The website for critical discussion about migration in Central and Eastern Europe.

Review of the 16, 2014, 2 issue of Urban People journal

The latest issue of the Urban People journal presents a selection of papers from the conference “Beyond Borders: Migration and (In)Equality in Central Europe in Comparison” organized by the Multicultural Center in Prague. It was held at the Faculty of Humanities, Charles University in Prague, in Jinonice on January 23-24, 2014 as the closing and most important event of an international project “Migration to the Centre”. 

The overall aim of the project was to analyze how the Community acquis, meaning the body of lawful rights and obligations that ties all the EU members together, affects not only migration and integration policies, but also everyday lives of migrants in Central Europe (specifically the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungaria, Slovakia, and Croatia) and – as the title of the conference suggests – beyond. When it comes to the project’s concrete goals, it was designed to create a dynamic network of diverse organizations, partners and agents who focus on the issue of migration and integration. Moreover, it also strived to draw attention of various experts, policy makers, and general public towards specific issues that countries face while implementing migration legislation. Although the project covered three main themes – working and residence permit, family reunification, migrants’ study and training in the EU – the presented papers offer much broader range of migration-related topics, including access to public health care, vulnerability of domestic care takers, rising right-wing nationalism in the EU, and South Europe-North African border crossing. The mission, outcomes and goals of the project and conference are summarized in Daniela Pěničková’s article Beyond Borders including a synthesis of all presented papers (pp. 273-285). A short recap follows:  

Petra Ezzeddine’s ethnography “Who Cares? (Ageing, Care, and Migration)” and Rutvica Andrijasevic & Devi Sacchetto’s article “Migrant Labor and Temporary Work Agencies: The Case of Foxconn in the Czech Republic” represent valuable contributions to the ongoing discussion within the field of migrant labor studies. Ezzeddine’s paper introduces the results of pilot ethnographic research which analyses so-called commodification of care work for elderly people in the Czech Republic. As Ezzeddine’s research shows, lots of people have to face the dilemma between taking care of their parents, fulfilling the obligations towards their children and pursuing professional career and dealing with other challenges of their personal lives. Since the issue of “family caregiver” is being still largely unrecognized by many policy makers and the reputation of state care centers remains rather poor, hiring a professional who would take care of an elderly person in his or her own environment is becoming a popular option. Ezzeddine emphasizes that the contemporary social organization of care is tightly connected to structures of the global economy, migration trends, and social inequalities. Therefore, she directs her attention towards the vulnerable character of domestic care provided by Ukrainian female migrants in the Czech Republic. Such migrants often leave their own children and family behind, because they perceive this option as the only way to sustain their loved ones. However, being a migrant woman and working as a care-taker in the Czech Republic is no bed of roses. The fluidity and volatility of such work in combination with blurred working-private life boundaries (in cases of in-home care) might lead to abuse of pre-defined working hours and other issues. But because legal residency depends on a valid employment contract, migrants usually stay in the job even if the conditions are harsh, unethical, or even breach the worker’s rights. Ezeddine concludes with an appeal which sums up her findings regarding the often uneasy situation of female migrants working in the care industry: “It is important that migrant caregivers receive all their social rights, especially a dignified residence status, verification of qualification and, if necessary, even an easier process of reunification of transnational families” (pp. 235).

Rutvica Andrijasevic & Devi Sacchetto also focus on the experience of working migrants whose lives are – in this case – influenced and in fact determined by Temporary Employment Agencies. Authors analyze the role of those agencies in both professional and personal lives of migrants working in Foxconn factories situated in Pardubice, Kutná Hora, and Prague. Such temp agency workers present between 40% and 60% of the entire company’s workforce, they earn less than core workers and work in extremely irregular shifts. They live in dorms with restricted visitation (for example no children allowed) and lack of privacy and are easily fired without rights for appeal in common cases such as illness. When orders from the company’s customers decrease, the agency (which technically employs them) transports migrants back to the country of their origin. Or as Andrijasevic & Sacchetto put it in the closing part of this rather disturbing probe into the lives of temporary migrant workers, they make them “disappear”. Both of the articles provide a glimpse of what are the everyday fears and struggles in often very insecure and vulnerable lives of migrants working in the Czech Republic.

