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Understanding migrant trajectories through the lens of differentiated embedding

In the evolving context of Brexit, a new framework can help explain the factors that shape migrants’ choices to stay in the UK or to leave

Louise Ryan, Professorial Research Fellow, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Sheffield

Over the last decade or so it has become increasingly apparent that despite initial claims to transience, temporariness and short term stays, many EU migrants have stayed longer in the UK than originally planned. As one migrant told me: ‘I didn’t actually plan to stay that long’. Having observed this phenomenon over several different research studies with migrants from varied EU countries, I am very curious to understand the process whereby short term stays gradually, over time, become extended. Another migrant, I interviewed, described her decision to extend her stay in the UK with the evocative phrase ‘it grew in me’ suggesting an embodied, almost organic process that occurred very gradually over time.

Mobility rights  not only enable movement across EU borders but also allow people to adjust their plans, to go back and forth but also to extend their stay without making any firm commitment to settle. As another participant in my research remarked: ‘it was kind of a plan, but it was never defined… it was more plan as you go along’. However, this is not a new phenomenon and can be observed among earlier waves of migrants who also enjoyed freedom of movement.

In the current context of Brexit, of course, there are new questions about whether migrants’ period of stay will continue to be extended or if migratory trajectories will now evolve differently as people have to adopt new strategies to secure their status in the UK, return home or move on elsewhere. Hence, far from being fixed, it is apparent that migrants’ plan evolve and change depending on a range of personal and structural factors.

In attempting to understand EU migrants’ patterns of migration to the UK and their gradual extension of stay over time, I am interested in the interplay of structural, relational, spatial and temporal factors. Over the last few years I have been working on the concept of embedding as a way of overcoming the staticity of embeddedness and the politically loaded notion of integration. I propose embedding as a conceptual framework for understanding dynamic, complex, multi-dimensional and spatially differentiated processes of attachment.

Drawing on Granovetter’s classic work on embeddedness in systems of social relations, I have recently developed the concept of ‘differentiated embedding’ to explore how migrants negotiate attachment and belonging as interconnected temporal, spatial and relational processes. I suggest that a ‘differentiated’ notion of embedding is useful in understanding the dynamic processes through which migrants negotiate attachments and belonging to varied degrees in different social and structural settings. This can include local, national and transnational contexts.

I use a visual tool to analyse how migrants’ negotiate embedding to varying extents with particular people and across different settings. The sociogram consists of three concentric circles (denoting degrees of closeness) and is divided into four quadrants to capture different dimensions of relationality (family, friends, work/ education, neighbourhood and hobbies).

My data suggest that investment in employment, career and training in the UK may enable embedding within place-specific opportunity structures. The extent to which skills and experiences are regarded as transferable across national borders may influence migrants’ evaluation of the risks or opportunities to move on elsewhere. Having acquired British credentials, migrants may be wary of moving to another country and starting again in a new labour market.

But it is not only employment that may be regarded as a means of embedding. Relationality is also crucially important. Inter-personal relationships both shape and are shaped by migratory experiences. For example, Martyna, from Gdansk in Poland, originally came to the UK in 2005 to visit her boyfriend. At that time she was unsure if the relationship would work out and how long she would stay in the UK. When I met her ten years later, she was married, had two children and recently bought a house in the south-east of England. Having originally interviewed Martyna in 2014, I reconnected with her after the EU referendum to find out if her plans had changed. Although she was very upset by the results, she and her family planned to stay in the UK. Her job, her husband’s job, the children’s schooling and their new house, as well as their extensive network of friends, both reflected and reinforced their economic, relational, emotional and residential embedding. Martyna remarked: ‘our home is here and our kids consider themselves more British than Polish’. Thus, despite the shock wave of Brexit, this family had quite deep embedding across a number of sectors and were likely to remain in place.

Nonetheless, embedding is best understood as differentiated. Not all migrants negotiate embedding to an equal extent across all sectors. There are enduring obstacles such as language proficiency, skills and qualifications, as well as the demands of local and transnational family caring responsibilities, but also increasing anti-immigration hostility which may hamper embedding in particular geographical settings.

The differentiated dimensions of embedding were well illustrated by Sylwia, also from Poland and working in the NHS. She had a senior professional occupation and could be seen as successfully embedding in the UK labour market. However, following her divorce she felt emotionally isolated in London and desperately missed the support of her family back in Poland. This was reflected in the sociogram where her relational embedding in her place of residence seemed rather shallow and all her strong ties were back in Poland. Nonetheless, when I reconnected with her two years later, after the Brexit referendum, Sylwia said she intended to remain in the UK, mainly because of her job and the fact that relocation back to Poland did not seem to be financially viable.

Sylwia’s experience can be understood through a concept such as embedding because it allows us to grasp the differentiated and multi-faceted nature of migrants’ attachment and belonging. Embedding captures the emotionality of migration which cannot be simply read off objective indicators such as employment. Feelings are crucial to the process.

These findings call to mind, observations by Jenny Phillimore about complex and uncertain ‘interlinkages’ between different domains of integration. I suggest that the notion of differentiated embedding allows us to think critically about the ways in which migrants may negotiate belonging across different domains of society. In this way, differentiated embedding captures the complex interplay of the personal/subjective (micro), relational (meso) and structural (macro) dimensions of migrants’ experiences. This framework may be especially useful as migration researchers attempt to make sense of the evolving context of Brexit.

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