Shock Mobility: Convulsions in human migration are having large impacts (Part II)

Biao Xiang

This blog is part of the COMPAS Coronavirus and Mobility Forum.

Read part I of the blog here.

Shock mobility, by definition, defies conceptual stabilization. Unlike student migration, economic migration, or circular migration, shock mobility cannot be defined by the actor, the cause, or the behavioural pattern.

Shock mobility can instead be conceptualized as a link between various movements, and a moment when different mobilities intensively entangle with each other. These interrelated mobilities, of different actors as well as particular actors at different times, constitute what could be called ‘mobility assemblages.’ The key concern here is how shock mobilities are related to — and, in turn, change — other movements.

Consider the journey of a migrant family who walked across India at the pandemic’s onset mentioned earlier. They were not “shocked” into mobility. They are always mobile in the first place. Typically circular migrants, they move back and forth between cities and home villages seasonally or annually. In the city, they are constantly on the move as street vendors, delivery workers, domestic servants, rickshaw pullers, construction workers, or garbage pickers — the moment they stop moving is the moment they lose their jobs. And as daily wagers, they have no money to pay the rent or buy food once that happens. Going home by whatever means is the only way to survive.

They were pushed into shock mobilities because the pandemic and lockdown disrupted their rhythms of mobility. The migrants lost jobs not because they wanted to isolate themselves. The jobs were taken away from them because the government and urban residents were eager to halt mobility. Thus, migrants’ shock mobilities must be understood in relation to their other migratory practices, and other actors’ mobility and immobility.

Shock mobilities mean different things to different populations, and the ‘link-moment’ perspective helps us to understand the discrepancies better. Consider the contrast between rich residents’ move to their second houses and migrant workers’ rush to home. The wealthy can move to their holiday homes away from the pandemic’s epicentre to shield themselves from infection; a movement effective in protecting themselves, and seemingly legitimate as they simply continue to do what they usually do. Who can really accuse anyone for moving to one’s own property? But at the other end of the cascade of shock waves, migrants are pushed into sudden mobilities by others’ shocks. Their long march exposed them to multiple life-threatening risks — among which virus was, in fact, a minor one — and subjected them to even harsher stigmatization and police brutality, as they were perceived as the key vector of the virus on the move. The rich and the poor have different experiences not only because they have more or less resources, but also because their mobilities are positioned in the mobility assemblage differently.

What the “link-moment” looks like

Following that logic, I observe that shock mobility as a “link-moment” in mobility assemblages has five specific forms:

Reaction mobility is a direct response to threats. Anthropological research suggests that running away is the most common reaction to high-mortality epidemics across cultures. But the imposition of a cordon sanitaire seems to have induced even more intensified and larger-scale population flights. Information from different parts of the world during the COVID-19 pandemic seems to suggest that citizens’ mistrust towards the government is more important than perceptions about health risks in causing reaction mobilities.

Reaction immobility is a critical part of shock mobility. After all, the concept of shock mobility is about sudden mutations in movement rather than mobility, per se. Immobilization is more dramatic than movement. Observations on the COVID-19 pandemic point to two populations who have been most dispositioned to reaction immobility. First, urban middle class isolated themselves because they were sensitive to health risks, and can afford to stay at home. And second, rural communities were quick in setting up checkpoints and even building walls around villages because, due to poor healthcare facilities, physical isolation appeared to be the only thing that they could do to protect themselves.

Survival mobility is necessary for those who lost livelihoods due to mobility restrictions. Going home is a typical means of survival mobility, regardless how inhospitable that ‘home’ may be. By late May, over 68,000 Venezuelans had returned to their crisis-ridden country, where they had previously desperately fled from. As all the seven official border crossings between Venezuela and Colombia had closed, criminal groups reportedly smuggled migrants back into Venezuela.

Limbo mobility, namely movements without destinations and even stoppages, became widespread during the pandemic as well. People in shock mobilities are ill-prepared in terms of where they want to reach and how, and they are turned away by communities along the way due to fears around the virus. Wuhan, for instance, witnessed a sizeable homeless population who could not leave the city for home or check into hotels. They moved between parks, railway stations and hospitals in particular, in order to access food, water and covered space for the night. In India, the central challenge quickly shifted from stopping mobility to moving migrants to their home place. The Supreme Court ordered all local governments to provide free food and transport to migrants and directed again on June 9 that all migrants should be brought home within 15 days. Across the world, between 150,000 and 200,000 seafarers are trapped on board ships as of June 2020 because of port closure.

Substitution mobility, namely the movements that are carried out by some groups on behalf of others, is crucial during the lockdown. Substitution mobility can be organized by government. For instance, Chinese government “sent down”—literally “sank” (xiacheng)—cadres to grassroots communities to act as delivery workers. Similar initiatives are taken up by volunteers across the world as drivers and delivery personnel. Platform-based technology companies, specifically on transport or delivery platforms, play a central role in organizing substitution mobility, too.

Future implications

Considering these five manifestations of shock mobilities as ‘link-moments’ provides clues as to how shock mobilities may affect broader socioeconomic relations in the future. For instance, to villagers who adopt a strategy of reaction immobility, migrants’ survival mobility by returning home could pose serious threats. The rush of Chinese students abroad back home has already created national controversies.

Substitution mobilities are likely to further the casualization of labour (especially for delivery workers) and the securitization of mobilities, as more and more movement falls under constant monitoring by either the state or platform companies — even though these mobilities are indispensable in carrying us through the shocks and providing some sense of normalcy. In turn, they can be quickly normalized. The Chinese government encouraged labour dispatchment in the wake of the SARS outbreak in 2003 in order to channel workers from enterprises who lost production orders to those who needed labour, in a period of economic uncertainty and mobility restriction. By 2008, labour dispatchment was codified. Now, the practice is so common that it is hardly associated with any shocks.

How these mobilities are received and internalized in the years ahead is uncertain. But what we do know is that these experiences could yield significant impacts on state-citizen relations, as well as relations between different populations. The “shocks” give us a glimpse into the world we’re entering. Tomorrow’s normalcy will grow out of today’s disruption. Therefore, a better understanding of ongoing shock mobilities will help us analyse potential problems for decades to come.

This blog is co-published with the series Consequences of COVID-19 for Forced Migration and Refugees at the FluchtforschungsBlog, including a German version.


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