Magdalena Kmak

In this series, we introduce the researchers of the Centre of Excellence in Law, Identity and the European Narratives.

Magdalena Kmak is the team leader of EuroStorie’s subproject 3, Migration and the narratives of Europe as an "Area of freedom, security and justice". She is an associate professor in Minority Studies at Åbo Akademi University and a university researcher at University of Helsinki. Magdalena’s background lies in law and her interests encompass exile and migration studies, history of migration as well as new minorities – in particular, with the focus of knowledge production. At the moment, Magdalena is a visiting fellow (funded by Åbo Akademi) at the Center for the Study of Law & Society at the Berkeley Law School.

She became interested in the mentioned topics already as a student while working in a legal clinic at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, where law students provide free of charge legal advice under supervision of the professors to those whose financial situation does not allow for affording paid legal assistance. Magdalena worked especially with topics concerning human rights and thus became involved in legal assistance to migrants and asylum seekers. After that, she has worked for example as a lawyer in one of the biggest Polish non-governmental organizations, Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, providing legal advice to migrants and refugees and as a legal officer in European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) in London.

Magdalena received her PhD from the Institute of Law Studies, Polish Academy of Sciences situated in Warsaw. In her thesis, she examined migration and its relation to the international human rights standards of expulsion of foreigners and their implementation in Poland and other countries.

After completing her PhD thesis, Magdalena has become increasingly interested in the concept of othering, that is, the perception of someone or some group of people as the Other. She has among others co-directed a research project ‘Law and the Other in Post-Multicultural Europe’ at the University of Helsinki. The Other is somebody that is not simply different but the one that we don’t quite understand, that we often find threatening and, against which we define ourselves – for instance migrants or refugees. In her work, Magdalena has been studying how the law creates the Other and produces the differences between Us and the Other. 

According to her, the primary focus of her research is to reveal something that is hidden: to show that the law is never neutral – it does not occur in a vacuum, but rather it exists in particular social, political and economic circumstances. Even if it does not have any specific agenda, it still has certain implications. She states that, for example, the lack of ability to apply for protection in Europe in regular manner would force asylum seekers to come in irregular ways. This creates a perception that all people coming here are economic migrants or bogus asylum seekers, who violate our laws – rather than refugees. This on its turn leads to an implication that they will never adapt to our way of living, because they cannot follow our laws. According to Magdalena, the law is producing particular type of people, bogus asylum seekers, because according to the law, one cannot come to Europe legally. “We shouldn’t attach labels to people, because that is not the essence of “them”. They are not people, who by principle violate the law – they violate the law, because of the particular situation and condition, which has been created by the law makers.”  

In her new research, conducted both at the Centre of Excellence and the Åbo Akademi, Magdalena wants to focus on the knowledge production through the experience of exile. She found herself interested in this topic after becoming frustrated with the dichotomic general discussion concerning migration, where immigrants were seen either as a threat or as victims, who need to be helped. According to her, in the latter case, in order to be seen as a refugee and thus to gain help and protection, one also has to look like a victim and behave like a victim. As an example of this, she mentions that to be accepted as a refugee, one has to wait peacefully in a refugee camp until accepted and look poor as well as badly dressed – “if you have an iPhone, you won’t be seen as a refugee”.  According to Magdalena, there is no active agency permitted, when it comes to refugees. In case they start to display this agency, they are immediately considered bogus asylum seekers or economic migrants, because they come and claim something. How the law shapes people and produces certain type of behavior, especially when it comes to people experiencing migration or exile, is the sort of topic that she has been interested in for quite some time now. Now she wishes to bring something new to this discussion – a new way of looking at the topic.

In EuroStorie Magdalena will examine the ways of how migration and the experience of migration come to produce new knowledge, especially scientific knowledge. She also states, that while the experience of exile produces new kind of knowledge, it also shapes Europe and its own understanding of itself and the European normative system. Magdalena seeks to discover, what kind of knowledge about the European normative system has been produced through the experience of migration – above all, from the viewpoint of the migrants themselves.  Her starting point is to examine historically, whether the experience of migration and being a refugee has led to a shift in the scientific thoughts. She will for instance study the work of Otto Kirchheimer, a German lawyer of Jewish ancestry, who fled to the United States from Nazi Germany. After arriving to the US, Kirchheimer joined the Frankfurt School and became a professor of political science. However, Magdalena wishes to examine the shift of thinking through the experience of migration also currently. Her intention is to interview scholars benefiting from various ‘Scholar at Risk’ movements and to find out, how knowledge is produced through the experience of migration and being a refugee. She presupposes that, whereas the experience of being a refugee is very traumatic, it also generates something new and wishes to examine, what kind of idea of Europe, what kind of legal system and what sort of European normative system emerge of this experience of being a refugee.

You can find Magdalena Kmak's latest publications in Tuhat.


Magdalena Kmak's latest publications in Tuhat.