Dutch premiere of CONTAINED Project at NvdV

CONTAINED Project is having its Dutch premiere!

During the Nacht van de Vluchteling (Night of the Refugee) in Amsterdam, CONTAINED Project will perform The Extraordinary Queuing Experience in collaboration with BOOST Ringdijk and local actors of refugee-, migrant-, and non-migrant background.

The Nacht van de Vluchteling (Night of the Refugee) is a yearly event organized by Stichting Vluchteling. In the night of 17/18 June, participants walk 40 kilometres on different routes in the Netherlands to raise funds to support refugees worldwide. Walkers on the Amsterdam route will encounter CONTAINED Project, somewhere along the way. The rest remains a secret!

We are now recruiting the team of actors! Go to the website of CONTAINED Project for more information.

Book published on Return Migration to Afghanistan

My book Return Migration to Afghanistan: Moving Back or Moving Forward?, in which I argue that seeing Afghan return migration as a tool for both development and migration management is shortsighted and counterproductive, is now published by Palgrave Macmillan.

In an Op-Ed for News Deeply, I discuss the findings of my book in relation to the current renewed Afghan exodus alongside mass deportations.

Buy the book and support Afghanistan! All of my royalties go to Afghanistan Human Rights & Democracy Org, AHRDO, a brilliant Afghan NGO committed to ‘the promotion of participatory democracy, a culture of non-violence and the respect for human rights in Afghanistan and the region, principally through employing a variety of arts and theatre-based programs that create spaces for dialogue, peace-building, social justice, public participation and consequently societal transformation from the grassroots up’. They were a great inspiration and support during my research in Kabul.

If you’re in the Netherlands, may I suggest to buy the book via YouBeDo.com. You pay the same price as anywhere else, but 10% of the amount you pay goes to a charity of your choice (why not Stichting voor Vluchteling-Studenten UAF). Why? Because they’re good people: they once lent me one of their laptops in a time of Great Computer Panic, so I could continue working on what became this book!

I am deeply grateful to all Afghan return migrants who participated in the study, as well as colleagues, family and friends who helped to make this book happen. Thank you!

Looking back on CONTAINED Project 2016

CONTAINED Project was born and raised in 2016 – what a year it was! After taking a moment to look back, the project is ready to leave home and conquer the world in 2017.

We kicked off in January 2016 with a taster performance at the International Migration Institute‘s 10th anniversary conference. We then developed the first part of our trilogy, Decisions and Journeys, in June, and performed pilot versions at an Oxford Migration Studies Society‘s event at the Pitt Rivers Museum and in the middle of Oxford’s Broad Street during the Oxfordshire Science Festival. In August, the second part of our trilogy, on Movement and Change, took us to Wilderness Festival in Charlbury. In September, we tried our Creative Lab of storytelling and participatory tools for the adult and children visitors of The Story Museum in Oxford. In October, we took our first trip out of Oxfordshire and had the privilege to work with Bruxellois actors to develop our third piece, on arrival and reception, for Nuit Blanche Brussels. In December, we put the trilogy together into one beautiful event at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.

After this awesome and dynamic pilot period in 2016, in which we tried lots of different ways to connect performance, experience, research and learning to provoke thoughts and encourage dialogue on migration, we are taking stock of what we learned. A short documentary, an public report and an academic paper are in preparation, so that we can share our lessons learned with you.

Moreover, CONTAINED and CONTAINED Project are ready to engage with the world in 2017. Starting with yet another great weekend of events at The Story Museum on 10-12 February, and many more things to come. Watch this space, or get in touch if you are interested in having a CONTAINED performance in your venue, neighbourhood, organization or school!

For now, we would like to thank all artists and contributors who were part of CONTAINED somewhere along the way in 2016.

(in order of appearance:) Anja Meinhardt and Justice in Motion, Marieke van Houte, Remco Heijmans, Steve Hay, Melissa Bori, Jon Ouin, Ophélie Lebrasseur, Sparrow, Sarah Jane Clarke, Daniella Cromwell, Frederike Otto, Ben Johnston, Joakim Joakim, Federica Infantino, Dominic Heaney, Dan McMahon, Sonja Wie, Simon Dormon, Luke Chadwick-jones, Quentin Lachapele, Suzanne Burlton, Natalie Jane Hind, Brittany Roberts, Mbalou Arnould, François Makanga, Zaï-Moon Râhkov, Natalia Vanderkaeken, Romana Úlehlová, Judith Von Orelli, Peter Dewhurst, Fiona Watson, Zoë Parkinson, Johnny O’Reilly, James McKeogh, Studio Yves – You were amazing this year!

