Permanent Transients: Gendering the Narratives of Iraqi Women Refugees in Jordan

By Isis Nusair

This post is based on extensive ethnographic research conducted between 2007-2011 with Iraqi women refugees in Jordan and with representatives of the United Nations and national and international aid organizations. The majority of the women I interviewed arrived in Jordan after the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq, with most arriving between 2005-2006. The women’s age ranged from 18 to 72 and I deliberately chose to interview women who came from different parts of Iraq, and who had different economic, educational, ethnic, political and religious backgrounds. My research is informed by feminist participatory research methodology and educational theory. I am very aware of the need for relational/reflective approaches and historicization of the women’s context. Throughout my work, I privilege an ethnographic approach in which the voices of the women frame my conceptual understanding and analysis of their situation. Rather than apply theoretical frameworks to their narratives and in this way hem in and constrain the meaning I might derive, I instead reflect on the multiple layers of meaning in what the women reveal. I then consider what theoretical insights can help deepen my understanding of their discourses and shifting, lived experiences.

Fixed Temporality
The politics of being a refugee has as much to do with the cultural expectation of certain qualities and behaviors that are demonstrative of “authentic” refugeeness (e.g., silence, passivity, victimhood) as it does with legal definitions of regulations (Nyers, 2006: xv). I refrain from using the term “guests” to describe Iraqi refugees in Jordan. “Guests” is the official term used in Jordan to connote hospitality and the temporary nature of the Iraqi refugees’ presence in the country. Many refugees referred directly to this contradiction and explained the lack of rights associated with the term “guests” and the fact that many of them have been “guests” in Jordan for a number of years (see Chatelard). The majority described their presence in Jordan as temporary and explained that the main reason behind their leaving Iraq was to seek safety and protect their children from violence.

Hana, a widow in her fifties, described the situation as up in the air, “we do not know our destiny. The Jordanian government might ask us to leave at any moment…There is no rest for a guest. It is heavy, if we were to work, the situation could have been better…I am responsible for the house and the kids. The responsibility of a daughter and a disabled child is on me.” An artist couple in their forties said, “There is no guarantee for us and for our children here…We are like prisoners, like the torn album thrown in the wind…We are not refugees because we do not have rights as refugees…We are dispersed and not refugees.” Suad, a woman in her early sixties whose house was broken into and who was kidnapped in Iraq in 2006 added, “There is no stability. Our living in Amman is temporary as they might ask us to leave at any moment. If it were not for my kids, I would not be here.” She concluded by saying that the situation in her country will take a long time to resolve and that her extended family is dispersed in the Arab Gulf states and in Europe.

This sense of no return was reiterated by the majority of the women I interviewed. Sameera, born in 1958, has been in Jordan since 2007. She came to Jordan with her children following the assassination of her husband in 2007. Sameera is not registered with the United Nations. She described how she does not have any ambition to go back to Iraq, and that not much is left of this life. She concluded by saying, “We have seen a lot.” Nadia, an Iraqi painter in her early seventies, described how people were afraid to say a word under the Ba’th regime, and how she does not interact much with the Jordanian society. “Nothing is left…Our group [family] is dispersed. This is our situation, some are in Qatar, New Zealand, and Sweden…When they [the Americans] occupied us, they did not bring a democratic life and the situation became worse. Now we miss the Saddam days…Many families do not have money to go back and visit their homes. This is a long-term stay for us for where could we go?” Nadia, as did many women interviewed, was steadfast and emphasized that life continues despite the cruelty of the situation. “We are still better than others…I do not have hope that Iraq will return. At times, my husband and I say, ‘What have they done to us?’ We have lost a lot.”

Contesting Terminology
Nyers argues that “the refugees’ relationship to the political can be described as a kind of ‘inclusive exclusion.’ Refugees are included in the discourse of ‘normality’ and ‘order’ only by virtue of their exclusion from the normal identities and ordered spaces of the sovereign state (xiii).” Sama, an Iraqi performance artist in her early fifties started the interview by saying, “I do not like the word refuge. I prefer shelter…There is no security and if it was not for my son, I would not have left…I do not like to philosophize. Before we were able to dream and work to achieve our dreams. Today we only have one dream and we are even afraid to dream it.” She described how in the last five years she has been unable to perform despite the proposals she receives. “I feel that I cannot reflect what the country [Iraq] is going through.” This sense of paralysis was echoed by many women refugees who were traumatized by what they went through before their arrival in Jordan (see Dahl, 2005). They expressed the limits on their space and the contradictions they live through, especially that they came to Jordan seeking security and found instability instead. This instability is a product of the temporality of their presence in the country as they have to constantly pay fees to renew their visas and avoid deportation.

