ReROOT Output

We are all migrants: Four myths about integration and migration debunked

Luce Beeckmans & Karel Arnaut
(This is the unofficial ENG translation, find the original NL version here)

By shifting the focus from the singular, integration, to many minor, everyday integrations, it is possible to better grasp both the complexity of integration and to more accurately assess relative success and failure.

A 'myth' can be understood as a lazy term used to dismiss certain beliefs as factual or scientifically incorrect. According to us, myth-making regarding migration and integration goes further than that. Myths are more than false stories. They are narratives or discourses in which people conveniently immerse themselves or with which they feel comfortable because they do not threaten the position or the status quo for those who inhabit these myths. Myths about migration and integration are actively constructed to keep global issues and ‘inconvenient truths’ that migration brings (not only at our national borders but also in our villages and cities), such as unequal globalization, forced displacement, mobility apartheid, and racism, at a safe distance.

Debunking myths is not only about dispelling persistent misconceptions, as is the case in the book How Migration Really Works: A Factful Guide to the Most Divisive Issue in Politics (Penguin 2023) by Hein de Haas. Debunking for us is also about uncovering what lies behind the myths, about exposing what we may not want to see and therefore cover up with stories and beliefs.

In this piece, we attempt to debunk four such myths about migration and integration. For this, we rely on the findings of the European research project ReROOT: Arrival Infrastructures as Sites of Integration for Recent Newcomers in which we are both actively involved. In this project, we have just completed two years of ethnographic (action) research in nine sites in ten different European countries. Our insights have been (preliminarily) grouped into four 'pillars', with which we attempt to present a different narrative about migration and integration and also try to dismantle some entrenched beliefs.


Above all, ‘integration’ is a set of expectations, practices, policies, and discourses that can vary considerably depending on the context and the ‘target group’. While some migrants are obliged to integrate in order to obtain, for example, access to housing (“they must learn Dutch”), integration for others is temporarily suspended (for example, for asylum seekers) or even criminalized (think of undocumented people). Not every migrant gets the chance to integrate, but for those who are assigned this task, the expectation of integration is toweringly high. This is because integration generally entails the expectation of a linear, all-encompassing ‘incorporation’ into the (abstract) society: a 360-degree integration. The problem is that if we view integration as a total project, it is bound to fail because it is too encompassing.

In our project, we find it more meaningful to look at integration in the sense of what people are doing in society on a daily basis. Somehow, they are always integrating and negotiating their aspirations and initiatives within limiting or otherwise stimulating social environments.

These negotiations are particularly complex and composite because migrants and non-migrants socialize/integrate not only in one (abstract) society but in a multitude of ‘circles’ and in different capacities ‒ as a mother or colleague, as a churchgoer or employee, as a student or customer, etc. Just as non-migrants do not constantly (and equally successfully) socialize or integrate in all possible circles, migrants do not either. By shifting the focus from the singular, ‘grand integration’, to many small-scale, say minor integrations, it is possible to better grasp both the complexity of integration and the relative success and failure. It also allows for a much more targeted and plural integration policy that seamlessly transitions into community building in general. Moreover, such an approach also brings into view the non-migrants ‒ the diverse segments of the indigenous 'we' ‒ and their daily attempts to ‘integrate’ into an ever-changing society.

The flip side of MYTH 1 is that integration is a daily affair for migrants and non-migrants alike; a reality that destabilizes the perhaps comfortable, privileged position of residents and therefore is strategically overlooked.


Most migrants maintain strong ties with their country of origin even after arrival. Some go there on holiday every year, others hope to return there at the end of their lives or want to be buried there. For many, this also means daily online contact: family ties are maintained via WhatsApp while money in variable amounts is transferred at regular intervals. Migrants thus live in multiple places at once and have strong transnational connections between the country of origin and arrival, not to mention other places where they have built ties or left family members during their migration journey. Such double or multiple affiliations are at odds with the dominant integration discourse, which expects migrants to break ties with their country of origin. It is assumed that loyalty to more than one country would hinder their integration into the host country.

However, our research and that of others very much shows the opposite: transnational activities can positively contribute to the integration process. Migrants often speak different languages, have extensive personal networks, extensive travel experience, are particularly skilled in mobile technology, flexible and resilient, strategic and decisive. Migration is not a protected or well-insured ‘all-inclusive stay’. During the preparation, on the way, or in the rapid learning process that ‘arrival’ implies, a lot of knowledge and skills are built up. Remarkably, many of these skills, such as multilingualism, are highly valued in society, but this is less the case when it comes to migrants. Their resources are often considered suspicious or futile depending on whether the languages are deemed 'dangerous' or 'unimportant'.

The fact that many migrants lead a cosmopolitan life and that this may contribute to their integration also confronts us with another myth: that not all migrants are 'losers' who want to travel to Flanders/Belgium/Europe out of envy or blind admiration for the West. This lens fails to grasp the motivations behind migration. Such a view of migration reflects a persistent process often referred to as orientalization, which has its roots in colonization and the regimes of inequality and dispossession that preceded it (think of the slave trade), but which continue to this day. Non-Western societies have been/are considered underdeveloped and subordinate, and integration programs would aim to civilize or modernize them. The fact that this myth resorts to worn-out worldviews not only betrays a false sense of moral superiority but, above all, demonstrates how unfamiliar we are with migrants and how vast our ignorance is about their worlds, their traumas, and humiliations, in what Nicolas De Genova calls the 'migrant metropolis' ‒ referring to the ongoing reproduction of borders and stereotypes, even in the smallest towns and villages, which migrants encounter daily.


