Putting Lived Experience at the Heart of the Migration Ecosystem

Putting Lived Experience at the Heart of the Migration Ecosystem

On International Migrants Day 2022,  Senior Programme Manager Sophie Ngo-Diep reflects upon the importance of lived experience in the migration ecosystem. These reflections are the result of a decade of experience in the migration sector, including six years in philanthropy.

The impact of the famous slogan “Nothing about us, without us” first invoked by the disability rights movement to express the conviction that they knew what is best for them, continues to reverberate socially. However, within the migration ecosystem of policymakers, civil society organisations (CSOs), researchers and funders, this thinking is yet to catch on, and policies, research, action, and funding are generally shaped by those without lived experience of migration. Changing the status quo requires a radical shift of mindset and the surrender of power within decision making to migrants.

No one understands social challenges better than those who face them. While this argument has been successfully made for the case of gender equality it has not transferred to migration. People with lived experience of migration rarely have the agency to shape the policies and programmes that affect their lives. CSOs in the sector are occasionally led or staffed by migrants, and people defining, designing, or funding migration policies and actions are rarely migrants or have a migration background.

Lived experience in the context of migration refers to the first-hand experience of being a migrant (or being perceived as a migrant) and experiencing the (often inimical) impact of policies, narratives, and stereotypes. People with lived migration experience not only know what is wrong and unjust but are also the best placed to challenge and reimagine them. Focusing on lived instead of learned expertise ensures that policies, funding, and social actions are grounded in the reality of the communities they aim to serve. It allows for an evidence-based understanding of issues and creative thinking for more effective solutions. In 2021, Migrants Rights Centre Ireland co-led a campaign with undocumented people. The campaign yielded a scheme by the Irish government to regularise thousands of long-term undocumented migrants and their dependents.

There seems to be some grudging recognition on the need to incorporate lived experience and expertise in the sector. In 2020, the European Commission set up an Expert Group on the views of migrants and some philanthropic actors are starting to prioritise partnerships with organisations and movements that are migrant-led. While these are welcome developments, where decision-making power lies remains largely unchanged. And instead, in some contexts, we are seeing the instrumentalization of lived experience by actors who hold power to gain external legitimacy, keep control of the agendas and obtain funding.

Let us not also forget the easy fixes that abound – setting up an advisory board with people with lived experience, forming unequal partnerships with self-led organisations to tick the lived experience box to raise funds, inviting the most charismatic and outspoken voices to speak at events to prove commitment. People whose lived experience lies even further at the margins rarely make it to these spaces.

Philanthropy is no different. Top-down funding strategies continue to shape the migration ecosystem, perpetuating the status quo. While there are a few exceptions, the gulf between lived experience and funders’ priorities is striking. Despite promising steps undertaken by certain foundations, traditional grantmaking practices remain inadequate to resource lived experience. The jargon used (terminology such as theory of change emerges from a Western professionalisation of the sector rather than on-the-ground activism), the language – English by default is automatically exclusionary, and arbitrary requirements like formal registration are disconnected from the way self-representation practically works.

Why is this happening and what then must be done to address the situation?

Across the migration sector, paternalism, racism and white saviourism remain rampant. This situation is rooted in a historical colonial context in which migration and asylum systems have been designed for, rather than by, the people who must live them. The existing power dynamics in the sector mirror that history. Migrants continue to be perceived as the other, as beneficiaries, as vulnerable groups, rather than change-makers with their own agency. Their experiential knowledge is dismissed to the benefit of perspectives that are outside of lived experience and perceived as objective.

For the migration sector to radically transform itself and embody lived experience, the status quo should go, and new people, narratives, representations, and mindsets are needed, requiring many in the sector to voluntarily concede power. Practically, this will mean:

More people with lived experience in leadership positions through commitments and guarantees of representation. While it may not be an overnight success, it remains a fundamental step. Governance structures and leadership positions should reflect lived experience in policy, research, social action, and funding agendas. The European Council on Refugees and Exiles’ recent commitment is the right example to follow.

Putting lived experience on the centre stage by facilitating access to decision-making spaces, and resourcing self-led organisations. The Robert Bosch Foundation’s use of networking to boost the self-efficacy and representation of migrant civil society and Porticus’ commitment to foster migrant leadership and strengthen movements are strong starting points.

Shifting decision-making power to people with lived experience within political decision-making spaces, philanthropic strategizing, and in the design of social actions. The Resourcing Refugee Leadership Initiative is a source of inspiration in that regard.

Ensuring a diversity of voices by valuing the lived expertise of those further on the margins of our societies. Giving in to easy fixes by going to the most charismatic migrant voices (as is evident) results in a disproportionate focus on those in a situation of relative privilege (e.g., the over-representation of lived experience representatives from a middle-class background). While concerns about access are partially valid, other examples can be found by looking harder. For instance, the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw recently identified over fifty organisations led by migrants active in Poland.

Social transformation is rarely a comfortable process. The road is bumpy, the pace is too fast for some and too slow for others, and the conversations can be tough. Yet, this is just the beginning. Ensuring the meaningful representation and participation of people who have been historically excluded from decision-making on issues that concern them is equity and a step towards the reparation of previous injustices. No social justice fight has ever been won without the people concerned driving it. Things are no different when it comes to migration. Lived expertise allows us to reimagine narratives and create an alternative future. International Migrants Day is the perfect reminder that we need to make self-representation the rule rather than the exception.

Photo credit: European Summit of Refugees and Migrants, Brussels, April 2019