Structural Vulnerabilities and Global Migrant Crises: What Can Activist Scholars Do?

Nolan Kline

Plakat Refugees Welcome G7 Gipfel Gegendemo am 06.06.2015 in Garmisch-Patenkirchen Elmau | CC BY-SA 2.0

Plakat Refugees Welcome G7 Gipfel Gegendemo am 06.06.2015 in Garmisch-Patenkirchen Elmau | CC BY-SA 2.0

At recent Donald Trump for president rallies in the United States, supporters held signs reading “Build the Wall,” a reference to Trump’s public calls for a structure completely physically and symbolically dividing the US from Mexico. More insidiously, “build the wall” and similar statements are thinly veiled expressions of xenophobia that are occasionally more toxically spewed by referring to Latino immigrants as murderers and rapists. Similarly, but geographically distanced, protestors in Cologne, Dresden, and other parts of Germany have used charged language to assert “Rapefugees” and Muslim migrants are not welcome in Germany, calling for intensified European border security. As the European refugee crisis continues to grab global media coverage, and as immigration concerns continue to inform politics in the United States during presidential election campaigns, anthropologists can draw attention to the global vulnerabilities migrants and refugees share despite their different contexts. Focusing on global vulnerabilities while being attentive to context-specific realities allows for anthropologists, particularly activist scholars, to consider ways to engage in systems-challenging praxis, or efforts to unmask social inequalities to “make permanent changes in the social alignment of power” (Singer 1995: 90) for migrants and refugees worldwide. Examining the structural similarities between the current European refugee crisis and ongoing migration to the United States, I offer suggestions for how activist scholars can contribute to countering the structural vulnerabilities impacting global migrants that demand change.


Migrants’ Structural Vulnerabilities: Comparing the US to Europe

Despite their very different political etiologies, the European and US migration situations are rooted in structural factors that include broad, politically and economically-driven immigration “push factors.” The European refugee crisis traces its most proximate roots to political conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Eritrea. Political turmoil in Syria, specifically, and its associated violence, has created an immigration push factor resulting in over four million people fleeing to Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordon, and over 1 million people seeking refuge in Europe. Of the European nations receiving asylum claims, Germany has received the largest number of applications—nearly 500,000. Political turmoil in Syria, therefore, has resulted in large numbers of migrants seeking refuge in neighboring countries and in Europe.

Similarly, political push factors exist for Latin American migrants arriving to the United States “illegally,” which include economic policies that have fueled the demand for cheap labor in the US while simultaneously undermining economies in Latin America, especially in Mexico (Coleman 2005; De Genova 2004; Massey & Pren 2012; Quesada, Hart & Bourgois 2011; Sassen 1990). Although Latin American, and specifically Mexican, migration to the US has a deep history rooted in meeting labor demands, the US’s immigration policies have contributed to restricting “legal migration,” facilitating the growth of clandestine processes resulting in unauthorized, undocumented, or “illegal” immigration that shapes migrants’ experiences living in the US (De Genova 2004). US policies have therefore played a direct role in facilitating so called “illegal” or undocumented immigration. Undocumented migrants arriving into the US and migrants arriving to Europe from Syria, thus share politically-driven immigration push factors despite having dramatically different migration contexts.

Just as undocumented migrants in the US and Syrian migrants in Europe share politically-driven immigration push factors, they also share receptions of racism and xenophobia in their respective places of arrival. Xenophobic reactions to newly arriving migrants in Europe have included conflating Syrian migrants with terrorists and accusing migrants of “evicting German citizens from their homes.” In some situations xenophobia targeting Syrian migrants has turned violently aggressive, as video coverage of a camera operator for a conservative Hungarian media outlet tripping a Syrian man with his child demonstrates. This tripping incident occurred against a backdrop of outrage over Syrian refugees entering Europe and allegedly “taking” resources from Europeans. This narrative is strikingly similar to accusations of undocumented Latino migrants in the US “stealing” resources from citizens. In both the U.S. and Europe, experiences of exclusion, xenophobia, and violence, have given rise to activist and aid organizations that directly respond to migrants’ needs, “deservingness” to services, and rights to assert political agency.

