Fundamental research

Melilla,2016@JosePalazon“Safe with the neighbours?” Actual and legal protection of forced migrants under EU externalisation policies: legal, sociological and political perspectives from Morocco

Description: The EU increasingly looks to outsource or ‘externalise’ its international responsibility to protect refugees and other migrants to third countries with whom it concludes partnerships, such as Morocco. This doctoral research project looks at what legal and actual protection there is for forced migrants in Morocco from a multidisciplinary perspective. It evaluates extraterritorial responsibility under international refugee and human rights law (doctrinal positive law perspective), examines what migrants themselves aspire and understand as protection (socio-legal users’ perspective), and assesses Moroccan asylum and human rights policies with a focus on the Global South dynamics (critical policy perspective).

ResearcherRuben Wissing 

Supervisor: Prof. Ellen Desmet 


Onderzoeksproject GezinsherenigingFamily reunification of Turkish migrants in Belgium and the Netherlands: a comparative study of legal consciousness of Turkish migrants in light of evolving policies

The research focuses on family reunification of Turkish migrants in Belgium and the Netherlands. From a socio-legal perspective the legal consciousness and the strategies of the migrants will be examined in light of evolving laws and policies in both countries. Fieldwork is an important component of the project. The researcher will conduct in-depth semi-structured interviews with Turkish migrants in Belgium and the Netherlands and will investigate migrants' legal consciousness regarding evolving laws and policies on family reunification in both countries. On the basis of these results, the researcher will make a thorough comparative analysis of the legal consciousness and used strategies concerning family reunification of Turkish migrants in Belgium and the Netherlands. This project is funded by the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO) (2018-2021).

Researcher: Ayse Güdük

Supervisor: Prof. Ellen Desmet


Exiled and Separated: A multi-sited ethnography of refugee families attempting to reunite

Exiled and separatedMost European states allow refugees to access a facilitated procedure to reunify with their family members. Many studies, however, high-light how issues of timing, documentation and economic resources often make family reunions extremely difficult, if not impossible. If much has been written on the obstacles for migrants to enjoy their right to family life, little is known about the specific case of refugees. The multi-sited design of this project aims to reconstruct the complexity of power-relations, social expectations and structural impediments that influence the possibility of refugees to be with their families. First, by studying refugees in Europe (Belgium and Italy) and their families residing in transit countries, this project seeks to shed light on the transnational connections and flow of expectations which shape the everyday life of separated families. Second, by conducting research in diplomatic and migration bureaus in different locations, this study provides insights into the complex interactions between bureaucratic practices and the geographic and social stratagems that refugee families employ to meet - or circumvent - the necessary requirements. The research aims not only to a better understanding of the political and social contradictions of national border controls, asylum regime of European migration policies and their implications on the lives of refugees. The project is sponsored by FWO (2020-2023).

Researcher: Dr. Milena Belloni

Supervisors: Prof. Gert Verschraegen and Prof. Ellen Desmet


Economic refugees: an analysis of persecution and displacement in the new global era

UNHCR Photo Unit's Flickr Page, Creative Commons LicenseThe Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees does not accord protection to a new class of refugees who are a direct result of globalization. The persecution index is low and labels ‘economic refugees’ as undeserving, yet most refugees hail from countries where economic failure, political instability, poverty, and persecution are indissolubly linked. Therefore, this research seeks to establish if economic liberalization has become a serious form of economic persecution which international law should take into consideration when adjudicating asylum claims. In particular, could current programmes of economic liberalization, imposed by the industrialized West on African countries, constitute persecution within the definition of a ‘refugee’ in the 1951 Refugee Convention? This question is situated in the context of increasing numbers of people moving within and beyond Africa as a result of economic deprivation that is systemic and the product of a coercive world order. Conclusions will include findings and recommendations for a Protocol on Status Determination Officer’s (SDO) power of determination of the credible fear for economic refugees.

