Exploring migration through drama

dsc05966-kleinI assisted for a few days in the project Exploring Migration: Research and Drama in Schools, which takes monologues based on interviews with undocumented migrants to schools, and develops them with the students into a theatrical performance. It was a brilliant experience, as teaching drama techniques proved to be a perfect tool to discuss migration.

I will take the example of status to illustrate this. Working on the status of your character is a key element in drama: it is essential to realize if your character is dominant and powerful or rather weak and subordinate, and how that affects the interaction with other characters. Through drama exercises, the students first became physically aware of what status is and how you can show status in body language.

Next, we worked in small groups on the monologue that we were going to put into a performance. My group worked on the story of Adnan, a 16 year-old boy who had travelled from Afghanistan to the UK. His story was about the journey that took him 1.5 years, during which he had to run for his life and was smuggled in containers. When he reached the UK, he became an undocumented migrant, constantly fearing to be caught and deported.

We discussed the status of each of the characters in the story, and I asked what status Adnan had. Very high, said the student who was going to play Adnan, because he is very brave and has survived a difficult journey and he is the person sent by his family to help them. No, his status is very low, said another, because he is afraid all the time and he is dependent on other people.

I was amazed. These eleven-year-old kids managed to realize something that took academics a lot of time to wrap their heads around: that refugees go through a lot of hardship, but are not just victims. It was just up to me to connect their thoughts: exactly, Adnan is both brave and scared, both a survivor and a victim of exploitation. We have to take that into account when we play the character of Adnan: we want to show both, because that’s who he is.

By focusing on getting the most out of their performance and their drama skills, the kids had en passant learned that being a refugee is not as unidimensional as some media, politicians, activists or academics try to make us believe. While attempts to talk about migration in a nuanced way often end up in a dead-end street with the words: ‘it’s all very complicated’, they had grasped this complexity in a very concrete way. This sense of nuance will hopefully stay with them as they grow up and engage into hot-headed migration debates.

Opinion piece on migration policy provokes strong reactions

opinie-plaatjeAn opinion piece that I wrote together with Leonhard den Hertog was published in de Volkskrant, a Dutch leading quality newspaper on 29 May 2015.

In the article we react on a plan by the Dutch minister for Development cooperation and foreign trade, Lillianne Ploumen, to do extra investments in migrant sending developing countries, so that people will invest their ambitions in their own country rather than migrate.

We argue that the plan is based on old misconceptions about the link between migration and development: increased welfare will not stop migration, but will instead lead to more migration.

We argue that in a real development perspective on migration, mobility should be promoted rather than constrained. Only then can migrants potentially contribute to development. We call for the Minister of development cooperation to no longer let her funds be abused for anti-immigration politics, but to engage in the debate with a real development agenda.

The article provoked quite strong reactions among the online readers, who left their comments on the newspaper’s website. Some were constructive and supportive. But the majority of the comments could be divided into three categories of criticism, all of which should be taken serious, and also raise questions.

The first type of reaction protested against the idea of increased possibilities for mobility. They argued that more migrants will strain the labour market and the welfare state. In the global picture, migrants often help an economy to thrive. Moreover, more mobility also means that migrants may travel back and forth more easily, and therefore choose to move on if they cannot find a job. Nevertheless, individual people may lose, or fear to lose, their jobs in favour of a migrant. This is an important reason for anti-immigration sentiments and should therefore be taken seriously. But how can we address these feelings in a nuanced way?

The second type of reaction objected to the idea that migrants could contribute to development, arguing that Africans have not been able to ‘do things right in their own country’, as they are stupid, lazy and greedy. This shows that outright racism, the stigmatization of people based on stereotypes of their background, is still persistent. But how can we counter racism in an effective way?

The third type of reaction was against the researchers themselves, arguing that this was ‘another message from the ivory tower’, unrealistic and naive, and all of that paid for by the tax payers. I would argue I saw more dust and sweat than ivory in Afghanistan, Iraq, Rwanda or Burundi, to name a few countries where I did fieldwork: our arguments are based on research, not highbrow thought experiments. Being paid out of public money, we do have a responsibility to do relevant research and to make outcomes accessible. However, this does not mean that research is only relevant if you agree with the conclusions. But how can we convince someone of a message they don’t like to hear?

Last, a discussion emerged between those in favour and those critical of the argumentation of the article. Although online reactions that are in favour of an article are often rare, and risk to be ridiculed, it is of great value that a diversity of voices can be heard. But how to encourage people to engage in this scary form of interaction?

A newspaper article to address politicians leads to an online discussion by a wider audience, which in turn leads to reflections on how to respond to the concerns of this audience. A great example of how research, policy and public opinion can interact in a continuous process.