Anthropologists researching migration have a history of collaborative engagement with migrant rights groups in Europe and the US (see, for example: Getrich 2008; Huschke 2015), but what more might anthropologists do to mitigate and reverse the structurally-driven influents of migrant vulnerability on a global scale? Embracing an applied approach to anthropological work, and drawing from notions of activist anthropology where researchers adopt the politics of their informants as their own, I suggest anthropologists working on migration must consider how to use their own positionalities to draw attention and respond to the worldwide commonalities of migrant vulnerability. Doing so can be a type of system-challenging praxis that reduces xenophobic responses to migrants by shifting attention to political reasons for certain types of migration and leverages anthropologists’ resources and networks for potential global solidarity.


A Call to Action for Activist Scholars

Changing Rhetoric

Since migrant vulnerability is deeply connected to political and economic factors that transcend national borders, scholars and migrant advocates must continue examining how migrant vulnerability is a global concern requiring changes in rhetoric and specific calls to action (Castañeda 2010; Heyman, Morales & Nuñez 2009). Since all forms of migration are connected to push factors, such as policies that result in political instability or create economic insecurity, there is a needed effort among scholars, activists, and service providers to minimize the distinction between labor migration and political refugees. As Holmes and Castañeda argue, the distinctions between migrant and refugee “deserve to be questioned,” (Holmes & Castañeda 2016: 17) and reducing such distinctions can be done concurrently with emphasizing the broad, politically-derived motivations for migration. This suggestion is not to make light of situations refugees or migrant groups experience, but rather to draw attention away from individual circumstances and instead to the global vulnerabilities shaping migration experiences. Focusing on the political circumstances surrounding migration may ultimately allow for countering efforts to differentially categorize some migrants as “undeserving” of social services (De Genova 2004; Fassin 2005; Willen 2014). As a rhetorical shift, advocacy for all migrants’ rights to movement and to social services such as health care can potentially counter xenophobic and racist responses to immigration (Willen 2014), but securing resources for migrants may nevertheless remain difficult as current debates in Germany reflect. Nevertheless, anthropologists can take steps in emphasizing commonalities rather than difference as a way to promote migrants’ rights. Furthermore, anthropologists, particularly activist anthropologists, may be able to facilitate types of global mobilization that may lead to transnational collaboration in asserting migrants’ rights.


Suggestions for Facilitating Global Mobilization for Migrants’ Rights

If migrants worldwde experience global similarities in vulnerability that have produced local responses, how might immigrant rights organizations be able to mobilize on a global scale, and in what ways can activist scholars facilitate such mobilizations? I suggest the following points of action for activist scholars to consider:

1. Facilitate political momentum to respond to migrant needs domestically and internationally. As anthropologists, our global networks are far-reaching, and we can facilitate communication among global organizations to share ideas for best practices, strategies for political change, and lessons-learned in service provision. In short, activist scholars, through their own collaborative communication, can facilitate global communication networks among activist groups who may benefit from such contact.

2. Contribute to counter-framing agendas by writing for news outlets, being active on social media, and through teaching. Public written opposition to anti-migrant policies and pedagogical dedication to migrants’ rights may not produce immediate change, but such efforts help balance the presence of public xenophobic discourses.

3. Connect local and global phenomena by combining academic service and teaching through study abroad programs. Activist scholars can engage students in global service learning opportunities focused on migration-related issues that then provide a frame for questioning local discourses shaping migrants’ differential treatments and considerations of deservingness to social services.

While these specific suggestions are not intended to be a prescription for addressing migrants’ structural vulnerabilities, they are, however, intended to provide activist scholars who are compelled to respond to migrants’ vulnerabilities with possible routes of action. These suggestions are made with understandings that academics face increasing demands for time and proving productivity through narrowly defined measures such as numbers of publications and grant funding secured for their universities, reducing the likelihood of having time to engage in forms of system-challenging praxis. Nevertheless, as a global privileged group, we can certainly channel some of our energies into responding to structural vulnerabilities migrants continue to experience on a global scale.



Nolan Kline is an Assistant Professor in the College of Health and Human Sciences at Purdue University. He holds a PhD in Applied Anthropology and an MPH from the University of South Florida. His research primarily focuses on undocumented Latino immigrant health in the United States.



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