A Gentleman and a Scholar: Migrationist Community Mourns the Loss of Prof. Graeme Hugo

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Graeme Hugo speaks to students in Ottawa
© 2014 Lara Hill, Metropolis

It was one of those steamy late June days in Ottawa, blasting sun one minute and drenching rain the next. Inside the minimalist cool of the Carleton University Art Gallery, Professor Graeme Hugo stood at a podium painting vivid pictures of a world in motion. His words were simple, his delivery understated, but Hugo’s presentation packed a punch.

We are a more mobile world than we even realize, Hugo told his small audience of academics, policy makers and artists. It’s not enough to think of migration as a one-way journey, in which the ambitious or the persecuted land in a new home, put down roots and never leave. Treating global migration as a permanent move in a single direction masks the real patterns of modern human movement, Hugo argued, and overlooks essential opportunities and challenges we need to address through policy.

Using his own groundbreaking studies of Australian border-control data, Hugo showed how much migration is circular or even multi-directional, how much is temporary as opposed to permanent. Hugo’s work with the border-control data and other resources traced the arrival and subsequent departure of Chinese immigrants to Australia, as well as the journeys of second- and third-generation Chinese-Australians back to China. From the podium he spoke of university faculties in China made up almost entirely of Chinese-Australians, people with one foot solidly – and proudly – in each country. His point: we need to take off the blinders that narrow our approach to settlement and integration, and start paying more attention to the revolving door of temporary migration, reverse migration and other under-studied patterns of mobility.

I had a chance to talk to Hugo briefly after the lecture. It was only a few minutes but we covered a lot of ground, from UKIP to journalism to anti-immigrant backlash. Friendly, engaging and gracious, Hugo was soon pressing me to pursue a PhD in migration and public opinion. “It’s such an important topic. Think about it,” he said earnestly. “There’s so much important work to be done on that.”

I’ve thought of his words many times since then, and thought of them again earlier last week, when the sad news came of Hugo’s death at the age of 68.

His death, like much of his work, made headlines in Australian media – no mean feat for a demographer. On Twitter colleagues and students spoke of their sadness at the loss of not just a great researcher and mentor, but a kind and gentle man. Tributes soon appeared on the web sites of people around the world who knew him and institutions he worked with, from think tanks to professional associations to settlement organizations. Even people who never met him felt moved to write about the impact of his writing on their own work. As one tribute noted, “the social sciences have lost one of their giants; and students of migration have lost their dean.”

A prolific researcher and author, Hugo wrote or contributed to more than 400 books, papers and reports. In a survey of more than 900 members of the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population, Hugo ranked 34th on the list of most important demographers of all time, one of only five migration researchers to make the list. In 2012, Hugo was named an officer of the Order of Australia, the country’s highest recognition for outstanding achievement and service, for “distinguished service to population research, particularly the study of international migration, population geography and mobility, and through leadership roles with national and international organisations.”

Hugo’s work across so many fields for so many years speaks volumes about his talent and dedication, but there’s always more to the story than citations. So I asked two people who knew him well, what is it that made Graeme Hugo stand out in his field?

I started with Howard Duncan, director of the migration policy training program Metropolis Professional Development, which brought Hugo to Ottawa last June. As the longtime executive director of the Metropolis secretariat (which created the Canadian National Metropolis Conference and continues to convene the International Metropolis Conference), Duncan knows the migration research and policy field inside out. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Howard Duncan professionally for several years and was one of the lucky participants in that first MPD course, which brought Hugo to Ottawa in 2014). Duncan pointed to Hugo’s use of demographic data to expose patterns of mobility as one of his most important contributions.

“He got people’s attention because that was novel and because he was so very, very good at it,” says Duncan, adding that Hugo’s reputation for integrity helped him gain access to the sensitive Australian government data on border entries and exits.

“The traditional paradigm through which we understand migration and its incentive structures – namely that people move to one country to another in order to improve their well-being – assumes they would move and stay there,” says Duncan. “And if they didn’t stay, we thought it was an integration failure.

“Graeme has been arguing now for 10 years that the paradigm of one-way migration permanent flows needs to give way to multiple migration patterns,” says Duncan. “This is a fundamental shift and it matters to how we manage integration, flows, citizenship, it matters to how we understand migration. Lots of people are talking about this in the world now and we owe the insight to Graeme Hugo.”

Duncan also believes Hugo’s stature is tied to his firm belief that research needed to be tethered to policy to have maximum impact and his ability to straddle the academic and policy worlds effectively.

“He has been going to workshops and private round tables, where other researchers say what really matters are economic conditions, structures of hierarchy and so on, and Graeme says ‘No, you have to pay attention to policy, to things like border controls and avenues of legal migration’.”

As Hugo’s deputy at the University of Adelaide’s Australian Population and Migration Research Centre, Dr. Helen Feist worked closely with him and admired his passion for bringing his research into the mainstream.

“Social issues were important to Graeme, and he saw his research as a way to make tangible improvements in the lives of ordinary people – whether that was through better policies, better understanding of the issues, better service delivery or just by making people got the facts and paid attention to important issues,” says Feist. “He also liked to dispel myths and generalisations about our population and enjoyed using the data and facts to assist in dispelling these myths.”

Feist also pointed to Hugo’s dedication as a mentor. He was supervising 22 PhD students when he died and had previously supervised more than 90 PhD students. His areas of research interest ranged from population change in Australia, emigration, climate change and migration, and the economic and social contributions of refugees to Australia.

“Graeme was always quick to point out that Australia was a country built on migration and that migration continued to play a major role in Australia’s development,” says Feist. “Without on-going waves of migration, Australia’s population would be less than half of what it is today – almost 50% of our population is either a first or second-generation migrant. Issues of settlement and integration, economic contributions, social disadvantage and the changing diversity of Australia’s migrant population were of particular importance to him.

To constantly learn more and sharing his work, Hugo was what Feist called “the classic flying academic, living in airports as he dashed from speech to seminar to keynote in Sydney, Rome or Kuala Lumpur.

“Many a time I have seen him wheel his suitcase down the corridor to the office as he returns from a flight from Geneva or Washington or Singapore and just sit back at his desk and take the next meeting,” says Feist.

Hugo’s appearance in Ottawa last spring only came after a grueling travel schedule. Flight delays meant he had to spend the night in a lounge at New Jersey’s Newark airport, a grim place to be even in broad daylight. He not only made it to Ottawa to present to our small but attentive group, he sparked important conversations and kept them going, in some cases long after leaving the podium to catch his next flight.

“Graeme was 68 but he was not done innovating,” says Duncan. “It’s sad to think of what new ideas we’re not going to see from him.”

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