“Why people move, or, rather, why some move and others stay always intrigued me” – 5in10 with Lidia Kuzemska
Lidia Kuzemska is a sociologist with an interdisciplinary interest in forced migration, internal displacement, borders, and citizenship. In 2022, she received her PhD from Lancaster University (UK). Her dissertation was entitled “‘Don’t Be Afraid of Our Citizens’: Internally Displaced People Encounter Bordering and Othering in Ukraine” and it focused on the counter-hegemonic citizenship practices of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in 2014–2016. Lidia also holds an MA in Economy and Society from Lancaster University (UK), an MA in European Studies from the College of Europe (Belgium and Poland), and an MA in Sociology from Ivan Franko National University of Lviv (Ukraine). Lidia is a co-managing editor of the Refugee Review journal (part of the Emerging Scholars and Practitioners on Migration Issues network). She is also a research affiliate at the Internal Displacement Research Programme (SOAS University of London) and a peer-reviewer for the Knowledge Platform and Connection Hub (UN Network on Migration). She is 2022/23 Prisma Ukraïna Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien.
How would you explain your research to someone who’s not an expert?
In short, migration and borders are my two main research interests.
Why people move, or, rather, why some move and others stay always intrigued me. Why has this historically natural process that helped humanity to settle around the world become so politically controversial? What’s worse – why does forcing people to move become an almost inevitable part of the war, either before, during, or after it?
On the one hand, we know that expulsions, deportations, exchanges of populations, taking hostages, or, bluntly, exterminating ‘others’ has been part of warfare. On the other hand, allowing people to settle in a new country, practice their craft or profession, and establish connections with other parts of the world has always been a strategy for development and success. So, what is the formula for balanced migration that would benefit both ‘us’ (locals) and ‘them’ (migrants)? And is it even realistic?
As a sociologist who is now looking at war displacement as a particular kind of migration, I try to understand how these experiences affect displaced persons, their close ones who remain at home, and their new hosting community. What could make newcomers part of ‘us’ and why are those who move mostly perceived as ‘others’? I can’t say that I’ve found the answers, but it seems to me that this question goes very deep into human history. Our ancestors needed to move to find new resources to survive, however, caution towards newcomers from other tribes and places was necessary for protection. We live in a very different world now, where we can learn – if we want to, of course – about various ‘others’. However, in my view, many of these early precautions about human migration still exist today, especially when we look at sophisticated and heavily guarded state borders that aim to allow only ‘desirable’ people to come.
My first encounter with a border was when I was five or six years old. My parents took me on a day trip to Przemyśl – a town at the Polish-Ukrainian border – for what we called ‘an ice-cream trip’. I was both excited and terrified when a Polish border guard asked me simple questions about my name, where I’m going, and why. Not fully aware of the meaning of this small talk, I remember a feeling of uneasiness. I didn’t do anything wrong, I was safe with my parents, but this encounter with a border procedure has stuck with me to this day. At that time, Poland was not an EU member state, but the border between the two states still looked quite ‘serious’ – a fence with razor wire, long queues of cars and busses, visa checks, and people in uniforms. I was fascinated by how a few meters on the ground marked a visible change in state emblems, road signs, currency, language, and even a different time zone.
What intrigued you when you started your academic journey? What were formative encounters or challenges?
In 2013, I was interested in the transformation of Ukrainian migration and asylum policies under the influence of the EU and its impact on refugees in Ukraine. I wanted to understand how the Russia-Ukraine-EU migration corridor was changing after Ukraine’s southern and western neighbors joined the EU in 2004. However, after the occupation of Crimea and the start of the first phase of the Russo-Ukrainian War in 2014, I understood that we were facing a completely new challenge – a large-scale internal displacement in Ukraine from the Donbas and Crimea. So, instead of focusing on how Ukraine hosts foreign migrants, I started analyzing the developments of state policies towards citizens forced to move inside our country. I was surprised that people moving within the borders of their own state encountered problems similar to issues other migrants face, e.g., difficulties with residence registration, schooling, and job search. On top, internally displaced persons experienced similar cautious attitudes from the host communities and authorities. Once again, it brought me back to the question: what makes someone part of ‘us’ or ‘them’ – even within the same country?
How, if at all, has the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine influenced your research questions or approaches?