Deporting ‘illegal’ migrants: an open letter to President-elect Trump

In an open letter to Donald Trump, I ask how America’s newly-elected President will follow through on his well-publicised campaign plans for deporting undocumented migrants.

‘Your political victory is our academic failure as migration scholars: Playing on voters’ need to deal with their discomfort in the present and fear of the future, you managed to convince them that immigrants are the problem that you are able to solve. Not enough voters were able to counter that narrative by recognising those plans as completely unfeasible and an inadequate solution to any of their problems. In the next four years, we will need to do better’.

EU–Afghanistan deportation–aid deal: Classic strategy or classic mistake?

(This blog was first published on the International Migration Institute blog)

afghan-refugees-in-iran-2013At a conference in Brussels this week, world powers including the EU, US and Japan pledged $15 billion towards development aid and peace building in Afghanistan over the next four years. The day before the start of the conference, the EU signed an agreement with the Afghan government allowing its member states to deport an unlimited number of the country’s asylum seekers, which the Afghan government are obliged to receive.

Although the EU said the deportation deal should not be seen as a condition of the financial support coming out of the donor conference, experts’ analysis was that donors would not have been as generous in their funding pledges if the deportation deal had not come through, and that the Afghan government would not have accepted the deal had it not been conditional on aid.

The deportation–aid deal is a classic European strategy to connect migration management with development and peace building. This might look at first like a win–win situation: Afghanistan gets money to rebuild the country, and the EU can get rid of the Afghans that reached the EU in 2015 and 2016 who have had their asylum application rejected. While around 213,200 Afghans have reached the EU in 2015 and the first half of 2016 (see here and here), 47 per cent are currently being rejected. But the deal is both short-sighted and counterproductive, and represents a classic mistake in the conceptualising of the link between migration, development and peace-building.

Afghan migration to Europe

After 37 years of conflicts and refugee flows, 2015 witnessed a new upsurge of violence in Afghanistan and a subsequent wave of Afghan outmigration of about 800,000 people. While the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Iran have hosted around 96 per cent of all Afghan refugees for decades, Pakistan has now stopped registering newly arrived Afghan refugees and migrants. Facing the risk of being deported to Afghanistan, growing numbers of Afghans have moved on to Europe from Pakistan (Koser 2014). Afghans are now the second largest group of asylum seekers in EU member states, comprising 14 per cent of the total number. While the 2015 peak is commonly believed to be part of a ‘European refugee crisis’, it is important to remember that the number of Afghan migrants and refugees in Europe still amounts to a fraction of all Afghan refugees.

Deportation to restore public order?

The recent peak in refugee numbers has exacerbated existing tensions and polarization in receiving societies. Increasing hostilities in Pakistan recently led to a hasty return of many Afghan refugees and undocumented migrants. In Europe, although many people welcome refugees, xenophobic violence on one hand, and frustration on the part of immigrants on the other, has caused polarization in society. The EU attempts to restore public order by deporting as many migrants as possible. Afghanistan, a country that is for 70 per cent of its gross national product dependent on international aid, probably saw no other option than to sign the agreement to take unlimited numbers of deportees, despite heavy internal resistance. But the question is whether these deportations will restore public order in Afghanistan in the long run, and evidence, including from my own research, suggests the opposite is likely to be the case.

Deportation threatens development and peace building

Research shows that Afghans who are forcibly returned face many challenges upon return. In addition to the original reasons for which they migrated, including fear of persecution, insecurity and poverty, an unsuccessful journey will have left them more impoverished, indebted, psychologically unstable, angry and disappointed (Van Houte 2014, Schuster and Majidi 2015).

This explains why ‘many, if not most’ deportees will not stay in Afghanistan but will leave again (Schuster and Majidi 2015). Those who are not able to, add to the groups of Afghans living in precarious situations and will be a destabilizing factor in already fragile areas of conflict. In the worst case scenario, these returnees, who feel stuck and resentful, may be vulnerable to recruitment by insurgency groups such as the Taliban, and the emerging Afghan branch of IS.

While for the EU, compliance with deportation has become an important negotiation strategy in international relations and a precondition for development aid – for example in the recent EU-Turkey deal and in the  mobility partnerships the EU has signed in the past decade – the forced return of Afghan migrants actually threatens development and peace building. Instead of resolving a problem, we can expect that the increased pressure returnees put on resources and security will increase the outflow of Afghans, leading to a vicious cycle of increased arrivals in Europe.