Blog on The Extraordinary Queuing Experience

livefriday-2Suddenly I was the director of an immersive theatre performance on migration called The Extraordinary Queuing Experience, performed at the Social Animals LiveFriday at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. It was an unforgettable experience that tasted like more.

The audience was invited to enter a gallery of the museum, in which they joined a queue and went through a selection procedure, waiting to be admitted to a ‘special part’ of the museum, as ‘the entire museum is a special place, but some parts are more precious than others’.

The performance aimed to make a point about the lack of transparency and arbitrariness of immigration processes and to give the unsuspecting audience a glimpse of the challenges migrants can face when they try to reach the UK.

Me and migration-and-theatre partner in crime Ida Persson wrote a blog about it. Video footage to follow.

Migration experts question EU’s humanitarian rhetoric

boat-migrantsI co-signed this letter, along with more than 300 other migration researchers, to interrogate the humanitarian rhetoric used by the EU to justify their migration policies. See the article in the Guardian.

The EU wants to save migrants out of the hands of human smugglers as if they were slave traders.

But this comparison is false, the letter says. “Today, those embarking on the journey to Europe want to move. If they were free to do so, they would be taking advantage of the flights that budget airlines operate between North Africa and Europe at a tiny fraction of the cost of the extraordinarily dangerous sea passage”.

Europe has increasingly closed down its outer borders to prevent migrants from coming in. But people still want to move, so they resort to dangerous journeys in rickety boats.

Destroying these boats is not going to save the migrants who are desperate enough to board them. In the absence of safe ways to travel, migrants will just find other, even more dangerous ways to cross over.

As a researcher, I want to engage in this discussion based on facts and observations, rather than my personal opinions and values. From this position, it is too simple to argue for open borders, which is the conclusion of the open letter. I nevertheless signed the letter to urge politicians to start working on constructive responses rather than spending time and money on false and misleading arguments and inadequate solutions.

In or out? An extraordinary queuing experience

LiveFriday Social Animals posterA dream is coming true at the Social Animals LiveFriday in the Ashmolean museum in Oxford: making a theatrical experience-performance to communicate research!

In or out? An extraordinary queuing experience

The entire museum is a special place, but some parts are more precious than others. How far will you go to get in? What if the rules are twisted? Get in line and immerse yourself in the universal experience of in- and exclusion!

New blog on versvak.nl

logo versvakVersvak.nl is a Dutch-language website that wants to make results from social sciences accessible to wider audiences. I fully support that!

I wrote a short article on the use of development budgets for return migration programmes in their special on development cooperation.

I argue that it is too optimistic to think that rejected asylum seekers will contribute to development and peace building after return. My recommendation is: Don’t call de facto involuntary return development, and no longer pay return assistance out of development budgets.

Only voluntary return of people who have something to offer, and are free to leave again, can potentially contribute to development.

New position at IMI

image IMIFrom January 2015, I will be connected to the International Migration Institute as a Marie Curie postdoctoral research fellow. I will be working on a research project on migrants’ contribution to (political) change in the country of origin, within the TRANSMIC project.

After an extremely inspiring time at the Maastricht Graduate School of Governance, where I wrote my PhD thesis, and a short but wonderful time as an internal consultant at the OECD Development Centre in Paris, I now look forward to moving to Oxford.

Read more here.

PhD defence 20 November 2014

cover-van-houte-moving-back-or-moving-forward-phd-thesis-2014On 20 November 2014 I defended my PhD thesis ‘Moving Back or Moving Forward? Return Migration After Conflict’.

This thesis examines the idea that ‘when migrants return home after conflict, they will contribute to development and peace-building’. Although this optimistic idea is the basis for a number of current European national policies aiming to link together issues of migration, development and security, this thesis detects the mismatch between policy and reality.

The thesis is based on a comparative study among 178 returnees in six countries across the world, and an in-depth study among 35 returned migrants in Afghanistan. The findings highlight that return neither is a movement back to normal, nor is it easily a movement forward to change. When migrants return to their country of origin, they do not automatically contribute to development and peace-building. An important factor is the motivation for return: migrants who return voluntarily while having the legal alternative to stay and can decide to leave again after return, have more potential than rejected asylum seekers and undocumented migrants, who had no legal option to stay and returned involuntarily.

The thesis concludes that there is a mismatch between the allocation of development budgets and the development potential of return migrants: while the expectations on which Migration and Development policies are based are only true for a small minority of voluntary returnees, this is not the group that is targeted by policy. While providing an incentive for the return of unwanted migrants is in the interest of host countries, it is unjustified to use development budgets for this purpose.

This study was financially supported by Cordaid, PSO, and UNU-MERIT