'Nothing About Us Without Us' - advancing the migration debate


Sarah Spencer from Oxford’s Global Exchange on Migration and Diversity reflects on learnings from an unusual series of annual symposia, organised with SCI support 

What do you get if you mix senior policy makers, civil society leaders and academics, delve into deep discussions over four days and leaven the dough with relaxation on the river? Answer: a rich mix of reflections, insights, and energy to put fresh ideas into action, with an extended network with whom to work.

For the past four years SCI has enabled Oxford’s ‘Autumn Academy’ to bring together 30 people with complementary expertise, from the international to the local level, to consider major challenges in the migration field. Issues on which there is no consensus except in one key respect: that current approaches are not working. From 2016-2019 this annual symposium explored strategies towards integration; migrants with irregular status; cooperation (or not) between government and civil society in the management of migration; and narrative change at the municipal level.

As we take an enforced pause this year because of COVID 19 it is good to consider what we have learnt. For me, looking across the key themes that emerged, four stand out as of particular relevance today:

  • Recognise and take advantage of the many tiers of government on which policy is made

If progress cannot be secured at one level, look up (could a decision at European or international level open the necessary door?) or across to regional or municipal authorities. Cities are increasingly (if not invariably) the sites of innovation on inclusive measures. Together their voice has had influence on higher tiers. Yet activists can underrate their capacity to generate change, and higher tiers regularly neglect the need to have them at the table when decisions are taken. Tiers of government have overlapping mandates and competing priorities (not least on migrants with irregular status). One outcome of inclusive policy making, reconciling competing agendas, could be greater consensus on what needs to be done.

  • The urgent need for new narratives

Narratives shape our collective common sense, our take on how things are and what needs to be done. The rise of populist politics has intensified the need for narratives which, like those used by populists, humanise the implications and appeal to emotions as well as to facts. The groundswell of support for refugees demonstrates the scale on which people retain humanitarian values, as has concern for the inequality exposed by COVID 19.  If new approaches are to resonate, however, they must recognise that the benefits and costs of migration are uneven.  As Rob Ford suggested to us, we need to understand the ‘tinder, the spark and the flame’ of anti-migrant sentiment if it is to be answered effectively. New narratives must go hand in hand with more effective ways to communicate them; and with solidarity from and with government partners when shared aspirations are attacked. Indeed, governments – municipalities included - have the greatest capacity to lead a more nuanced understanding of migration, where there is a will to do so.

  • The importance of a strong evidence base

In the era of fact-free politics, facts still matter to underpin sound policy making. COVID 19 has reinforced that recognition among policy makers and the public – politicians eager to insist that their decisions follow the science. The challenge is to see that insistence extended to policy making on migration. Academic research has a key role to play.

  • Expertise of refugees and migrants needs to be heard to inform policy reform

‘Nothing about us without us’, used to such powerful effect by disabled people, is equally valid for those whose life chances are curtailed by their immigration status and whose knowledge from personal experience is no less a form of expertise. Civil society groups help to bring those voices to the fore. Moreover, without their capacity to innovate and respond to needs, many countries’ migration systems would collapse.

NGOs need to be part of the new narrative on migration, and its communication, to ensure that their contribution is recognised. NGOs cannot afford just to do good work - saving lives, restoring hope, strengthening communities. They need to make sure that we know.