Migration Research and ‘The Other’ Europe

Florian Bieber (University of Graz, Austria), Kathy Burrell (University of Liverpool UK) and Ruxandra Trandafoiu (Edge Hill University, UK)

Migration scholars should pay greater attention to migration research that focuses on Eastern Europe as a site of diverse but also singular migration-related phenomena.

While East-West mobility is well represented in migration scholarship, especially in the UK, where it has seeped into relevant research on Brexit and populism, many other migration-related phenomena taking place in Eastern Europe, have largely been ignored. This diverse region, which has incurred mass labour emigration and significant war induced population displacement, has to become a key site for researching other aspects of migration, such as potentially challenging post-COVID and post-Brexit migration return, divergent diaspora policies especially in relation to homeland political engagement, contradictory refugee discourses and initiatives, new dynamics between national minorities and immigrant groups, and a significant demographic shift from emigration to immigration. Eastern Europe lends itself to comparative regional perspectives, which can reveal diverse nuances and rich experiences, thus negating any attempt to treat Eastern Europe as a homogeneous area, which occasionally, can be a strong temptation. As migration, in its various incarnations, begins to spoil any claims of racial and religious homogeneity in Eastern Europe and jeopardizes those long-entrenched dreams of national uniqueness, comparative and multi-sited research can better capture the dynamism and unique historical and social moment Eastern Europe is going through. In the remainder of the article, we detail where, in our view, the rich research potential of the region lies.

Eastern European societies are transitioning from emigrant to immigrant societies. This pivotal moment remains largely ignored by researchers and politicians. Governments are either blindsided by the long-term economic and social problems caused by mass emigration (labour gaps, child abandonment and depopulation, among others) or fall too easily into populist temptations to use war refugees as pawns in a game of power grabbing. Hence, despite similar traumatic shifts experienced by Italy, Spain or Greece, which can offer a glimpse into the future, this key impending change at the level of collective psychology is ignored, while the needs of the new immigrants and refugees in Eastern Europe, are left undealt with. In the academic world, conferences and papers on this subject are beginning to emerge, but much of this terrain remains unexplored.

While immigration to the region is by no means a new phenomenon, once we accept that the post-socialist period has brought new migrant groups into Eastern Europe, the question emerges: when do migrant groups become a minority? What rights can they claim vis-à-vis ‘historical’ minorities? Many Eastern European countries have spent a lot of time and resources over the past few decades dealing with minority rights issues, from border mobility and citizenship rights for co-nationals residing in neighbouring countries, to placating the vociferous claims of national minorities left traumatised by border changes. And yet there is little vision for the Chinese migrants who moved to Hungary in the 1990s, or the Vietnamese communities settled in Czechia and Slovakia. If the ‘ethnic problem’ wasn’t complicated enough in Eastern Europe, the new layers of communities emerging after the fall of communism, from transnational diasporic ones to new immigrants, who inhabit multiple spaces simultaneously, are not just symbolically stretching Eastern Europe beyond its geographic location but is playing havoc with the already illusive aspiration for a neat overlap between state and nation. So, the questions that naturally follow are: is it possible to join the majority nation in Eastern European countries? Is it conceivable and practical to rethink the nation as a multicultural or, indeed, transnational one?

Discursively, the stretching of traditional concepts (like kin state or kin minority) and the layering of communities translate into a parallel: on the one hand migration-related phenomena are pathologized, on the other hand, migration and multicultural encounters are accepted as an everyday occurrence managed through lived experience. The pathological aspect derives from overwhelming fears of national extinction which continue to permeate Eastern European public discourses. Past and present colonial encounters and legacies, such as the perceived Islamic threat to majority Christian cultures, and the legacy of both distant and more recent wars, mean that national annihilation anxieties are counteracted through the allure of monosited lives, the positive framing of immobility and the clinging on to traditional notions of nationhood and belonging. A hierarchy of treatment that states apply to different groups is emerging in Eastern Europe. To what extent this will contribute to a racialization of Eastern Europe, this time from inside the region itself and no longer imposed by the Western gaze, is an interesting matter, worth pursuing through research.

The seesaw of EU accession currently shaping Western Balkan politics but also one day (hopefully soon) post-war Ukraine and Moldova, adds another ingredient to the Eastern European political cake. Its shapeshifting layers should continue to add to the reservoir of political phenomena worthy of investigation. In research, we are as guilty as those journalists who always look for the hottest spot, the breaking news, unable to recognize slower burning developments elsewhere. As the EU remains preoccupied by the war in Ukraine and securitizing its external borders, EU accession for several countries in Eastern Europe has seemed to have slowed down, with possibly significant consequences.

