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On 6 and 7 November 2019, the conference “Stay, move-on, return: Dynamics of mobility aspirations in contexts of forced displacement” , sponsored by The Amsterdam Center for European Studies, gathered an international group of researchers, practitioners and civil society actors to share perspectives on the interplay of forced migration and mobility aspirations.

The conference was convened by Lea Müller-Funk, former Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam, and Natalie Welfens, a doctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science at the University of Amsterdam. The intention of the workshop was twofold. On the one hand, it aimed at placing refugees as active social actors in the centre; asking what refugees do, and aspire to do in different spaces of forced displacement. On the other hand, the workshop aimed at scrutinizing assumptions about refugees’ aspirations and migration decision-making that underlie today’s mobility governance within and outside of Europe. Bringing together research on aspirations and mobility patterns of refugees, on the one hand, and border governance, on the other, it opened a space for fruitful and constructive dialogue across disciplines and between academic and civil society actors.

Perspectives from the inside of conflict countries and border areas


During the two day workshop, a total of 15 papers were presented in five different panels, including discussants and chairs from different faculties of the University of Amsterdam: Katharina Natter, Hein de Haas, Luiza Bialasiewicz, Abbey Steele, Barak Kalir, Darshan Vigneswaran, Enno Maessen, Saskia Bonjour, and Sonja Fransen. The first day of the workshop started with a panel on perspectives from the inside of conflict countries in the context of South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Eritrea, Syria, Turkey, Greece, and Lebanon. Chloe Sydney’s (Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre) presentation focused on ‘repeated displacement’ in South Sudan and showed that many South Sudanese had been displaced more than once.  Internal displacement often preceded displacement across borders and re-displacement followed premature return. Theresa Leimpek’s research focusing on Sri Lanka showed that displacement in conflict areas is caused by the interaction in which states and rebels vie for civilian populations: In a way, displacement can result from insurgent groups’ strategic interests. Another question regarding displacement was when and how displacement ends in protracted situations. Milena Belloni’s and Aurora Massa’s multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork on Eritrean refugees, proposed the concept of ‘accumulated homelessness’ to consider the repeated loss and lack of home many forced migrants experience throughout their journeys. Lastly, Weam Ghabash from Women Now for Development talked about specific fears of Syrian women in displacement, including sexual violence, child custody issues, forced marriage, and prostitution.

In the second session on perspectives from neighbouring and border areas, Lea Müller-Funk’s paper about Syrian refugees’ migration decision-making in Turkey gave insights into the life of Syrians in Turkey showing that many Syrians do not have a desire to move on. It also highlighted the importance of life plans, imaginings of the future and hope as crucial factors that shape refugees’ migration decision-making on a micro-level. Eda Kirişçioğlu’s and Ayşen Üstübici’s presentation about refugees’ fragmented journeys from Turkey equally argued that migration aspirations are complex, dynamic, and non-linear, which should be taken into consideration to unpack motives of displaced populations during their migration journeys. Finally, analysing Syrian women’s narratives and perspectives on fleeing Syria to Lebanon, Kholoud Saber Barakat argued that gender roles and relations are constantly on the move within displaced communities.

Perspectives on return and insights from the perceived ‘center’ and ‘periphery’ of Europe

The second day of the workshop started with a panel on return and presentations of the Dutch Council for Refugees (DCR) and Stichting ROS, two NGOs which provide voluntary return counselling. Both, Annet IJff and Kim Op ‘t Veld, emphasised that assisted voluntary return is a contested concept because the decision is often not ‘voluntary’ as such. Migrants decide to return when there is no better option in the current country of residence. The following presentation by Laura Cleton and Reinhard Schweitzer focused on how return counsellors in Austria and the Netherlands use different modes of counselling and induce return aspirations. Subsequently, Jill Alpes spoke about emergency returns from Libya and Niger arguing that, after returning, returnees continue to face protection needs, notably in the form of access to health care and education. As a result, returnees continue to try to realise ambitions for social mobility through repeated travel attempts.

In the fourth and last panel on perspectives from Europe, Natalie Welfens’ research on International Organisation for Migration’s pre-departure orientation programme carved out how these trainings try to shape aspirations by providing information about cultural norms, employment, and social welfare. Ilse van Liempt and Sevda Tunaboylu then explored the impact of the EU-Turkey deal on asylum m seekers on the Greek islands and showed how asylum seekers cope with liminality and waiting. The paper examined how refugees move on via irregular means, negotiate vulnerability and re-initiate movement after voluntary return and deportation. Studying internal EU border control in Ventimiglia, Silvia Aru’s research shed light on the tensions between refugees’ desires to reach particular EU Member States and the EU’s rigid governance of people’s mobility. The panel finally closed with a presentation by Ester Serra Mingot about the ways in which Sudanese migrants in the UK shape, trade, or abandon their aspirations in reaction to the state’s control over the migrants’ life courses and deeply rooted socio-cultural norms.

Challenges, political risks, and advantages of studying refugees’ aspirations

The fifth panel aimed at bringing together theoretical reflections of different presenters to better conceptualise refugees’ aspirations in contexts of forced displacement. First, Lea Müller-Funk drew attention to the political potential and risks of studying aspirations: While a focus on aspirations foregrounds refugees’ agency and questions the overall assumption of asylum regimes about the ‘helplessness’ and ‘deservingness’ of displaced populations, an emphasis on choice and decision-making processes can potentially also be instrumentalised to argue e.g. that refugees are not actually ‘forced’, and ultimately not in need of legal protection. Second, Lea Müller-Funk pointed out that aspirations do not exist in a vacuum but are a reflection of which options are possible, imaginable and acceptable to be risked. In line with this emphasis, Natalie Welfens emphasised the importance of overcoming the analytical categories of origin, transit and destination countries and argued to find ways to account for the complexities of migration journeys. Milena Belloni explained that migration reshapes existing vulnerabilities, and migrants are forced to navigate the complexity of border regimes. Finally, the last speaker Ayşen Üstübici underlined the overemphasis on mobility in discussing migration aspirations. By referring to the general assumption that “everything and everyone is mobile”, she argued that researchers need to pay equal attention to immobility. A joint discussion on ethics, normativity, and researchers’ positionality closed the workshop.


This report is written by

Eda Kirişçioğlu, Natalie Welfens & Lea Müller-Funk