What to do about Calais, in 50 words

By Bridget Anderson, Professor of Migration and Citizenship and Deputy Director of COMPAS

calais ferryFive thousand people in Calais wanting to cross the Channel to the UK has meant my inbox is overflowing with invitations for interviews and top lines on ‘what is to be done’. What is striking about these requests is how many ask for brevity. “Tell us what you would do about Calais in 50 words. Be as specific as possible”, asked one journalist.

The flood of requests (or perhaps I should say ‘swarm’) encapsulates what I find to be a real dilemma working in the field of ‘migration studies’. On the one hand we are fortunate. It is far easier for us to demonstrate ‘impact’, to engage in policy debates and contribute to informing public opinion, than it is for many scholars, and we have plenty of opportunities to step outside the ivory tower. But on the other, we risk different forms of vacuity, shrilly opinionated or tediously technocratic. It is hard to engage with public opinion by starting a sentence with ‘It’s very complicated…’

However, the challenge runs deeper than that, because responding as a migration expert can reinforce unhelpful framings, and the Calais case is a good example of this. For casting this as a ‘migration problem’ is largely missing the point. Rather, the fact that people are stuck in Calais is a symptom, a consequence of foreign policies that have resulted in the proliferation of wars at Europe’s edges, economic systems that render the lives of many people in the world unsustainable and impoverished, colonial histories and post-colonial presents, and the very nature of Europe and the European Union.

???????????Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, recently speaking to the BBC opined: “The gap in standards of living between Europe and Africa means there will always be millions of Africans with the economic motivation to try to get to Europe… So long as there are large numbers of pretty desperate migrants marauding around the area, there always will be a threat to the tunnel security.”

The global inequality gently signified by ‘gap in standards of living’ is not a natural state of affairs. The founding document of the European Union, the Schuman Declaration, proclaimed, ‘With increased resources Europe will be able to pursue the achievement of one of its essential tasks, namely, the development of the African continent’. As Hansen and Jonsson (2011) put it: ‘the origins of the EU cannot be separated from the perceived necessity to preserve and reinvigorate the colonial system’. Seeing this complex interaction of pasts, presents and futures as a problem of ‘migration’ is impossibly limiting.

Photo by Agnieszka Rydzik, COMPAS Photo Competition 2010

Photo by Agnieszka Rydzik, COMPAS Photo Competition 2010

It also suggests that migrants are the source of the problem. Indeed, the term ‘migrant’ has become toxic in recent months, becoming increasingly equated with ‘illegal’ and ‘bogus asylum seeker’, terms that migration scholars have consistently challenged and rejected. But what are we to do if the term at the very heart of our intellectual engagement becomes a dirty word?

I think we have something to learn here from critical criminologists who have faced this problem for a long time. Like them, those of us who study migration are complicit in the production of certain types of policy subjects, and have to struggle against the institutional mechanisms that encourage us into a purely policy driven agenda. If the differentiation between migrants and citizens is key to many of the challenges faced by migrants, then our engagement makes it difficult not to contribute to the production of relations and subjects that are part of the constitution of the ‘problem’.

One way we can respond to this is by thinking about migration as a lens as well as a subject of study, a lens that offers insights into ‘us’ as well as ‘them’, and enables us to make connections between migrants and citizens rather than reifying their differences. This does not mean that we should withdraw from research that engages with the lived situation of migrants today. Bleating on about colonial history and foreign policy is small comfort to those confronted with the situation in Calais.

So here, in 53 words, are my suggestions for responding to it.

The source of the Calais problem includes wars, global inequality, and people having unsustainable lives. I would:

  • Work with the EU to facilitate ‘burden sharing’
  • Open reception centres in UK and northern France
  • Finance local government and groups to facilitate integration alongside investing in UK people and public services, and changing foreign policy.


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The base: From peasant revolution to labour migration management

By: Biao Xiang, Professor in Social Anthropology

caps-communistMao assured his comrades in 1930 that the Chinese socialist revolution would succeed when the red army encountered unprecedented difficulties. The sure victory was not because the revolutionary force was strong and the enemy was weak. On the contrary, it was because the enemies were multiple: the Nationalist government aimed to eradicate warlords, while the warlords were fighting each other; and their foreign imperialist supporters were vying for dominance in China, which in turn was part of ongoing global conflicts. The multiplicity of advisories created power vacuums, especially in remote areas.

