Wednesday, January 22, 2020

“Refugees, Migrants, Citizens: Political Socialization across Borders”: A Conversation with Symposium Organizer Christoph Schwarz

Photo by Allison Wheeler
Christoph Schwarz, a sociologist and Visiting Research Fellow with the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, provides a behind-the-scenes look at the December 6, 2019 symposium, “Refugees, Migrants, Citizens: Political Socialization across Borders,” the problematic portrayal of migrants in public discourse, and what he hopes attendees got from the event. 

Q: What sparked the idea for this symposium? 

A: The idea for the symposium came up as a result of discussions among the colleagues at EUC and CSAMES, and, according to the regional focus of these research centers, the starting point of our conversations was the situation of migrants crossing the Mediterranean. However, we know that it makes little sense to discuss a global phenomenon like migration as a regionally isolated issue, and we wanted to bring in insights from the US and other regions, and from different disciplines. 

Q: You’ve talked about how migrants and refugees tend to be regarded as either threats or helpless victims in public discourse. Can you elaborate more on this?

A: This is all the more problematic as many migrants search for a better life precisely because of situations of socio-economic destitution that are directly or indirectly linked to certain policies of the Global North, to colonial history and its continuities. Many refugees had to flee precisely because they had mobilized for democratic change in authoritarian regimes, many of which have been backed by the U.S. and European governments. 

Think of the protests that erupted in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 and the protests that are re-emerging in different forms and places in the region today. If refugees managed to make it to Europe, to the U.S., or other countries of the Global North, how do they make sense of politics as it is practiced there? How do they, for example, interpret the upsurge of right-wing populism and authoritarian tendencies in these established democracies? Apart from that, which democratic practices and ideas of citizenship are travelling with them, and how might they contribute to the political process in the new places where they settle? What political repercussions will their migration have in the places they left? What responsibility might receiving countries have to facilitate political participation and education, and to what degree do that their own societies may need to change to accept these displaced populations?

This is just to give one example with one particular regional focus. But also, many of us in the U of I community are migrants themselves or know many people who have immigrated to another country for reasons of love, work, or adventure, and are now part of its fabric. Migration is a very dynamic, ubiquitous, and heterogeneous phenomenon, which poses questions for many disciplines. Think of linguistics or literature. How is the political subjectivity of migrants narrated and represented in novels? How are diasporic identities produced in everyday communication? To give another example, one speaker [Cynthia Buckley, Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign] actually focused not on the migration of humans, but on “migrating borders” in Estonia, and what these border shifts do to the citizens in place.

Q: What do you hope attendees got out of the symposium?

A: We hope that the symposium has been an opportunity to learn more about different notions of the political that migrations produce. How do political subjectivities and orientations change in the process of migration? Which political ideas and practices travel with migrants, and which issues do they actually consider political? What changes in ideas of citizenship in the countries that receive migrants are noticeable? We also hope to contribute to ideas of how academia can contribute to a more nuanced image of migration in public discourse. 

This symposium was sponsored by the Center for South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies; European Union Center; Centers for East Asian & Pacific Studies and Global Studies; Departments of Political Science, Sociology, and Spanish and Portuguese; Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities; and Women & Gender in Global Perspectives. Read a recap of the symposium here

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