Migration in a “not so global world”: Future Trends and Assessment

Rushali Saha, Associate - Conflict & Peace Program

For a long time the catchphrase for globalisation has been “the world is a global village” which broadly referred to the idea that people were connected by easy travel, electronic communication converting the world into a metaphorical close knit community. Coronavirus is all set to change this definition, albeit it is too early to assess the long term impact it will have on globalisation, but the very fact that countries around the world have initiated some form of restriction on international travel will definitely have a long term impact. As social distancing becomes the “new normal” the narratives of globalisation will, at the least, have to adapt themselves, if not completely alter themselves.  CoVID has ushered in an era of travel restrictions, and with reports suggesting that the virus is here to stay for two years, it will redefine the way we view migration. Migration routes may open up after the virus disappears, but the lasting effects of the virus on the human psyche are here to stay and in all possibility it will further strengthen xenophobic sentiments and the “othering” of migrants.


Globalisation and migration

Although large-scale migration has a long history with relatively free movement within Europe till the early twentieth century, globalisation effectively accelerated the rate of change in this movement. This simplistic correlation however does not capture the complexity of migration, which cannot be understood in isolation from the larger political developments which accompanied globalisation. On the one hand economic opportunities, political freedom, security are some of the reasons which pulled skilled and unskilled workers to move to developed regions due to the ease of movement provided by globalisation, on the other, globalisation exacerbated civil conflicts and ethnic riots aggravating poverty, political repression, human rights abuses which eventually pushed people out of their home country to seek asylum elsewhere. Nevertheless, it is evident that the two spheres  of globalisation and migratory movements unavoidably overlap, as globalisation causes migration and contributes to the intensification of socio-economic and political relations across borders. The precondition for economic globalisation is the free flow of capital and labour, but free flow of the latter would require mobility of borders which seems incompatible with the territorial sovereignty of nation states. Hence, even though states actively promote expansion of business and cultural interactions across borders, the states maintained a tight grip on those who were allowed to enter. In recent years the, European migrant crisis of 2015 triggered a wave of populism and nationalism which played a role in the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU. Not only in Europe, we are witnessing a rise of right wing nationalism around the world harping  on the theme of nativism which has adversely affected migrants, particularly the refugees. In a background paper for Trilogue Salzburg in 2017, Thanos Dokos suggested that globalisation may slow down as a global trend, but a return to the pre pre-globalisation era is unlikely, unless, ofcourse, a “game changer” of global dimensions takes place.  A game changer is defined as low probability, high impact events which if they were to take place, would not only transform the region but affect the whole globe. This raises the question- Is Coronavirus this game changer?

Future of Migrants in a post Covid world

Coronavirus has exposed the frailties of humans who are spending billions of dollars to find a vaccine  to this virus which has spread around the world and paid no heed to race, gender, class in unleashing its wrath. Even then, it does disproportionately affect some rather than the others, not due to its inherent biology  but because of the socio-political structure  that us humans have created. Yes, I am talking about the refugees most of whom live in low to middle income countries and reside in impoverished settings like crowded camps or urban settlements. Social distancing is a luxury they can ill afford with the dense and impoverished living conditions for refugees. For those who do find refuge in countries with developed health care systems, they have to face immense challenges. In Ellwangen, Germany a refugee shelter that was housing 606 people from around the world experienced a severe breakout of CoVID cases, during which cases rose from seven to 251 in only five days. Apart from the obvious vulnerabilities that refugees are facing during this pandemic, what is even more glaring is what this indicates that the future of migration and narrative of porous borders created by globalisation. Coronavirus has exacerbated vulnerabilities of migrants working in destination countries, for instance, some migrant domestic workers in Hong Kong and Macau have lost their jobs because their employers have left the territory.  Thousands of migrant workers are bearing the brunt of the pandemic in the Middle East as they are crammed into unsanitary work camps, have lost their jobs, and have no way to go back to their home country. The largest kitchen in Columbia feeding Venezuelan refugees and migrants had to close its doors due to this virus.

All it took was for a virus to bring out the virulent racist nature of humans which scapegoats refugees, asylum seekers and foreigners as the origin of the virus. This discrimination against migrants is manifestly visible  across the world where people of Asian descent faced stigmatisation in the form of racial slurs to being spit on. Such behaviour is possibly encouraged when leaders of states refer to the virus as  “Chinese virus” or “Wuhan virus.” It does not stop here, as nationalist leaders across Europe seem to be using coronavirus almost as an excuse to close borders. European leaders have called for a “targeted amendment” of the Schengen Border Code, which  facilitated ease of travel across European countries in passport free Schengen area, to allow for systematic checks of EU citizens entering the Schengen area provoking fears that it might risk a return back to an earlier era where internal EU borders were patrolled. 

Italy’s far-right politician Matteo Salvini traced his country’s outbreak of coronavirus, without justification, to the docking of a rescue ship containing African migrants in Sicily. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán Declareda “certain link” between the spread of the virus and unauthorised migrants. As crucial as the distinction between legal and illegal migrants is and while there is some reality to the argument put forward by politicians that the rise of borders threaten only illegal migrants, the question one must ask is what does this have to say about the general attitude towards the narrative of free flow of movement of people?. The resistance towards this idea is not new, but the pandemic seems to have fast-tracked the political agenda of right-wing nationalists and in its worst form could manifest itself in the form of protectionism with a vengeance which would not only be economically devastating but will come at a large humanitarian cost of marginalising migrants.  

Image courtesy: pixabay.com


Rushali Saha is currently pursuing her Masters from Jadavpur University in Poltical Science with specialization in International Relations. She graduated from the same university with a degree in Politcal Science in 2018. She has previously served as the Social Enterprise Director for Responsible Charity working in the fields of education and women empowerment.

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