Sana, a woman in her late twenties said, “We sacrificed everything for security…The main thing is to feel stable and to be respected as human beings. If there is work, no one is incapable.” Rabiha, a journalist in her late fifties, described this contradiction between visibility and invisibility when talking about her job. She publishes daily and weekly articles in a major Jordanian newspaper and her articles are translated regularly into different languages. Although she is a well-known journalist in the region, she was granted residency in Jordan through her son’s work permit and not through her credentials as a journalist. She says, “The person that does not have a country does not have protection. Iraqis are not treated well because no one protects them and defends their rights. This was also the case during the sanctions regime…There is no security and the poor suffer the most. If the situation remains as is, we will all be poor.”

Sana, age twenty-five, has been living in Jordan since 1994. She elaborated on the contradiction in her life of being an Iraqi refugee in Jordan by saying, “we are breaking the law, there are no permits for work and no stability…You feel like a stranger…it is important that the situation becomes stable, and salaries need to increase. There needs to be security, and you need to be strong, otherwise you could be exploited.” Sana acknowledged throughout the interview that her family’s situation in Jordan will not improve and that it is better that they return to Iraq. Yet, she emphasized that as long as the situation does not improve in Iraq then they will be afraid to go back. She concluded by saying, “we live in exile, and there is no stability or security…there is no stability from the inside. We always feel that there is something missing…You speak two languages, Iraqi inside the house and Jordanian outside. The psychology of it all is hard and the way people treat you is hard as well. The situation is normal now as a result of what we went through. We laugh despite the circumstances.”

The Limits of the Research Process
The humanitarian discourse around refugees is dominated by a problem-solving mentality that defines refugee movement as a technical problem in need of rapid solutions. Humanitarian solutions to the phenomenon of the refugee enact a spatial reversal of the binary citizen-refugee to transform the refugee’s lack into a positive presence (Nyers, 2006). These solutions take the form of restoring statist identities and communities to refugees (settlement in a third country or repatriation). Since these options are mostly unavailable for Iraqi refugees in Jordan, what is needed are perspectives that are open to the possibility of political and ethical engagements that do not reproduce the sovereign codes that doom refugees to the status of “speechless emissaries” (14).

In a context where many refugee women are in dire need of aid, it was imperative for me to emphasize that the research I was carrying out will help expose the issues but not necessarily resolve the problems. This challenge exposed the limits of the research process itself in affecting meaningful change in the life of the refugees (see Bloch et al., 2000). The women were well aware of this limitation. Suha said, “Iraqis are tired and need solutions and not surveys and application forms. We need tangible things.” Many women emphasized that despite these limitations they had a need to make their stories heard. Hajdukowski-Ahmed et al. (2008) argue that through voice and voicing, agency and power are reclaimed by marginalized groups. Yet Olujc (as quoted in Hajdukowski-Ahmed) reminds us that we may give voice to the victims of violence but we can never restore their lives (19). Many of the aid workers I interviewed emphasized how difficult it was to provide psychological aid to Iraqi refugees who have other stressing material needs.

I was constantly reminded as I conducted the interviews of the need to be attentive to the complexity embedded in the women’s narratives and their coping mechanisms. The majority of the women did not elaborate or provide graphic details of what they went through before leaving Iraq. They positioned their experiences as part of a larger collective, and made clear connections between the hardships they had to endure while living under the Ba’th regime and sanctions, and in the aftermath of the U.S. led invasion in 2003 (See Ismael & Ismael, 2000; Al-Ali, 2007; Al-Jawaheri 2008; Al-Ali & Pratt, 2009). Zeina, a medical doctor who was kidnapped and severely harassed for five days in 2004, said that she came to Jordan to overcome the shock that she went through. “I need security to go back. We are thankful to Jordan but the prospect of return worsens by the day…There was a loss of security, and everything collapsed.”

References to trauma as well as paralyses were particularly present in the narratives of younger women as they were still navigating a personal and professional path for themselves. Nadine, a woman in her early twenties who studied Computer Science in Iraq said, “My life passes me by, stops, like a machine that has not been used for a long time. I need to get out of this paralysis that I am in…Sometimes I see my future as black, that my life will end here with no chance to advance, and that the situation will become worse…[we are] like refugees with no past, present or future. All this could be overcome as long as I have my family with me and I feel settled and comfortable where I live. Work [in Jordan] is a waste of time, and you cannot advance.” Nadine described how she was followed by a car with militia men while in Iraq and how she had to flee with her mother to Amman as her father and brother remained behind. She emphasized throughout the interview that if her country were to return to the way it was, she would immediately go back. For her, the Iraq she knew and grew up in, is no longer there. Nadine described how she has been unable to work or develop in her field and that work conditions for Iraqi refugees in Jordan are exploitative. This was echoed by Hanan and Zeina, two sisters who fled to Jordan with their dad and other sister as their mother and brothers remained behind. They fled because of threats made against the older sister, Hanan, who worked as a translator with the Americans. Zeina, a school teacher by training, described how depressed she feels and how she gained weight as she stays mostly at home cooking and watching TV. She described her two-year experience of working in a factory in Amman as exploitative with no opportunity for advancement. “They would not pay for work permits or health insurance. There is no stability, no stability. I feel like an intruder, I am not for this place and nothing in it connects me to it…We as Iraqis hope that they will give us asylum and a place to settle. There is no security, neither here nor there. Everything is hanging.” Hanan, on the other hand, described her inability to politically organize for Iraqi refugee rights in Jordan and how the Moukhabarat (Jordanian Intelligence Agency) called her for questioning about her activities.

