Spotlight on Dr Priya Deshingkar
Senior Research Fellow at Sussex Centre for Migration Research
I was actually a scientist once upon a time, and my first degree was in Zoology. After that I did a Master’s in Agricultural Sciences where I did have some exposure to the real world as it were, but it wasn’t enough and I quickly became more frustrated after becoming more specialised. I realised I was learning more and more and yet I was getting further and further away from the issues that I actually found interesting. So after my Masters I just decided to change completely and I went and worked for an NGO in India as a researcher on environment and development issues, and that’s where my interest in development started.
What migrants were telling me was very different to what the policy approach to migration was at the time, and that just sparked my interest in it. I started going deeper into the issue, and I found that there was actually a big divide between the way migration was being talked about in academia, at the policy level, and in the NGO community in India, and what the people themselves were telling me. After that I came to Sussex to do a PhD at the Institute of Development Studies and finished that in ‘92. I am a development person who is carrying out research on migration, so I come at it from a completely different perspective to those who have come up through the migration route.
Currently I am the Research Director of the Migrating out of Poverty Research Consortium, and I also lead a project on migration and development in Myanmar. The Consortium used to work in five global regions, in South-East Asia, South Asia, East Africa, West Africa and Southern Africa, but more recently we have shifted our focus completely over to Africa.
Our research is about migration, poverty and development, so what we are really trying to do is unpick the relationship between migration and poverty, and ultimately development. Development is quite a nebulous term and can mean different things to different people. The idea is to understand the role of poverty as a driver for migration, as well as what impacts migration has on poverty. If we take a really broad view of it, those could be impacts on an overall sense of wellbeing as well, which may not be just about income levels, and may also include a view of what development means to the people who are migrating.
My focus is very much on the lower end of migration, people who migrate for unskilled jobs, or low skilled jobs, with low levels of education. People who come from historically disadvantaged social groups, and who have tended to be lumped together. There hasn’t been much of a disaggregated view on that kind of migration in migration studies, and we’ve been in quite a unique position to look into those migration types that poorer people engage in. This tends to be migration within the country, or to neighbouring countries, so it’s not the kind of migration that you read about in the newspapers all the time. It’s more about local movements and people going for jobs that are often invisible, so a lot of this activity is happening below the radar and people don’t really understand it.
There are so many policies that are being formulated and forcefully implemented without listening to those voices, without caring to understand whether it’s something that is going to create a positive outcome or not. For example, a lot of people work in brick kilns all over the developing world, and all across Asia particularly. The dominant discourse is that these people need to be rescued from this kind of work, without actually understanding where they are coming from, why they are there, and how they feel about it. It’s all externally driven analysis and it’s their voices being projected onto voices of migrants. I really want to make a dent in that because I think that by creating those sorts of forced policy approaches and narratives you are doing more harm than good. Likewise demonising labour market intermediaries and trying to ban them doesn’t get rid of them, it just makes everything illegal. It actually can become more expensive and more exploitative for the migrants concerned, so it doesn’t actually help.
Governments all over the world need to wake up to the fact that people from rural areas migrating to urban areas are leaving home for a variety of reasons. They want to make a different life for themselves but at the moment the system isn’t geared up to that, it’s very hostile and anti-migration, and migrants often face greater barriers travelling within their own country sometimes than they might going to another country. All over there needs to be a shift in attitudes towards migrants, more support, fewer restrictions and generally accepting migration as a part of development. The fundamental problem is that migration is always seen as an aberration and something that shouldn’t happen. If you accept it as part of development, which many migration scholars have persuasively argued, then it shouldn’t be stopped because it is inevitable. It will happen, young peoples’ aspirations and ideas about a better life are changing all over the world so people will want to move, and we need to create a society and a world in general that is more receptive to migration and welcoming to migrants.
I’m kind of drilling deeper and going wider at the same time in the sense that my current obsession is this whole debate on ‘modern-slavery’. I find the term ‘modern-slavery’ problematic, it reduces the whole experience of migrants to just one-dimension and that is exploitation and also takes a very cross-sectional view of the whole process. There is no kind of before or after, there is no really examining where these people have come from and where they are going. There is no evidence that can trace what’s happened to them. It’s a very strong value judgement on what they think is happening to them without actually listening to migrant voices. I just want to raise more awareness about the potentials of these kind of migrations despite the exploitation involved; the need to remove blanket policy restrictions against them, and to provide a more supportive environment, especially for younger peoples’ migration choices.
The Western world as a whole is now obsessed with this idea that everyone wants to migrate over and destabilise societies and create all kinds of problems. It seems to me that forms of migration that nearly two years ago were never categorised as ‘modern-slavery’ have suddenly become ‘modern slavery’. There are strong stereotypes and morally driven definitions of what work should be, driven by the dominant discourse globally, so I am very interested in challenging those discourses and understanding things from different cultural and geographical perspectives. It is hard sometimes because if you are challenging a very powerful tide of opinion then it becomes difficult, but you have to keep at it, and back it up with evidence of course. That’s where research comes in.