The issue of health care, both giving and receiving, presents another theme covered by two conference papers. In her article “Polish Medical Migrants in the United Kingdom: The Complicated Nature of their Belonging to a New Society”, Ewa Ślȩzak maps social and psychological effects accompanying the process of migration of Polish medical professionals to the United Kingdom. Through series of interviews, she explores the concept of “belonging” while assuming that the Polish doctors and nurses are living and working “in between”. It means they enjoy high social status emerging from their skilled medical profession but fail to fully integrate into the receiving society. Many respondents claim that the vast majority of their social contacts are set either in the hospital (i.e., the institutions they work for) or among other Polish medical expats. But there are other issues besides the partial isolation. “Once my daughter approached me and asked:  Dad, do you know that I am a Euro-orphan?” (pp. 252) admits one of the respondents while unintentionally touching the topic of new forms of transnational families that are symptomatic of the contemporary globalized world. Through her research, Ślȩzak shows that the migration process is (in some ways) difficult and challenging even for highly-skilled professionals. Although financially secured, these people experience frustration which emerges from a feeling that one is being trapped between two worlds, but does not really belong to any of them. Such detailed insight is valuable because it shows us those effects of migration that usually remain outside the scope of sociological analysis and inquires. 

Daniela Pěničková, who is also an editor of this Urban People journal’s issue, opens in her text „Political Economy of Migrant Health Care in the Czech Republic” the topic of health care from quite a different angle. In the first part of her article, she presents the historical development of the contemporary Czech public health system. As she points out, “the overall trend can be characterized by an increasing push for conversion of health into a privately purchased commodity” (pp. 279). In the Czech Republic, such commodification is being exposed through the state policies concerning non-EU nationals. If a migrant from non-EU country with long term residency does not possess an “employment” status, he or she is obliged to purchase a commercial insurance that is often beyond his or her financial limits. Moreover, such insurance usually covers only very basic treatments and exclude medical complications that are connected to previously detected or chronicle illnesses. Many migrants simply cannot afford to pay for “extras” and they remain underinsured or are simply uninsurable from the commercial company’s point of view. Both cases, however, make the migrants “illegal”. Pěničková illustrates this unsatisfactory situation through testimonies that she had collected among the Russian-speaking community living in the Czech Republic. This ethnographic probe pays specific attention to one of the most sensitive issues regarding the commercial health insurance, the experiences of migrant mothers who are often subjected to unethical treatment, such as gynecologists asking for “special” payments in cash, and are burdened with high-cost commercial insurance for their children. The most horrific stories include prematurely born infants with commercial companies refusing to cover the newborns bringing the migrant families (and hospitals) into enormous debts upon leaving the birthing center.

The following two articles approach the issue of migration from a more general perspective. They focus on how newly defined symbolic categories and physical borders draw both imaginary and real demarcation lines between us and “the others”. Jeroen Doomernik discusses in his contribution “Beyond Dutch Borders: A Nation in Times of Europeanization” the political consequences of the national categorization system. Concretely, he talks about an example of Dutch population statistics and the representation of “allochtoon”, a specific category which refers to the people of foreign origin. As he explains, the allochtoons are currently defined as “those residents who are either born abroad and have at least one parent who is foreign born or, if born in the Netherlands, they have at least one foreign born parent” (pp 263). Logically, the size of the population which is considered “allochtonous” increases because it includes the second generation of migrants despite the fact that many of them already have Dutch citizenship. So while the actual difference between autochtoon (people of non-foreign origin) and allochtoon (people of foreign origin) decreases, the symbolic and rhetorical importance of this distinction increases. The reason for such trend is that the statistics regarding the number of allochtoon people are being misused by populist politicians who are talking about “a growing problem”. Additionally, populists want to include the third generation of immigrants in the category.  Doomernik’s article is a great example of how institutional arrangements play an important role in the process of (domestic) “othering” which eventually increases alienation between migrant communities and the majority and overall tension in society. Such analysis is especially relevant in the light of the acutely increased Islamophobia in most European countries. In his article, Doomernik claims that the rhetoric of populist parties “intimately links Islam as an assumed threat to modern society with the allochtoon being a person who is prone to crime and is a subscriber to different – non-Dutch – norms and values“ (pp. 265). These assumptions are nowadays alarmingly present not only in political and media discourse but they also spread through many European societies.