Suha, a divorced woman in her late thirties with three children (one of them is disabled) described how she felt alienated and denied identity. “There are lots of people without families. They do not have self-confidence and they have no confidence in others…Iraqis are tormented…I am alone and my burden is heavy…I need a home where I could settle down…The hope is to leave. That is how we could get our rights and feel secure. We are supposed to be refugees but not here. Here is temporary…Despite the Saddam regime, Iraq was our country…the situation today is barbaric…We got used to exile and difficulties, yet change might help make things better.” She concluded the interview by saying, “maybe it will be better in a foreign country…Things will not improve in Iraq even after ten years…It is hard to see the country fall apart in front of your eyes. This is what hurts. I live in constant worry yet I am optimistic and won’t despair…My hope is to gain independence and immigrate.” Suha’s persistence in sustaining her presence as a woman and as an Iraqi is illustrated in her wish, “I want to be able to say in the future that this is my home, I do not want people to control me.”

Nyers (2006) argues that refugee situations should be understood as complex and multidimensional sites of identity. Within this context a crisis situation is a contested social construction involving a variety of competing political, cultural and identity practices. He warns against emptying all notions of political agency from refugee subjectivity, especially that the prevailing attitude in conventional analyses of refugee movements is one that provides no place for refugees to articulate their experiences and struggles or to assert their (often collectively conceived) political agency. The open-ended nature of the interviews where the focus was on the causes that prompted the women to leave Iraq and the transition and challenges they currently face as Iraqi women refugees in Jordan, opened a space for the women to reflect on their experiences and construct a narrative that analyzed their situation and visions for the future. Hardgrove (2009) argues that as families work to balance demands with capabilities, they are constantly in the process of interpreting their circumstances by assigning meanings to themselves and their context (484). Relating to the refugee experience as a politicized process of contestation and becoming emphasizes the connection and continuum between their life before and after their arrival in Jordan.

The majority of Iraqi women interviewed described the militarization of their lives and the continuities between the past and present, their current status in Jordan and their living through the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), the Gulf War (1990) and life under the sanctions regime (1990-2003). Sama vividly recalled living under the Ba’th regime. She said, “terror was implanted even among the members of the same family…When I remember it now, I feel the bitterness more than when we lived it. We live in exile, we flee from the unknown.” She spoke about the impact of the Iran-Iraq war, “it was then that things started to deteriorate. We lived as if suffocated and pretended to be living…I used to walk by the wall [to protect herself from the Ba’th regime] and if my death would have made a difference I would have sacrificed myself.” Suha recalled how under the sanctions regime, they were unable to achieve anything. “You were unable to develop; only sleep and eat.” These were the same words that many women refugees used to describe their situation in Jordan. Suha added, “the war [with Iran] started when we were children. We grew up with war and bombing, and something died inside. We lived from one war to another; we were barely living.”

I conducted the research with a firm political engagement to analyze the gendered nature of Iraqi refugee experience in Jordan. This engagement raised questions about where research ends and intervention begins. Recognizing my location, complicity and distance, identification and personal involvement were constant reminders of power differentials and the need to pay attention to issues of subjectivity and accountability. My activist background and academic training in feminist analysis push me to link theory with practice and think of research as a space for social change. The invisibility of the consequences of the United States-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, particularly its impact on population displacement, raises questions about the impact of the war on the day to day lives of Iraqis in general and refugees in particular.

My analysis focuses on how Iraqi women refugees constructed meanings and practices to deal with the challenges they face on a daily basis as women refugees in Jordan. I wonder about the consequences of the transient nature of displacement and the impact on the physical and mental health of Iraqi women refugees. Could women refugees (especially those from the lower classes) rely on aid for decades to come, and what is the impact of this prolonged state of displacement on social networks and communal support systems? Women refugees from East Amman and Zarqa relied on social networks to exchange information about aid agencies and the variety of resources available that could help in addressing the health and educational needs of their children. For the majority of women from the lower and upper classes, being around Iraqi refugees sustained a sense of community and a feeling of home, even if a limited one.