A new approach: enabling instead of restricting mobility

The EU has made a classic mistake by trying to connect the restriction of mobility with aid for development and peace building. While the future of Afghanistan and Afghan migration are unclear, the EU–Afghan deal has paved the way for protracted aid dependency, conflict and migration outflows. In the long run, the deal will be counterproductive for both Europe’s and Afghanistan’s interests.

In a war-torn country facing protracted but constantly changing issues of violence, aid dependency and corruption, transnational mobility has become Afghans’ main survival strategy. It has helped them to adapt to local circumstances, ensure their own safety, find opportunities elsewhere, and contribute with their money, skills and networks to the country from a distance, by sending remittances, starting up charities or businesses or advocating for support for Afghanistan. So here’s an alternative idea. Instead of trying tomanage and contain migration flows, a better way to establish the link between migration, development and peace building would be to enable mobility. The contributions of mobile Afghans may be the strongest asset available to the Afghan economy and the peace building process.

Is the idea of the EU opening its borders to Afghans in order to support development and peace building as absurd in principle as it is unlikely in practice? I would argue not. The destabilisation that will result by sending tens of thousands of impoverished, angry people back to a war-torn country, and entrenching aid dependency as well, isn’t a very clever idea either. We must continue to challenge the way in which we think about the relationship between mobility, development and peace building. We need, now more than ever, to encourage the EU and other global powers to consider the evidence and, in doing so, reconsider what can be a real win-win scenario.


Koser, Khalid. 2014. Transition, Crisis and Mobility in Afghanistan: Rhetoric and Reality. Geneva: IOM.

Schuster, Liza, and Nassim Majidi. 2015. “Deportation Stigma and Re-migration.”  Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 41 (4):635-652. doi: 10.1080/1369183X.2014.957174.

Van Houte, Marieke. 2014. “Returnees for Change? Afghan Return Migrants’ Identification with the Conflict and their Potential to be Agents of Change.” Conflict, Security & Development 14(5):1-27.


My monograph entitled Return Migration to Afghanistan: Moving Back or Moving Forward? will be published in 2016 by Palgrave Macmillan.

CONTAINED in its exploratory phase

Why do people move? What shapes public opinions about migration? And what can we do to create a dialogue on migration that leads to constructive responses to challenges in society?

Since January I have been working with Anja Meinhardt of Justice in Motion and many other artists in CONTAINED: a multidimensional project that combines performance, academics and creative learning to create dialogues on migration.

CONTAINED creates immersive theatrical performances based on research and migrants’ stories from around the world, but will also be an innovative comparative and ethnographic research project on the dynamics and public perceptions of migration.

The physical and metaphorical centrepiece of CONTAINED is a purpose built transparent shipping container: shipping containers stand for global mobility, the possibilities and constraints of travelling, and for the ‘contained’ness of our lives, in which we try to define and control our and other’s lives.

CONTAINED explores migration in a trilogy of three themes of migration: 1) decisions and journeys; 2) arrival and reception; 3) movements and changes. These three thematic components will be the basis of performance and creative learning tools.

After successfully raising initial funds, currently in its exploratory phase in which we develop and showcase a trilogy of performances. Try-out performances are happening in the summer and autumn of 2016. Read more on the website.

BOUND – physical theatre on human trafficking

justiceinmotion BOUNDI went to see BOUND, a physical theatre performance on human trafficking, which shows the potential of this kind of theatre to move and activate an audience on social issues.

We meet three workers in the shadows of the city: a sex worker, a construction worker and a chamber maid in a hotel. All three came from abroad in search for a better life. But they could not foresee the life they would be living. They are trapped in a repetitive dance of hard and humiliating work that they can’t escape. Through an impressive combination of dance, spoken word, acrobatics and projection, we see their stories unfold.

Initially, it is easiest to feel sympathy for the chamber maid, a slightly naive and funny girl who finds that the great career in the city she was promised, turns out to be a lot less glamourous than she thought. She doesn’t want to complain and tries to create bits of home with the little possibilities she has. But then her optimism breaks and it turns out that even she is capable of betraying others for a chance to get out of her situation.

Then there is the construction worker, a seemingly carefree guy who literally swings between the scaffolding of his job. But then we learn how young he was when he was put in a van and sent off to work in a foreign land, and how much he misses his mother. And we see how he longs for some human contact, but gets punished when he finds it.

