Who Belongs? EP 12 - Prof. Agata Lisiak on Migration and Gentrification in Europe

Interview

June 17, 2019

Download an MP3 of this interview here.

In this episode of Who Belongs? Sara Grossman speaks with Agata Lisiak, a professor of migration studies at Bard College Berlin, about her work on Eastern European migration to the Western Europe, the experiences of migrant mothers in particular, and the relationship between gentrification and language in European cities.

Transcript

Agata Lisiak: Race in Europe remains a major marker of difference. Eastern Europeans are white, mostly, even though they enjoy certain privileges, they also continue to be minoritized, orientalized, sexualized, but they are seen in Western Europe as more fitting, and they don't seem to pose a threat to the dominant Western societies, while Muslims continue to be perceived as threatening to Europeanness.

Sara Grossman: Hello, and welcome to this episode of Who Belongs?, a podcast from the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at UC Berkeley. My name is Sara Grossman, and I'll be your host today. On this episode you'll hear my conversation with Agata Lisiak, a professor of migration studies at Bard College Berlin, who works at the intersection of migration, urban sociology, visual cultures, and gender studies. In this discussion we talked about her work on Eastern European migration to the West, the experiences of migrant mothers in particular, and the relationship between gentrification and language in European cities. Here's the conversation.

Sara Grossman: So to begin, a lot of your work has looked at Eastern European migration into Western Europe, specifically Germany and the UK. For our audiences, who are often US based, can you talk a little bit about the dynamics of this immigration and how this came to be? Why do Eastern Europeans often move to Western Europe?

Agata Lisiak: Well, when we think about the internal EU migration, free movement between EU member states is one of the pillars of the European Union, right? So in a sense, migration is inscribed into the very idea of the European Union, and then to the structures. And the Schengen Agreement made it even easier for people to move within Europe by getting rid of border controls. But I want to stress that it's crucial not to romanticize this freedom of movement in which Eastern Europeans as of recently have been able to partake, because we should keep in mind that the loosening of the intra EU borders goes hand in hand with the securitization and militarization of Europe's external borders, particularly Europe's southern border, and not just the Mediterranean, and I'm sure also listeners in the US have seen many jarring images of the violence of that border, because we see them daily in the media. But Europe's borders extend even deep into African continent.

Agata Lisiak: And even within the EU, the right of EU citizens to move freely is not equal. And the old divisions, so the North-South, East-West, that you were asking about, but also the colonial-postcolonial, the center-periphery are still very strikingly present. And the East-West migrations were accelerated by the EU enlargements in 2004, 2007, and 2011. Of course migrations from Eastern Europe to Western Europe have been always happening, right? Because migration has always been happening. But it was accelerated by the structural changes, and by the inclusion of Eastern European countries and the EU structures. So in 2004 it was the large ... the biggest enlargement, 10 new countries joined the European Union. So the number of EU member states grew from 15 to 25. And most of those countries were Eastern European countries except for Cyprus and Malta. And then in 2007, Bulgaria and Romania joined in. And in 2013 Croatia.

Agata Lisiak: And Eastern European countries are often described reductively as a block. So clearly the cold war mentality is hard to kick, right? But the migration patterns that resulted from the EU enlargement are hardly uniform. So Hungary and Slovakia, for example, did not experience much migration. But Poland and Romania did. And the destination countries for individual Eastern European member states also differ. And the reasons for these differences are manifold ranging from the economic situation in those individual countries and regions through various entry barriers that some old EU member states imposed on the new members states and geographic location. And I don't think we will be able to go through all of these points, but maybe I'll just briefly focus on Poland as the largest country of those who joined the EU in 2004, and as the country from where most new EU migrants in Western Europe come from.

