VALENTINE GAVARD-SUAIRE, visiting fellow (2020-2021)
Doctoral Researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London.
My research focuses on current migration from Vietnam to the UK. Reports of Vietnamese people being abused en route to, or in the UK, led to an increase in anti-trafficking and anti-slavery activities. However, protection professionals have contrasted and conflicting views over the circumstances and needs of migrants. In practice, migrants’ distrust towards support workers – in the context of criminalisation, enforced returns of irregular migrants, and discrimination issues – has perpetuated the communication and understanding gaps. The research I am undertaking reflects how protection workers’ fragmented imaginaries, interconnected discourses, and practices circumscribe migrants’ identities. It also uncovers how the diffusion of trafficking and slavery presumptions impacts the mobility of migrants. Through my work, I want to study how various actors in the migrant protection field come to see specific migrants as potential victims of trafficking and exploitation and adapt their practices accordingly. Another important part of the research consists in tracking the consequences that such concerns have on migrants’ lives.
COVID-19 and the rights of migrants
In the case of Vietnamese migrants in the UK, the pandemic has made the usual difficulties they face even harder to deal with. Asserting their rights and accessing support for their subsistence requires complex administrative procedures, many of which slowed down or proved more arduous this year. For instance, the first lockdown has impacted people who had applied for asylum or protection through the National Referral Mechanism: they haven’t been able to see their solicitor face to face for a long time and had to put up with delays in the Home Office casework. This worsened already existing feelings of being in limbo whilst waiting for an application outcome. It sometimes encouraged people to exit services and find solutions on their own.
Changing migration governance
From my standpoint, legal and policy instruments, as well as the dominant discourse on migration, reflect strong attention to issues of human trafficking. Many protocols, conventions, bilateral cooperation agreements, media reports, focus on cases in which migrants are deceived and coerced. This can be regarded as a fixation on the tip of the iceberg without engaging with more fundamental problems that underpin the problem of trafficking as one instance. Reversing the perspective to address inconspicuous vulnerabilities that affect a majority of migrants should be the first step to prevent dire human rights violations. Many governments, especially in the Global North, agree to fight human trafficking and modern slavery. However, they remain more reluctant to address the causes of migrants’ vulnerability. Blaming ‘traffickers’ for the abuses that migrants suffer is a short-sighted view which sidelines two crucial issues. First, host countries’ economies widely rely on underpaid, ‘dirty, dangerous and difficult’ jobs undertaken by migrants. Second, the scarcity of legal and safe pathways leading to these indispensable jobs forces people to rely on potentially dubious intermediaries. It must be recognised that inadequate border regimes, as well as deficient protection mechanisms for migrant workers, pave the way for situations of vulnerability that can lead to exploitation. We need a global governance system that is more attuned to the structural incoherence that migrants have to navigate at their own expenses. The development of relevant instruments also needs to be more inclusive of migrants.
One of the worrying trends that I would like to address is the narrative in which migration is addressed. I have noticed that well-meaning communications from major migrant and refugee organisations paradoxically contribute to casting migrants away from the general population, for instance through participatory posts engaging their online audience about migrants' rights. Rights of migrants should not be subject to opinion referendums. They are already enshrined in international law, why meaning to debate it – even if it is to reach the conclusion that they should be upheld? My point is that normalising migration requires to refrain from narratives opposing people who move across borders and the ones who do not.
The Interview was carried out by Viktoriia Karpenko