Making migration safer: reflecting key elements

Our experiences confirm that social learning is deeply embedded in social relations and depends on people who show enthusiasm and are willing to move things forward despite the many challenges encountered.

Lessons learnt and challenges encountered

Although the work of the South Asia Study Center (SASC) was planned in a participatory way, it had to deal with several objections. First, due to the political situation in Nepal (civil war at that time), migrants felt caught between the Maoists and the Royal Army or police in their home country. Even in India, they still fear persecution and worry about their families in Nepal. It therefore took time to win people over to the project. Second, the migrants’ way of life makes outreach programs time-consuming and labour intensive. Moreover, patriarchy hampers work with women, since they are often not allowed to talk freely or attend courses alone. This was addressed by a gender-balanced staff who discussed with male relatives that women also benefited from such projects, and organised events to specifically address women’s and men’s needs.

The training materials, posters, pamphlets, etc. were not helpful to the many who are illiterate. But SASC tried to explain the contents of such materials to those persons who are illiterate. Training materials had to be adapted for illiterate migrants.

SASC was the first NGO to deal with their daily needs. SASC often had to accept that the migrants sometimes demanded too many different things which could not be tackled on the spot. Many problems of the migrants are caused by a lack of government laws and lack of concern from both governments of India and Nepal and wider societal structures which can not be solved at the grassroots level where NGOs and activists work. At the same time, all involved also learnt a lot from the project and took those lessons forward into future work.

Another lesson learnt is that participation is a key to a successful project. This requires time, and results cannot be quantified at the beginning. Participants may lose interest, and it is the task of the project staff to adapt to migrants’ needs and motivate participants. Another major obstacle was the general unavailability of information about migrants’ rights and legal aspects of informal labour.

The project has shown that innovative information campaigns and advocacy effectively reach migrant workers and also benefit their families. Nevertheless, governments and civil society need to take greater responsibility. Many problems faced by migrants are caused by lack of laws or insufficient law enforcement on the part of the Nepalese government and the governments of the migrants’ destinations. Individual countries can do a great deal to ensure that policies and programmes that meet migrants’ needs are implemented. It is important to note that a country cannot protect its migrants without the cooperation of the host country. Thus, partnerships are essential in addressing migration issues.

Engagement, enthusiasm, and sharing experiences

Our experiences confirm that social learning is deeply embedded in social relations and depends on people who show enthusiasm, have the will to collaborate, take things forward, and turn learning experiences into new practices. As Raju Bhattarai, former head of SASC, reflected about the progress of the project when I interviewed him in 2019:

‘The first year of the project was finished, but we started something and we said, we can’t leave it in-between. It’s nothing like giving a one-time bread, you have to teach them how to get that bread instead. That’s why we had to continue.’ (Raju Bhattarai).

In our talk he was very enthusiastic but also thoughtful and reflective. He left Delhi by himself after some years, stayed in Spain for several years, and later moved on to Canada, where he now lives with his family. He kept up his political engagement with migrants in Spain and Canada, but acknowledges how hard it is to be engaged and active while having growing family responsibilities and securing livelihoods and education for his children:

‘It was such a great time, […] but you know it’s also hard as well when you have a family and all that staff, then you have a pressure […] what are you doing, how many years do you want to do that, what about your life, what do you want to do with your kids, my dad, mum, and the pressure from the society […] how long can you do that?’ (Raju Bhattarai).

My personal experience, as an academic and author of this course, is that my interest in collaborations outside of academia – and making my research accessible and transparent – has always been important for me. It is, however, sometimes challenging to integrate in daily academic work. Although discourses are slowly changing, academia is still mainly measured against publications as the most important research output. Any extra work requires even more time and engagement. I now have a permanent post at the university as a professor. Therefore, it is up to us to promote transdisciplinarity in practice but also critically reflect on it and contribute in debates, conferences, and commissions so that universities provide the space and also acknowledge such work.

My deep insight in transdisciplinary work as a PhD at such an early stage of my academic work was certainly a major foundation, so I continued working in this direction. I started various other activities during my research since then, such as making a film, actively contributing to policy debates and public roundtables, and now working as a professor actively integrating transdisciplinarity into teaching through having initiated a media-lab at the University of Bern, where we teach and experiment with specific methods which can foster transdisciplinary work.

Look through the notes you made concerning making migration safer and make a summary – either in writing or in thought. What are your thoughts about this project and how it turned out? What about it is special to you? Are there things you would have done differently, and why?

Author: Prof. Dr. Susan Thieme