Agata Lisiak: So Poland is a country of 38 million people, and it experienced this huge, massive migration in and after 2004. More than 2 million people left Poland, settling mostly in other EU countries, mostly at that time in the UK and in Ireland. And currently the UK and Germany are the two countries that receive most migration from Poland. The increase in the number of Poles was particularly evident in the UK because there the number of Poles went up from 75,000 in 2003 to over half a million in 2010. So it was really striking. And so Poles are the largest group among all migrants. And the second largest minority in Britain right now, after Indians. And in Germany, the situation looks differently because the history of migration from Poland to Germany is very different from the one between Poland and the UK. And it's also different because Germany was actually one of the two countries next to Austria that imposed those entry barriers for new EU member states after the 2004 enlargement. So even though technically Poles and other Eastern Europeans were EU members, and EU citizens, they did not have the same rights in Germany and Austria as the old EU members. And those entry barriers were lifted only in 2011. And so for seven years, Eastern Europeans' access to German and Austrian labor markets was pretty much restricted.

Agata Lisiak: And as to what motivates migration. Again, the reasons differ from person to person, from country to country, but to stay with the Polish case for now, unemployment and poverty were crucial. And Poland because of the neo-liberal austerity measures that were introduced in the 90s, the so-called shock doctrine, right? The years of transformation, unemployment at around the year 2004 was over 20%. It is now at 6%. But when it was around 20% and Eastern regions of Poland were particularly hit by it, of course, that motivated a lot of people to go and look for jobs somewhere where they would be available because they did not have them in Poland. And also poverty especially compared to not just other West European countries, but also other East European countries was striking. So Poland ... among the 10 EU countries that joined in 2004, Poland was one of the poorest in terms of GDP.

Agata Lisiak: But to give it a more human dimension, I could perhaps mention this very striking conversation I had with one of the Poles I interviewed in the UK who, when explaining why she moved to the UK, she said that one day in her hometown in Eastern Poland, she was walking down the street and her kid asked for a banana when they were passing a fruit stand, and she could not afford it. And so she had to turn away in shame. And she says that in the UK she can't afford it, right? But I also would not want to reduce all of this migration from Poland or from Eastern Europe in general to those push factors as they are commonly known in like neoclassical migration studies, because they are just not enough to understand the intricate workings of migration. The popular attempt at explaining migration with those pull and push factors are largely dismissed today because they failed to address the social, economic, political, and other processes and power geometries that lie at the root of global inequalities, and thus also at the root of migration.

Sara Grossman: Thank you so much for that great introduction. I have so many questions in response, but I think an interesting entryway would be to talk about racial construction in Europe versus in the US. In the US, there is a really strong racial hierarchy as has been well documented. At the same time in Europe, there also is a racial hierarchy, but it may be more rooted in blood. You're German, you're Austrian, which is different from being Polish. And in the US that might be a part of the same category of white. Can you talk a little bit about this racial construction and how it might differ from the US and how that plays out in the current immigration conversation that we're having?

Agata Lisiak: When you look at the debates on migration across Europe, and again these debates differ from country to country, and they're historicized differently, but you can really see very clearly how race, but also religion, gender, and class intersect, and how these accumulated intersections stigmatize and marginalize migrants in multiple ways. So ever since 9/11, basically, the main suspect group and most West European and increasingly also East European countries are the Middle Eastern Muslim migrants. And race in Europe remains a major marker of difference. And it is an important factor to consider, also in the context we've been talking about. So East European migration to Western Europe. It's often overlooked because Eastern Europeans are white mostly, right? But even though they enjoy certain privileges because of their whiteness, so certain obvious white privileges, they also continue to be minoritized in various ways; so orientalized, sexualized. But those privileges based on whiteness but also on religion. So most Eastern Europeans are Christian or atheist. So they are seen in Western Europe as more fitting, and they don't seem to pose a threat to the dominant Western societies. While Muslims continue to be perceived as threatening to Europeanness.

Agata Lisiak: So to put it very bluntly, as I did in one of the articles I've written is that the highly educated white, European, non-Muslim migrants are generally more welcome than the so-called unskilled, non-white, non-European, Muslim migrants.

Sara Grossman: In that vein, I'd like to ask about discourse around the two different migrant groups. The discourse around Muslim immigration, as you said, is very much rooted in fear, and difference, and othering. What is the discourse around Eastern Europeans and how does that differ between the two groups?

