EAC Thesis Award Winner

The EAC received 11 submissions for the 2024 EAC Thesis Award from Cardiff University, the University of Porto, the University of Bordeaux Montaigne, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München, the American University in Cairo, Leiden University, and Erasmus University. The jurors of the 2024 EAC Thesis Award were impressed by the quality of the applications and, after thorough evaluation, have chosen the winning thesis: “Parallel Lives or Overlapping Worlds? Explaining the development of the social lives and interactions of Mediterranean migrants in the Rotterdam port region, 1960 – 1980” written by Gijs Hoekstra of Erasmus University Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

The executive summary follows, as written by Gijs:

In my thesis, I examined the integration of Mediterranean migrants into Dutch society from the 1960s until the 1980s, focusing on people employed within the Rotterdam port industry. Some of these people, at the time described as ‘guest workers’, made their stay permanent, but the large majority worked and lived in Rotterdam temporarily. While the topic of labour migration to the Netherlands has received significant scholarly attention, it has rarely been approached from a bottom-up perspective. In my thesis, I have attempted to do so by applying a qualitative analysis to primary sources that reflect migrants’ own experiences. I have aimed to analyse migrants’ social lives to see to what extent their lives overlapped with Dutch society and how (and why) this changed during their stay. An implicit question that my thesis posed is whether this bottom-up perspective leads to different conclusions than those drawn in earlier historical works on Mediterranean migrants’ integration.

The short answer to this is: not necessarily. The general conclusions that I make are the same as those presented in earlier works. Namely, the social lives of migrants became more ‘parallel’ to Dutch people from the 1970s onward. Consistently high recruitment numbers followed by an economic crisis – which hit port industries especially hard – made migrants’ stay more difficult. Their social lives in part turned inward as a protective measure against rising discrimination, but also because this was promoted by failing Dutch policy aimed at helping migrants integrate. However, the bottom-up approach has allowed for more nuance: it shows that there are cases of continuity between the 1960s (the period of early settlement) and the 1970s. The resulting image of migrants’ social lives is more diverse, giving a glimpse into the real impacts of expatriation on people’s lives. Furthermore, it shows that Mediterranean labour migrants were not unwilling to integrate and that their lives were never fully ‘parallel’: they influenced and were influenced by their host society in various ways.

The originality of my thesis comes mainly from this methodological approach, but also from the group on which it focused. While industrial labour migrants are not always seen as expatriates, by definition, many of them are. Labour migration is an important economic driving force, and without it, our industry could not have grown as it did. Besides this, even though many Mediterranean labour migrants worked and lived only temporarily in the Netherlands, they have had a significant impact on the social and cultural structure of the country. As such, I would argue that they are part of a group with historical significance to expatriate studies.

My thesis contributes to the EAC’s curatorial objectives in a methodological sense. An important part of the source material I used (the employee magazines of various companies) contained previously uncovered aspects of the expatriates’ life stories and helped me better understand their motivations and experiences. Through my thesis, I hope to have brought these materials, which I found within the collection of the Maritime Museum in Rotterdam, more to the forefront. Besides this, through writing my thesis, archiving it at the Maritime Museum, and also through this submission at the EAC, I hope to have had a hand in preserving the life stories of a group of people who have had a lasting impact on Dutch society.

Finally, from a policy perspective, my thesis affirms the existing notion that Dutch policy in the past had failed as it was too strongly focused on strengthening migrants’ internal ties, as opposed to their ties to the host country population. This could be a lesson for contemporary policymakers, as – even for people staying within your country temporarily – an open approach aimed at involvement and assimilation works better for all parties involved.

The winners of the previous EAC Thesis Awards

2021: Aaisha Zafar Islam of York & Ryerson Universities in Toronto, Canada
“The Lost Generation of Gulf Cooperation Council Countries (GCC): Stories of Loss, Longing, and Belonging”