Contested Meanings of Migration Facilitation: Emigration Agents, Coyotes, Rescuers, and Human Traffickers

Advertisment of the F. Missler Agency (Bremen), one of the major players in the trans-Atlantic emigration business, around 1900. Source: Croatian State Archive

This article is part of the TRAFO series Emerging Topics. Insights from ‘Behind the Scenes’. Today, we put the spotlight on the symposium “Contested Meanings of Migration Facilitation: Emigration Agents, Coyotes, Rescuers, and Human Traffickers”, which will take place on November 16-17, 2020 at the Pacific Regional Office of the German Historical Institute Washington (GHI PRO) in Berkeley. We talked to the convener Ulf Brunnbauer about the upcoming event. Please find more information on the conference here, the call for papers is still open till May 25, 2020.


Your call invites papers dealing with the question of migration from the 19th century till today – why do you think a historical contextualization is useful when discussing migration and what can it contribute when discussing migration today?

As historians, we often tend to think there is not much that is new under the sun. While this is probably not correct, one cannot help – when it comes to migration – to have recurrent deja-vu moments as a historian of migration. Debates about immigration, about citizenship and borders, about “aliens taking our jobs” and “diluting our nation”, today are strikingly similar to such discussions over the last century. Reading texts from the early 20th century, I sometimes feel as they could be from today.

So, historians can put things in context, for example by highlighting the fact that migrants usually adapt to new conditions quickly, that initial fears about immigrants rarely materialize, and that at least in the long run, societies benefit from immigration (whether countries of origin benefit from emigration as well is a whole different story, and unfortunately marginalized in the migration debate!). So, historical research can extend our experiential knowledge, or to put it naively: help us learn from past mistakes.

In more academic terms, a historical approach helps to solve one of the great puzzles when it comes to cross-border migration: why does it receive so much attention and trigger such fears, regardless of the fact that only a very small minority of people actually migrate, historically and today? Given the wealth differentials in the world, you would expect many more people on the move. Such long histories of anxieties indicate that migration touches some of the premises of the modern state, as embodied in the ‘holy trinity’ of population, territory and sovereignty.

Finally, to contradict myself: without historical contextualization we would not know what is actually new in the migration processes and debates we can observe today.

 Why is it particularly important to open the discussion to include initiatives, NGOs and similar organizations when talking about migration – which aspects and perspectives can academics get from these groups or put the other way around: which perspectives would researchers working on migration be lacking otherwise?

We would lack the human element! Migrants are at the center of what migration history explores but all too often have no voice. Which is a pity because at the end, migration is a story of humans trying to improve their livelihoods, or to secure at very least their lives, while state machineries, governments and hostile publics throw up all kind of road blocks in their path. We should applaud migrants, they are displaying agency of subalterns like a textbook case. Working with NGOs and real migrants show-cases the human suffering created by migration-wary states and ostensibly technocratic rules. Furthermore, as historians and social scientists, we should be grateful to these organizations; they provide us with stories that force us to rethink our assumptions, highlighting that each case is different. It is always a useful lesson to engage with real life before rushing to bold generalizations. I might be old-fashioned in believing that history can serve the purpose of enlightenment and should have an emancipatory agenda – but this implies giving a voice to those silenced by power, and engaging with them. I hope we can give them something back!

Given the current situation with many nation states de facto closing their borders to various kinds of migration: How do you think current developments will impact your upcoming event?

Well, the fact that we are calling for proposals for a November 2020 conference can be taken as a token of optimism. On the other hand, we of course face a situation where any long-term planning is hypothetical. At the same time, the travel restrictions can tell us an important lesson: as international scholars, we belong to the privileged few who can easily travel, who are not asked too many nasty questions at customs control, and who without too many troubles can even relocate somewhere else. For the overwhelming majority of humankind, however, borders continue to be a real barrier.

Maybe one of the lessons that we should learn from the current crisis is that the freedom of movement should not continue to be shaped by class and ethnic privileges. Which leads us back to the topic of our conference, which will explore the images of those who helped people cross borders who otherwise would not have had the possibility to do so.

Ulf Brunnbauer is a historian of Southeast and Eastern Europe with a special interest in history of migration. He is Chair of History of Southeast and Eastern Europe at the University of Regensburg as well as Academic Director of the Leibniz Institute for East and Southeast European Studies in Regensburg. His research interests include social history, history of nationalism, migration, family and labor.

Citation: “Contested Meanings of Migration Facilitation: Emigration Agents, Coyotes, Rescuers, and Human Traffickers”, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.04.2020,

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Editorial Board (2020, 28. April). Contested Meanings of Migration Facilitation: Emigration Agents, Coyotes, Rescuers, and Human Traffickers. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 18. Mai 2024, von

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