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Day 64, Year of #Mygration: The Ethics of Researching International Migration

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This featured blog post is by Dr Heidi Østbø Haugen, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Sociology and Human Geography at the University of Oslo.

Throughout this week we’ve been discussing South-South migration. Although many of the posts so far have focused on Chinese migration to Africa, increasingly we’ve also seen Africans migrating to China. Indeed, much of my research work to date has taken place in this area, and it raises important ethical questions about how we research migration and our responsibilties as researchers to those we study.

A good question with which to start is: How do we give back to the people we study? The question arises whether we’re studying people living away from home, prospective migrants or families who receive remittances. In 2014, towards the end of a year of fieldwork in Guangzhou, South China, the answer to this question was spelled out to me in an unusually clear manner. A group of Gambian men, whose stories were far from positive, wanted to broadcast and share them. In contrast to their hopes, China had not offered the kinds of opportunities they had dreamed of when they sold their car, land or small business to leave the Gambia. Now they wanted to warn others against coming.

More Gambians were arriving in China every week. Migration brokers in Gambia claimed that while the route to Europe was “closed”, a few thousand dollars could get people to Asia. Moreover, they would travel on an airplane, not through the desert by road and then across the sea in shoddy boats.

But the Gambian in Guangzhou were worried that no one would believe a penniless return migrant. Stories about the lack of opportunities in China could all too easily be interpreted as excuses for personal failure. They reasoned, therefore, that they could more effectively convey to others what the situation in China was really like as a group.

The Gambians who were living in hiding from the police in China solicited the help of Manon Diederich, a PhD scholar at the University of Cologne, to get their stories out as soon as possible. On yellow legal pads, they recorded why they had left the Gambia, their experiences en route to China, and what it was like to stay in a country with few prospects of earning any money. The letters and video statements were uploaded anonymously to a Facebook page for immediate dissemination.

Later, when many of the Gambians had returned home, I met up with many of them again there. In a classroom outside the capital, Banjul, we conceptualised the website UTurnAsia as a more structured way to communicate their experiences. Although the site is no longer updated, it remains a resource these migrants refer to when they want to let others know what life in China is really like.

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