The longer refugees remain in exile, the more difficult and complicated it may be to return (see Bloch et al., 2000). Since the prospects of local integration or return for Iraqi refugees are not foreseeable in the near future, most of the Iraqi women I spoke with were interested in repatriation into a third country. Since viable options were almost entirely outside the realm of the control of refugee women, they were still resilient and constantly searching for ways to improve their situation. Yet, can they sustain this situation for the short and long term, and could they continue to live for years to come in this third space that grants them no chance to seek asylum, return to Iraq, or settle in Jordan?

Al-Ali, Nadje. Iraqi Women: Untold Stories from 1948 to the Present. London: Zed Books (2007).

Al-Ali Nadje and Nicola Pratt. What Kind of Liberation? Women and the Occupation of Iraq. Berkeley: University of California Press (2009).

Al-Jawaheri, Yasmin Husein. Women in Iraq: The Gender Impact of International Sanctions. London: I.B. Tauris (2008);

Bloch, Berry et al. “Refugee Women in Europe: Some Aspects of the Legal and Policy Dimensions.” International Migration, 38(2) (2000). 20-40.

Chatelard, Géraldine. “The Politics of Population Movements in Contemporary Iraq: A Research Agenda.” In Writing the History of Iraq: Historiographical and Political Challenges. R. Bocco, J. Tejet and P. Sluglett (eds.) London: World Scientific Publishers/Imperial College Press (2011). 359-378.

Dahl, Solveig et al. “Traumatic Effects and Predictive Factors for Posttraumatic Symptoms in Displaced Bosnian Women in a War Zone.” Journal of Traumatic Stress, 11(1) (2005). 137-145.

Hajdukowski-Ahmed, Maroussia et al. Not Born a Refugee Woman: Contesting Identities, Rethinking Practices. Oxford: Berghahn Books (2008).

Hardgrove, Abby. “Liberian Refugee Families in Ghana: The Implications of Family Demands and Capabilities for Return to Liberia.” Journal of Refugee Studies. 22(4) (2009). 484-501.

Ismael, Jacqueline, and Shereen Ismael. “Gender and State in Iraq.” In Gender and Citizenship in the Middle East. Joseph Suad (ed.). New York: Syracuse University Press (2000). 185-211.

Nyers, Peter. Rethinking Refugees: Beyond States of Emergency. New York: Routledge (2006).

Senegalese Higher Education and the Challenges of (Im)mobility

By Ibra Sene

In the current knowledge-based economy, a university system, which fosters innovative scholarship, through open and original intellectual inquiry, is crucially important for addressing, in an effective way, many challenges that society faces. A close look at the evolution of higher education in Senegal shows that there have been many impediments to the materialization of this model. Since the 1960s, the Senegalese public universities, especially Université Cheikh Anta Diop, have trained the lion’s share of the national workforce in the private and public sectors. Its alumni have assumed leadership positions in many African countries and a number of international organizations. Also, the Senegalese public universities have served as the incubators of important social movements, which contributed a great deal to the strengthening of democracy in the country. Finally, they have ranked constantly among the best francophone higher education institutions.

That being said, for many years, Senegalese higher education has been going through a complex and multi-faceted crisis that has left long-lasting consequences on our public universities. They have not always done a terrific job at making themselves relevant to the larger society, by catering to its most urgent needs. The effects of the structural adjustment programs imposed by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have compounded these difficulties. These programs left the Senegalese universities in complete shambles, with a chronic deterioration of the working conditions of teaching, administrative, and technical staff, but also students. All of this has led to mediocre performance in many areas.

To deal with this crisis, the Senegalese government has convened major national consultations since the early 1970s. In 2013, the latest of these meetings, the National Consultation on the Future of Higher Education in Senegal (CNAES), took place. Its objective was to reform the university system to make sure that its follows international standards but also has a curriculum and a research agenda that are more driven by the socio-economic and developmental needs of the taxpayer.

I would like to use the Mobility Studies frame to analyze this situation. I suggest that this concept is the right tool for a better understanding of this latent crisis, but also for charting a way out of the challenges that the Senegalese public universities face.

The postmodern era brought with it a broad sense of skepticism about many categories of knowledge. It also prompted a tendency to nuance and a deep sense of relativism that are mostly driven by the belief that considerations of power always find their sneaky way into the making of many if not all theories of knowledge. Because of that, these theoretical ways of making sense of the human experience should be revisited and given a more inclusive tone. This would break help break the hegemony of some discourses and bring up the perspectives of all groups in society, especially the less powerful ones.

This is, among other things, what led to a new way of thinking about migration. The alternative concept to “migration” is “mobility” and it focuses on the entire “social universe” of migrants.[1] The global movements of people, capital, ideas, goods, and material culture, which are fundamental markers of the twenty-first century played a crucial role in the emergence and expansion of mobility studies.[2] The mobility studies paradigm developed along with different theoretical and methodological tools. It also touches on many areas such as “studies of corporeal movement, transportation and communications infrastructures, capitalist spatial restructuring, migration and immigration, citizenship and transnationalism, and tourism and travel.”[3]

I use mobility not as seen “through the lens of place, roots, spatial order and belonging,” but rather through the optics of “flow, flux and dynamism.”[4] I contend that this is a useful tool for analyzing the situation of universities in Senegal and other parts of Africa. I would like to take a close look at situations of mobility and immobility and how they may play out in the operation of these universities and the fulfillment of their students, faculty, and the larger society.