We can distinguish two prevailing viewpoints when it comes to integration. Either it is up to the migrant to adapt and find a place in the society being entered. Or the challenge lies with the receiving society, which must open up, suppress mechanisms of exclusion and xenophobia, and make social and physical space for newcomers.

This polarizing dichotomy between ‘lead culture’ and ‘welcome culture’ is unproductive because it remains blind to the connections, small collaborations, and mediating actors that from the outset shape the migration and integration process in form and content. There is no question of two 'worlds' coming together in the abstract, but rather small steps in a world that has been globalizing for centuries ‒ a process that is, incidentally, irreversible, except for a few changes in pace and impact. Migration usually builds on prior forms of internationalization, through the media, online contacts, or visits from emigrated family, acquaintances, or compatriots. Already then, an ‘arrival infrastructure’ of people and networks, local knowledge, financial transfers, and reciprocal services begins to develop, which we refer to in our research.

Although migrants can play an important role in mediating arrival processes, other non-formal and informal actors are involved in this infrastructuring work very early on: residents who help to organize (or 'infrastructure') those processes. The fact that policymakers, migration, and integration institutions ignore this infrastructural work undoubtedly has to do with the fact that much of this work is 'social shadow work', as Mieke Schrooten, Rebecca Thys, and Pascal Debruyne (Politeia, 2019) have called it, situated below the official radar, but precisely because of that, all the more vital and essential. The fact that this work takes place in often not easily accessible and complex constellations is only one explanation for the fact that the polarizing myth of migration as the contextless convergence of two worlds persists.

The flip side of this myth is that the official regulation of migration and the organization of integration interfere with existing collaborations/infrastructuring and, without thorough knowledge, do more harm than good. At the back of MYTH 3, we therefore discern not only the same lack of field knowledge but also a failure to recognize that in a globalizing world, 'integration' mainly works in disintegrating ways before the bruised fabric of the polarized society can possibly recover.


Although in-depth research repeatedly emphasizes that migration is a timeless phenomenon, there remains a strong tendency to regard every fluctuation on the migration curve as something exceptional or dramatic. Since 2015, but in fact since the gradual closure of Europe to more or less organized, regular migration at the beginning of the 1970s, Europe and the EU have been operating in crisis mode, inspired by the idea that Europe can open and close its borders at will. The deliberate amazement, time and again, at the fact that people continue to migrate to Europe in smaller or larger numbers at the pace of political and violent conflicts, global economic inequality, and increasingly, ecological emergencies, as well as the accompanying crisis-discourse, ensures that the figure of the migrant is constantly reproduced and delegitimized. Migration is depicted as undesirable, and so are migrants, especially newcomers.

Fifty years after Europe began closing its doors to (labour) migrants it so eagerly welcomed after World War II, the mirage of sealable borders has been internalized by large parts of the population and deeply anchored in mainstream policy. Despite numerous attempts by migration scholars to expose the inherent porosity of closed borders, the discourse of ‘closed borders are possible’ is widespread and has found its ultimate target in ‘the newcomer’. Generally, the idea of 'newcomers' is fuelled by heightened fears about their alterity, their unfamiliarity with the new environment, and the unpredictability of their intentions or goals ‒ ideas that we have seen featuring in the three previous myths.

To counter the completely unproductive crisis-view of migration, it is important to emphasize continuities in both the longer and shorter term. The long-term perspective is that ‘we are all migrants’ if we go back far enough in history. Through a process of continuous and extensively documented 'autochthonization', people gradually identify themselves as natives, not least in relation to relative newcomers entering their lives and their world. In the short term, it is wise, and actually simply unavoidable, to acknowledge and normalize the acceleration of recent processes of globalization, including migration.


The four myths have in common that they are based on a Western, highly hierarchical imagination of global diversity that continuously dramatizes, problematizes, and even criminalizes migration and integration. In this imagination, identities and deep differences are often juggled beyond the extent to which the world and people are actually intertwined (which is not the same as, and perhaps even opposite to, 'homogenized'). Against this intertwining and diversification, the four myths appear in a kind of identitarian hall of mirrors.

It is noticeable that we demand a lot from migrants that we do not demand from ourselves. Migrants are often expected to have an all-encompassing integration, but when it comes to 'ourselves', we seem to accept that we may not be equally well socialized in all domains of life. Conversely, what we disdain in migrants, we often consider desirable qualities in ourselves. Think of multilingualism, cosmopolitan attitudes, international networks, or diversity capital in general (Rozemarijn Weyers, personal communication). These reversals and projections have a long history and are now sedimented in society in reprehensible figurations of racialization.

Debunking these myths is a crucial step in realizing that migration and integration are about so much more than letting in or excluding people. It is about how we want to redesign and sustain our world and the fabric of people and societies within it ‒ the dual task implicit in the title of our ReROOT project.
Blog posts Project Updates
Made on