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On the move

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On the move

Otago’s new Centre for Global Migrations research theme is taking a multidisciplinary – and timely – look at the many issues surrounding mass movements of people, with the aim of informing policy and public debate.

Myths and misunderstandings muddy our views on modern migrations, says Professor Angela McCarthy, director of the University of Otago’s new Centre for Global Migrations research theme.

The topic makes news around the world, especially across the Americas, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region, but there’s little depth in the information behind the headlines.

So the new centre’s research into the realities surrounding mass movements of people, along with their goods, ideas and material culture, is important and timely.

Studying migrations shines a light on difficult questions facing society worldwide, including climate change, inequalities surrounding health and education, human rights and racism.

“With immigrants targeted as part of election campaigns here in New Zealand as well as in the United States and Europe, we can see that global migration is, for many, a deeply contentious, even toxic, issue,” says McCarthy.

“It is clearly vital to consider where we are coming from to know where we are going. We can develop a more acute understanding of migration today if it is seen in the context of past experiences. An eye to the past also helps identify issues of continuity and change."

“From a New Zealand vantage point, it is important to remember our migration history from early Māori migrations through to the arrival of Europeans, Asians and others. Today, 25 per cent of our population was born outside New Zealand and we have more than 200 different ethnic groups living here.”

The idea for the multidisciplinary research theme grew from McCarthy’s resolve that the University of Otago would be an ideal laboratory to explore the issue of global migrations through a collaborative framework.

She and Otago colleagues gathered sufficient support from a dynamic and diverse group of researchers to apply for funding — and the University agreed to establish the Centre for Global Migrations.

The current core group of Otago researchers comprises 30 staff and postgraduate students from the Humanities, Commerce and Health Sciences, and is seeking wider participation. “We’re developing connections with affiliated researchers from all spheres of the community who wish to organise events and conduct research with us, both individually and collectively.”

One of the group’s three main aims is to create an internationally-recognised research community encompassing academics, policymakers, heritage professionals, community workers, and cultural and arts groups.

Another key aim is to facilitate national and international interdisciplinary collaborations, brainstorming new methods and frameworks for migrations research so as to be able to inform public debate and policy.

An inclusive, listening environment is important, says McCarthy. “We need to connect across the disciplinary divide. The study of migration is undeniably a multidisciplinary endeavour, but the disciplines often speak past one another.

“By bringing disciplines and other researchers and practitioners together we are better placed to tackle key concerns and produce richer and more convincing answers to key aspects of migration.”

Uniting the disciplines to explore past and present migrations across the globe is a new and exciting prospect, she says. “Many of our members’ research spans not only recent migrant flows, but prehistoric migrations of people and material culture.

“We are still in our infancy, but the centre itself is already breaking new ground. Many similar research centres worldwide are limited in terms of their disciplinary connections, focus on contemporary migration without an eye to the past, or are geographically narrow in their endeavours.”

The primary aim is to understand and communicate knowledge about the diverse causes, consequences and legacies of migration.

“This enables us to also engage with the myths and misunderstandings that occur about migration. People often have entrenched views about migration and it is important to understand and explain how and why those views arise.”

Past migrations give perspective to today’s “refugee crisis”. The UN Refugee Agency estimates that currently there are around 65.6 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, of whom refugees comprise around 22.5 million. Yet global population displacement during the Second World War and its aftermath may have reached about 165 million.

“Aside from statistics, reactions to today’s migrant flows also have eerie and troubling resonance with previous mobility. Donald Trump’s efforts to restrict migration to the US from certain countries recalls early laws that tried to exclude groups like the Chinese, restrictions that New Zealand also once pursued.

“Migrants also continue to encounter moral panic about their cultures and beliefs, as in the past. Anti-Islamic rhetoric, for instance, has parallels with the enmity that Irish Catholics encountered in previous times,” says McCarthy.

Today’s migrant numbers need to be considered as part of a wider picture. Currently, only 3.3 per cent of the world’s population lives outside the country of their birth for more than a year — a statistic that has remained the same for the last 60 years.

“The proportion of migrants worldwide who cross borders is remarkably consistent, even if absolute numbers have increased. The scale of today’s international migration, then, is not unprecedented as some would claim, though the origins of migrants are more varied — as is the temporary character of much of this mobility.”

Location is also a vital factor in migrations. “While New Zealand differs from other parts of the world, Dunedin’s experiences of migration vary, for instance, from those in Auckland.”

Listening to migrants’ personal stories is one of three key research clusters for the group.

“Too often when we study migration we look at broad statistics and patterns without considering the thrills and horrors or the adventure and exile that accompany human mobility. How do migrants conceptualise their migration experiences and how do they and migration researchers represent these accounts? And what stories do objects and ideas tell us? Narratives and representations of migration go far beyond statistics.

“Our second key cluster examines migration and education. International students are a significant cohort among those who migrate.

“The third key research cluster looks at migration, health and well-being and genetics. This theme engages not only with the physical and mental health and well-being of migrants, but also the challenges facing those in the health sector who work with migrants.”

The centre will bring together the work of many individual group members, showcasing and championing the depth and range of their research strengths and supporting their endeavours through opportunities to organise and host events, develop group research, and provide small amounts of research funding, says McCarthy.

Initiatives this year have included developing a range of local, national and international collaborations and arranging workshops and public talks.

The Global Migrations team has strong support from academics Professor Sir Tom Devine (Edinburgh) the leading historian of Scotland and its diaspora; prominent New Zealand migration social scientists Professor Paul Spoonley (Massey) and Professor Richard Bedford (AUT); former Governor-General Sir Anand Satyanand; members of Dunedin’s community and international experts who work on migration issues.

“The strength and diversity of this esteemed steering group will, we hope, act as a critical sounding board as we develop a plan to ensure the longevity of the centre.”

Photo: Alan Dove

25% of New Zealand’s population was born elsewhere.

More than 200 different ethnic groups live in New Zealand.

65.6 million people worldwide have been forcibly displaced people, including 22.5 million refugees.

WW2 global population displacement reached 165 million.

3.3% of the world’s population lives outside the country of their birth for more than a year — a statistic that has remained the same for the last 60 years.