Anchors facilitating cross-border mobility

January 21, 2024

What anchors do people already have, what anchors do they wish to keep, and which new anchors can we help them secure? A productive way for companies and municipalities to tackle the issue of welcoming and creating possibilities to retain international professionals who have moved for work.

I recently wrote an academic paper on the experiences of Ukrainian women refugees in Berlin, who had fled the Russian invasion during 2022 and settled in Germany’s capital city. To help me make sense of how these women were managing this unexpected displacement and working to create live-able present and future lives for themselves and their children in a new country, I used a relatively-recently developed concept within migration studies – the idea of ‘anchoring’.

Grzymala-Kazlowska’s (2016) concept of anchoring argues that migrants need footholds in order to obtain socio-psychological stability and security in a new place. These anchoring points can be both internal as well as external, and they can be located in the place you have moved to, the place you came from or on a more transnational plane. Using this concept of anchoring I was better able to explain why some Ukrainian women were proactively and enthusiastically attempting to build a new life for themselves in Berlin, while others were struggling to adjust.

Anchoring is an intuitive idea that helps explain the experiences of families who choose to move for work purposes – whether they have moved for the first time, or whether they have been mobile several times already.

Let me give you an illustration of how varied these anchors can be.

A friend of mine (Myrto) is Greek, with a British husband, whose son was best friends with my son when we were all living in Oxford. I recently saw her again after five years – she is now based in Basel, while I am in Copenhagen.

Myrto has always ensured her children remain strongly rooted in their Greek heritage – they have always attended Greek Saturday school, spent 6 weeks each summer in Myrto’s home city and had many Greek friends they spent time with while living in the UK. That is one anchor – ‘I am Greek’ – which Myrto and her children feel very strongly.

Meanwhile, now that they do not live in the UK anymore – the family travels back regularly to see relatives and friends. When I want to know what old acquaintances in Oxford are up to, and see recent pictures of my son’s old school mates – I just need to ask Myrto. This is a second anchor for her family – the children were born in the UK and spent their early years there, so continue to maintain relationships there too, getting to observe how their lives might have looked, had they stayed there. Most of Myrto’s closest friends still live there too, so she makes regular efforts to see them. And finally, they still have property in the UK – another form of anchor which keeps them tethered there.

The family now live in Basel and the children attend a fully bilingual public school – where they follow the Swiss curriculum but also the International Baccalaureate programme. Both children are now fluent in German (as well as their native languages of English and Greek) and are also learning French. This schooling choice means both children will be eligible to attend Swiss and German universities, entirely free of charge; or go elsewhere if they prefer. The children attend local sports clubs and are therefore also part of the local community.

Both parents work in the pharmaceutical industry – and are based in very international teams. They could – given the large international community of scientists based in Basel – remain in this bubble. But because they see themselves as staying for a while, they too are learning German and seeking to establish small connections to ‘local’ communities. Myrto acts and directs theatrical performances when not advising consultants all over the world on the most recent research around breast cancer treatments. Through her work in theatre, she has been able to meet Swiss Germans. These connections have been the main way in which she is better able to to understand the local, regional and national cultural norms that shape Switzerland.

Myrto and her family illustrate how we can have internal and external footholds or anchors in different places around the world, that are crucial to maintaining a sense of identity, relations of belonging that both acknowledge your history but also forge possible paths into the future. These anchors are sometimes external (learning German, joining local associations or clubs, owning a house in your country of origin) and at other times internal (maintaining a deep sense of connection with others, with a place, and pursuing non-professional interests).

Although my family is very close to Myrto’s, our anchors are quite different. We left the UK and now see our ‘home’ in Denmark. In most cases, our British family travel to visit us. I am always surprised when people ask me after a holiday period – ‘did you go home (i.e. back to the UK)?’ Denmark is my home now. Within my family, my eldest child still anchors herself to the UK, answering the question ‘where are you from’ with a definitive ‘I am British’. Meanwhile, the rest of us offer a more ambivalent response – ‘we live in Denmark at the moment’, not seeking to offer a clearer commitment to where we are from, to which nation we belong. The matter becomes even more complicated by the fact that within our family we have passports from three different countries and my husband’s employer is based in Geneva. Therefore, our anchors are much less clearly claimed and maintained.

Professionals who move to take up new job opportunities vary significantly in their motivations for doing so, in their plans for the future, the approach they take to ‘settling’ somewhere new. In my current research project – SkillsINCORP – that focuses on professionals who have moved to Denmark to work in pharma, IT or the finance sector - illustrate this variety. We have participants who see their stay in Denmark as temporary, others who want to stay long-time, and some who are not sure. Some have partners, and also children. Whether their partner is seeking work, whether they put their children in the Danish education system, whether they have a Danish partner etc, all shape the kinds of anchors they arrive in Denmark with that may or may not offer them a foothold from which to safely build a (temporary) home and find a sense of connection and purpose.

Understanding what anchors people already have, and wish to keep, and facilitating access to new anchors is a really productive way for companies and municipalities to tackle the issue of welcoming and creating possibilities to retain international professionals who have moved to Denmark for work. Because anchors can be internal and external – tangible and less tangible – this needs to be considered on an individual but also group-level. Something I can help with!