Agata Lisiak: Well actually in Germany, currently, Poles or Germans with Polish background are rarely mentioned in public debates on migration, because it's dominated by the so-called refugee crisis. And the presence of Poles or Germans with Polish background is not particularly evident in public debates, but also not in urban space. Like in Berlin for example, there are very few Polish shops or Polish restaurants. And there are some, but if we think of how big the group of Poles in Berlin is, it's the second largest minority after Turks, there are so many more Turkish shops [crosstalk 00:13:50]

Sara Grossman: Yeah you don't really feel it.

Agata Lisiak: No, you don't really feel ... like there are some parts of the city that may feel more Polish and you will see like two establishments next to each other. But generally when it comes to migrant infrastructures, they're really underrepresented. And it might have a lot to do with the proximity of Poland, right? Berlin is only what, like 90 kilometers. So you can hop on the train, or on the bus, or on the car and drive to Poland and buy everything you miss from your home country. Right?

Agata Lisiak: And also because the migration from Poland to Germany has been happening for many years and I don't really like talking about waves of migration, but it's been quite consistent, with some spikes and some receding migration. But there are many generations of migration. And so the presence is not there that they, or we, I should say, cause I'm Polish, too, a Polish person living in Berlin. We are often considered invisible migrants. And of course this is, again, it's this racialized and visibility because it's assumed that all Poles are white and it's often wrongly assumed also that Germans are white, right? So there seems to be this racial fit. But this invisibility does not mean that there is no discrimination because that continues to happen. It's just that it's not as present in the debates.

Agata Lisiak: And in the UK, on the other hand, Poles seem to be much more visible also because of the rapid increase in migration that I mentioned earlier, and because of the highly developed migrant infrastructures. Every single British town has a Polish shop. The Polish accent in English is clearly discernible, especially in the service industry. So Poles in Britain are not just visible because of their presence in the city, but also audible because you can hear the accent or you can hear Polish being spoken. But also Poles are very strongly ... as the largest migrant grew up from Eastern Europe, strongly present in the popular discourses on migration in Britain. And it has intensified around Brexit.
Sara Grossman: I was just going to ask about that kind of discourse.

Agata Lisiak: Yeah. So in the campaign, the Leave Campaign leading up to the Brexit vote, Poles and other East European migrants were repeatedly named and shamed by the Leave Campaign. And they were-
Sara Grossman: In what sense?

Agata Lisiak: They were presented as a threat to Britain. [crosstalk 00:16:53].
Sara Grossman: Economically or culturally?

Agata Lisiak: On all levels. That not really ... They're taking away the jobs. So basically the standard, paradoxical, discourses where migrants are blamed for stealing the jobs, but at the same time for being lazy and not fitting in. Right? So this right-wing populist discourse. And after the referendum, many Eastern Europeans have reported increased xenophobia, and verbal and physical attacks, and a couple of people were actually killed in racist attacks on Poles.

Sara Grossman: You've written in particular about immigrant mothers from Eastern Europe, and I'm wondering why did you particularly focus in on the group? What can the experience of immigrant mothers tell us about the experience of immigrants in general and the larger systems around immigration?

Agata Lisiak: So you're referring to the research project of which I was part at Humboldt University between 2013-2017. It was called TRANSFORmIG, and I worked with Magda Nowicka, with Łukasz Krzyżowski, with [Avojnak 00:18:03], and other researchers. And we were looking into the recent migration from Poland. So the post-2004 migration from Poland to British and German cities. So we were interested in how migrants coming from very ethnically homogenous settings and Polish cities are ethnically quite homogenous. How they encounter and make sense of the much larger diversity, ethnic diversity, religious diversity that they encounter and their new places of residence. And what kind of multicultural skills they develop in the process, if any, and if any of those skills transfer back home.