The sex worker is perhaps the least easy to identify with. The shock of the sex industry she is tricked into soon makes her numb and emotionless, a coping mechanism to survive the daily routine of humiliation. Trapped in this cycle, she seems a lost case, bound to descent into a vicious cycle of decay. But then she rediscovers friendship, and even a hint of love. We see her hesitantly open up to a spark of hope for a better life. When this hope is crushed by the oppressive system they are in and she is back in her routine of dancing and having sex with anyone who will pay for her, her fate hits me harder than before.

Rather than explaining, BOUND lets the audience see and feel what human trafficking means for the people involved. Losing power over your own time and choices. Becoming a tool in an urban machine, invisible as a human, without seeing a way out. Not only the difficult situation, but also the endless repetition of things makes them lose their dignity, their health, their values. At the same time, we see that each of them has a strong will of holding on to bits of hope, and is capable of friendship and love. In other words, we see that these are still humans that deserve a human life.

I was left with the feeling that if only we could help these people to get out of the oppressive system they were in, they would be capable of rebuilding their life. And that is exactly what the performance was trying to do. In the Q&A afterwards, the actors sat together with people of a charity that helps girls who have been trafficked and want to reintegrate in society. In this way, BOUND not only raised awareness but also offered concrete possibilies to take action against human trafficking, for example by supporting this charity.

Justice in Motion is an up-and-coming theatre company that wants to raise awareness about social injustice through powerful, thought-provoking and visually stunning performances and to inspire debate and action for social change. After having seen BOUND, I am incredibly proud to be collaborating with them to produce CONTAINED, a project that creates theatrical performances on decisions and journeys, arrival and reception, and change and mobility of migration.

| CONTAINED | Would you have what it takes to be a migrant?

container 2I am very proud and excited to introduce CONTAINED, a project of theatre and research on migration.

CONTAINED will create immersive theatrical performances on decisions, journeys, and arrivals, based on research among migrants from around the world. It is also a research project that explores ways to bring migrant’s experiences in dialogue with public perceptions on migration.

As a kick-off, we launched a taster of this project at the International Migration Institute’s 10th anniversary conference: The Greenhouse. After a day of talking about migration, we let the participants of the conference experience what it feels like to become a migrant – or not. The reactions showed that champagne in a greenhouse can be an excellent metaphor for international migration.

it looked like so much fun“It looked like so much fun!”
In the corner of the drinks reception after a full day of talking about migration, the participants of the conference were confronted with a champagne party taking place in a colourfully decorated and warmly lit greenhouse. Not only did the people inside the greenhouse seem to have a really good time, there were also several extra bottles of champagne and glasses. In the twenty minutes that followed, the conference participants all went through different stages in which they decided whether or not they wanted to join the champagne party.

“I only went in because I knew someone there”SAM_2800
Minutes went by without anyone interacting with the greenhouse. After a pioneer – me – entered and was warmly welcomed with champagne, other people also joined. Most were young women and (former) colleagues of mine. In migration jargon, this is called chain migration.

“I thought it was not for me”
The overwhelming majority of all conference participants chose not to go into the greenhouse to get champagne, even when they were asked to come. Most people already had a drink, and although it was not champagne, they were also too busy talking to colleagues, or were standing too far away to see what was going on. Other people said afterwards they would have liked to go, but felt too shy, or too old. Despite relative differences in living conditions, only a very small percentage of the world’s population decides to migrate to a wealthier place. Many are held back by a variety of factors, or just don’t have migration on their mind.

“I was attracted by the champagne but I was disappointed by the quality”
As long as the door was open and the atmosphere was welcoming, the greenhouse was slowly filling up with adventurous young people who came and went as they pleased. Even if the space was small, everyone enjoyed the feeling of experiencing something special, and the champagne. But someone said he was disappointed by the champagne, which turned out to be of very cheap quality! For migrants too, things can look shinier from the outside than in reality.

“I think I’m gonna go now”
As the greenhouse was getting full, the reception of new arrivals slowly changed. Two actors trying to get in were refused at the door. One of them managed to bribe her way in by bringing cashew nuts. The other became angry and tried to force his way in. When the door and the window of the greenhouse were closed to keep the unwanted guest out, the warm and cosy greenhouse suddenly became a claustrophobic place. People started leaving the greenhouse. Afterwards, they said they had felt vulnerable, being attacked from outside while inside an unstable construction that gave no protection. A bit like some people in receiving countries are fearing uncontrolled influxes of new migrants.