Another pressing issue in relation to migration, the recent securitization of migration in the context of Euro-African border, is being discussed by Lorenzo Gabrielli in his article “Securitization of Migration and Human Rights: Frictions at the Southern EU Borders and Beyond”. He examines the topic while focusing on two main areas. Firstly, he talks about the production and militarization of the new common “external borders” that separates EU states from third country nationals. Subsequently, he elaborates on the delegation of migration control to the so-called transit spaces and countries on the African continent. The result of such politics of securitization can be found at the bottom of Aegean Sea and other places where many migrants lost their lives while trying to reach the so-called Promised Land of Europe. The politics’ consequences, Gabrieli points out, create an especially intensified push for illegal border crossing as well as they shift the migrations paths to areas with harsher climatic conditions. Lastly, there is also a growing inability to apply for political asylum, because the exile seekers have hard time reaching the European soil where they only can technically apply for the refugee status.

The last two conference papers present the remaining pieces in the complex and sophisticated mosaic of both theoretical and practical approaches to the issue of migration. Nataša Hrnčářová speaks in her article “Violating the Right to Liberty and Security in the Assessment of Claims for Asylum” about the most controversial practices in the contemporary process of assessing asylum applications.  She underlines the fact that the EU member states are increasingly reluctant to grant asylum to those who are coming from the so-called third countries. Hrnčářová gives specific examples of applicants being detained and deprived of basic human rights, such as the right to liberty and security, while waiting for their application to be proceeded. Her article is a valuable testimony that sheds light on the unnecessarily prolonged detentions of undocumented migrants and asylum seekers. This issue of Urban People Journal is concluded by Harald Scheu’s text “The Status of Citizens and Migrants in Light of the Non-Discrimination Principle”. As the title suggests, his theoretical juridical analysis focuses on an example of non-discrimination principle which was confirmed in 2009 by the United Nation’s Committee on Economics, Social and Cultural Rights. Together with the principle of equality, they present fundamental components of the international human rights law, which applies to everyone including refugees, asylum seekers, migrant workers or victims of human trafficking. But as he concludes, despite the non-discrimination principle, there are many examples and evidences of privileging the Union citizens, for instance in the labor market. 

Overall, the presented papers that were part of the “Beyond Borders: Migration and (In)Equality in Central Europe in Comparison” conference form coherent yet very diverse collection of contributions covering the most urgent issues of migration in central Europe and broader EU region. While focusing on its main actors such as employment agencies, private employers (including families), state policies, or EU member states’ laws, they do not lose sight from what is most important within the field of migration studies, the migrants themselves and their everyday lives and struggles. The issue is complemented with two outside-the-conference papers that bring a bit more geographical diversity into the issue, yet deal with minority and migration issues. Radek Nedvěd is focusing in his article “On the Complexity of the Urbanization Process of the Bushmen: Case Study on the !Xun in the Grootfontein Area in Namibia” on the phenomenon of Bushman urbanization. More precisely, he conducted several field trips to Namibia in order to understand the historical processes and factors influencing the mobility of the !Xun Bushmen in  and out of the urban space of Grootfontein.  Markéta Slavková’s article takes us then among young trans-migrants, predominantly of Indian origin, that migrate to Melbourne on an overseas student visas. In her ethnographic study “When I Say I’m from India, They Ask Me How to Get a Taxi: Imageries of Connectedness and Disconnectedness among Transmigrants in Melbourn, Australia”, she explores the imaginations of life strategies and negotiations of their notion of self.

So, if you want to know more about what does the concept of “home” or “tradition” mean for Indian students in Australia, how the European populists abuse demographic statistics in order to create xenophobic tension in Dutch society, or perhaps why more and more refugees’ lives are lost in vain during their desperate journey from North Africa to the EU, do not miss the opportunity to read this issue of Urban People. It is a great mixture of different methodologies, topics, and points of view which gives the reader a complex picture of our globalized world; a world where migration is perceived as an inherent part of our everyday lives, yet it is contested. But what can be appreciated the most about this issue is the fact that it is not a mere collection of different academic and theoretical approaches, but it is a vocal and more than ever needed call for the promotion of cross-national human solidarity.


This article has been funded from the project "Integration of Labour Migrants in the Czech Republic: Reinforcing the role of the Czech towns", CZ.1.04/5.1.01/77.00030, supported by the European Social Fund in the Czech Republic via the OP LZZ program. 

Vanda Černohorská
Vanda Černohorská has studied Philosophy and Film Studies at Palacky University in Olomouc, Gender Studies at Charles University in Prague and Sociology at Masaryk University in Brno, where she continues her studies in the PhD program. She currently works at the Integration Centre Prague (ICP) as a branch manager in Prague 13. Earlier she had worked for two years at the Department of Asylum and Migration Policy of the Ministry of Interior.
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