The right to family life is a fundamental right protected by several international norms. However, the national legal framework regulating the entrance and integration of extra-European migrants is complex, rigid and insecure affecting their capacity to shape their family lives. Considering agency as central to understand migrants’ access to rights, we raise three questions: What is agency? What are necessary conditions for migrants’ agency? How do agency and structure interact in shaping access to rights and migrants’ life courses in the host country? To answer these questions, we elaborate a conceptual framework building on the capability approach, the life-course perspective, psychological studies on coping and anthropological literature on power. We illustrate concepts with narratives of migrants from India, DR Congo and the USA collected through semi-structured interviews. We decompose agency into four components, namely agency as a capability to be and do, as pre-structured by the law, as a transformative capacity, and as embedded in time. Building on these components, we define agency as an evolving transformative capacity situated in time, motivated by personal aspirations and (perceived) power and roles structures of linked lives, networks and institutions. We argue that time is a central dimension of migrants’ agency, often overlooked.
How much freedom for migrant families? Theoretical insights into the agency of migrants in Belgium
Farcy Jean Baptiste