We ought to gain a better understanding of the crisis that the Senegalese and other African universities have been dealing with for decades now, in order to rethink the mission assigned to higher education and made it more relevant. To do this we need an analytical frame that takes into account the “relational geographies” of these universities, and which approaches the issue from the angle of flow and “movement that produces cultures,” [5] and not just through the frame of fixity and isolation. Stephen Greenblatt’s edited volume, Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto, tackles this issue and suggests that the paradox that one might see between “mobility” and “rootedness” is only apparent, and that “it is impossible to understand mobility without also understanding the glacial weight of what appears bounded and static.”[6] According to Nina Glick Schiller and Noel B. Salazar, challenging the “conceptual orientations built on binaries of difference” is crucial for a good understanding of the interrelationship between mobility and fixity. This is what they termed as “critical mobility thinking.”[7]

Analyzing the problems that Senegalese and other African universities face, with a transregional perspective in mind, is critical, if we are to develop effective strategies to find solutions. The production of knowledge, a fundamental function of the university, and human mobility are closely related, especially given the dynamic nature of the economy, politics, and cultures in Senegal, other regions of the continent, and the African Diaspora.

Over the last ten years, Senegal and many other African countries have been undertaking ambitious reforms geared toward improving the quality of higher education. Among other things, the emphasis of this work has been on how to design and manage academic research for policy impact, with curricula that give ample room to action learning. This is a system that empowers the learner to develop the critical thinking and leadership skills that are needed for finding sustainable solutions to the problems they tackle. For this to happen, the immobility of/in the university systems has to be shaken up.

The commitment to address these social needs should lead to the intentional development of bottom-up strategies that are based on deep understanding of the social fabric and various local knowledge, knowledge creation, and knowledge transmission models. The problems that the Senegalese and West African societies face today could only be understood through an approach that takes into account the local realities, without neglecting the influence of the global context. Therefore, training leaders who understand these interconnections and who are committed to the common good is crucially important.

The needed reflection and theoretical understanding of the challenges that societies face would necessitate that our universities prepare students for a lifetime of personal and professional growth. This is one of the best guaranties for effective practices in the development of entrepreneurship skills, civic engagement, ethical leadership, cultural competency, inclusion, openness, for the positive transformation of our communities. All of this requires the sharing of resources and collaborations across disciplines and academic institutions. However, in many ways these institutions have evolved so long in immobility and within isolated enclaves that these dynamic relationships could not develop naturally.

There are many factors that have made it difficult for this integrative conception of higher education to take roots in Senegal and other West African countries. Most of these factors come in different shapes and forms, but all stem directly or indirectly from the colonial legacy. The complete neglect of the African systems of knowledge creation and transmission, the predominance of European languages such as English, French, and Portuguese as languages of instruction over African languages were among the most serious roadblocks. One of the consequences of this setup has been an enduring elitism that has prevented universities from serving the interest of their students and that of the communities in which they are situated. This is why the system has done a very poor job at promoting social mobility, hence the rapidly increasing number of people who have lost trust in it.

Another big problem is that the borders drawn by and inherited from the colonizer strictly restricted the areas of influence of the universities. They have been designed and have been operating with little to no interaction among themselves. Often times, universities from African countries have developed more partnerships with non-African institutions than with each other. This is true even for neighboring countries such as Senegal, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Mali, and Mauritania. In so doing these countries and their respective institutions of higher learning have missed countless opportunities to join forces, mutualize resources, and/or learn from each other’s experience. There is still a lot of neocolonial influence on other key aspects of higher education, such us the curriculum, the funding sources, but also accreditation.

For Senegalese and other African universities to become relevant and regain the capacity to deal efficiently with society’s major preoccupations, they will have to take on the immobility and the fixity that have defined them for quite some time. That is why, the best way to tackle the problems that these institutions face would be to approach them with a transregional perspective in mind and cultivate a culture of institutional accountability. This would allow for the production of useful scholarship and an education that could challenge students enough to transform them into responsible and ethical citizens and leaders. This environment could foster useful and sustainable university partnerships, including working with the diaspora and turning the scourge of brain drain into a significant brain gain.


[1] Jeffrey H. Cohen and Ibrahim Sirkeci, Cultures of Migration, University of Texas Press, 2011.

[2] Regimes of Mobility Across the Globe Nina Glick Schiller and Noel B. Salazar

[3] Kevin Hannam, Mimi Sheller, and John Urry, “Editorial: Mobilities, Immobilities and Moorings,” Mobilities, Vol. 1, No. 1, 1–22, March 2006.

