We need a different language of migration for a more humane age of post-pandemic mobility

by Yap Lay Sheng | GAATW_IS | Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women
Friday, 2 April 2021 03:19 GMT

A Bangladeshi migrant garment worker in Jordan. Image credit: Arthur Ancion

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Yap Lay Sheng is Advocacy and Campaigns Officer at the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women

The acceleration of COVID-19 vaccinations has fuelled talks of seamless movements across the globe for travellers once again. Even as we warm up to travel again, we need to remember that for large swaths of the world’s population, mobility remains constricted and controlled. 

Discussions of restoration of cross-border mobility must include migrants’ voices, for whom travel remains necessary, but highly dangerous and costly. The pandemic brought to an end a global age of mobility--the number of international migrants nearly doubled from 150 to 272 million, and the number of tourist arrivals similarly grew from 1.26 billion to 2.28 billion in the twenty years since 2000. In its wake, we must strive to rebuild a more humane system of mobility.

When borders were shuttered, and migration came to a complete halt, many places saw a trend of migration reversal. Even the European Union, long celebrated for its lack of internal borders, saw a reversal in migration from Eastern to Western Europe in 2020. Dubai, which has built its reputation as a cosmopolitan playground for the globally mobile elite, saw a population decline of 8.4 per cent. These trends have led to International Organization for Migration to preemptively proclaim the ‘end of the most recent age of migration’.

Beyond the statistics and grandiloquent claims, the human toll of the pandemic is more dire. Everywhere, blue-collar migrants have become scapegoats for the pandemic--infections have been blamed on migrants who are involuntarily crammed into inhumane working and living conditions, all while churning out essential goods that power global trade and sustain life for those of us working from home. As migrant workers are usually placed on flexible contracts, they absorbed most of the precarity from the economic slump. In Malaysia, ministers have encouraged the termination of foreign workers for firms in distress, using the migrant population as buffer to protect local employment.

The pandemic also inflamed state paternalism towards migrants. Draconian measures, including the corralling and restricting of migrant workers’ movements and the arrest of the undocumented into detention centres where the spread of COVID is rampant, have been widely deployed in states such as Qatar and Singapore.

In a careless display of further short-sightedness, some countries, playing to nativist sentiments, have even excluded migrant population from public vaccination programmes and risk missing the crucial goal of population immunity.

While receiving states wish to absolve responsibilities over the fate of their migrant population, sending countries are not faring much better.

The Philippines’s reintegration policies for returnees have been strained, partly because the country has historically prioritised the ‘export’ of migrants in exchange for lucrative remittances while under-investing in reintegration policies for returnees. The funding of reintegration policies also face significant fiscal constraints in migrant-sending countries, where the decline in remittances has decimated public coffers. According to World Bank estimates, the decline will reach as much as 14% by 2021 compared to pre-pandemic levels.

Faced with rampant allegations of abuse overseas, some states have resorted to quick fixes to longstanding migration problems, such as in the case of Nepal, which recently announced proposals to require consent from female migrants’ family or their local government ward offices before travelling abroad.  

Straddling between neglect at home and negligence abroad, migrants bear the brunt from the increasingly fragmentary governance in the global migration space. The lack of coordinated international response has left many migrant workers stranded abroad and facing dwindling job prospects, or risk returning home on expensive airfares with limited savings, and restarting from a blank slate. Stayers, if they are unemployed, risk running afoul of local laws.

A common thread underlying these migrant fates is the extreme de-humanisation of migrant workers. For too long, both sending and receiving states have valued migrants only for their labour and remittance value. Migrant workers have been treated as commodities to be cyclically used and disused according to the whims of the markets and states.

For sending countries, migration and remittances mask the need for deeper structural reforms for decent employment creation. For receiving countries, the casualisation of their employment fuels labour-intensive sectors that are dependent on low-waged labour.

The kind of temporary employment that migrants engage in, which necessitates an endless cycle of uprooting and re-migration and no prospects of permanent settling, guarantees that the taps of remittances, and the supply of low-wage labour, flow perpetually.

Labour is not commodity, is a key message that must be continually driven home.

The pandemic has shown that migrants are deeply integral to host societies--for example, as much as 13.8 per cent of staff in the NHS, the revered British healthcare service, reported not holding British nationality. The large share of migrant among the ‘essential workers’ celebrated during the pandemic shows that the social construction of migrants as ‘others’ is just that--a social construction. In reality, migrants are deeply integrated and embedded in the social and economic fabric of host countries. Our legal regimes that frame migrants as transient guests must change.

By now, it is increasingly clear that a dual-track, racialised world will exist for rich travellers and poor migrants. To some extent, the privileged amongst us already inhabit a borderless world. The (post-)pandemic travel regime, with its endless deployment of ‘bubbles’ and ‘safe zones’, are tailored for the frictionless and sanitised convenience of the traveller.

The securitised language that is used to restore travel – ‘vaccine passports’, ‘quarantine’, ‘green zones’, and ‘red zones’, however, will have the opposite effect for migrants. The panoply of vocabulary used to describe (post-)pandemic international travel further harden borders and the faultlines of national sovereignty. Unsurprisingly, migrants who have long occupied the liminal spaces of travel between home and host countries will feel its most perilous effects.

Language frames the way we perceive the world, and so it is imperative that we try to dismantle the harsh securitisation behind the language of (post-)pandemic travel. We must undo the fantastical fears of porous borders inflamed by the pandemic. We must put front and centre a more humane and beneficent story of migrants and their contributions in their second homes.