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Immigration and family dynamics: theoretical insights into the agency of extra-European migrants in Belgium

By Sarah Carpentier, Jean-Baptiste Farcy, Sarah Smit and Norms and Regulation within International Families’ Movement Colloque international "Family Migrations and Uses of Law – Actors


Within the limits of international treaties and human rights law, states’ sovereignty in regulating migration is unchallenged under international law. From a moral point of view, however, relatively recent development have shown that states’ powers to restrict the freedom of movement has not been unchallenged. In a world of states, migrants are typically distinguished from nationals and a bunch of legal categories differentiates migrants: these categories define the conditions of entry and stay of third-country nationals as well as their access to social and political rights. As a result, most migrants navigate between legal statuses and sometimes face periods without such status. This stratified access to residence and citizenship affects third-country nationals’ life courses and everyday lives in essential areas, such as family life. Even though the existing broad legal categories – such as of family reunification or student stay – are relatively stable, successive legislative changes have resulted in complex and unclear legislation, leaving discretionary power to street-level bureaucrats implementing the regulation at stake. Migrants must therefore deal with these regulations and practices to pursue their family life projects within a new context, characterised by potential insecurity and uncertainty. The predominance of such a state-centred approach raises questions about how such an approach affects their family lives as well as their way of coping with the regulations and practices in place. The core questions we aim to address in this paper are: how do agency and structure shape the family life of extra-European migrants before and after entry into Belgium? Which strategies do migrants develop to pursue their aspirations in terms of family life? Which are necessary conditions for migrants’ agency? And, how is their agency transformed through the migratory experience? We will study these questions in relation to family dynamics, both before and after entry in the host country. We will review literature in the human sciences (mainly sociology) and illustrate theoretical concepts by narratives of migrants from India, Congo and the USA, collected through semi-structured interviews at different time points of their trajectory in Belgium. The migration fluxes of these three nationalities are of similar size, but present varying situations. Our contribution aims to develop a theoretical framework that builds on the capability approach (Sen, 1999), the life-course perspective (Elder et al., 2003) and various theories of action (e.g. the legal consciousness approach). We consider that life courses – including family life – of migrants are best understood interdisciplinary and through a longitudinal approach. The capability approach allows capturing the multidimensional and multifaceted dimension of agency. It also constitutes an interesting normative framework for policy evaluation. Furthermore, the insights from diverse theories of action, among which the plural man approach (Lahire, 2011 [1998]), allow to take into account the heterogeneity and plurality of local experiences and events, informed by the past, actualised through the present and oriented to the future, as well as the transformative capacity of various manners of agency

Topics: migrants, agency, capability approach, life-course perspective, family, structure-agency debate
Publisher: Laboratoire méditerranéen de sociologie (LAMES), Aix-Marseille Université
Year: 2018
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Provided by: DIAL UCLouvain
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