Nordic views on migration: a report on the 17th Nordic Migration Conference in Copenhagen ‘Flows, places and boundaries – migratory challenges and new agendas’

by Marta Wozniak

Polish and Danish members of the DIMECCE team met once more to participate in the 17th Nordic Migration Conference which was held on Copenhagen University’s campus, Emil Holms Kanal, between 13th and 15th August, 2014. The conference venue was very pleasant; water, trees, and numerous bikes used both by students and professors, brought to mind a holiday mood, however, the conference programme was very rich so there was no room for any unintentional slumber.

Copenhagen University campus and registration sign

Beautiful campus of Copenhagen University / To the registration

The opening speeches by Hilde Liden, chairwoman of Nordic Migration Research, and Ulf Hedetoft, Director of SAXO Institute, introduced the theme of the conference – the status of both migration tendencies and migration research, especially in a Nordic context. The first plenary began with Thomas Hylland Eriksen, Oslo University, discussing the need to emphasise the ‘person’ when approaching the migrant issue. In a humorous way, he sketched out the differences between Nordic and Middle Eastern models of bringing up children to underline challenges faced by many second generation immigrants. The next presenter, and only female among the eight key-speakers, was Claudia Strauss, Pitzer College, USA. In her presentation on ‘Complexity in U.S. Nativist Discourses’, she argued that it is too simplistic to say that Americans are either for or against immigration as instead, people are exposed to a mix of conventional discourses, have multiple identities and therefore reproduce different discourses.

In the second plenary, Nicolas de Genova, King’s College, London, explored ‘Border Struggles in the Migrant Metropolis’, i.e. spatial practices of migrants and their urban struggles. It reminded me of Jennifer Mack’s ‘urban design from below’ concept[1] which I use to describe Assyrian/Syriac practices in Södertälje. The most controversial speech, however, was delivered by Philippe Legrain, London School of Economics, whose idea of ‘Border myths’ polarised the audience. Many praised the speaker for his bravery in advocating a total liquidation of state borders in order to ensure more justice and equal opportunities, but others found the talk demagogical and biased. It was certainly a vivid and thought-provoking lecture.

Introductory slide from conference, and DIMECCE team members Dr Sara Lei Sparre and Dr Lise Paulsen Galal

Conference opening ceremony / DIMECCE Danish team at the conference; Dr Sara Lei Sparre (left), Dr Lise Paulsen Galal (right)

As it was not possible to attend all 32 panels, the DIMECCE team split. I went to the ‘Childhood and Migration’ session which included two presentations about migrant minors in Sweden – my case study state. I found parallels between the information I have obtained from my interviews about the problems of Assyrian/Syriac children, especially boys, in Swedish schools and results presented in the session. Although Sweden has developed a sophisticated system of taking care of unaccompanied migrant children, it is argued that the children are often deprived of having one meaningful, deep and lasting relationship with an adult guardian. In addition, young migrant adults with little formal schooling tend to be sent to special institutions, which they find highly unsatisfactory.

The last workshop on the opening day was one that was eagerly anticipated by the DIMECCE team as it was entitled ‘Rituals and migration’ and was organised by Marianne Holm Pedersen from the Danish Royal Library and Mikkel Rytter from Aarhus University. The aims of the workshop were reiterated: at the empirical level to explore how migration affects the performance of rituals and how the performance of rituals affects the process of migration, and at the analytical level to wonder if we can use ritual as a cultural prism to shed a different light on migration processes. My DIMECCE colleagues, Dr Lise Paulsen Galal and Dr Sara Lei Sparre, presented their co-authored paper ‘Incense and Holy Bread: Middle Eastern Christians and their ritual encounter with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Denmark’. Lise provided an overview of Middle Eastern spaces and persons in the Danish context, and included life-stories of Danish-Iraqi Christians. She stressed the importance of ‘doing things’ while performing the rituals and gave examples of adaptation to other visual and ritual norms. Sara then explored three ways of practicing rituals: 1) staying Christian and international; 2) surviving as a Middle Eastern Christian; 3) confirming a sense of being Egyptian. I found this classification extremely helpful and will check whether the first approach is found among Middle Eastern Christians in Sweden.

Lise and Sara presenting their papers

Lise and Sara’s presentation

In the evening, we attended a conference reception at Copenhagen’s impressive City Hall. A City Hall representative of German and Peruvian descent told me about the difficulties which migrants face in their attempts to integrate into Danish society, and her role as a member of one of the commissions set up to facilitate this process.

Copenhagen's historic City Hall – exterior and interior

Copenhagen’s historic City Hall – exterior and interior

Later on in the reception, I got to sample some Danish specialities – pancakes stuffed with sweet curd served on Royal Copenhagen Blue porcelain. They were delicious!

Pancake reception venue and food

Pancake reception – one of the benefits of being part of the DIMECCE project!

A highlight of the second day was a panel on ‘Transnational Migrant Families: Norms, Laws, and Lived Realities’ where the paper on ‘Marriage Norms and Practices among Transnational Somali Families in Finland’ by Mulki Al-Sharmani and Abdirashid Ismail, University of Helsinki, was interesting given my own conference paper was on a similar topic. Another paper on ‘Pathways to old age; societal and familial embeddedness of old Turkish migrant women’ by Anika Liversage, SFI – The Danish National Centre for Social Research, discussed poverty among old Turkish migrants and made me wonder if it is the same in Sweden for elderly Assyrians/Syriacs from Turkey. Another panel entitled ‘Affectivity as a potential key to unlocking race and whiteness in the Nordic context’ was of interest as well – many of my interviewees speak about being perceived by Swedish society as being ‘non-white, black-headed, and consequently inferior’. The organised hospitality for this evening was an hour’s travel by public transport to a spacious wedding hall called ‘Laila’ which had typical Middle Eastern décor. It was interesting to hear from the organiser that this venue is used by different migrants – mainly from Arab and Turkish communities.

Before the dinner in the Middle Eastern wedding hall 'Laila'

Before the dinner in the Middle Eastern wedding hall ‘Laila’

On Friday morning, I presented my paper ‘Big fat Assyrian/Syriac weddings: The role of marriage traditions and customs in shaping the identity of Middle Eastern Christian immigrants in Sweden’ as part of the workshop on ‘Rituals and migration’. I compared wedding rituals performed in an immigrant’s homeland with their new forms in the Swedish diaspora arguing that although Assyrians/Syriacs living in Sweden have already incorporated some Western traditions, their wedding rites are notably different from traditional Swedish ones; thus, these rituals are important in negotiating belonging in the migratory context – they serve both preservation and integration. The DIMECCE papers appeared to be well-received and are intended to be part of a journal special issue on migration and rituals to be organised by the panel co-ordinators.

Dr Marta Wozniak presenting a paper at the conference

Marta’s presentation

Attending the Nordic Migration Conference was not only successful on an academic level but also a good opportunity to meet old friends and make new ones. I left Copenhagen University pleased and satisfied. However, while waiting to catch a bus to the airport, I noticed a poster saying in Danish ‘Everyone can afford a smile’ with an image of a sad Syrian child refugee – his look haunted me long after, showing the link between our academic project and reality on the ground especially as two days later I was due to meet the DIMECCE team at the WOCMES conference in Ankara and speak about Syrian refugees in Sweden.

Poster showing campaign to help Syrian refugees

Street campaign to help Syrian refugees


1. Jennifer Mack, 2014, “Urban Design from Below: Immigration and the Spatial Practice of Urbanism” Public Culture, 26(1-72), pp. 153-185.

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