Agata Lisiak: So we were really interested in how migration works in urban settings, and in transnational settings at the same time. So when I was thinking about what to focus on within this project, I instantly thought of my grandmothers, because all mothers...or like all child rearers, I should say, but in the case of Polish migrants and still in Germany and also in Britain, it is primarily mothers who do all these child rearing practices, have a very unique access to the city because my mothers have small children, then they engage in very regular, repetitive, routine actions in public and in semi-public spaces where they encounter people like them, who do similar things, or the same things but not exactly in the same way. And so I was interested in what happens in the process. What happens to those mothering practices which are so strongly shaped by national and nationalistic discourses, right?

Agata Lisiak: So motherhood, in general, is very often constructed as like a higher national good, and mothers as the reproducers of the nation. And I thought that migrant mothers are in this very unique position to question those dominant discourses on motherhood in which they were socialized. Right? In Poland there is this discourse on the Polish mother. It's the figure, the archetype is called Matka Polka, which is actually two nouns and it means mother Pole. But I guess it translates better as the Polish mother. So this sort of over-protective, hardworking, sacrificing, not ever thinking about herself, mother who not only makes sure that the child survives and thrives, but also that the child is a good patriot. And the archetype developed very strongly in the 19th century when Poland didn't exist, right? So Poland was partitioned in the late 18th century, and for 123 years it didn't exist. And yet the language thrived, and the culture thrived, in hiding. And because many men went to fight and died in the many uprisings that Poles had throughout the 19th century, mothers were sort of burdened with the-

Sara Grossman: Regenerating the-

Agata Lisiak: Yeah. With regenerating the nation. Right? And that archetype, Matka polka, it's been so strongly reproduced through national culture. Like works of National Culture. Like literature and music and paintings. And then after the Second World War, in People's Republic of Poland, it got another layer because then under communism of course the ideal mother had to not only to be this patriot and self-sacrificing woman, but also a good worker, a good socialist worker, right? So there was this double burden of both like working in factories or in offices and yet being there for the children. So this is a really overpowering model that women in Poland have to deal with.

Agata Lisiak: But I also don't want to say that it's so special for Poland because of course those archetypes of ideal mothers are present across cultures, right? There is like the Italian mother, or the Israeli mother, the ... all mothers, right? The German mother of like Kinder Küche Kirche, right? The three K actually. So the children, Church, and kitchen. So I'm not saying that this is so special for Polish mothers, although the historical context matters. But what interested me is how those women who become mothers or continue to be mothers in a migrant setting, how if at all they can free themselves from those dominant discourses. And how they make sense of the dominant discourses, the national dominant discourses on motherhood, and the places where they settle. And [crosstalk 00:23:35].

Agata Lisiak: Yeah, throughout my research it was quite fascinating to see that there's a lot of negotiation happening. That it's really liberating despite various of course difficulties that migrant mothers, especially low income migrant matters face. They are in a unique position to sort of like choose and pick from whatever styles of mothering between these two places they find most fitting for their current position.

Agata Lisiak: And I don't think it's necessarily special for Polish mothers, but for my grandmothers in general. And it's important to talk about it, I find, especially in a time where migrant mothers are vilified, either like as the contaminators of national cultures, right? As those who breed too much, and so like their children, who are not the proper citizens of that particular nation state, that they take over. And so for example, Polish matters in Britain, because many of the women who migrated after 2004, they were in their 20s and 30s, and then very often they would get pregnant in Britain, and it would seem like that they're overly fertile. They're too fertile. So they've been particularly, in the right-wing press, perceived as the threats to Britishness, but at the same time vilified in Poland as the traitors of the nation.

Sara Grossman: I want to move the conversation to some of the other work that you've looked at, which is about gentrification in urban space. And you've written that xenoglossophobia, my first time saying that word, the fear or hate of foreign languages, is not just a right wing phenomenon, but also something that you see on the left. And can you explain what you mean by this?