Over the last few years, I was following the developments on the ‘contact line’ between Ukraine and its temporarily occupied territories in the Donbas. It was a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens who regularly travelled across the ‘contact line’ to keep in touch with their relatives, sort out their social payments, or buy necessary supplies. COVID-19 restrictions became a useful pretext to close the ‘contact line’, which never fully reopened from the side of the temporarily occupied territories. This link with Ukraine was almost broken for people who remained in the occupied territories of the Donbas. It was congruent with the other policies of the occupying Russian administrations aimed to fully integrate these territories into the Russian political, economic, social, and cultural space.
In mid-February 2022 – a week before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine – when Russia started its so-called ‘evacuation’ of civilians from the temporarily occupied territories of the Donbas to Russia, I thought this was a sign that the full-scale escalation is approaching. Ukrainian officials were calling on people to cross to the Ukrainian-controlled territory instead, but, as I mentioned earlier, the passage through the checkpoints was limited and difficult. After 24 February, Ukraine experienced a huge wave of internal displacement and refugee outflow. The whole country was on the move (or considering whether to move) at different levels as people were trying to find ways to stay safe, evacuate their close ones, flee the invading army or, conversely, join the defence and supply Ukrainian armed forces, thereby moving closer to the battlefields. In a matter of days, Ukraine became the country with the highest number of people on the move in the world.
In mid-March, the Russian Ministry of Defence reported that they received 2.5 million (!) “requests from Ukrainians to be evacuated to Russia”, which was another sign of preparation for a massive forced displacement of civilians from the newly occupied territories of Ukraine. Unfortunately, similarly to what happened to the ‘contact line’ in 2020–21, Russia quickly closed the humanitarian corridors for Ukrainian civilians who wanted to leave the newly occupied territories. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens had to flee the war through the Russian territory and many had to remain there. An unknown number of adults and children were deported.
Information about the experiences of war-displaced Ukrainian citizens in Russia is limited. We don’t have an exact number of how many stayed in different regions of Russia, how many moved on to other countries, what kind of status or help they received and from whom, and what awaits them in Russia. Was this a planned action or a side effect of war? These are some of the questions that I am trying to answer. We need to gather this information to be able to understand the situation of these people, their experiences, and their expectations. Knowing this is essential for planning a potential Ukrainian policy strategy towards war-displaced Ukrainian citizens in Russia: Will the Ukrainian government encourage all of them to come back? How? When? Where to? And what can they expect after they return, especially considering politically sensitive issues of possible dual citizenship or (suspected) collaboration?
What do you consider the role of the humanities and social sciences in times of upheaval, fragmented publics, and authoritarian transgressions?
In my view, the blessing and curse of social life are its messiness, chaos, and complexity. People always find ways to challenge either democratic rules or the strict barriers established by authoritarian regimes. We, as social scientists, have only partial answers to why things work or don’t work in a particular context. We disagree with each other and propose different explanations. In my view, our role is to keep asking questions about the ‘default’ and ‘natural’ order of things, promote critical thinking without hastily rushing to black-or-white conclusions, guard freedoms that are existential for our profession and, most importantly, keep learning from and supporting colleagues at home and in other countries.
How do you think war affects memory or identity? And how does this connect to your research?
I think we can look at different levels. On the individual level, people re-evaluate their social roles and priorities in extreme situations and must decide what takes precedence in their competing obligations as family members, professionals, and citizens in a situation of war. Our individual, family, and collective memories can facilitate or complicate such choices.
On the family level, many of us remember the stories told by older relatives who experienced war or displacement before. This includes strategies on how to keep warm and safe, what to have in your storage of essential supplies, what should or shouldn’t be packed in your emergency suitcase, and how to stay in touch when communication lines are broken. After the war, new family stories and memories will be passed on to new generations. In addition, millions of people now form war-related identities as they experience internal displacement or being refugees, soldiers, volunteers, fundraisers, and survivors.
On the national level, we will remember victories and mourn losses. There will be an official story told by the state about how Ukraine won the war, yet everyone will have more nuances and side stories to tell. These individual, nonlinear, messy, and complicated stories of war-displaced Ukrainians are what I find most important – individual gazes on a shared historical event.
Citation: “Why people move, or, rather, why some move and others stay always intrigued me” – 5in10 with Lidia Kuzemska, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.06.2023, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/47605