Why is there new and relentless thirst to understand the movement of people?


By John Garth

With the launch one year ago of the journal Migration Studies, Oxford now has two major journals devoted to the topic, as well as two MSc courses, three major institutes and several other projects. Migration is without doubt a major issue of the modern era, but why this array of programmes? And what can Oxford hope to achieve in the face of the vast global movement of people?

Within the broader field, Oxford has been known for the study of forced migration ever since 1982, when anthropologist Barbara Harrell-Bond founded the Refugee Studies Programme. Originally based at Queen Elizabeth House alongside Oxford’s Department of International Development, it became the Refugee Studies Centre—the world’s first institution dedicated to the study of refugees and forced migration. ‘There were other universities that did sociological-based migration and development,' says RSC director Dawn Chatty. 'But Oxford had this unique focus.'  Work is ongoing on the crisis of forced migration in the Middle East and North Africa in the wake of the Arab uprisings; and on the situation in Burma and Thailand and their border area.

The RSC’s Journal of Refugee Studies has been published since 1988, and its MSc in Forced Migration is now in its sixteenth year. The institute engages very closely with leading humanitarian aid agencies and with development agencies, producing influential policy briefings. ‘We have a mantra that good research means good practice, and we are always optimistic that our findings will be used systematically in order to promote the amelioration of conditions for forced migrants,’ says Professor Chatty.

But not all migration is forced. In the new millennium, the Economic and Social Research Council decided Britain needed a new high-level academic centre on migration. With Steve Vertovec of the ESRC Research Programme on Transnational Communities, in 2003 the then RSC director Stephen Castles set up the Centre on Migration, Policy and Society. Though based within the School of Anthropology, COMPAS’s primary field is migration and policy issues as they involve Britain and Europe. As a result of work on issues such as integration and labour markets, COMPAS has a considerable national profile. As part of this, in 2011 it launched the Oxford Migration Observatory, an online resource to channel authoritative information on migration and migrants in the UK to the public and the policymakers.


Oxford’s third migration centre, the International Migration Institute, was established by Castles and Vertovec in 2006, as part of the new Oxford Martin School. ‘We were set up with a broad remit to think about migration as a challenge for the 21st century,' explains Co-director Oliver Bakewell. 'We try to understand its processes from a global perspective; how it changes societies, and how societies change patterns of migration. We’re seeing migration not as a problem that needs solutions so much as a normal human process. Compared to COMPAS, we have much more a focus on areas of origin, and particularly in developing regions.’

There is inevitable crossover.  ‘I do a lot of work on migration within Africa,' explains Dr Bakewell. 'I do some work on refugees, one of the many reasons why people move within that continent.’

As Professor Chatty admits, ‘The edges blur a little. Many people trying to improve their lives and livelihoods become irregular migrants; they slip under the radar, sometimes they claim asylum. So you get a grey area, where the IMI is focusing on work that COMPAS does, and that the RSC had carved out. But having the three together has meant that all kinds of movement are being studied here at Oxford.’

The new Migration Studies journal has been launched by a group working across the three Oxford centres. ‘I don’t think there’s another journal that focuses on migration so broadly,’ says Dr Bakewell. The new MSc, now in its fourth year, is the product of collaboration between the IMI and COMPAS, and is intended to occupy the ground left out of the older Forced Migration MSc. ‘What was on offer in Oxford was an excellent course, but one very much focused on the movement of refugees,’ says Dr Bakewell. ‘We look at migration within social sciences, economics, sociology, politics, anthropology; and also the relationship between migration and global change.’


Professor Chatty believes the expansion of migration studies at Oxford reflects the subject’s increasing prominence and politicisation in recent years. But she dismisses as ‘doomsday stuff’ the notion that we are in a new era of great migrations, arguing that ‘whenever the world economy is in a downturn, governments adopt a fortress border mentality, and as soon as you do that you’re preventing people from coming across, whereas economic growth generally needs that kind of movement of people.’

In fact, though, only about five per cent of migrants who flee conflicts actually end up on the doorstep of Europe. ‘There are two million people outside of Syria, maybe six million displaced within Syria, but only about 30,000 have sought refuge in Europe. Most of them are in the region itself,’ she says.

Amid all the contention, Dr Bakewell underline the positives behind the upsurge in wider migration studies. ‘There are interesting things going on. People being able to be in multiple places and keep connections, and this idea of transnationalism makes the dynamics of movement different. When people move they can still be connected to their places of origin in a way the maybe was harder before,' he muses. 'And that raises an interesting question of what does it mean to belong?’

Image by UNAMID, UN and Oxfam International under Creative Commons license