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Transitioning from the academic field of migration studies to the pragmatic world of migration policymaking is not an easy task, particularly if you happen to be a migrant yourself. As a 1.5 generation immigrant who arrived in the United States as a child under the Lautenberg Amendment, which temporarily allowed Jews from the Soviet Union to be recognised as religious refugees, migration is a deeply personal story and one that has influenced my career choice. During my master’s degree, I found myself surrounded by like-minded peers, many of whom also came from immigrant backgrounds and whose individual experiences of growing up as migrants were arguably as important a learning component as the coursework itself. Migration was as much a subject of study as an inextricable part of our own identities and professional trajectories.

Now, working as a migration professional, I have never been more aware of my own positionality as a migrant. How do I reconcile my own experiences as a migrant with the omnipresent institutional discourse on migration as a policy problem? In the corridors of international organizations and government agencies, migration in the modern world is commonly referred to as a challenge that necessitates a global solution. Through this technocratic lens, the migrants themselves are dehumanised, reduced to an amorphous yet politically-charged category. The lived experiences of migrants are generally discarded as irrelevant, unquantifiable and therefore of no use in a policymaking world preoccupied with quick and tangible deliverables. Migrants themselves are framed as, first and foremost, objects of concern, an angle which implicitly perpetuates the notion that migration is ipso facto problematic if not altogether a deviation from the norm.

Many of these migration biases stem from the fact that migration policies are almost exclusively debated, designed and implemented by non-migrants on the national and international level. From my vantage point as both an outsider by virtue of my immigrant background and an insider as a migration professional, I have become painfully aware of the extent to which much of the discourse on migration within policy circles is distorted. The dominant perspective on migration among policymakers is one defined by an overreliance on rigid categorisations that separate migrants into neat and mutually exclusive boxes. Instead of helping policymakers make sense of the world, these categories actually reinforce an un-nuanced vision of migration that lends itself to oversimplification and problematic generalisations.

When government officials nonchalantly refer to irregular migrants as undesirable and detrimental to the rule of law, I cannot help but remember the experiences of my own close friends and family members who were at one point or another on the wrong side of immigration law. Does this make them criminals and a threat to national security? When policymakers make sweeping generalisations about migrants being a burden on Western welfare systems, I reflect on my own experience of living and working with migrants clocking in longer hours, for less pay and under strenuous conditions just to provide for themselves and their families. Indeed it is easier to buy into these so-called 'common sense' assumptions when you are not exposed to the diversity of lived migrant experiences.

The absence of migrant voices in the policymaking bubble creates an echo chamber where orthodoxies go unchallenged and alternative viewpoints rarely make it to the surface. While it is all too common to hear complaints from policymakers about the ivory tower nature of academia, their own world is if anything even more insular.

There needs to be a realisation that having non-migrants developing migrant policies is as misguided as having male-only policymakers deliberating on policies involving women’s rights – the end results will not reflect the actual needs and sensibilities of the target population. Leaving migration policy to non-migrants creates an environment that promotes rather than diminishes the othering of migrants. Statistical flowcharts and study visits to refugee camps cannot be adequate substitutes for the lived experiences of first and second generation migrants and refugees.

Changing the prevailing negative discourse on migration should therefore imperatively start with the inclusion of migrant voices, perspectives and experiences as part of the migration policymaking process. The unfortunate reality, however, is that individuals coming from migrant backgrounds remain woefully underrepresented in government agencies and international organisations working on migration policy. Naturally, this lack of diversity is a result of a combination of structural barriers to educational attainment and career advancement faced by minorities and immigrants to a varying degree in all major immigrant-receiving societies. These entrenched disadvantages represent a significant hurdle to a career in public service for individuals with migrant backgrounds.

While Western countries have long become diverse societies shaped by decades of migration, this diversity is nowhere to be seen when one steps into a room full of migration officials. While the US State Department under Secretary Kerry, for example, stresses its commitment to ensuring diversity and equal employment opportunities for minorities with the explicit aim of having a 'workforce that reflects the rich composition of its citizenry', little emphasis has been placed on promoting diversity in public service in much of Western Europe.

Whereas the share of women working in top-level civil service positions in national ministries across the EU has risen from 16.9 per cent in 1999 to 40 per cent in 2016, there is no similar data available on diversity. Evidence from a 2008 study on senior civil servants from EU member states does, however, indicate that neither diversity nor multiculturalism are considered to be important components of an official’s competency profile[1] in any EU member state. In the UK, for instance, diversity among senior civil servants has actually declined with a recent study estimating the share of ethnic minorities in leadership positions within the civil service to be just 3 percent. These numbers are indicative of a broader diversity gap between senior public officials and the general workforce.

The migration policymaking field is by no means the only sector that suffers from a diversity deficit, but it is in particular dire need of opening its doors to the very population it strives to regulate. As a first step, there needs to be an acknowledgement of the fact that it is extremely difficult to have a balanced and lucid discussion on migration when non-migrants are speaking – and often legislating – on behalf of migrants and refugees. As long as appointed technocrats wedded to their national identities are the ones developing and implementing migration policies, we will continue to see migration being framed as a 'problem' that requires urgent solutions. We need more people in policymaking who can talk from personal experience rather than hide behind statistics that turn migrants into a numerical flow that needs to be reduced, restricted and even reversed.

Migration is not a disease that requires a cure, but an intrinsic facet of human development. Having more migration professionals with a migrant background is an important prerequisite for changing the tone of the policy debate. More diversity can play a tremendous role in getting 'the immigration debate back on track' by focusing on changing the narrative rather than numbers.[2] And while I recognise that the mere fact of being a migrant does not make one inherently predisposed to a more positive discourse on migration, incorporating migrant voices into policymaking can contribute to breaking deep-seated biases and assumptions related to migration. The knowledge based on personal experience that individuals with migrant backgrounds can bring to the table is an asset that the migration policy world can no longer afford to ignore.


[1] Kuperus, H. and Rode, A. (2008) ‘Top Public Managers in Europe: Management and Working Conditions of the Senior Civil Servants in the European Union Member States’ European Institute of Public Administration: 34-36

[2] Shaheen F. (2016) UK Immigration: It’s Not Numbers But Narrative That Matters

About the author

Yan Matusevich is a 2015 graduate of the MSc in Migration Studies and is currently working as a migration policy professional with a focus on Russia, Caucasus and Central Asia.

IMI does not have an institutional view and does not aim to present one. The views expressed in this blog are those of individual authors.

This post was first published by COMPAS as part of the MSc in Migration Studies guest blog series: Viewing Life Through the Migration Lens: experiences and thoughts post-MSc.

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