“You’re getting the point”
After all guests had left the greenhouse, the performance ended with a short choreography of different reactions to new arrivals, followed by an explanatory talk. Being migration researchers, people only needed a few words to get the link between what they had just experienced and migration. With any other audience, people’s own experiences in and around the greenhouse can be a great start of a dialogue on decisions, journeys and impacts of migrants.

The Greenhouse is just one of many possible manifestations of CONTAINED. We are now fundraising for CONTAINED. Watch this space and contained-project.com to stay updated about new developments!

CONTAINED is a cooperation of myself and Anja Meinhardt of the physical theatre company Justice in Motion, together with Remco Heijmans and Steve Hay. Melissa Bori, Jon Ouin and Ophelie Lebrasseur also contributed to The Greenhouse.

Je moet het zien, dan heb je geen woorden meer nodig

auto met koffersSchoonzus Annemarie van Houte werkt sinds kort in het AZC in Budel, waar ze nieuw binnengekomen asielzoekers onderzoekt op hun geestelijke en lichamelijke gezondheid. Als doorgewinterde Intensive Care verpleegkundige schrikt ze van wat ze tegenkomt. “Ik hoop dat er mensen zijn die ook op de langere termijn deze asielzoekers willen bijstaan”.

Meer dan de helft van de asielzoekers die nu bij ons binnenkomen heeft zichtbare tekenen dat ze vreselijke dingen hebben meegemaakt. Tekenen van marteling, verkrachting, brandmerken, een ingescheurde wang van een pistool, brandwonden, en gedrag dat wijst op trauma.

Ik dacht dat mensen van bijvoorbeeld Syrië direct naar hier kwamen. Maar dat is nooit het geval. Mensen leggen een enorme weg af: ze gaan naar een buurland, en nog een, dan de zee, dan een Europees land waar het ook heel slecht is, voordat ze hier aankomen. De mensen die hier nu aankomen, zijn vaak al jaren op de vlucht. Daar dragen ze de verhalen en tekenen van mee. Keer op keer hebben ze de hoop gehad dat ze een veilig bestaan zouden vinden als ze verder zouden trekken, ondanks het verlies van familieleden onderweg en gezondheidsproblemen. Maar steeds zijn ze teleurgesteld, of de verkeerde mensen tegengekomen.

Nu zitten ze bij ons, in een kleine ruimte bij elkaar. Ze vertrouwen niemand meer, zitten nog steeds in onzekerheid. Het zijn allemaal individuen met individuele problemen, die proberen er op hun manier mee om te gaan. Echt niet iedere asielzoeker is zo zielig. Daar moet je ook realistisch in zijn. Maar een heel groot deel wel.

“Ik ben in juni begonnen als verpleegkundige bij het AZC. Omdat ik zag dat er veel spullen nodig waren voor de nieuw binnengekomen asielzoekers, heb ik een oproep op facebook geplaatst. Nu rij ik elke dag met een auto en een aanhanger naar Budel. Ik heb niet zoveel gedaan, maar de welwillendheid van de mensen om iets te doen is overweldigend. Zoveel mensen zijn gemobiliseerd door een simpele oproep.

“Deze mensen zitten hier nog wel een tijd. Ik hoop dat er mensen zijn die naast het doneren van geld en spullen, ook op de langere termijn bereid zijn om deze asielzoekers bij te staan. Mensen die activiteiten willen komen doen op het centrum: kindertheater of sportactiviteiten. Of mensen die groepjes asielzoekers uitnodigen om iets te gaan doen, om even uit de situatie te zijn. Vrijwilligers voor de bibliotheek hebben we ook nodig, en boeken in het Arabisch, Frans, Engels, en Nederlands.

“Mensen spreken van gelukszoekers, maar ik hoop dat de vluchtelingen die naar Nederland  komen, er nu gewoon een beetje beter aan toe zijn. Ze zeggen dat de verhalen aangedikt worden door de media en door de asielzoekers zelf. Toen ik aan dit werk begon had ik ook geen idee van wat mensen naar Nederland drijft. Maar de medische feiten spreken voor zich. Je moet het zien, dan heb je geen woorden meer nodig”.

Kun jij iets betekenen voor de asielzoekers in Budel? Mail naar inzamelingsactiebudel@gmail.com.