Sussex Centre for Migration Research

SCMR Migration Blog

This is a temporary page hosting our first, and highly timely, blogs.

Emotions in field work

23rd June, 2022

Claude Samaha, Lead Researcher at Basmeh & Zeitooneh and a member of the Protracted Displacement Economies (PDE) team. 

Resnik argues that ‘an objective researcher (or project, report, or study) is like a judge who attempts to give a fair hearing to both sides of a legal dispute’. This judge must attempt to make decisions based on legal and empirical evidence without allowing their values to affect their judgment and reasoning.

We also think of objective research as research that is unaffected by moral, economic, social, political or religious values. But in doing so are we not withdrawing from the human part of social research? Engaging in social fieldwork elicits strong emotions in researchers, and feelings can be powerful teachers. As an Arab researcher who shares the language, traditions, and customs of refugee groups in Lebanon, I am deeply affected by the dire situation in the country’s refugee camps. And I have discovered that emotions are necessary for building human understanding.

I remember the first time I was in an unofficial refugee camp. It was in the Beqaa area on a rainy day in February 2016. I was part of a group of students from the Lebanese University that was conducting multidisciplinary field research with pregnant refugee women and new mothers. Upon our arrival, we were welcomed by barefoot children in drenched tents. Newborns were placed on barrels covered with plastic wrap. Pregnant women and new mothers dragged their wet dresses trying to pull their children with one hand and holding their hijab with their other hand. Living in such conditions was clearly detrimental to the health and psychological wellbeing of the pregnant women, new mothers and their babies.

Basmeh & Zeitooneh staffBasmeh & Zeitooneh staff and volunteers entering a refugee camp in the Bekaa Valley

I went back to the same camp earlier this year, six years after my first visit as a student. Despite all the work non-governmental organizations and other civil society organizations have been doing, the situation has worsened. The camp lacks essential goods such as baby milk and diapers. There are no medical facilities. The ongoing economic crisis has affected displaced people as well as the ‘host’ community surrounding them. Many of the latter consider Syrian refugees to be one of the main causes of the crisis. The prevailing mood was tense rather than compassionate, which makes refugees’ lives much more difficult. I felt angry, frustrated and helpless.

Emotions in humanistic and social research are factual and concrete. Field researchers belong to communities. They share with those communities emotions like fear, sadness, joy, hope and depression. Instead of assuming that emotions impede our knowledge creation and dissemination, we should consider how emotions and their manipulation could be part of social norms, including norms of scholarly work.

In an attempt to better understand how economies function in communities that have faced different waves of displacement, Basmeh & Zeitooneh is conducting research in three of the poorest displacement-affected regions of Lebanon (Nabaa, El Qobbeh and Bar Elias). We estimate (based on data from United Nations agencies) that these regions have a combined population of around 130,000 residents. By studying non-monetary transactions as well as monetary transactions, we are taking a more comprehensive approach to economic analysis.

There are many reports about increasing poverty in Lebanon, and our findings offer further evidence of the dire situation faced by so many in the country. Of 4502 surveyed households, 340 (7.6%) indicate not everyone in the household has enough to eat. But in terms of humanitarian and social welfare, with an average of 5 people in every household, it means that many of those 1700 persons had to sleep hungry at least one night in the past month!

Furthermore, 2161 out of 4502 households surveyed have debts. In other words, almost half of those families depend on family, friends or small business owners for their daily living, and are in danger of hunger if personal loans or services on credit are suddenly stopped. The daily struggle that many in these communities endure is plain to see and should not be ignored.

This population is not just a number. This population has faces, and with every face comes a story. With those residents, we share history and stories, hopes and expectations, and sometimes we share a cup of coffee or tea. Does it make enumerators, supervisors, researchers and social workers less objective?

In field research, emotions could be a reason to escalate research engagement, explore techniques like contextual inquiry and grounded theory, and propose new intervention strategies. Being involved as a human helps in extracting and analysing useful insights while predicting behaviors based on field observation.

Showing empathy, sharing emotions and really listening to people enriches the data we collect through surveys and interviews. They make the numbers in Excel spreadsheets come to life and bring a depth to the stories that people share with us.

PDE is a project funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Global Challenges Research Fund (grant reference number ES/T004509/1). This blog appeared originally in the PDE website


‘Mana pfasha’: The incredible resilience of Rwandan refugees in Masisi, DRC - José Mvuezolo Bazonzi

5th May, 2022

José Mvuezolo Bazonzi, Coordinator of Groupe de Recherche et d’Etudes Stratégiques sur le Congo (GREC) at the University of Kinshasa, and a member of the Protracted Displacements Economies (PDE) team. 

Generally settled in planned camps – with or without the support of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) – displaced people in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) also find themselves living in ‘host’ communities or simply managing in makeshift lodgings. Their mode of subsistence is as diverse as the causes of their protracted displacement. This blog post highlights the resilience of displaced people in Masisi territory, particularly those settled in Kitshanga, one of our research sites. 

