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Migration and fear: should governments regulate the values and identities of immigrants?

17th November 2017

This blog was produced as part of our seminar series: Governance and the power of fear, which runs until 5 December 2017.

Migration is engulfed by fear. It is being deeply felt by refugees who leave behind their homeland and loved ones to escape torture and persecution, and take dangerous journeys in hope of a more peaceful life. It is also felt by some citizens of transit and settlement countries – fearing that immigrants undermine their existing culture and the stability of their life.

This raises the question about the role of government in managing, engaging with and responding to these fears. Recent attempts by the Australian Government have centred on calling upon new immigrants to “join us as Australian patriots”, and requiring new citizens to demonstrate “Australian values” under the proposed changes to the citizenship test.

But how useful are attempts at regulating cultural values or assigning moral identities among new immigrants in order to create cohesive societies?

There’s increasing evidence (for example, Meca et al., 2017) that self-identity contributes more significantly to resettlement outcomes and well-being of refugee migrants than cultural identity. That is, an understanding of who one is and where one is going is more critical than understanding of where one fits in ethnic groups.


Self-identity construction is often considered to be a psychological process of individuals, but it is subject to a range of external factors. Refugee migrants’ self-identities are frequently ruptured and reshaped in migration journeys. On arrival to their settlement country, they have to relate to a new community, norms, legal frameworks and different social-economic opportunities. These externalities can lead to rapid change in their lives, including their status, social relationships, family roles, and at the very core, their self-identities. In other words, their self-identity construction takes place within the opportunities and constraints provided by social structures.

Drawing on the work of self-identity theorists, Valerie Braithwaite identified three main aspects of self-identity at risk. The moral or ethical self – the sense of ourselves being good and doing the right thing by our own initiative and not through coercion. The status seeking self – that strives for success and achievement of personal goals. And, the democratic collective self – the sense of ourselves as equally valued members of the community.

Each of these identities seeks to have its existence validated and supported through positive interactions. But we can also come away from our dealings with authorities with a threatened identity. The moral self is threatened by possible unlawfulness in response to institutional constraints. The status seeking self is threatened by blocked aspirations when we find our ambitions placed beyond reach. The democratic collective self is threatened when our voices are not listened to and engaged with.

How does this relate to the self-identity construction of immigrants? What are the stressors and barriers? And what are the empowering effects? What institutional support is needed to create positive self-identity among refugee migrants?

In my research, which draws on data collected through my fieldwork with South Sudanese Australians during 2009-12, I explore some of the identity development threats among refugee migrants.

Research undertaken with South Sudanese Australians

In terms of moral identity, participants were strongly committed to be good citizens by finding a job and contributing to the economy of Australia, and by holding onto their strong family values. But blocked pathways made their employment opportunities insufficient and elements of their parenting practices, especially the use of physical punishment, were unlawful. Instead of trying to understand the motivation of parents, and working towards lawful parenting practices, which also align with the cultural dimensions shaping their lives, authorities locked themselves into the view that South Sudanese parenting values were incompatible with Australian values.

While efforts in economic participation weren’t greatly supported by government, authorities were quick to intervene in the private domain of family, responding to reports of family conflict and child abuse. These interventions left many parents feeling disempowered, feeling that their status as parents are threatened by authorities. Preserving a sense of recognition and status among their families and peers is critical for refugees who typically lose their physical belongings, structures or cultural ceremonies and rituals, which provide form and meaning to their lives. While participants did expect to lose some of these connections, they didn’t expect changes to their family life and family roles. But the externalities of a new country, such as the legal framework, social structures, and norms, shape people’s social relations at the most personal level.

Parents and community leaders responded by reaching to their democratic collective self by voicing their grievances and protesting to authorities. They wanted to have a dialogue with authorities in the hope of being heard and negotiating a better solution. They believed government had a responsibility to act on their systemic economic marginalisation and to apply fairer and effective procedures when responding to family conflict within the community. Instead of responding to and satisfying their democratic collective self, authorities at large responded with rhetoric.

Yet authorities also have the power to affirm valued positive conceptions of ourselves. Institutions can help restoring moral selves and status seeking selves, by unblocking pathways to employment and working closely with migrant communities to address the resource and skill deficit among parents. Working closely with immigrant communities creates space for democratic selves and provides an opportunity to authorities to learn the positive cultural and self-identities of the people whose behaviour they want to steer. Working with these positive identities, instead of implying moral inferiority and trying to regulate their values, would lead to more positive outcomes.

In summary, rather than delivering a cohesive society, regulation of cultural values and moral identities threatens the development of positive self-identities among immigrants and their children. Such attempts also risk the detachment of youth migrants from lawful and socially approved goals and values to the point where they may denounce those goals and values and instead turn to unlawful, violent, or extremist behaviour in search of a “higher” identity.

Ibi Losoncz is a Research Fellow at RegNet specialising in refugee resettlement, social capital, work-life balance of Australian mothers, post-separation parental arrangements, and spatial distribution of crime.

Updated:  10 August 2017/Responsible Officer:  Director, RegNet/Page Contact:  Director, RegNet