Elsewhere, while the focus shifts from people fleeing Ukraine to people fleeing Russia, will the new humanitarian crises redefine who is a refugee and who isn’t, and will they add to concerns about mobility becoming immobility, trapping refugees indeterminately? These migration crises are political crises, and they bring, to some extent, Western and Eastern Europe closer together. And yet this happens at the cost of targeted and racialized exclusion, of withholding human rights and reframing citizenship as special entitlement. This is where, once again, comparative research, which considers Eastern Europe to be a site of valuable emerging policies and new ways of thinking about war induced displacement and refugee rights, will test its value.

Migration has impacted almost every aspect of social life in Eastern Europe over the last three decades, highlighting the need for concerted social support policies and a reconsideration of the impact of skills and labour supply in economic growth. We need to see migration as an economic issue. As remittances dwindle in crisis hit Europe, how will migrant return be encouraged to maximize specialist skills and reinvestment? Will importing foreign, currently Asian labour, be a viable long-term option? How will racial diversity be accommodated by overwhelmingly white, often ethnically homogenous societies? How will the wellbeing of new migrants be ensured when nationalism, religious conservatism and populism have been defining characteristics of many countries in the region? The key link between economic policy and migration outcomes is the occasional blind spot of migration research, and we advocate for a renewed focus on seeing practices of mobility and settlement in an economic development context.

More historical work needs to take place too, to capture the diversity of Eastern Europe’s historical experiences and the huge range of postcolonial phenomena at play. This would help uncover Eastern Europe as a region where ethnic, racial and religious diversity is probably more pronounced than that currently recognized and accepted. Lip service historians and politicians have perpetuated for far too long the myth of cultural homogeneity in Eastern Europe and rejecting it might help regroup academic research to face current realities and future challenges.

Ultimately, what emerging research interests but also absences in research do, is to highlight how important Eastern Europe is to the migration and diaspora academic field, how much richness the region can yield in terms of theories, methodologies and practices and how unfair lingering disparities between our attention to migration in Eastern versus Western Europe is. This richness, this multiplicity, also highlights how problematic the Eastern Europe label is. Although we have used it ourselves to conveniently situate our claim for relevance and visibility in the political geography of the region, we also accept that instrumentalizing the term feeds into Europe’s colonial imaginary and its inescapably unethical hierarchies. Maybe this issue too, could inspire a new debate over what we mean by ‘Eastern’ Europe.

The points raised in this article were first crafted during a webinar, hosted by the Institute for Creative Enterprise at Edge Hill University.

Florian Bieber is a Professor of Southeast European History and Politics and Director of the Centre for Southeast European Studies at the University of Graz, Austria. He held a Jean Monnet Chair in the Europeanisation of Southeastern Europe from 2019 to 2023. He is the coordinator of the Balkans in Europe Policy Advisory Group (BiEPAG) and has been providing policy advice to international organisations, foreign ministries, donors and private investors. He studied Political Science and History at Trinity College (USA), the University of Vienna, and Central European University (Budapest). He has worked for the European Centre for Minority Issues and taught at Kent University (UK). He is also a Visiting Professor at the Nationalism Studies Program at CEU. He has been a Visiting Fellow at the LSE and New York University and held the Luigi Einaudi Chair at Cornell University. Recent publications include Debating Nationalism (Bloomsbury 2020) and The Rise of Authoritarianism in the Western Balkans (Palgrave 2020) and Negotiating Unity and Diversity in the European Union (Palgrave 2021, with Roland Bieber). His forthcoming monograph is Hvar in the Modern Age. Identity and Change in Southeastern Europe, published by Bloomsbury in 2024.

Kathy Burrell is Professor of Migration Geographies at the University of Liverpool UK, with interests in migration governance, mobility, material culture and home, and is a specialist in Polish migration particularly. She is currently writing up work from three different projects – research on the UK’s ‘Homes for Ukraine’ hosting scheme, recently published in Antipode; British Academy funded research on UK Poles’ navigations of the post-Brexit Settled Status schemes; and an AHRC funded project ‘Stay Home Stories’, investigating the impact of Covid-19 on experiences of ‘home’ among people with diverse migration and faith backgrounds in the UK.

Ruxandra Trandafoiu is Professor of Politics, Communications and Diaspora at Edge Hill University, UK. She uses digital, ethnographic, and participatory research to study the way media and technology shape transnational lives and aid the political engagement and self-advocacy of diasporic/minority communities. She is the author of Diaspora Online: Identity Politics and Romanian Migrants (Berghahn) and The Politics of Migration and Diaspora in Eastern Europe: Media, Public Discourse and Policy (Routledge), as well as several edited collections and numerous articles exploring the relationship between media and mobility. Her forthcoming book Migration, Dislocation and Movement on Screen is published by Berghahn in July 2024.

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The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent the Sussex Centre for Migration Research (SCMR).