Mana pfashaDisplaced people waiting at Mana pfasha in Kitshanga [Credit: Chrispin Mvano]

The scarcity of arable land around Kitshanga 

Masisi is one of six territories in North Kivu province. This province accounts for 34.6% of all internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the country. Moreover, the DRC’s 5.2 million IDPs represent more than 10% of the 48 million IDPs in the world. The area around Kitshanga is particularly impacted by intermittent clashes involving national and foreign non-state armed groups, as well as the Congolese national army. This area is also heavily impacted by land grabbing carried out by armed groups and by the owners of huge commercial landholdings, many of whom are said to be actors in the violence in the region. Armed conflict and land grabbing are causing mass forced displacement, with people fleeing to Kitshanga, yet lacking land to cultivate in order to meet their needs.

Daily work from ‘Mana pfasha’

During research in Kitshanga, we observed a kind of ‘agricultural labour market’. Rwandan ‘refugees’, who do not actually have legal refugee status but are locally known as refugees and settled in Camp Mungote, do not have many resources. Many of them have been displaced since the 1990s. In the past they received aid, in the form of food and non-food items, from UNHCR and other humanitarian organisations. Nowadays, however, they hardly receive any support from such organisations. Therefore these ‘refugees’ survive almost entirely via informal activities, especially agricultural labour, through which they also contribute to the local economy.

The place where they gather in the morning, right next to Camp Mungote, is called ‘Mana pfasha’, which in Kinyarwanda, the language spoken by Rwandan refugees, means ‘God help me’. Every morning, the displaced people, mostly Hutus (the majority ethnic group in Rwanda), stand at this place, just next to the road, each with their own tillage tool (hoe, machete or axe). They wait for a ‘boss’ who will come and select them for agricultural work.

It is largely women who are hired to weed fields and transport loads (25 to 50 kgs) of cassava or bananas. Payment for this work is derisory: between 500 FC and 1500 FC (US$0.25 – US$0.75) per day. Ploughing fields is generally reserved for men who are perceived to be strong. Yet the payment for this work is not much higher: 1500 FC to 2000 FC (US$0.75 – US$1) a day. Older persons are usually completely excluded from any sort of agricultural work (and therefore are particularly vulnerable). Children of displaced people are selected for this type of work, but they tend to be paid much less than adults.

Incredible resilience despite extreme vulnerability

Nikuze (not her real name) is a Rwandan refugee who has lived in Camp Mungote since 2014. She is a widow and mother of four children. Every morning, she goes to Mana pfasha, and is always chosen by a ‘boss’ for daily work. During our team’s last visit to Kitshanga, she said:

“In the camp, it is always difficult to find a job to survive. You have to go out and go to work either in someone’s fields, or in someone’s house, or go and get by in the city, in the market, etc. But the safest activity is working in the fields… with that, I am sure to have my ‘present’”.

The term ‘present’ alludes to the attendance check that is usually carried out in factories or companies; when the boss calls the worker, the latter answers “present,” to mark their presence at the place of work. Here it represents the amount received by the agricultural worker.

A lack of humanitarian assistance and precarious employment mean that the village savings and credit association (AVEC – Association Villageoise d’Epargne et de Crédit) and a rebate called ‘likilimba’ play an important protective role in Kitshanga. Each member of AVEC saves a certain amount of money each week, usually from 5000 FC to 20,000 FC (US$2.5 – US$10). Over time, and depending on their needs, the member can apply for a loan, and the AVEC management grants the member an amount in proportion to their weekly savings. The amount lent to the member can be up to 100,000 FC (US$50). ‘Likilimba’ involves members of a given group contributing a small sum of money daily for a period of time, and the total stake is then given to a member to help them with their needs. According to Nikuze, the local microfinance system greatly helps displaced people to meet the basic needs of their families, and even to rent a field for a season, or to start a small chicken or livestock farm, so as to increase their income, and thus improve their lives.

Ultimately, despite the scarcity of land in Kitshanga and its surroundings, the Rwandan ‘refugees’, who are displaced people and therefore vulnerable, manage to survive. They constitute the bulk of the local agricultural workforce, and have built a reputation for honesty and loyalty. Over time, this community has developed strong links with certain ‘bosses’, who now employ some of them, like Nikuze, almost daily. And this helps them to withstand the vicissitudes of life.

PDE is a project funded by UK Research and Innovation through the Global Challenges Research Fund (grant reference number ES/T004509/1). This blog appeared originally in the PDE website


On Generosity, Sponsorship and the Right to Asylum

18th March 2022

 Dr. Aleksandra Lewicki, Senior Lecturer in Sociology & Co-Director of the Sussex European Institute

On Monday, the British government introduced its new ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme which is presented as a ‘step up’ in Britain’s generosity towards refugees. However, the scheme is merely a continuation of Britain’s restrictive politics of asylum and immigration. Specifically, it draws on two key principles of recent immigration legislation - sponsorship and everyday bordering - which limit the rights of people who move to the UK and individualize responsibility for asylum.

 Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, neighbouring countries such as Moldova, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and even Hungary opened their borders and waived visa requirements to make escape routes more manageable. These and other European countries have since received 3 million people displaced by the war. As this number is expected to rise to 4 million, we are beginning to hear pleas for greater solidarity from Europe’s West – especially from small and socio-economically deprived countries such as Moldova.

 While offering public reassurance that Britain is prepared to offer support, the UK Government’s approach has been particularly reticent. Initially the British government suspended its visa services in Ukraine and limited visa entitlements to relatives of Ukrainians already living in the UK. At this point, Home Office Minister Kevin Foster invited displaced Ukrainians via twitter to apply to Britain’s seasonal work scheme. Home Secretary Priti Patel highlighted that stringent security checks were necessary to stop Russian agents or terrorists smuggling themselves into the UK. Many displaced people reported difficulties with having their visa applications processed, and several hundred Ukrainians found themselves stuck in Calais awaiting a UK visa. Only 300 visas had been granted via the family scheme by March 7th (and 5500 by March 17th). Accused of misjudging its population’s solidarity, the government declared that biometric data could be provided upon arrival in the UK and launched a new sponsorship scheme. Titled ‘Homes for Ukraine’, the scheme is introduced as follows: ‘The UK is one of the most generous nations in the world and the British public are now being asked to go one step further and open their homes to those fleeing the war in Ukraine’. People in Britain can apply to receive £350 a month to offer free accommodation to a refugee from Ukraine. When applying, they have to name the beneficiaries, who then have to undergo ‘light touch security checks’. Within 24 hours, 100.000 people had applied to act as sponsors.

 So, is the sponsorship scheme the most recent culmination of Britain’s generosity towards refugees? And is it a ‘step up’ in Britain’s immigration policy?

 I suggest that it is neither. The most obvious point has been made numerous times – the scheme is exclusively available to Ukrainians, while safe routes to asylum have been severely restricted for people fleeing conflict and war elsewhere, such as Afghanistan or Syria. Ukrainians can assert their Whiteness as press coverage positions them as ‘of Europe’. At the same time, however, as one commentator put it, they are seen as only ‘relatively civilized, relatively European’. The figure of the ‘Eastern European’, as I argue in an article that is under review with the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, has been ambiguously racialized in the Western imagination. Accordingly, representatives of British government, as cited above, spontaneously imagined displaced Ukrainians as potential fruit pickers or security threats. These representations are not mere rhetoric, as I elaborate in the mentioned article, but have contributed to justifying restrictions to rights and mobilities within the emergent pre- and post-Brexit border regime.

 The ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme reflects two key principles of this evolving immigration regime – sponsorship and everyday bordering – which exacerbate the precarity and disposability of people who move to the UK, and individualize the responsibility for asylum.

 Firstly, sponsorship is a key pillar of the restrictive post-Brexit immigration regime. The 2020 immigration law introduced novel requirements for labour migration to the UK – including sponsorship by a prospective employer, evidence of language skills and the meeting of a minimum salary threshold. The latter does not apply to visa applicants who come to work in shortage sectors, such as care or seasonal work. The idea of sponsorship renders workers dependent on their employers’ specific requirements and preferences at any given time – and makes them more disposable.

 Rebranding the idea by extending it to private homes, the government has now introduced the rationale of sponsorship into the asylum system. This increases displaced people’s dependence on individual good will – but also their precarity and disposability. Having escaped the trauma of war, they are entirely reliant on their sponsor’s mood or even financial need to host them in their private space. This reliance significantly reduces their autonomy in extremely challenging personal circumstances. Sexualized representations of ‘Eastern European’ women, moreover, may invite transgressions and exploitations for domestic, care or sex work.

 The sponsorship scheme, secondly, reinforces another key principle of Britain’s immigration policy – the individualisation of responsibility for the management of Britain’s borders. Immigration laws that introduced the so called ‘hostile environment’ from 2014 onwards require landlords, health care practitioners, educators or employers to ascertain a person’s legal right to be in the UK. The governments ‘Prevent’ agenda has put front-line staff and ordinary citizens in charge of preventing political radicalisation. Effectively, the responsibility to detect illegalized border crossers, and prevent terrorist attacks, has thereby been attributed to individual members of society. In a similar move, the sponsorship scheme individualises the state’s public responsibility to offer asylum and puts the onus on individual citizens to deliver Britain’s international legal obligations. The appeal to individual generosity, even if it practically extends the number of people who can receive sanctuary in this instance, further erodes the human right to asylum.

 The British public should be lauded for its welcoming attitude towards Ukrainians displaced by war. This solidarity, unfortunately, has been hijacked by a government that has no intention to meet its international human rights obligations. Countries in Europe’s East, in turn, should be lauded for waiving visa requirements – but also reminded that the right to asylum is universal and carries the same obligations towards globally displaced people.