Our first workshop: thoughts and reflections

Yesterday, the research team gathered for its first workshop. Our aim was to lay the theoretical and historical foundations for the first phase of archival research, which will take place from January to May 2017.

In advance of the workshop, each one of our postdocs was asked to prepare a 25-page background paper, with a special focus on the earlier part of our research programme (the 1960s and 1970s). Even though all three postdocs have been meeting regularly to discuss their specific case studies, this was their first opportunity to bring their thoughts together in a single piece of written work.

Not surprisingly, the discussion ranged far and wide. Our three case studies – France, the UK and Germany – offer sharply diverging histories of state monitoring of “illegality”, “irregularity” and “immigration”. In the 1960s and 70s, there was little consensus over the words that should be used to describe irregular migration or, indeed, whether there even was such a thing. Administrators in each country used different terms to describe the movement of foreigners or colonial subjects into (or through) metropolitan territories, which makes it hard to generalise about the way Western European states conceptualised and dealt with both legal and illegal migration.

Nevertheless, there were a number of key threads that emerged from our discussion about the 1960s and 1970s:

  • The crucial importance of the late colonial and decolonising moments, during which ideas of citizenship, “abode”, settlement, free movement and belonging were subject to close scrutiny and often radically transformed.
  • The concomitant role of Europeanisation, both in terms of changing migration flows and the growing importance of European integration as a political and strategic reference point.
  • The broad lack of interest in “illegal” or “irregular” migration. All the evidence we have gathered so far suggests that state administrators were rarely, if ever, concerned with illegal migration until the mid-1970s. There was much greater interest in the various routes migrants took and/or the means by which to regularise migrants already within a given territory. In this context, almost no administrative or political effort was expended in defining illegality.
  • The strong relationship between the monitoring of migrants and the monitoring of “suspect” political activists (eg. anti-colonial nationalists in France, Irish terrorists in the UK, or Communist “infiltrators” in West Germany). This also explains why European states in this period had a tendency to think about migration from specific countries rather than migration in a general sense.
  • The relative lack of politicisation of migration or immigration, and the existence of broad cross-party consensus on the issue, unless a migrant flow was related to a specific political problem (eg. Algerian migration to metropolitan France)
  • The surprisingly light-tough, ad hoc legal framework within which most migratory flows operated. Where there was legislation (eg. in relation to the German Gastarbeiter), it was either sector or region-specific, or it was governed by bilateral agreements between individual states. Ministerial cooperation was sporadic and often ineffective.

Of course, there was wide variation between our case studies as well. Some of the most obvious points that were raised had to do with the absence of a specific colonial and/or postcolonial context in Germany; the complex redefinition of citizenship after 20161216_161629decolonisation in France and Britain; and the contrasting background political philosophies that affected political discourse surrounding migration in the three countries (labour and work priorities in Germany, republicanism in France, and race relations in the UK).

Finally, we had the opportunity to discuss the next phase of the project. The three postdocs prepared preliminary lists of archival documents that they would like to consult and we talked at length about how best to make use of the archive. With such a wide range of possible themes and a wealth of archival material available, we should start to see some substantial and original insights coming out of our project very soon.


Images (from top to bottom): Christina and Jill listen to Elisabeth presenting the German case study; Elisabeth, Mike and Sara later in the workshop.