Agata Lisiak: Right. So Berlin is now, as I'm sure also the listeners in the US will know hailed as this international metropolis, right? But it's important to remember that this is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was only in around 2012 that the number of foreign residents in Berlin exceeded half a million for a city of 3.5 million. Before that, so throughout the 90s, so in reunited Berlin, throughout the 90s and early 2000s, the number was growing at a relatively low rate at a few thousand per year. And after 2012, the increase of foreigners in the city has been more pronounced with between like 30,000 per year, 50,000 new arrivals per year. So the pace is faster. And so our presence in the city is more pronounced, and quite literally because it's more audible, right?

Agata Lisiak: So walking through Berlin, going to bars and restaurants, but also doctors offices, being on the subway, you will often hear multiple languages, right? So like Russian, Polish, Arabic, Persian, and a lot of English. And it's not necessarily because there've been some increase, like some dramatic increase in people from English speaking countries settling in Berlin, but because English is a hyper central language, right? And so regardless of where people come from, it's very likely that their second language next to their national language will be English, and so that this is the international language of communication. And so these demographic changes, the increased number of non-Germans settling in Berlin, coincide with extreme housing crisis, and gentrification.

Agata Lisiak: In the last few years, the rents in some parts of the city were more than doubled. Right? And even though Berlin used to be hailed as an affordable capital in Europe, those days are long gone. It now tops all the charts of the cities with most extreme rent increases. Like in one year, I think it was last year or two years ago, the average rents in Berlin went up by 20%. And one of the most effective districts is Neukölln, which the gentrification scholar from Humboldt University, Andre Holm, calls an expert enclave. Neukölln and increasingly also other parts of Berlin are experiencing a quite unprecedented internationalization of the rental market. And there have been ongoing protests, as I'm sure you've noticed [inaudible 00:28:34] these developments. And the protests are led by tenant organizations, some various other political associations and initiatives, also some left-wing parties. And there are currently some very exciting debates happening on the question of expropriation of some corporate landlords. So especially those that own like more than a 100,000 apartments, right?

Agata Lisiak: And many of these protests are visible in the street, in the form of posters, graffiti, stickers. And so some of them I find openly xenophobic. And the impulse to think about xenoglossophobia, so the fear of foreign languages, in the city was ...I walk in Kreuzberg a couple of years ago and I saw this graffiti saying, "If you want to speak English, go to New York, Berlin hates you." And I've seen similar types of graffiti with similar messages across the city, especially in those neighborhoods strongly affected by gentrification. So clearly those who wrote the graffiti do not see the newly arrived as potential allies, right? But as enemies and as a threat. And they don't pay, or they don't seem to pay much attention to the larger structural issues at play, which underpin this phenomenon. So like the housing crisis, and gentrification. So this hatred of foreign languages is not necessarily a new phenomenon, but in the contemporary context it remains under-researched.

Sara Grossman: In hearing this, your analysis of this, I'm wondering where class may fit into some of this because Neukölln and Kreuzberg were formerly lower class or artistic neighborhoods. And I'm a native English speaker obviously, but I assume if somebody has the education to learn English where they're speaking English with other internationals, you're also at another...kind of a different class level of maybe as someone who lived there 20 years ago, or 10 years ago. And do you see any connections there with class and how these may be left wing activists view these gentrifiers?

Agata Lisiak: Right. So this is one of the issues I would like to investigate in more detail because it is commonly perceived that those foreigners who speak English, even if it's not their native language, that they must be of certain class, most likely middle class or upper class if they can speak that language, right? But it's very instructive to consult the work of the Dutch sociologist, Abram de Swaan, wrote this really interesting book Words of the World, in which he talks about the global language system and how English came to dominate as the hyper central language, right? So it's not only the second or sometimes even the first language in many of the postcolonial countries of the British empire, but it's also the first mandatory foreign language that is taught in schools across the world. Right? So in Poland, in Japan, in Peru, like they will teach English as the foreign language, right?