Researcher: Shepherd Mutsvara

Supervisors: Prof. Joanna Bar (Pedagogical University of Krakow) and Prof. Ellen Desmet


Children’s rights in appellate asylum proceedings in Belgium: a legal ethnography

© Vincent Van Gogh – Country Road in Provence by NightMay 1890, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm The relationship between children’s rights and appellate asylum proceedings is fraught with tensions and challenges. Whether unaccompanied or seeking asylum with their families, children and young people constitute a particularly underprivileged and vulnerable group whose human rights come face to face with the sovereignty of the state. Often, decision-makers are reluctant to engage with children’s rights law, while at the same time a lack of agency is attributed to child applicants.

This project adopts an interdisciplinary, contextualised and multi-actor approach to analyse how key stakeholders involved in the adjudication of Belgian asylum cases in appeal perceive, mobilise and practice children’s rights. Research methods from law (case law analysis) and anthropology (ethnography) will be combined to study the role and perspective of children and young people, their parents or guardians, lawyers, representatives of the first instance asylum authority, and judges from the Council for Alien Law Litigation (CALL).

The questions guiding this research are (1) how do individuals experience and understand children’s rights (perceive); (2) to what extent do they define relevant problems in terms of children’s rights (mobilise); and (3) which norms and practices shape the internal legal culture by which the CALL operates (practice)? The project contributes to the field of ‘critical children’s rights studies’, paying attention in particular to how children’s rights are shaped by children themselves and through interaction of children with other groups. This project is funded by FWO (2020-2024).

Researcher: Sara Lembrechts

Supervision: Prof. Ellen Desmet

Challenging queer migration narratives. A case study of sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) rights in the Belgian asylum procedure

foto project Liselot CasteleynForced migration continues to captivate social discourses, which often represent refugees as predominantly male, heterosexual, cisgender (and homophobic/transphobic) individuals. However, many people flee their home due to the persecution they fear on the ground of their sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI).

Once arrived in Europe, in a country where SOGI rights are recognised as human rights and as such expanded the scope of refugee law, the struggles of SOGI refugees continue. To receive international protection, they have to construct a narrative which proofs the credibility of their sexual orientation and gender identity, and the well-foundedness of their fear of persecution – in the eye of the beholder. The asylum procedure leaves SOGI refugees and state actors to negotiate with(in) the legal framework to come to the same understanding of SOGI rights, despite different cultural contexts and the dominance of Western frameworks.

Building on the critical insights of queer and post-colonial scholars, the research aims to gain insight into the complexity of the asylum procedure and its intertwinement with essentialised narratives of queer(ness and) migration through a case study of SOGI applications in the Belgian asylum procedure. Interviews, participant observations and co-operations as well as a critical discourse analysis will reveal the narratives inherent in the construction of SOGI rights by SOGI refugees and in the assessment of those rights by state actors.

Researcher: Liselot Casteleyn

Supervision: Prof. Ellen Desmet en Prof. Marlies Casier

REFUFAM: The Integration of Refugee Families in Belgium

project image RMvdB

The REFUFAM project aims to provide scientific evidence on the impact of so-called ‘policy gaps’ and emergent support structures on the integration process of one particular group: refugees and their family members. The interdisciplinary research design consists of three pillars, building on different disciplines: a legal-political pillar examining the institutional configuration of Belgium’s asylum and integration policies; a psychosocial pillar analyzing refugee family members’ mental well-being; and a socio-spatial pillar documenting their local integration pathways. In analyzing this multi-layered integration process, REFUFAM innovatively takes refugee families as its central analytic unit. REFUFAM’s impact is situated at 4 levels: government policies, practitioners, scholarly debates and the broader public.

As a PhD student, Roos-Marie van den Bogaard focusses on the first pillar; the legal-political analysis of institutional configurations in Belgium. Her research consists of three components: 1) desk-based research, 2) in-depth interviews with refugee families and 3) ethnographic analysis of organisations and institutions. Her desk-based research aims to list the rights of refugee families throughout their integration trajectory, which is in turn used to identify key state actors as well as policy gaps. The in-depth interviews with refugee families will probe into the social structures and structural resources that enable them to realize their rights in praxis, as well as how legal procedures enable or disable them from doing so. The ethnographic analysis will look at how policies translate into instruments of street level governance.

REFUFAM is funded by the Belspo-BRAIN-be 2.0 research programme (Belgian Research Action through Interdisciplinary Networks). For more information, see here.