[4] Ole B. Jensen, “Flows of Meaning, Cultures of Movements – Urban Mobility as Meaningful Everyday Life Practice,” Mobilities, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2009, p. 141.

[5] Ole B. Jensen, “Flows of Meaning, Cultures of Movements – Urban Mobility as Meaningful Everyday Life Practice,” Mobilities, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2009, pp. 139–158.

[6] Stephen Greenblatt, ed. Cultural Mobility: A Manifesto, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009, pp. 250-253.

[7] Regimes of Mobility Across the Globe Nina Glick Schiller and Noel B. Salazar

Mobility Studies: An inclusive interdisciplinary approach to understanding migration

Written by by Maansi Kumar ’18 and Amyaz Moledina (The College of Wooster)

Mobility Studies is an emergent interdisciplinary field that explains the dynamic relationships between the combined movement of bodies, objects, and ideas. The field emphasizes the ethical dimensions of these mobilities and their associated immobilities. As such, the field focuses on the “embodied practice of movement and their representations, ideologies and meanings attached to both movement and stillness” (Sheller 2011). The field creates a relational ontology between social concerns of inequality, power, and hierarchies, with spatial concerns – territory, borders, scales, in addition to cultural concerns of discourses, representation, and schemas. (Ibid)

Scholars of Mobility Studies acknowledge that movement is not recent or a notable feature of contemporary times. However, recent challenges from forced mobility, the movement of unpredictable risks, climate change, and environmental limits, highlight the need to accurately capture the exchanges occurring due to these movements (Sheller 2003). Since, Migration Studies, emphasizes the quantitative movement of people across political borders it excludes the dynamic relationships between the movement of people, objects, and ideas or any considerations of power or discourses. Although the definition of Migration Studies has expanded to consider whether certain movements are voluntary or involuntary, it is still unable to interrogate who and what is demobilized and remobilized across different scales and spaces and the interconnectedness of mobility and motility (Adey 2010).

In this paper we hope to show that the traditional migration studies frame is limited. It does not acknowledge the impact of history on contemporary mobility and account for the impact of migration on non-movers. We then argue that adopting the Mobility Studies frame can highlight and acknowledge the voice and experiences of those who have been historically underrepresented in migration discourses.

Defining Migration

According to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a migrant is defined as “any person who lives temporarily or permanently in a country where he or she was not born, and has acquired some significant social ties to this country”.1However this definition, by UNESCO’s own acknowledgement, is too narrow.2 There are multiple instances where people acquire significant social ties by moving within the boundaries of their birth state. This definition also assumes that migrants have some form of agency or control over their movement. The emphasis on economic migration dominates global discourses. In order to combat the narrow definition, the United Nations has expanded its definition by incorporating the following elements into their understanding of  migration (see Figure 1):

Figure 1: United Nations classification of the different types of migration

Source: The United Nations “Mobility and Migration”, Accessed May 23 2017

Although expanding the definition of migration is a step in the right direction, it still fails to account for many other factors relevant to individuals that do not belong to Western nations, or those outside of the specific socio-economic groups being targeted in this figure.

Example 1: Colonization, identity and movement

The contemporary employment-incentivized patterns of movement were established during the European colonization of Africa (Oliver 2009).3 For many nations in the Global South, migration to other parts of the continent still continue to depend on employment prospects. However, due to a dearth of reliable research, the dynamics of the interconnected patterns of migration remain poorly understood (Bakewell 2009).  It is unclear if the bodies should be the focus of this pattern of movement or the historical flows of goods between the core and periphery. The flows of objects between arbitrary colonial borders, give rise to the demand for labor in different states. The narrow definition of migration fails to acknowledge the impact of history on contemporary mobility. For instance, a large portion of the United States African diaspora is now traveling to the African continent to reclaim their identity (Cohen 2008, Manning 2008). However, the definition of migration understands this movement as a mere number of American citizens travelling to Africa for tourism. Instead, we should shed light on the intricate cultural and historical exchange that ensues. Since Mobility Studies draws from phenomenology4 to encompass the embodied practices of movement, it allows researchers to theorize the relationship between culture, personal identity and migration patterns.

Example 2: Government Policy, Legal Status and Movement

The UNESCO definition of migration also fails to define the status of a large population refugees who have found a permanent way of living within their host countries, despite government policies. For example, in Nairobi, exiled Somalis have established a significant residential and business district in the city (Lindley 2007). Similarly, millions of Afghan refugees first came to North-West Pakistan in the 1980s and have become integrated into the social, economic and political life of the area. Such historical movements have permanently changed the cross-border patterns of mobility for these regions (Blakewell 2009). However, these significant migratory patterns were never studied in relation to the long-term impact due to the lack of framework to do so.

