Fieldwork in Sudan social protection for Sudanese transnational families, a fieldnote by Ester Serra Mingot

A fieldnote by Ester Serra Mingot.

As part of the Marie Curie Initial Training Network (ITN), TRANSMIC (Transnational Migration, Citizenship and the Circulation of Rights and Responsibilities), I am conducting my PhD on “Transnational social protection: How Sudanese migrants in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom and their families in Sudan make use of social protection, locally and transnationally”.

This joint PhD project, between the University of Maastricht (Netherlands) and the University of Aix-Marseille (France), runs from 2014 until 2017.

During the course of the fieldwork in Sudan (mostly Khartoum and Omdurman), from August 3rd to October 16th 2016, I conducted ethnographic research with the families of the migrants I had previously met and interviewed in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom (UK).

CEDEJ-Khartoum supported my fieldwork in Sudan, which was the third and last terrain after conducting seven months of intensive qualitative research in the Netherlands and four months in the UK.

The main goal of this research is to investigate how Sudanese migrants in the Netherlands and the UK, and their families, in Sudan, make use of different forms of social protection, locally and across borders in order to support each other.

For the purposes of this research, I use the concept of “social protection”, rather than “social welfare” or “social security”, which are highly related to the support provided by the state, leaving out the role of other actors in the provision of social protection and support. The aim of my research goes beyond the state-provided support, and tries to understand the different resources available to and used by migrants and their families back home, be it at a state, market, third-sector and/or family levels, in order to provide and receive social protection locally and across borders. For this reason, in this research I use the concept of social protection, which is usually interpreted as having a broader character than social security or social welfare, including different mechanisms of support provided not only at a public, but also at a private, community, and market level in order to cope with the social risks, such as lack of employment, healthcare or education.

This broad approach has allowed me to go beyond the dichotomy of formal and informal forms of social protection, and explore the existing semi-formal mechanisms of support. Moreover, rather than exclusively focusing on how migrants access formal forms of social protection in the Global North or how migrants’ remittances support the health, education and other basic needs of their families back home, by taking the transnational family as the main unit of analysis, I have been able to explore the role of those ‘left behind’ in the provision of diverse services to migrants.

Furthermore, by adopting a comparative perspective between Sudanese migrants in the Netherlands and the UK, an unexpected trend of secondary migration within Europe emerged. While motivations varied according to different personal situations, issues like education, bigger Muslim community, social benefits and feelings of discrimination seemed to play an important role in people’s decision to move from the Netherlands to the UK. Interestingly, nostalgic and even sometimes regretful feelings were expressed by respondents who had moved from the Netherlands to the UK.

The multi-sited approach of my research allowed me to observe social practices produced in different geographic locations, where the object of analysis, in this case “the family”, cannot be accounted for by staying in a single place. By following people’s connections and relationships across the Netherlands, the UK and Sudan, I explored the cross-border flows of goods, services, people and ideas.

Moreover, this approach allowed me to deepen the issue by exploring ‘the two sides of the coin’, that is, both the migrants’ and their families’ accounts on the provision and reception of social protection. In my approach, the units of analysis are the families linked to each other across national boundaries; that is, a “matched sample”.

During my fieldwork in Sudan, I visited around 20 families of the migrants in Europe. While some informal interviews were conducted, most data was collected via observations and informal conversations in English and Arabic. With each family I spent a different amount of time, from 5 hours to one week, depending on their availability. Nevertheless, even those with whom I could spend less time, getting to know their living arrangements, their household configuration and their living standards was insightful to understand Sudanese family norms and the relationships with migrants in Europe.

The project is half way to completion and an in-depth analysis still to be conducted, yet fieldwork in Sudan has yielded some preliminary findings. First, acquiring a European education in order to access better-paid jobs in the Gulf countries or elsewhere, seems to be a strong motivation for many Sudanese moving to Europe, especially the UK. Second, the strong family links in Sudanese families play a role on how migration is organized at the family level. Rarely are parents left behind alone; they either migrate with a child or (more frequently) one of their children stays behind with them. This comes with collective or individual sacrifices. Third, the provision of care to elderly parents or family arrangements (e.g. marriage) seems to be a source of occasional conflict between those left-behind and the migrants, who, upon visiting or sending remittances, may try to decide how things should be done.


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