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25.4.2013 | Von:
Ludger Pries

What Are Migrant Organizations?

In public debate, migrant organizations are often perceived and treated as relatively homogeneous, as reflected in such expressions as "the Islamic associations. In fact, however, these organizations sometimes vary considerably in terms of their goals and orientation as religious, business, political or cultural, self-help, welfare or leisure associations.

Niederlassung des Türkischen Bundes in Berlin-BrandenburgOffice of the "Turkish Union in Berlin-Brandenburg" (TBB) (© picture-alliance/dpa)


There is no generally accepted definition of ‘migrant organizations’ or ‘migrant self-organizations’ (MSOs). In this article, MSOs will be understood as associations (1) whose goals and objectives are derived primarily from the situation and the interests of individuals with a history of migration and (2) whose members are mostly individuals with a migration background and (3) in whose internal structures and processes individuals with a migration background play a significant role.[1] With regard to their goals and objectives, MSOs may thus refer to the process of migration itself and to the issues associated with the social participation of migrants (as well as their ancestors and descendants) in their regions of origin and arrival.

Therefore, this definition does not include support and counseling organizations, such as welfare associations active in the area of social work which deal with migration-relevant issues or local tenant associations which do not regard themselves as migration-specific associations even though most of their members may actually be individuals with a migration background. (On the problem of classifying migrant organizations, see also Waldrauch and Sohler 2004: 40ff.)

Significant heterogeneity

In public debate, migrant organizations are often perceived and treated as relatively homogeneous or even monolithic, as reflected in such expressions as "the Islamic associations," "the Italian associations," and "the Mosque communities". In fact, however, these organizations sometimes vary considerably in terms of their predominant (explicit or rather implicit) goals and orientation as religious, business, political, professional or cultural, self-help, welfare or leisure associations. MSOs also differ in size (with the number of members ranging from just a few to several thousand), assets and facilities, and legal status (registered association, religious community, non-profit association, individual organization, umbrella organization). Other features of their members by which MSOs differ include ethnic, cultural, national, and religious self-image, context of regional origin, level of education, and gender and age distribution. There are also differences in terms of the prevailing forms of internal and external resource mobilization (e.g., membership subscriptions, donations, government subsidies, participation in national or international programs) and environmental relations (with other migrant organizations, public administration, the media, social movements, etc.). MSOs exhibit very different internal structures and processes in relation to such aspects as decision making (Who decides what, and when?), provision of information, opinion formation, coordination of members, development of management structures, and relative significance of voluntary and full-time participants. Finally, MSOs also differ considerably in their focus of activities on either the country of origin, the country of arrival, or both.

Public and scholarly perception of MSOs

This variety within and between MSOs is usually overlooked in public debate. Generally, most MSOs remain rather marginal for majority society and public discourse, and it is only in the context of political protests, controversial construction projects or unification efforts of Muslim associations that they are noticed. Traditionally, the general public and the scholarly community have perceived MSOs primarily as a challenge to integration or as a potential risk to public security. This was true of the associations of the Polish labor migrants who came to the Ruhr Valley in the 19th and early 20th century (see, e.g., Spendel 2005), and it has been evident in the scholarly debates concerning the integrating or disintegrating role of MSOs in the 1980s and 1990s (see section 4) and the security debates following the attacks of September 11, 2001 (Rosenow-Williams 2012). It is only since the paradigm shift with regard to integration and migration policy at the turn of the millennium that MSOs have increasingly come to be seen as representatives of specific social and interest groups and valued as dialogue partners, such as in the development and implementation of national and community-based integration concepts. What Are Migrant Organizations?

This text is part of the policy brief on "Migrant Organizations: Size, Structures, and Significance".


Migrant organizations, as understood in this article, are organizations of migrants; that is, individuals with a migration background. The definition given here — a large percentage of the members and leaders have a migration background — designates these organizations as self-organizations. This article therefore uses the terms ‘migrant organization’ and ‘migrant self-organization’ synonymously, indicated by the abbreviation ‘MSO’. The discussion provided in this chapter draws heavily on an international three-year research project funded by the Volkswagen Foundation (cf. TRAMO 2010; Pries 2010; Pries and Sezgin 2010). I would like to thank Andrea Dasek for her helpful additional research.
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