.’

Seeing beyond borders

The University recently welcomed one of the world’s leading experts on migration and citizenship, Professor Bridget Anderson. A new appointment to BIMMS, Professor Anderson is a prominent voice in the argument for an academic, public and political perspective that sees beyond the divisive notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’. Her work, like that of many of Bristol’s researchers, shows that a deeper understanding about why, where and how many people move could usefully dismantle the artificial borders that separate us.

Coming from her previous role as Research Director of the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society (COMPAS), Professor Anderson brings with her a wealth of invaluable experience from working with migrants’ organisations, trades unions and legal practitioners at the local, national and international level.

Researchers attached to both Bristol’s Law School and BIMMS are similarly using their expertise and profile to call for a more rounded view of migration. Recently a group of academics, including Professor Bertram, spoke out against the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the minimum income immigration rule, which stipulates that British people must earn more than £18,600 before they can apply for spouses or partners from non-EEA states to join them.

However, the Supreme Court did decide that the Government had been unduly restrictive in only counting the British partner’s earnings when assessing a family’s capacity to support itself and that it had not done enough to take account of the best interests of children when implementing the rules.


Further information

Sanctuary Scholarships

In 2016, the University introduced the Sanctuary Scholarship scheme to offer support for those from refugee and asylum-seeking communities to study at Bristol. Professor Hugh Brady, Vice-Chancellor and President of the University of Bristol, said: ‘We know there are factors that make it difficult for people from refugee and asylum-seeking communities to apply to university. Their previous studies may have been interrupted, they might not have evidence of their previous qualifications or their qualifications are not transferable. Our scheme has been designed to accommodate these factors and encourage them to apply.’

There are two scholarships schemes – a full scholarship, and a partial scholarship for students who can access UK Government support. To find out more, or to make a donation to the Sanctuary Scholarship scheme visit:

You can listen and download the audio version here (mp3).