Glasgow Refugee Asylum and Migration Network (GRAMNet)

Bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers working with migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Scotland

Migration and Belonging: is there a way?

by Melanie Baak, School of Education, University of South Australia


With the rise of hate crimes against migrants and visibly different minorities in Britain following the Brexit vote and the recent election of anti-immigration politician Pauline Hanson to the Australian Senate, questions arise over the possibilities for migrants and refugees in negotiating a sense of belonging in their new homes across the globe. Migration throws into question not only the belonging of those who physically migrate, but also, particularly in a postcolonial context, of the indigenous and the ‘settlers’ of destination countries, of subsequent generations born to migrants, and of those who are left behind in countries of origin. The ways in which belonging is unsettled is clearly demonstrated through experiences such as that of BBC journalist Trish Adudu who was recently racially taunted in Coventry and told to ‘go home’. These actions serve not only to destabilise the belonging of those who are the victims of the taunts and attacks, but they also demonstrate an underlying fear of the threat felt to the belonging of the perpetrator.

Belonging has frequently been explored in relation to migration, with explorations of the ways in which belonging intersects with categories such as citizenship, nationality, gender, ethnicity, community and family. Belongings are multiple and are negotiated in relation to people and places, and it is primarily this relational aspect of belonging that results in the ‘tenacious and fragile’ (Probyn, 1996, p. 8) experiences of belonging for many migrants and refugees. The question arises, is it possible that this relationality might also enable possibilities for belonging that see beyond difference? Is there a form of relationality that would enable us to see beyond the borders and boundaries that mark and maintain the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’, who does or does not belong to a particular group?

For the Dinka people of South Sudan, as with many other groups of people originating in sub-Saharan Africa, relationality is central to their ways of being and knowing the world. This relationality is expressed in the Dinka word cieng which emphasises relational ethical responsibility. ‘At the core of cieng’, Deng (2007) states, ‘are the ideals of human relations, family and community, dignity and integrity, honor and respect, loyalty and piety and the power of the word’ (p. 100). While cieng remains central to the ways in which Dinka living in South Sudan carry out the everyday relations with each other, it also plays an important role in underpinning the relationships of Dinka who have migrated to other countries including Australia, Canada, the US and UK. In a recent book, ‘Negotiating Belongings: stories of forced migration of Dinka women from South Sudan’, I explore the ways in which cieng underpins negotiations for belonging for Dinka women in relation to the nation-state, gender, ethnicity, local place, family and friends.


Cover image from 'Negotiating Belongings', Melanie Baak

Cover image from ‘Negotiating Belongings’, Melanie Baak


To give an example of the ways in which cieng might shape enable us to consider how we live together relationally I’ll relate an experience I had in 2012.

My family and I had travelled to the new nation of South Sudan. One evening at dusk, we found ourselves caught in a tricky situation (which I will not elaborate on here) with a group of young Dinka men in the streets of Juba, the capital of South Sudan. After some prolonged physical and verbal altercations, Kuol (my husband who is also a Dinka) caught the attention of a young man who stated that he was a sergeant in the army and seemed to have taken leadership of the group. Kuol started speaking with this young man in Dinka, and it was as if all other interactions among the group ceased. Kuol said something along the lines of:

I heard that you are a sergeant in the army. We are age-mates, so we must have been in the Red Army together. In those years when we were struggling to fight for our country’s freedom there were times when we had nothing to eat. There was a year that we had very little to eat; when we were all walking bones, when we were all dying of starvation. And yet we did not live together like this. We did not cause people fear, particularly women and children. Why is it that now, after we have finished fighting and won freedom for our country, you start living like this? This is not good cieng. This is not how we live together in cieng.


The young man hung his head, returned to humility, and immediately returned us safely to our hotel.

Cieng, and other similar relational ways of being, in their ideal form provide possibilities for understanding belonging and the ways in which we may co-exist despite difference. Cieng can provide a ‘new’ and different way of thinking about how lives can and should be lived in relation to other people. It acknowledges the salience of relationality and through this provides a different practice of understanding humanity. If we are all only people in relation to other people, then to dehumanise other people is also to dehumanise ourselves. Cieng demands a degree of reciprocity and responsibility as underscored by a relational ethic which provides a means of reconciliation that may serve to overcome the histories of racism, colonialism, sexism and classism by emphasising the collectivity of shared humanity. The reciprocity and responsibility and relational ethic that is demanded through only being able to ‘be’ through others would enable us to see the Other as human. This reciprocity and responsibility entailed by cieng is beautifully articulated in Deng’s (2009) quotation from a Dinka chief:

If you see a man walking on his two legs, do not despise him; he is a human being. Bring him close to you and treat him like a human being. That is how you will secure your own life. But if you push him onto the ground and do not give him what he needs, things will spoil and even your big share, which you guard with care, will be destroyed. (pp. 45–46)

Cieng thereby provides an opportunity to see shared humanity as relational and beyond difference. Focusing on relational ways of being allows an acknowledgement of ‘what it means to be human and to be in relationship with an-Other’ (Swanson, 2007, p. 55). Through relationality there is scope to see beyond difference towards a shared humanity. But it remains to be seen whether it will ever be possible to get beyond the binaries of difference that have been created through a legacy of hierarchies. The question remains, will it ever be possible to get beyond difference sufficiently to all belong to an all-encompassing collectivity?

Cieng offers a different way of understanding ways to coexist ethically in the world. This relational way of living together offers a way of being, becoming and belonging that would enable Dinka and other migrants to be in Australia and the world with ease, unhampered by the confines of citizenship, nationality, ‘race’, religion, gender, sexuality, ethnicity or any of the other constructs that haunt the ways in which they are able to make their lives. Being in the world relationally, where reciprocity, responsibility and relational ethics remain central, would allow those whose lives have been diminished by racism, colonisation, sexism and classism to negotiate their belongings in ways which rely on nothing more than their subjectivity, their agency and their shared humanity.

You can read more about ‘Negotiating Belongings’ here.


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This entry was posted on July 8, 2016 by in Academic seminar and tagged , , , , , .
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