Agata Lisiak: Many of the migrants who come to Berlin and...for whatever reasons, right? So some of them may be expats or I guess like this is the class description of the migrants will come by choice, and usually with some economic standing and prospects for a job, or lifestyle migrants. But there also are other economic migrants or refugees for that matter who are more likely to speak English rather than German when they arrive. And so over the years they may learn German, right? But it's the first language that they have in common with many other people. And quite often as I know from the students at Bard College Berlin who are a very international bunch, even those people for whom English is a second language, they will start speaking it in public in Berlin because then they don't feel so threatened by racist remarks as they do when they speak, for example, Arabic or Russian. So it can also be a tactic like a survival tactic in contemporary urban space. Right?

Agata Lisiak: So I really think that like the intersections of nationality linguistic skills, class, and race, are really complex, and I would not want to give a very simple answer because I really...it should be researched properly. I don't think it has been done so yet. But of course gentrifications, like the replacement of working class tenants by middle classes or upper classes, right? It's just that it's...gentrification does not always work in the same way everywhere. Quite on the contrary, there's a lot of research on planetary gentrification where local differences are very strongly pronounced. But also within Berlin it's not the same gentrification happening everywhere. To return to my former colleague from Humboldt University, Andre Holm, he distinguishes several types of gentrification and Berlin. Like rent-driven, [inaudible] gentrification, Super gentrification, the expat enclaves, right? So, yeah, I think this is an exciting field and desire ... demands more research.

Sara Grossman: I think this relates well to what you've written about the Polish Marxist activist, Rosa Luxemburg, who wrote that we will never be able to overcome the problems caused by the workings of capitalism if we continue to consider them only locally and not for what they are, which is part of a global, interconnected capitalist system. Can you explain what you mean by this and also how this relates to these gentrification issues in Berlin?

Agata Lisiak: She already, in her dissertation Rosa Luxemburg ... in which she was writing about the industrial development of Poland in the 19th century. But she unpacked the intertwined workings of capitalism, and imperialism, and the dynamics at the root of globalization. She's even better known for her study titled Accumulation of Capital in which she argues that the limits that are inherent to capitalism drive imperialism and drive war. But more than anything, her work, I think should be revisited today because of her unapologetic commitment to internationalism.

Agata Lisiak: And in the context of what is happening in Berlin today, I think it would be extremely interesting to think of Rosa Luxemburg's commitment to internationalism, to international solidarity. In connection to the work of the Marxist geographer Doreen Massey, who very famously debunked the popular and idealized notion of an era where places where supposedly inhabited by some coherent and homogenous communities. She argued very strongly that place and community are not the same thing. They're not coterminous, and places can hold multiple communities. And she argued, Doreen Massey, for progressive, or what she called also a global sense of place that acknowledges the connections of that place to places beyond it and is not threatened by it.

Agata Lisiak: So this connection...so in terms of gentrification, to go back to the work of Rosa Luxemburg and Doreen Massey and build on this, we would see that it's not a local problem in Berlin. I mean it's perceived as local, but it's an international problem, right? It's huge debt companies. It's huge real estate corporations, and that singling out new comers, or migrants, or however we want to call them, and like singling them out based on the language they speak, or their race is counterproductive because then we don't see those larger structures and it's the larger structures that need to be addressed.

Sara Grossman: That's great. Thank you so much. A lot to think about. To end, are there any final comments you want to make about not just critiquing some of these anti gentrification efforts but maybe offering advice or thoughts on a more inclusive way to address some of the issues that are affecting cities in Europe in particular?

Agata Lisiak: Well I would continue to channel the spirit of Rosa Luxemburg here, for whom struggle against capitalism came before national self-determination. We need more international and inter-local alliances. And the large real estate and tech companies that tear our cities apart. And I know that this will resonate also with the listeners in San Francisco, should be more strongly regulated, and held accountable for the damage that they do. And some of such alliances are already happening. So in Europe there are activists and councils from various cities that try to tackle these issues together and work on tactics, strategies, and programs that would render our cities more livable, and we need more international alliances of this kind.

Sara Grossman: Thanks for listening to this episode of Who Belongs? with migration scholar Agata Lisiak of Bard College Berlin. Find this episode and others at haasinstitute.berkeley.edu/whobelongs.