COVID19 has implications for global movement of people, goods and capital. International migration came to a standstill with many countries imposing travel bans and other border restrictions. While, most migration pathways are expected to open after we mitigate some of the dangers posed by the virus, it is not unreasonable to envisage that some political leaders will use the current migration restrictions as an opportunity to reinforce broader, longer-term agendas built around xenophobia and the “othering” of migrants. To understand the dehumanisation of these migrant subjects we must situate it within the context of colonialism, manifested in current power asymmetries between and within different world regions in the Global North and South. These patterns define culture, labour, intersubjective relations and knowledge production, well beyond the formal ending of colonial rule. In this post, I will consider the racialised dehumanisation of economic migrants who migrate from the Global North to the Global South in light of COVID19, and their possible emancipation.
To be clear, when I use the term migrant I refer only to the economic migrant as opposed to a refugee, or an asylum seeker. The term ‘economic migrant’ has no legal definition. It is not mentioned in any international instruments of migration law. However, the IOM defines “economic migrant” as “A person leaving his/her habitual place of residence to settle outside his/her country of origin in order to improve his/her quality of life.” For the purposes of this article, this term includes those who do so without legal authorization from the countries they seek to enter. The term “Global South” is a geopolitical and ideological category, and in this post, the term refers to the territories and peoples that Europeans colonized primarily between the mid-eighteenth and twentieth centuries. The corresponding category of “Global North” refers to the metropolitan European colonial powers and to those settler colonies that preserved their European identities even after gaining independence. Further, this post does not cover migrants within their own countries who have also been affected by the ‘lockdown’ of cities.
The distinction between economic migrants and refugees is useful only because international law itself reinforces it and provide access to rights and services based on it but I am cognisant of the fact that such a distinction can also reinforce strict lines between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrants. It obscures the view of migrants as ordinary people and instead portrays migrants as either bad, or as the exemplary citizen. Unlike refugees who are protected under the 1951 Refugee Convention and the customary law norm of the principle is non-refoulement, it is largely recognised in international law that it is the prerogative of the sovereign state to exclude economic migrants. International law justifies this through its normative commitment to sovereignty which, at its core, about the capacity and right to self-determine collectively on grounds established by citizens, making limited exceptions for the admission and gradual inclusion of non-citizens who are otherwise at risk of persecution or extreme human rights violations. However, the control OECD states have over their borders far surpasses that of their Global South counterparts as is evident from multilateral and bilateral visa agreements that privilege rights of the former over the latter.
Further, this approach to international law is much newer than you’d think. During the period of conquest and expansion of the Global North, international law supported expansionary rights of colonisers. Chantal Thomas notes “Measured either as a percentage of the total population, or in terms of economic significance, the impact of the earlier wave of [colonial and New World] immigration was much greater than the [contemporary] one.” Back then, it seems, changing countries for economic reasons was a perfectly valid thing to do. In the time of global primitive accumulation, migration was accepted. When formal decolonization of the Global South eventually gained ground as a legal and political project, it was largely framed as the pursuit of political equality for colonized peoples through the achievement of independence of the “state”. Although international law facilitated formal independence for many political communities, for former colonies nation-statehood hardly did enough to disrupt relations of colonial exploitation. International institutions and international legal doctrine still preserve the colonial advantage secured by Global North. What this implies is that Global South peoples are not political strangers to the Global North. In fact, neocolonial and other forms of imperial “interconnection” makes them bound in a relationship of co-sovereignty.
Now, economic migration exists because of fairly extreme socioeconomic conditions arising from globalized political economic structures due to which there are not enough opportunities for safety and prosperity at home and too few regular means through which to remedy that lack of opportunities. Even before COVID19 this resulted in economic migrants from the Global South being recruited through unfair channels, working in unsafe environments and still being underpaid and overworked. Now, COVID-19 will probably not stop all international migration since cheap labour is critical to the neoliberal project but it does mean that there are fewer regular means for migration than there were a couple months ago. Further, as the World Bank itself has noted, migrant remittances provide an economic lifeline to poor households in many countries; a reduction in remittance flows could increase poverty and reduce households’ access to much‐needed health services. This structure of codependence can be easily exploited to the detriment of economic migrants. Female migrants may still face stronger discrimination, and are more vulnerable to mistreatment compared to male migrants.
But this does not mean that all economic migrants will be affected equally. OECD states have long competed against each other to attract “valued forms of capital”. In the neoliberal political economy of belonging, inclusion and exclusion are increasingly becoming a function of an individual’s, or a group’s, capacity to contribute to the country’s financial viability, economic competitiveness, international reputation, moral standing and self-understanding, and emotional well-being. Hence, “highly skilled” migrants such as academics, doctors, lawyers who contribute to the international competitiveness of the state are less likely to face discrimination compared to a construction worker.
Bearing all this in mind, a strong case can be made for rethinking the starting point of migration law research especially pertaining to policy towards migrants who have crossed the border without authorization. We must reconsider what sovereignty means for us today. This is more complicated than what it seems. For one, Global South, at the apex of the decolonization movement, actually argued for a strong interpretation of sovereignty, one that would lead to effective economic rather than merely nominal political independence, and would entail the right to nullify international contracts in order to reclaim natural resources. However, this is now interpreted by the Global North to have stricter border control. We must recognise not only the moral but the distributive justice obligation to redress and reduce the brutality of draconian border policing.