It's time for a feminist approach to migration


Picture of Amanda Rohde-Stadler
Amanda Rohde-Stadler

Head of Programme Performance & Operations at Friends of Europe

Amanda Rohde is a Programme Manager at Friends of Europe
This article is based on Amanda’s contribution to the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy and Friends of Europe’s event ‘Exploring a feminist approach to migration in a Brexit world’ held in London on 10 April 2019.

It’s time to bridge Europe’s growing divide between those for and against migration. One way to close the gap could be to move from a traditional ‘masculine’ approach in policymaking to a feminist one.

Even though migrant numbers are down, the narrative surrounding migration and integration remains toxic. Newcomers are being told to integrate and become active citizens – but this can only happen if there is stronger public support for such a process.

In today’s divisive climate, this may seem like a pipe dream. But a simple, two-step solution which harnesses the power of an undervalued trait may be right under our noses.

The first step is to understand why our societies are so divided. American social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s ‘Moral Foundations Theory’ suggests that people have different understandings of morality and values – such as care, loyalty and fairness – and prioritise them differently.

These varying interpretations often create friction between those on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Even though migrant numbers are down, the narrative surrounding migration and integration remains toxic

The second step is to move from what English classicist Mary Beard describes as the traditional ‘masculine’ definition of leadership and power – which prioritises traits like confidence, authority, assertion and emotional detachment from issues – to a definition which elevates marks of ‘femininity’, such as sensitivity, gentleness and empathy.

As Beard makes clear in her Women and Power manifesto, these feminine characteristics have long been considered weak (or at least unnecessary for those in power). However, to build inclusive societies which operate on the basis of mutual respect and understanding, a feminist approach which capitalises on such traits will prove to be the answer.

Many suggest that feminist policymaking is an approach which keeps women’s rights at the centre, through gender-sensitive policies and the greater involvement of women in their formulation. Indeed, in the case of migration and integration this is particularly relevant: around 50% of all migrants are female.

Women face additional risks when they are on the move and are more likely to have experienced additional trauma before starting their voyages. On top of this, they often face double discrimination in their new communities – for being both a woman and a migrant. If this is to be the sole definition of feminist policymaking, however, women will continue to be pigeonholed into the role of the victim.

A feminist approach to policymaking should focus not only on vulnerability, but on power.

Policymakers must take a new approach to inclusion by elevating the ‘feminine’ trait of empathy to its rightful place, emphasising how indispensable it is to migration and integration policymaking.

A feminist approach will mean going beyond selling the many benefits of migration and integration through facts and figures. While there is power and truth in extolling the economic benefits of migration, the values of multiculturalism and the importance of supplementing shrinking workforces in ageing populations, people will continue to see the world through different lenses.

A feminist approach to policymaking should focus not only on vulnerability, but on power

Instead, feminist policymakers will speak with people from all walks of life: people on the move who can explain their experiences and unmet needs; those of immigrant backgrounds who have already settled down and can offer their perspectives on integration; established communities who can share their worries when it comes to welcoming newcomers; and those with politically dissenting views.

And after they gather these perspectives, feminist policymakers will not discount them as the views of those who have a ‘wrong’ understanding of basic values. Rather, they will acknowledge them as the legitimate concerns of people with different experiences, backgrounds, beliefs and moral frameworks.

Europe needs migration. It needs the talents and skills of those who move here. But to ensure the long-term prosperity of both current and future Europeans, it will be important to understand our differences and why we disagree.

A feminist approach, one that recognises the power of empathy and makes it the hallmark of good policymaking, will be the vital next step.

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