Researcher: Roos-Marie van den Bogaard

Supervision: Prof. Ellen Desmet, Prof. Robin Vandevoordt, Dr. Milena Belloni

The implementation of the principle of the best interests of the child in a migratory context: a multimethod study of the decisions and approaches adopted by the Belgian migration authorities

ISEMIThis research is part of the inter-university research project “ISEMI”, which aims at examining the implementation of children’s rights, and more in particular the fundamental principle of the best interests of the child (BIC-principle), in a migratory context. As part of this project, Laura Cools’ doctoral research focusses on the way and the extent to which the BIC-principle is applied (both on a material and a procedural level) by decision makers and field actors in family reunification procedures (as to accompanied children) and ‘durable solution’ procedures (as to unaccompanied minors).

The research adopts an interdisciplinary, multi-method and multi-actor approach. As such, typical legal methods (case law analysis and desk research) are combined with qualitative sociological methods (semi-structured interviews, observations and focus groups). The latter allow to study the social representations and professional practices of the relevant actors in the field. They include: lawyers, tutors, judges of the Council for Alien Law Litigation (CALL), the Belgian Immigration Office and the Guardianship Service.

The objective is twofold: the aim is to analyse not only the formal reasoning adopted by administrative and jurisdictional authorities ruling on minors in a migratory situation (case law analysis), but also the intrinsic motivation behind this reasoning (qualitative methods). This project is funded by FNRS (2020-2024).

Researcher: Laura Cools

Supervision and doctoral committee: Prof. Sylvie Saroléa (UCLouvain), Prof. Laura Merla (UCLouvain), Prof. Géraldine Mathieu (UNamur) and Prof. Ellen Desmet (UGent)

You too? No way! Rape mythology applied to credibility assessments of applications based on sexual or gender-based violence in the European asylum procedure“... [T]he applicant is now [28] years old[,]... received a progressive education and clearly expressed her opposition  to  [female  genital  mutilation  (FGM)]. ... [she] cannot be considered a particularly  vulnerable young  woman ... [running] a real risk of being  re-excised if returned to Guinea.” With these words, the European Court of Human Rights judged a Guinean asylum seeker’s fear of sexual or gender-based persecution as not credible. The key reason for refusal of asylum applications based on sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) is their non-credibility. These credibility assessments are often based on stereotypical, superficial, erroneous, or inappropriate perceptions of gender. In the criminal justice system, such perceptions have been conceptualised as ‘rape myths’: prejudicial, stereotyped or false beliefs about rape. The hypothesis that this phenomenon occurs across different social and institutional contexts raises the question: ‘Which insights can be drawn from applying the rape mythology concept to the context of credibility assessments of SGBV asylum applications in the European asylum procedure?’ (going beyond only ‘rape’ as a type of SGBV). In order to formulate an answer, this research adopts a mixed method approach, basing its data collection on 3 complementary resources: the existing literature (through a literature analysis), the asylum authorities (through a case law study and a self-reporting KAP survey) and the asylum seekers themselves (through qualitative interviews). This triangulation of input will not only innovatively expand the understanding of the asylum procedure and its challenges. It will also contribute to the further theorization of rape mythology and of new myths applying to new asylum-specific types of SGBV. This research is supervised by Prof. Dr. Ellen Desmet (promotor, Faculty of Law) and Prof. Dr. Ines Keygnaert (co-promotor, Faculty of Medicine) and funded by the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO).

Researcher: Lore Roels

SupervisionProf. Dr. Ellen Desmet (promotor, Faculty of Law) and Prof. Dr. Ines Keygnaert (co-promotor, Faculty of Medicine)

Applied research

PALIM: pilot project addressing labour shortages through innovative labour migration models (2019-2020)

© L.S. / Fotolia

PALIM (Project Addressing Labour Shortages Through Innovative Labour Migration Models) is a pilot project carried out by the Belgian development agency, Enabel, with support of the European Union and the International Centre for Migration Policy Development (ICMDP). The project aims to test a new labour migration model, by linking the development of the ICT sector in Morocco with the labour shortage gaps of well-trained ICT-staff in Flanders. When persons are able to find a qualified job in both their country of origin (Morocco) and the country of destination (Belgium), labour mobility can benefit both parties. To that end, applicants are trained in Morocco as ICT workers and supported to find a job in one of these two countries.


