The floating label of ‘the migrant’

By: Bastian Vollmer, Leverhulme Research Fellow

This blog was first posted in the series “Migration and Citizenship”, a collaboration with Politics in Spires, on October 23 2014. 

“Hang on they are not tourists”, a UK citizen said to his wife with wide eyes and an expression on his face suggesting this realisation was a big surprise. “They could even be ‘migrants’…couldn’t they?”

This is a question — in this case one I heard in an interview — that has always been complex, but is becoming even more so, in the UK and elsewhere. Time has changed legal and regulatory circumstances, and the demographic of people who come to Britain have also changed.

These changes have generated new migrant categories, typologies and tiers but also new stigmas, phobias and labels.

Who is a migrant? Alas, there is no clear legal or administrative definition of ‘migrant’. A 1953 United Nations recommendation referred to the definition of “permanent immigrants” as non-residents (both nationals and aliens) arriving with the intention to remain for a period exceeding a year and of “permanent emigrants” as residents (nationals and aliens) intending to remain abroad for a period exceeding one year (United Nations, 1953).

At the national level, definitions were introduced with the main purpose of keeping records of stocks and flows of international migrants. Like many other countries, UK law does not contain a definition of the term ‘migrant’. It does, however, make a distinction between persons who have the ‘right of abode’ (British citizens including a small minority of Commonwealth citizens) and those who do not have this right (for more details see Anderson and Blinder, 2014).

Does this matter? Yes. We should consider the definition of the term ‘migrant’ is constructed by political and public discourse. It is part of a labelling process which takes place on an everyday basis. It is a heuristic short-cut to make sense of the world that surrounds us, helping to form opinions and decision-making process.

The labelling journey

The content of this process has changed over the years, making “the migrant” a floating label. Indeed, labelling processes can be traced back through centuries of migration history at a local and regional level.

Carton shop label with lace isolated on whiteLet’s use the Commonwealth era of migration to the UK as a quick example. The most common label used – very comfortably – during this period was race. Not from ‘Albion’ = migrant. But from the 1970s through the 1980s and 1990s, the term race and race relations somewhat disappeared. Another term took its place: asylum and asylum seeker became the new dominant label (see Vollmer 2014). This label had, however, an intrinsic problem. It floated into waters of normativity; it was diluted by a moral dimension which became increasingly dominant. Bogus behaviour and deception by asylum seeker became predominant in the common understanding of ‘the migrant’.

Why labels matter

Does the general suspicion towards everybody that might try to deceive Britain, thus engaging in an immoral act towards the host society, still fit with the term ‘migrant’? Does it colour the label to this day? We have no answer to this but it seems that today’s label of ‘the migrant’ has increasingly become a label of ethics and morality: ‘who is the right migrant’ or ‘who is the good migrant’?

During fieldwork for my current research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust[i], I have encountered narratives that capture such general suspicion and ambiguity of morale and trust. In one sentence a person explained how migrants are poisonous for the neighbourhood, the community and the British society, and in the next sentence the person’s Polish neighbour was described as a “nice man” who is not “one of them”. So who is the “them” that cannot be trusted and that could possibly be “a drain on the British society” (BBC, 2014). And one can also ask, who is the “us”? Maybe it is just the current label that is attached to ‘the migrant’ that is suffering under the gloomiest siege of EU-UK relations and a migration debate that has reached, at times, new toxic levels. These circumstances make questions of ‘who is the right migrant’ or ‘who is the good migrant’ somewhat confusing if not unfeasible.

Seamless white feathers on blueThe machineries of the political parties in the UK have begun to spin for the upcoming general election and we wait to see where the label might float next. In the end, however, as the above empirical example has shown, there isn’t, and there cannot be, a clear-cut distinction between citizens and migrants (see Isin 2002). Simple binaries of inside and outside, or ‘the self’ and ‘the other’ do not exist. This is difficult to accept but it is necessary to acknowledge.

This post is part of Migration and Citizenship, our series hosted in collaboration with Oxford COMPAS


Anderson, B. and Blinder, S. (2014) “Who Counts as a Migrants? Definitions and their Consequences.” Migration Observatory Briefing, COMPAS, University of Oxford, UK.

BBC (2014), Nick and Margaret: “Too Many Immigrants in the UK”, BBC 1, broadcasted 16th July 2014.

United Nations (1953) International Migration Statistics. Statistical Papers, No. 20. No. E.53.XIII.10

Isin, E.F. (2002), Being Political. Genealogies of Citizenship. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Vollmer, B. (2014) Policy Discourses on Irregular Migration in Germany and the United Kingdom. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

[i] Border security: Discourses and Practices in the UK, see also:

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“It’s not just about the individual story”: Performing migrant experiences

By: Ida Persson, Research and Communications Officer


Photo by Josh Tomalin

When trying to have an “impact” in a research context it is often assumed that academics need to reach out to influential groups such as policy makers, politicians and civil society organisations. On another level we often talk about the “local community” in a fairly vague fashion. A new project at COMPAS is trying a different way of knowledge exchange, by directly engaging with young people in schools to encourage them to think about migration issues in their own way.