Once again alluding to embodiment and practice of movements, Mobility Studies uses knowledge of the relevant cultural setting, historical background, and political climate to account for movement and non-movement. This field creates a relational ontology between the the social concerns of inequality, power, and hierarchies, with spatial concerns – territory, borders, scales and the cultural concerns of discourses, representation, and schemas.

Defining Mobility Studies

Migration Studies is an academic framework that explains the processes, motivations and consequent impact of human movement. While Migration can be rudimentarily defined as movement of people across borders, Mobility Studies broadens the discourse to include the relational dynamics between people, objects and ideas that are all mobile.

Mobility examines the processes, structure, and consequences of the movement of people, resources, commodities, and ideas. It involves research on the combined movements of people, objects and information in all of their complex relational dynamics (Sheller 2013).  

Mobilities studies is concerned with not only physical movement, but also potential movement, blocked movement, immobilization, dwelling and place-making (Buscher and Urry, 2009). One does not have to be physically mobile or have their body displaced in order to be affected by migration; an individual might not be moving, but the environment around them could be changing as a result of movement. This could in-turn, affect their worldview and consequent actions and interactions with their environment.

Peter Adey, whose preliminary research contributed significantly to Mobility Studies, identifies four sets of concerns within the field (Adey, 2009).

Figure 2: Adey’s expansion on the interdisciplinary nature of Mobility Studies  

Source: Peter Adey “The Routledge Handbook of Mobilities”, figure created by Maansi Kumar ’18, Source accessed 21 May 2017

Adey argues that Mobility Studies is an umbrella term that actually encompasses multiple ways of knowing to derive a holistic understanding of movement. Using such an interdisciplinary approach, the migration of a Cameroonian individual to France should be placed in a historical context. The lens of Mobility Studies informs the audience that because Cameroon was colonized by the French, Cameroonians would be more likely to migrate to France due to familiarity with language, educational system and culture (Terretta 2017). We could then transition to explaining how such discourses are internalized by Cameroonians or the objects and ideas that transit between these spaces. Walter Nkwi studies the convergence zones of Kom in Cameroon, their customary practices, the apparatus of “newness” from schools and cars to technological advances (Nkwi 2015). Nkwi also focuses on extending scholarship about experiences of indigenous “belonging” and diasporic identity within these communities. He illustrates how these terminologies were conceived and perceived by the Kom people in their social and physical mobilities.

Example 3: Connecting Gender, Movement, and Employment

Recently, the “care-drain”, women migrating from low-to high income countries, has received significant feminist attention. Feminists raise important issues like: who is the primary caregiver in the household of the woman while she works in other people’s houses in the West? Who are the individuals taking care of her children while she is away? What is the consequent impact on the identity, education and health care of her children, given that she is unable to spend time being physically around them?

Mobility Studies would first want to recognize that the “care-drain” is not an international issue. It has existed for centuries on local scales. Consider the case of female domestic workers in India. There are approximately 4.2 million domestic workers in urban India, most of them from rural communities (WEIGO). While we can study the forces that give rise to this movement, we must also address the abuse and exploitation of these workers at different scales (Reshmi 2011). Mobility Studies accounts for those issues, as well as the long-term impact on the communities experiencing this movement.  Understanding “care movements” broadly can be used to advocate for better legal protection of domestic workers, within and between countries.

Mobility studies argues that a person’s agency and the ‘agencement’ of the world is not simply at the bodily level of personal interactions with spatial affordances, it is also very much concerned with larger scales of spatial production, urban form and infrastructural systems (Adey, 2013). We need a far more nuanced view of border-crossings towards the  study  of ‘emotional geographies’.

Migration Studies: Expanding the Existing Literature

Having outlined a few key differences between migration and mobility studies, it is apparent that mobility studies has a much more inclusive framework for representing historically understudied patterns of movement. It provides a language to account for postcolonial trends of migration and movement. As we read the existing literature on Mobility Studies, there are three themes that stand out as the most significant turning points to study movement and mobility. Namely, these are: the concept of temporality, inclusion of feminist critiques of migration, and the Global South perspective.

Mobility Studies and Immobility

As mentioned earlier, Mobility Studies acknowledges that a person does not have to be physically moving to be affected by migration. Mobility Studies opens up avenues to study spatial and temporal movement. The concepts of temporalities of movements and stillness are connected with a larger-scale geography of movement and hence, human navigation (Sheller 2009; Dant 2004, Jensen 2010, Merleau-Ponty 1962). By focusing on stillness, Mobility Studies explores immobility and how movement affects those who are physically immobile at a given point in time. Immobility encompasses mobility in ways pertaining to infrastructure, motility and regimes of mobility (Salazar 2016).