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Changing the impact format: new groups, new engagement

By: Ida Persson, Research & Communications Officer, COMPAS and Vanessa Hughes, DPhil candidate at Goldsmiths, University of London

Using alternative methods to create social science research impact was a key aim of the project “Exploring Migration: Research and Drama in Schools”. Working with schools in Thame, London and Birmingham the project involved using theatre exercises, workshops and performances to discuss issues relevant to undocumented migrant children and their families.

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Collage by Year 6 students, Water Mill Primary School

In previous blogs we reflected on different aspects of this project. After Thame, at Lord Williams’s, we considered what role a project like this, using theatre as an experience, might have as “impact”. Then after London, at Capital City Academy, we looked more closely at the education and learning element of the project. Now, having recently completed work at a primary school in Birmingham, we can consider how the same results were achieved at this final school, but in a very different way.

In Thame and London groups of 10-13 students, between 14 and 18 years old, worked together on the script as a whole, devising, planning and creating a piece of theatre unique to them. We met for an hour and a half once a week for 10 weeks before doing an open, public performance followed by a Q&A where the students articulately explained their thoughts and reactions to the project. Due to their pre-existing knowledge of some of the issues and vocabulary and to their maturity we spent only one session, with exercises and discussion, on the background issues and questions. We then, throughout the weeks maintained an open space for questions and discussion and allowed time to consider current news stories. Most of the time, however, was spent on the individually scripted stories and working on how to present them. This proved hugely effective and a deep learning experience for the students involved. The previous blogs mentioned above explore the impact and these aspects of this work in more detail.

Changing the routine

In Birmingham we had to entirely change our approach in order to make the most of the material and the students’ understanding of it. The reasons for the changes to our work at Water Mill Primary School in Birmingham was determined on the one hand by the students’ much younger age of 11 years, having a full class of 25 and covering full-day workshops over a shorter period due to SATS exams earlier during the term. We worked with the students for four full-day workshops spread over a fortnight. Our days and materials therefore needed to be organised and designed completely differently to suit.


Poem by Year 6 students, Water Mill Primary School

This meant interspersing our introduction to migration issues with interactive learning activities. One activity, for example, involved students moving between “countries”, while increasing the obstacles and barriers with each round. The class was also divided into four groups and they worked on a monologue each, while focusing on a particular theme (character, movement, sound/voice, and emotions). This gave the groups a focus on which to hang the development of each story. We also encouraged them to think about the migration and their own stories and connections to migration throughout the process by asking them to bring in related items. The wide-ranging engagement and creative thinking demonstrated by students through this exercise was impressive. They brought money from a large number of countries, suitcases, passports, rocks, books, and even an oxygen mask! These items were used as inspiration to create collages and writing short poems in groups, which were then used in the performance. In addition we dedicated more time to theatre exercises designed to create feelings of collaboration and teamwork, as well as basic performance skills.

The children were hugely receptive to all the activities, and were very willing to share personal stories and thoughts as well as more general reflections. They rose to the challenge of this difficult topic in an excellent and impressive way, to an extent that even surprised their teachers. Using theatre as the medium for learning also meant that students who often struggled in day-to-day school life were able to engage and participate at whatever level they were comfortable with.

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Collage by Year 6 students, Water Mill Primary School

They performed their piece to a school Assembly and parents, which moved many members of the audience. It was very clear that the impact and education elements discussed in the previous blogs were also fulfilled in Birmingham. This was demonstrated by positive feedback from the students themselves, as well as their teachers and parents. The difference this time however was that the key element and learning experience for the students was felt in the process rather than the final product – allowing them not only to empathise and sympathise with other stories but also to place their own experiences in a broader context.

Questions and comments that particularly hit home and created interesting discussions were, “Why do people hate immigrant?” and “I don’t have a passport, and my parents are from different countries, so where am I from?” While the first question left us momentarily speechless, it also shows how difficult it is to find a rational, logical and coherent explanation for certain accepted societal norms. This probably is nowhere more true than in relation to the migration debate, where emotional and symbolic language around fear dominate. When real stories are placed in the foreground, however, this allows for a tangible discussion and often leads to unanswerable questions. More importantly, they prompt a non-judgmental curiosity and interest to understand another’s situation, asking “why”, “how” and  “what happened to him after this?

