Workshop: Migration from the Migrant Point of View: The Normative and Methodological Relevance of Migrants’ Agency

September 7, 2022 - September 9, 2022
Manchester Centre for Political Theory

M13 9PL
United Kingdom

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  • KU Leuven
  • Universität Potsdam
  • Universität Hamburg
  • Ruhr-Universität Bochum


Universität Potsdam

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Mario J. Cunningham M. (KU Leuven) 

Hilkje C. Hänel (Universität Potsdam) 

Daniel Häuser (Universität Hamburg) 

Thorben Knobloch (Ruhr-Universität Bochum)

So far, the literature on the ethics and political theory of migration has largely taken a state-centered perspective. Central questions concerned the rights and obligations of states – particularly of the wealthy democracies in the Global North – vis-à-vis prospective immigrants – especially from the Global South. While this focus is understandable given the power asymmetries that characterize relationships between states and migrants and between the states of the Global North and Global South, it has also led to seeing migrants primarily as burdens to be distributed, or as charges to be taken care of. The acknowledgment of these shortcomings has led to a growing interest in approaches taking a migrant-centered perspective in which migrants are not just strangers in need or victims of injustice, but also autonomous moral and political agents. This panel, accordingly, is interested in submissions that tackle questions concerning the normative considerations pertinent to migrants’ exercise of moral and political agency. 

Emphasizing migrants’ agency is important because it is one source for the moral claims of immigrants. As autonomous rational agents, rather than just as bearers of needs or interests, migrants can claim to be treated as capable of making choices and can demand to be allowed to determine their own lives based on their own judgments of the good. An example for this would be the question of whether and how far refugees should be allowed to choose their country of refuge. Highlighting migrants’ agency, however, also means asking about their moral and political responsibilities. Migrants make choices, which might be right or wrong, justified or unjustified. A prominent example would be questions regarding the conditions under which (prospective) immigrants are obligated to respect, or entitled to resist, potentially unjust immigration restrictions. Another one would be the question whether and under which conditions migrants can be said to act (ir-)responsibly when taking life-threatening routes, for example via the Mediterranean Sea. 

Besides this, focusing on agency comes with a focus on contexts. Agency has a relational component since a significant part of it is socially authored through the interpretation of actions by others. It also depends on legal, political, and socio-economic conditions enabling or disabling agency. In this regard, questions concerning the normative relevance of these conditions in North-South migration vis-à-vis South-South migration become salient. Furthermore, examples of the relevance of contexts in understanding migrants’ agency include the growing literature on sanctuary policies and political acts of undocumented immigrants and the normative analysis of restrictions on the right to work or to move freely within the host society for certain groups of immigrants, e.g. asylum seekers. 

Taking a migrant-centered perspective also means reflecting upon methodology: migrants must exercise their agency under particular circumstances, which rarely correspond neatly to the broad and largely ideal-theoretical models that inform much of the debate on justice in migration. Moreover, taking migrants seriously as agents might also mean including their voice and testimony in normative theory. We, therefore, also invite contributions tackling relevant methodological questions and outlining their consequences for the case of migration.

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