Korpela discusses infrastructure from three angles: the moment of becoming mobile, the time of being mobile, and becoming immobile again (Ibid). Ultimately, this sets up the argument that mobility occurs within the existing infrastructure of each nation-state. This also raises the question of whether there are infrastructures of mobility that function outside of a nation-state’s control. Motility refers to an individual’s potential to move. Studying motility is useful in locations of temporality where mobility appears yet-to-be-realized, yet-to-be-completed or might-never-happen (Hoyer 2016). An instance of this would be a child from a rural community whose mother has migrated to another country, due ‘Care drain’. This child might be more likely to travel themself. If the mother is educated and can support the child, their current state of immobility is not an indicator of their future immobility. Finally, regimes of mobility identify the ways in which (legal) systems regulate mobility. Related approaches reveal the ways in which institutions, technology, ideologies and identities are constructed in relation to mobility. Baker applies this to ethnographic work with undocumented youth to highlight the importance of listening to the immobile rather than idealizing mobility (Salazar 2016). By doing so, Mobility Studies capture the experiences of those without legal documentation to determine whether or not integration into particular societies is even what they desire to begin with, and thereby, better accommodating their needs.

Mobility Studies and Feminist Critiques

Mobility Studies theory incorporates feminist critiques of nomadic theory, pointing out that even contemporarily, migration and movement is grounded in masculine subjectivities (Sheller 2009). This implies that freedom of movement is limited by the gendered production of space, something that migration studies has  failed to account for.

An example of this would be the case of structural violence against Syrian women within refugee communities. While migration studies highlights the sheer numbers of Syrian refugees that are clearly displaced, seeking shelter, and even presents the break-up between women, men and children within refugee camps, it does not shed light on the gendered impact of this trauma on Syrian women nor does it explore the different meanings of “shelter” and sanctuary.

Mobility Studies and the Global South

About 45 percent of total migrants in the world move between South-South nations (Baker 2009). It is absolutely imperative to study these relationships using the voices of the movers  if we are to make any claims about migration patterns. A focus on the Global South, independent of the Global North, is necessary not just because of their history of being colonized, but also because of changing structure of their economies and the routes/methods of movement.

In the Saharan zone, for instance, the recent paving and improvement of road connections have boosted trans- Saharan migration (de Haas 2008a). Beyond the more obvious connection between infrastructure and migration, we need to explore how this spatial connectivity could change the cultural discourses within the Sahara, but also the relationship between ideas and bodies. The need to focus on the Global South also has implications for future migration trends as well as gender equity and labor market accommodations (Ohnmacht 2009).

In this paper, we have highlighted the key disciplinary differences between Migration and Mobility Studies. We argue that Migration has not provided an adequate framework to study a large proportion of global movement. Mobility Studies is key to understanding the complex dynamic between the movement of bodies, objects and ideas as it is interdisciplinary and inclusive of numerous academic fields. This ultimately provides a holistic framework to better understand global movement, placing it in a broader historic, social and economic context. Mobility Studies gives us the an emergent interdisciplinary framework to unpack and radically change oppressive structures by representing nations in the Global South. Highlighting patterns of migration and movement that have always existed, Mobility Studies aims to account for them, given that the academic framework of migration studies has historically proved inadequate to do so.


1. [Migration and Human Rights (2017) Council of Europe – Homepage. Web. ]

2. [ Migrant/Migration (2017) Migrant | United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Web.

3. [ Bakewell, Oliver (2009) South-South Migration and Human Development: Reflections on African Experiences. UNDP: Human Development Reports Research Paper (2009/07). ]

4. [Phenomenology: a philosophical movement that describes the formal structure of the objects of awareness and of awareness itself in abstraction from any claims concerning existence (Merriam Webster) ]


Adey, P (2009) Mobility. London and New York: Routledge.   

Adey, Bissell, Hannam, Merriman and Sheller (2013) The Routledge Handbook of Mobilities. London: Routledge.  

Bakewell, Oliver (2009) South-South Migration and Human Development: Reflections on African Experiences. UNDP: Human Development Reports Research Paper (2009/07).  

Domestic Workers in India (2017) | Law and Informality, Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO). Web.   

Nkwi, Walter Gam (2015) African Modernities and Mobilities: A Historical Ethnography of Kom, Cameroon, C. 1800 – 2008. Bamenda, Cameroon: Langaa Research & Publishing Common Initiative Group

Ohnmacht, Timo and Maksim, Hanja (2009) Mobilities and Inequalities. Farnham UK: Ashgate Publishing.

Reshmi, R.S. (2009) Gendered vulnerabilities, Discrimination and Abuse among Women Migrants – A Special Reference to Return Domestic Workers in Kerala, India. Princeton: Princeton Working Papers.

Salazar. Noel B. (2016) Keywords of Mobility: Critical Engagements. New York: Berghahn Books.

Sheller, Mimi (2009) Mobility. Philadelphia: Drexel University.  

Terretta, Meredith (2017) The Unfinished Business Between Cameroon and France. Politics |  Africa is a Country. Web. Cameroon was also colonized by other European powers.