“Exploring Migration: Research and Drama in Schools” looks at issues that face undocumented migrant children and their families in their day-to-day lives in the UK. It does so by working with school students using theatrical stories based on research interviews conducted through the project “Undocumented Migrant Children in the UK” as commissioned from the company ice&fire.

In the project students are given an introduction to the issues and theatre techniques from which they are supported to develop a performance.  They then perform their show for a general audience. The project will work with 3 different schools in different geographical areas over the next year (Thame, Birmingham, and London). Each school will present different challenges and considerations.

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‘It is easy to come here but difficult to leave’: The ‘point of no return’ in migration trajectories

By: Franck Düvell, Associate Professor and Senior Researcher

Taxi signI was told this by a taxi driver from Macedonia now living in the UK[1]. I had just called a taxi for a 20 minute ride to the other end of town and engaged in some colloquial conversation. I’m just curious and like asking things like ‘how is life here’, ‘where are you from’, and of course some discussion about the omni-present controversy over immigration. And then I heard this statement: ‘it is easy to come here but difficult to leave’. I found this puzzling and asked what he meant. It turned out that the gentleman had arrived in the UK 10 years ago as a young man. He got married, had children, two boys, but after some time he and his wife split up. He felt that he could not return to his country because if he did he would not be able to see his children growing up. He did think about whether he could take them with him back to his country but explained ‘I grew up in poverty and would not want the same for my children’. He even discussed the possibility to return and set up another family back in his country but felt he is now too old for this and that he would not want to have more children. So instead, he remained in the UK. Here he has a reasonable job, ‘I’m not getting rich but I’m doing ok’. Whist driving he was greeting some people he spotted on the side, so he was obviously a known member of the local community.

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Understanding foreign fighters: COMPAS November Breakfast Briefing

By: Ben Gidley, Associate Professor and Senior Researcher

This summer, it emerged that a young woman brought up near where I live in Lewisham, South London, had travelled to Syria to join ISIS. I spent some time reading her Twitter interactions with other young British women with ISIS ion Syria and Iraq. Most of the Twitter accounts are now deleted, but on the whole they were little different from any tweets by any South London teenagers: written in the familiar shorthand of social media conversation (“LOL”, “c u l8er”), accounts of shopping trips, mentions of best friends, complaining when the wi-fi was poor, comments on the weather. But the Lewisham woman’s profile picture was of an infant boy, presumably her son, holding an AK-47. Sparsely interspersed among the banal chitchat, were casual references to meeting Yazadi slave women or to beheadings. And, in one of the last posts before the account went offline:

Any links 4 da execution of da journalist plz. Allahu Akbar. UK must b shaking up haha. I wna b da 1st UK woman 2 kill a UK or US terorist

Foreign fighters in ISIS and other jihadi groups are regularly reported in the news media, and our politicians have been increasingly talking tough about them. But what do we really know about them, about their profiles and motivations?

muslim militantsNovember’s COMPAS Breakfast Briefing addressed these questions. Our experts were Rachel Briggs, a Senior Policy Analyst with our Breakfast Briefing partner, the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD), and Peter Neumann, a Professor of Security Studies at Kings College London, and the founding director there of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR). The evidence was based on a series of important and innovative research projects at ISD and ICSR (listed at the end of this post), using social media analysis and face-to-face encounters with foreign fighters to build up a rich picture of their actions and their networks.

As is our usual practice, the oral briefings are podcast on the COMPAS site, while the discussion afterwards was under Chatham House rules. In this blogpost, I briefly summarise the key points from the briefings, and then discuss some of the wider issues touched on in the discussion, before finishing with links to information on ICSR’s and ISD’s work in this field. You can listen to the podcast here.

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Are migrant health professionals welcome in the UK?

By: Helen McCarthy, Research Assistant

As the health sector continues to rely on health professionals from overseas, we set out to explore what working in such a diverse workforce means for daily interactions in the workplace. For the Work-Int project, we’ve conducted almost 40 interviews with British and overseas health professionals about their daily experiences. This post explores some of the emerging findings of the research.

It’s worth pointing out at the outset that the group of doctors and nurses that we spoke to was an extremely diverse group. It included thirteen different nationalities and people in a range of different occupations, from consultant down to healthcare assistant, reflecting the fact that overseas workers are to be found in almost all levels of the health service. As you would expect, this diverse group of individuals come from different backgrounds, had different reasons for coming to the UK and different expectations on arrival. Nevertheless, some broad trends do appear and can be instrumental in helping us reflect on how we ensure that people coming to work in the British health sector are welcomed and integrated.

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Posted in immigration, migration, Uncategorized, Welfare | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment