'Identity and identification are not these simple things we can put in boxes'

In this series, we actively invite scholars from Leiden, Delft, and Erasmus to engage with issues on governance, migration, and diversity from their field of expertise. In this episode, we invited dr. Warda Belabas, Assistant Professor at the Department of Public Administration and Sociology at the Erasmus University. We spoke with dr. Belabas about her research and current projects, what models she thinks governments and societies could employ in terms of integration, and the LDE Centre GMD.

By Vanessa Ntinu

Warda BelabasWhat has been your personal motivation in studying migration and integration?

My interest in migration and diversity has somehow been shaped by my own background. Myself and my siblings have all been born and raised in the Netherlands while my parents have a Moroccan background. This gives one some cultural roots that impact the way you perceive society and of course how society perceives you. Therefore, being a child of immigrants has largely motivated the way I approach research. It has also determined the research I have been interested in.

What were the main insights from your Ph.D. and what did you take away from it?

I finalized my dissertation last year, in 2020. My main interests were always on migration, integration, and questions on identity inclusion - looking at who belongs and who does not belong. I wanted to understand how people live together but also how governments respond to these kinds of questions. In my thesis, I worked on the question of how local governments have to deal with migration-related diversity. I looked at the topic from the perspective of migrants but also from those that work closely with migrants. I wanted to ensure that my research was well-rounded and covered every perspective. On one hand, I prioritized migrant stories. I conducted a lot of interviews with migrants themselves to see how they experience not only their migration process but also how they have experienced bureaucracy in that process itself. On the other hand, I wanted to look into people that worked with migrants very closely. I conducted interviews with street-level bureaucrats that are quite close to this integration process, including language teachers and integration program facilitators.

My lens, in that sense, is contributing to what we already know about integration by really looking at the on-the-ground perspective. However, I also consider the new policies that are slowly rising to the surface. I paid quite close attention to city branding policies. Local governments are adopting city branding to position themselves more internationally, mainly to attract local investors or new residents. But they are also using it as part of their social agenda to create this sense of social belonging for everyone. The added value of my research is that it incorporates all these disciplines and literature (city branding, intercultural governance) and tries to understand migration and diversity from these perspectives. I end my thesis with the question of why shouldn't local and national governments redefine the stories about their cities and countries in a way that ensures a sense of belonging for migrants; instead of stricter integration policies towards migrants, which is increasingly a trend we see in Europe. This will allow migrants to identify with both the city and nation they are in.

Governments should redefine the stories about their cities and countries in a way that ensures a sense of belonging for migrants.

How do you grapple with the onus of integrating being placed on migrants? Should integration and acceptance be a two-way street?

Yes, of course. I think it should be a two-way street. Identity and identification are not these simple things we can put in boxes. It is important to acknowledge that how societies respond to migrants and their descendants is also fundamental to how migrants relate and identify with the country and the city they are living in. There is a wealth of knowledge available in research that can circumvent some of the challenges. For example, we as researchers know for a fact that migrants and their descendants identify more with their cities than with the country they live in. We now see cities employing policies, such as city branding, to expand this narrative of who belongs and who can identify. However, there are many other policies that cities and local governments can adopt to ensure migrants feel welcome. These policies can challenge the often national or European policies that really put the responsibility of integration entirely on the migrant. The question then is what we can do with all the knowledge we have acquired as researchers on these different patterns to ensure that local governments act accordingly.

Is there a city that has come close to marrying these two forms of responsibility together (action from the government side and migrant side)?

That's a difficult question. Of course, governments can do different things at the same time in regard to integration. Some of the times these policies and actions can work and other times they can be less effective. Rotterdam is often not the city we see as the main example of how integration should be organized on a governmental level. But on the other hand, what you do see in Rotterdam is that they do prioritize a shared sense of belonging through their communication and branding strategies. This is a recent development in the city where you see the municipality is trying to communicate with their residents in an age of super-diversity. For example, they have created this database, where they have asked photographers to take pictures of the city that represent the real Rotterdam. So not per se the iconic buildings but really the places that are Rotterdam for the people, including the people. The database is online so that others can also use the photos in their communication about Rotterdam. These kinds of measures are very related to the question of belonging because what migrants see and receive as a message tells them whether they belong or not. The database gives me hope that local governments are moving towards creating an authentic image of what cities actually look like.

There is a wealth of knowledge available in research that can circumvent some of these challenges.

Can you say something about the projects you are working on currently?

The main projects that I am doing right now are focused on how city branding and how communication by governments is impacting identification and feelings of belonging amongst migrants. In one project, I did a quantitative survey experiment where I tested if people with a migrant background felt more connected to the city and country of residence when they got exposed to more inclusive brands. More recently, I am doing two projects. In one of these projects, I try to capture how both migrants and natives in the city look at city communication. In this instance, we expose them to city brands (we are carrying out this research in Rotterdam, Amsterdam, and Antwerp) and see their opinion on the city and thereafter contrast it with the branding the city has adopted. The last project I am doing, also tied into this topic of belonging, is centered on mayors and how mayors can play a role in creating a shared sense of belonging on the local level.

We just started as a centre, what would your advice be to us in doing research on migration and diversity?

I think the LDE GMD is combining knowledge from different universities and also different disciplines and I think that is a great asset to the academic community. The question then is 'do you want to focus on that academic contribution, or do you also want to create an impact on society with that knowledge?' It would be very interesting to see how LDE GMD could play a role in ensuring this interdisciplinary knowledge reaches those in the field, such as policymakers. While the academic contribution of an institution is important, the impact on people and on the discussion in society is vital. Migration and diversity are the biggest topics of discussion, particularly in both Dutch and European election seasons. It is important that academic institutions and networks, even beyond the LDE GMD, can make an impact and make themselves visible in these debates. We need to translate the knowledge we create as institutions for those that make policies.

We are collaborating in research, in education, and in creating impact. According to you, what are potential blind spots for us (and others within this field) we should be mindful about?

Well, I don't think there should be an obstacle to your ability to collaborate on these fronts. Being such a new center, it is important to observe what others are doing. There are also other networks invested in this field, so it is about assessing what you as a centre are doing differently. Making that a bit clearer is beneficial for the community to understand your added value. Migration is such a growing field and with that comes more networks and institutions that want to be involved in the topic. Therefore, it is quite paramount to make it clear to your audiences what you are contributing.

More information
More about the Rotterdam photo database