The future of engagement and impact


Poem by Year 6 students, Water Mill Primary School

With new expectations on researchers to make their findings available and accessible to a wider audience beyond the academy, it is important to consider what these new audiences are and how they can be engaged. As researchers we need to engage in a certain methodological translation exercise in terms of the tools and language we use. In a similar way to sociologists using visual methods to answer research questions, we have here used theatre to communicate questions and findings. These need to be adapted to fit different audiences, in terms of their age, their socio-economic backgrounds, but also practically to fit in with the demands of daily life or in our case school life – an already pressurized environment. If these can be achieved a space for critical engagement in contemporary societal questions is created for all. The learning experience is deep and it keeps the research alive, as is the subject of inquiry.

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Collage by Year 6 students, Water Mill Primary School

This work has proven incredibly fruitful over the past twelve months in creating an open, honest and humane space to discuss migration. The feedback we have received from students, teachers, parents and audience members has overwhelmingly been positive as a way to engage on a difficult, current issues and as learning experience. For us, the last year has meant piloting different approaches, activities and formats to work with young people of different age groups, backgrounds and to fit in with school demands. The next aims will be to develop and expand this project to work with more schools, other community groups and on a broader range of issues, all using the medium of theatre. To do so we have set up ActREAL. If you are a researcher interested in bringing your research findings to a broader audience or a school that would like us to come and work with your students please get in touch on admin@actreal.org!

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Gender and Migration: Reflecting on the Debate

By: Bridget Anderson, Professor of Migration and Citizenship and Deputy Director of COMPAS

Women are no longer rendered invisible in the migratory process. Their movement―as workers, as refugees, as partners, dependants, and students―is now firmly on the agenda. While this is often referred to as the ‘feminisation of migration,’ the fact is that women and girls have always moved: what has been ‘feminised’ is the debate about migration.

whisperingRe-reading this joint blog series co-hosted by Border Criminologies and COMPAS it’s striking how varied and rich the contributions are, from Mothers’ Migration Motivations to Gender, Race and Detention. Importantly they aren’t only about women―though disappointingly we had only one male contributor. Gendering migration foregrounds social relations, exposes the fallacy of the atomised cost-benefit calculator that so often dominates immigration policies. Several of the contributions, for example, discussed matters of consent, agency, and force, and complicated the idea of the victimised woman. We see how ‘migrants,’ female and male, are woven into relations that shape their opportunities for and experiences of mobility. We also see how immigration controls reinforce gender relations for example through the Sri Lankan government’s requirement that husbands signal that they have no objection to their wives’ independent migration, and how the gendered implications of law and practice intersect with class, as in the differential treatment meted out to those who are ‘highly skilled,’ predominantly, but not always, male. Yet immigration controls can also undermine ‘traditional’ gender relations, as the experience of the undocumented father dependent on his British wife indicates, and they can also trump male privilege, as with the case of the foreign national criminal.

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How did migration play out in the 2015 General Election?

By: Ben Gidley, Associate Professor and Senior Researcher

The final COMPAS Breakfast Briefing of the 2014-15 series was held earlier in July, featuring Madeleine Sumption, Carlos Vargas-Silva and Rob McNeil of Oxford’s Migration Observatory, exploring what the recent UK elections mean for the migration field.

The dog that didn’t bark

Rob McNeil, the Observatory’s head of media and communications, introduced the briefing by focusing on how the migration issue played out in the election debate. To some extent, migration was seen as “the dog that didn’t bark” in the election. With UKIP seen as the main beneficiary of the salience of the migration issue, the mainstream parties were less keen to keep it on the agenda.

Rob explained this by showing how trust in political parties on the migration issue has shifted under the Coalition: while in 2010 the Conservatives benefitted from being the public’s most trusted party on the topic, there has been a “convergence of distrust”.

In my view, this is the result of the arms race the mainstream parties played over this issue. In 2012, I wrote that media and politicians’ fixation on the numbers game led to a rhetoric of toughness from both sides of the party divide, as politicians have attempted to demonstrate that they can get a grip on the numbers. [This has driven] a vicious circle, as politicians’ pronouncements on the scale of the problem feed the fears that generate a public desire for tougher controls. This vicious circle has created the situation where the Coalition government has made itself hostage to an almost certainly unattainable policy goal of reducing net migration “to the tens of thousands”.

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