Identity on the Line
Identity on the Line

It still hurts three generations down the line: A missing piece in the New Pact on Migration and Asylum

Op-ED written by: Dr Kathrin Pabst, project leader, and published in EURACTIV

“Something happened (…) during the war, something terrible that was going to leave its mark on my father more than anything else. Something so strong that he was never willing to talk about it. Something that traumatised him so profoundly that it affected our entire family, even us four siblings, who have never experienced war. In this way, the war became part of our lives, too.”
Anonymous, 55, Germany/Norway

This is one of many quotes from second- and even third-generation migrants who have to cope with the silence that often follows painful migration processes: a ubiquitous silence that challenges integration and well-being within families and societies. The EU’s latest roadmap for migration policy, the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, barely mentions long-term consequences in its action plan on integration and inclusion, and I regard this to be short-minded in light of the UNs 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Not having the descendants of migrants and refugees in mind – no matter how urgent the first-line measures – diminishes the chances of building culturally diverse and stable societies. Considering the increasing nationalistic tendencies in several European countries, we need to start looking at long-term solutions for an issue that is too often viewed as a short-term urgency. Let me explain why.

As part of the Identity on the Line (I-ON) project, researchers and museum curators from seven European countries have interviewed three generations of former migrants and their descendants over the last four years, to discover how unprocessed trauma is passed on from generation to generation. After analysing more than 160 in-depth interviews, our project’s findings are clear. If traumatic experiences that follow wars and forced migrations are not appropriately addressed in their aftermath, consequences can be severe: for the migrants themselves, their children, grandchildren, family relations, and surrounding societies. Our findings were valid across countries, cultures and periods of time: challenges are likely to occur in the private and public spheres, affecting how we can reach several of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a society.

For example, the not-talking and not-addressing of traumatic happenings during the former migration led within all three generations to feelings such as loneliness and exclusion. When the first generation, the migrants, were not able to share what had happened, their children and grandchildren were often left with an urge to find information about their roots. Family relations suffered massively when happenings were sensed but not adequately addressed – neither within the families nor in the public sphere – leading to painful feelings of being different and left out. Due to these internal challenges, also the integration and inclusion of these families into their new social environment could be much
harder. One could also assume that mental health challenges increased, even if medical questions were not a part of our study.

In addition, public silence about traumatic experiences during migration processes and their possible long-term consequences reinforced and multiplied feelings of fear, guilt or shame –either within families of former aggressors or families of their victims. Our findings point out that knowing who belonged to a particular family or “side” can be passed down from generation to generation, making it more difficult or even impossible to live together peacefully. One could reasonably assume that this ultimately might lead to local societies characterised by groups of people who avoid each other or even fight against each other; and that these internal struggles contribute to rising nationalistic tendencies. Research from different fields of study strongly suggests that knowledge and openness are unavoidable factors for effective reconciliation processes. More research has to be conducted about when and how to address collective trauma most effectively, but here is where a significant yet unused potential lies: long-term consequences of war and forced migration have to be addressed publicly to help future generations cope better in both the private and public spheres. Here, cultural institutions such as museums can come into play by inviting those affected to share their stories and providing general information about the broader historical context they could be placed within.

To sum up, we have a real chance to diminish the long-term consequences of migration by increasing awareness of the comprehensive impacts of traumatic events and addressing them through openness, knowledge, and information that is publicly accessible. Approaches are not too challenging to develop and implement, but efforts must be made sooner rather than later. The very first step is making sure that the long-term consequences of migration-related traumas are appropriately mentioned in our policy documents and adequately addressed in future discussions. The second one is to increase the collaboration between all who can contribute to practical results.

The 26th of April 2023 discussions among researchers, experts and policy makers were hosted at Norway House and the European Parliament in Brussels, led by Identity on the Line. The project aimed to explore the long-term consequences of migratory movements on the identity-building process of the people involved, their children and grandchildren. It focused on collecting, analyzing, and showcasing experiences from specific migratory processes that took place over the course of the last 100 years. The main findings are summarized in a package of materials for educational and cultural institutions, physical and digital exhibitions, movies, publications – and now also a series of recommendations for policymakers. Recordings from the event will soon be published on the projects webpage

Kathrin Pabst, PhD is an ethnologist, researcher, author, and speaker. She is the project leader of Identity on the Line (I-ON), a large-scale cooperation project between academia and cultural history museums in Europe. The project is co-funded by the EU within the Creative Europe Programme.

The EU’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum fails to consider the long-term consequences of migration processes on the well-being of migrants, and of their second and third-generation descendants – diminishing our chances to build societies that are culturally diverse, and leading to increased nationalistic tendencies in Europe.