Andrew Talks with Migrant Rights

Hi all,

Journalist Mona Kareem with Migrant Rights recently interviewed me about my research. The full interview is linked here, and I’ve pasted the first question and answer below. Note that a fairly lively discussion emerged in the comments on Facebook as well.

In this conversation with Andrew Gardner, Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Puget Sound, we discuss migration policies in the Gulf region. For over a decade, Gardner has researched migration in Bahrain and Qatar exploring the structural hardships that immigrants are faced with in the region. He is the author of City of Strangers: Gulf Migration and The Indian Community in Bahrain and editor of Constructing Qatar: Migrant Narratives from the Margins of the Global System.

A transnational laborer in Qatar, with a sign indicating his monthly salary. Photograph by Kristin Giordano, from the exhibit Skyscrapers and Shadows.

A transnational laborer in Qatar, with a sign indicating his monthly salary. Photograph by Kristin Giordano, from the exhibit Skyscrapers and Shadows.

In 2012, Bahrain claimed to have ‘abolished’ the kafala system, only renaming it. Also lately Qatar made a similar announcement, without offering a detailed plan. Do you expect any positive changes following these promises?

Obviously, the details of Qatar’s plan matter a lot, particularly since we have Bahrain’s experience to gauge these changes against. Note that while I published a book about my research in Bahrain in 2002 and 2003, I never have had the opportunity to return to the island, so I have no firsthand knowledge or understanding of the impact of the changes that were instigated (and as an anthropologist, I value that firsthand knowledge above all else). Nonetheless, the changes to the migration system in Bahrain, hailed as the “abolishing of the kafala,” were more about relocating the right for migrants to change positions from their sponsor to the LMRA. At the time, this could be read as a fairly substantial change to the kafala, but the research I’ve read and the migrants I’ve talked with don’t describe any substantial change in their experiences on the island. Thinking about the region as a whole, in my mind all of this points to a few basic conclusions.

First, we need to recognize that these headlines and declarations of abolishing the kafala are really the prime currency resulting from these proposed, incremental changes, for they allow the Gulf States to broadcast their evolving positionality in a global index of modernity that, thankfully, I suppose, includes EuroAmerican-styled ideas about individual human rights.

Second, I think it is important that we understand the kafala not as a singular and stable thing, but rather as a collection of laws, practices, norms, and traditions that undergird this contemporary migration system. Interwoven with it is a globally-accepted system of legal contracts that really achieve many of the same ends — locking migrants to particular jobs for specific periods of time, for example.

Third, and related: so while aspects of the kafala may be “abolished” in some GCC states in the coming decade, I am not certain that we’ll see any substantial changes in the migrant experience, as these contracts foster the same kind of control that is the critical and criticized facet of the kafala. The barometer by which we evaluate that change in any of the GCC states should be migrants’ experiences.

Have you noticed any shifts in official narratives about migrant issues?

For more of the conversation, continue here.



Abigail Phillips and Graduate School at the University of Georgia

Denise Glover stays in contact with many of SOAN alumni, and sent this along: One of our graduates from a few years back, Abigail Phillips, stays in touch with me, and occasionally I’ll even get to visit with her when she’s in the area. A few weeks ago I’d asked if she would like to write something for the SOAN blog, since she has been doing such interesting work since leaving UPS. Here is what she wrote.

Just over a year ago, I was in the running for a job as Head Garden Manager
with The Edible Schoolyard in New Orleans (ESYNOLA). I’d gotten to know the staff there really well through my work with FoodCorps in Mississippi, I’d worked hard to use them as a model organization for the Server Members in Mississippi and really appreciated their guidance. They offered the job to a landscape architect. I can’t say I wasn’t bummed to miss out on working with such a well-functioning organization, but I am truly grateful for their introduction to the field of Landscape Architecture (LA). I felt my learning had plateaued with my work for FoodCorps, so I was on the hunt for my next step. I knew I was interested in the built environments, how people use and abuse these sites (hello SOAN!), problem solving, southern culture and art. I loved that my work with FoodCorps provided the tools to dig deeper into all of these interests, but I wanted a mentor, somebody that could teach me more than I could teach myself. It occurred to me, that I might like going back to school. Before hearing from the ESYNOLA staff, I would’ve assumed LA’s focus on designing parking lots, subdivisions and golf courses… fun, right? After speaking with ESYNOLA’s staff I realized the field of LA aligns with my interests almost perfectly. I also realized that its awfully hard to land an internship at an LA firm with a degree in Comparative Sociology and Environmental Policy.

Abi with Pecan Park Elementary students in their garden, in Jackson, Mississippi.

Abi with Pecan Park Elementary students in their garden, in Jackson, Mississippi.

It was late May when I decided to pursue an advanced degree, weeks before all of the LA school applications were due, and I knew nothing about what program would suit me well… so I did what any Millennial would do, I google searched “Top 10 Landscape Architecture Graduate programs.” The University of Georgia made the list, was close enough to Mississippi that I could keep supporting FoodCorps’ work there, responded quickly to my application and offered an undeniable aid package. How could I say no? Within 2 weeks of considering grad school, I accepted their offer- without a clue of what I was really heading into. I’m still unsure of whether or not I’d recommend this decision-making methodology, the last year of school has pumped me up and knocked me over countless times.

Abi showing a research project and hand drawing exercise from her first semester at the University of Georgia.

Abi showing a research project and hand drawing exercise from her first semester at the University of Georgia.

I was over-prepared in some ways and under-prepared in others, for the incredible challenge that grad school is. I’ve spent countless hours in the last year drawing strait lines, glueing models together, adjusting angles to a degree of hilarity and wondering if I made the right decision. I’ve spent even more hours learning about the affect of site design on an individual and community’s well being in terms of socioeconomics, health, efficiency and creativity, ecological diversity and general safety. I’ve spent hours on top of this applying new insight to the sites that I design, collecting feedback from site visitors on what works and why, considering how to use my LA degree as a beneficial social service, and knowing that I made the right decision in pursuing this degree. I’m just beginning research assisting an LA in New Orleans who is creating a set of “designs” to implement on the city’s 4000 vacant lots in order to reduce maintenance costs, improve ecological diversity and potentially improve perceptions of and within neighborhoods that contain multiple vacant lots. His project is being implemented in 3 neighborhoods as a test run, to determine the most effective designs. My contribution focuses on the neighborhood residents’ perceptions of the project- whether they are supportive, offended, uninterested or something else entirely. I’m using a variety of methods over the next 2 years to collect data, many of which stem from SOAN practices.

I’m incredibly thankful to have the opportunity to pursue my interests with the rigor that this program provides, but reluctant to encourage anyone to pursue grad school on a whim. I was over prepared for this program because of the work I’d done outside of a school setting, I was underprepared for the amount of time I would have to obsessively dedicate to things like calculating pipe sizes, drawing strait lines (thousands of strait lines) and reading about previous trends in the field that in many ways spurred injustice. If you’re considering going into grad school right after undergrad, don’t. Go do something outside the classroom. Learn by helping people with anything from advocating food sovereignty to joining a small business to traveling and sharing your stories. Make an impact. Make even more mistakes. Decide whether you need more formal training or not, and don’t agree to take on grad school debt that you won’t be able to pay-off when you finish the degree. Do consider grad school, after a few years of working, if you’ve identified an issue or problem that you don’t know how to address, if you require more guidance to pursue your interest. Let me know if you have any questions about using SOAN through Landscape Architecture, you can contact me here. And good luck!