Within this framework, the Migration Law Research Group carried out two exploratory studies, which aim to support the integration of Moroccan ICT workers in Belgium. The first report analyses welcome policies offered by companies and relocation services to migrant workers upon arrival in Flanders and Brussels. The second report provides a mapping and analysis of actors in Flanders and Brussels, who deal with the integration of migrant workers at a professional, social and personal level. In addition, tailored information was developed to support both employees and employers in the application for a single permit.

Researchers: Geertrui Daem and Evelyne Van der Elst

Freedom to travelAnalysis of municipal practices regarding free movement of persons (2018-2020)

This research provides an insight into the administrative procedures regarding the implementation of the Directive 2014/54/EU into Belgian law, a European directive that intends to better facilitate the right to free movement of workers. The research contains a critical analysis and description of the municipal practices in the three regions of Belgium, focussing on the registration and residence formalities for EU citizens who exercise their right to free movement. The research also includes an exploratory analysis of residence formalities in the following countries: Germany, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Italy. Lastly, the research will give possible recommendations regarding the law and implementation thereof as well as suggestions for more efficient and uniform municipal practices. The research is carried out in collaboration with the EU Rights Clinic of the University of Kent and Fragomen; it is funded by Myria – the Federal Migration Centre.

Researchers: Roos-Marie van den Bogaard and Prof. Ellen Desmet


Council of Europe Handbook: Family reunification for refugee and migrant children – Standards and promising practices (2018-2020)Family Reunification for Refugee and Migrant Children

In May 2017, the Committee of Ministers adopted the Council of Europe Action Plan on Protecting Refugee and Migrant Children in Europe. It outlines concrete actions to be undertaken by the Council of Europe, grouped around three pillars. Assisting children and families in restoring family links is one of the actions under the second pillar aimed at providing refugee and migrant children with effective protection.
In the framework of the Action Plan, the Office of the Special Representative on Migration and Refugees has published a Handbook on family reunification for refugee and migrant children, available in English and in French.

Researcher: Prof. Ellen Desmet


Handbook for guardians of unaccompanied minors (2020-2021)

Rechten van Niet-begeleide minderjarige vreemdelingen in BelgiëOn behalf of the FPS Justice, Antigone Advocaten, Prof. Jinske Verhellen and Prof. Ellen Desmet are preparing the legal part of a new Handbook for guardians of unaccompanied minors in Belgium. This assignment builds on the book “Rechten van niet-begeleide minderjarige vreemdelingen in België” (Rights of unaccompanied foreign minors in Belgium).

Researcher: Prof. Ellen Desmet



The Moving Cities Map: research on solidarity cities in Belgium for a Europe-wide, web-based mapping project (2020-2021)

The Moving Cities MapThe Moving Cities Map is a European project that aims at strengthening the political role of municipalities who carry out a humane and solidarity-based migration and integration policy. These local initiatives are often overlooked and overshadowed in comparison to the restrictive approaches of the EU and its member states. To overcome municipalities’ lack of political autonomy and resources, the project sets out to highlight the innovative and progressive local approaches to (hopefully) translate them into political action at national and EU levels. These exemplary local approaches and municipalities will be presented through an online platform, to inspire solidarity in other communities and inter-local strategies. The Moving Cities Map project is an initiative of Seebrücke, in co-operation with the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, the Heinrich Böll Stiftung and Tesseræ, funded by the Robert Bosch Stiftung and the Fund Zivile Seenotrettung.

The Belgian section of the research provides an overview of Belgian cities that are active in a city network on better migration and integration policies and/or have publicly declared themselves as a city of solidarity. The research also includes an overview of Belgian networks, campaigns or alliances related to the topic of migration and integration. The biggest part of this research is devoted to the draft of city profiles through desk research and interviews. These cities will be mapped out as best practice examples n Belgium with regard to their migration and integration policies.

The result can be read here.

Researchers: Eva Vandenhove, Liselot Casteleyn and Prof. Ellen Desmet