Are there such people as “migrants”?

Published 4 July 2012 / By Biao Xiang

Back to Articles

My last blog (Is There Such Thing as Migration?), written for the purpose of provoking critiques and comments, has provoked no response as far as I can see. I thus decide to try to provoke more questions. 

It seems to be unquestionably accepted that migrants exist. Migration studies count migrants, observe what migrants do, and try to theorize migrants’ behaviour into patterns and rules.

But perhaps the opposite is true. My hypothesis is: the notion of “migration” predates the notion of individual “migrant” as we understand it today. The establishment of the individual migrant as a type of subject and as the centre of our inquiry of migration in turn changed our perceptions of migration tremendously, both intellectually and politically.

Collective vs individual

Before the world was divided up into nation-states, migration was hardly a concern for anybody. Even in a country like China with an extraordinarily centralized state from very early on, individual mobility was regarded as normal, and the state even often took the initiative to relocate population. Population movement caught the attention of the state and the society only when it is perceived as a collective problem of a large scale that potentially leads to massive disorder.

Colonialism brought about large-scale population relocation worldwide between the 17th and mid-19th centuries. Modern imperial power and nascent nation-states regulated mobility not as collective events, but as processes. This is particularly evident in transatlantic migration. Most of the immigration laws on the US side at the time focused on ship captains, passenger brokers and innkeepers, rather than on the migrants themselves, as the main target groups, and attempted to regulate the process of how the migrants arrived and how they were transferred off of the ships. It was considered that regulation over the process of migration would eradicate slavery, indenture, deception, exploration and other criminality (McKeown 2008).

This is a rather straightforward perception of migration: migration is a long journey, involved multiple actors, with uncertain outcomes. Migration was not totalized into a single aggregate, nor was it reduced to individual migrants’ behaviour.

Who vs how

The Chinese exclusion laws of North America and Australia in the 1880s represented a new conceptualization of migration. According to these migration is, or ought to be, free individual’s behaviour. Rather than investigating how a migrant travelled, this perception focuses on who the migrant is. Based on McKeown’s historical account (2008), we may attribute this understanding to at least two causes.

  • the abolition campaign shifted the public concern from the means of mobility towards the status of the individual migrants. The free, self-motivated individual became the only acceptable subject of immigration law and the assumed normal figure for migration theory.
  • with the establishment of border control as the primary means of regulating migration, the physical body of the migrant standing in front of the immigration checkpoint became the main subject on which the state exercised its power. The conditions on the ship or the migrant’s relation to the brokers suddenly became irrelevant, and the migrants’ identity, intention of migration, and plan for settlement were what the state was most concerned with. By the 1930s, migrants were compelled to carry papers and to justify their right to enter on the basis of wealth, education, family, health, political attachments and place of birth.

The erasure of the processes of movement as a target of regulation was also related to the consolidation of sovereignty of migrant-sending countries. While migration during the colonial times was to a great extent controlled in the sending place, the era of nation-states rendered it extremely difficult for receiving states to intervene the sending context.  The focus had to be on the outcome, instead of on the process, of movement.

Thus, our understanding of migration did not originally result from our observation about migrants; the individual migrant was a subject that was invented as a solution to perceived “migration” problems.

The shift of the focus from migratory processes to migrants made it possible for migration to be regulated by formal and abstract means as implemented by modern nation-states. The creation of individual migrants as the central concern of migration debates bears various important implications. Only migration based on individual freedom and rational choices is ethically acceptable. It also laid the foundation for the simultaneous individualization and totalization that characterizes the predominant conceptualization of migration today.

Each and every migrant - as a free, autonomous and independent actor - is seen as unique and is treated in his/her own right (everyone has his/her own passport). Yet all the individuals are treated as fundamentally the same. This in turn enabled the formal and abstract means of migration regulation as implemented by modern nation-states.

Adam McKeown, Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.