Shifting powers: two decades of migration and global turbulence

Published 11 October 2011 / By Nicholas Van Hear

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Parallels have been made between the collapse of communist regimes in 1989–1991 and the current financial and economic crisis. We are yet to see if today’s turmoil turns out to be an epoch-making upheaval on a par with 1989–1991: it looks that way.

If it is such a turning point, then perhaps it’s an opportune moment to take these two upheavals—the collapse of communist regimes in 1989–1991 and the current crisis of capitalism —to mark out or ‘bookend’ a period of two decades during which we may review the relationship between migration and wider global upheavals – and then think what might lie ahead.


Global turbulence and migration crises 1989–2011
The main migration-related events of those two decades are well known, but worth recalling. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 saw communist regimes in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Albania unravel in quick succession. Shortly afterwards in 1991, the USSR dissolved and the Baltic States declared themselves independent. Soon after this, conflicts and displacement followed in the ‘successor states’, as borders and populations were sorted out—sometimes peaceably, sometimes violently. ‘Un-mixing’ of formerly ethnically diverse populations in the Caucasus region, central Asia and other parts of the former Soviet Union and in the Balkans was a prominent feature of this period.

Major migration crises featured in other parts of the world during the early and later 1990s. Prominent among these was the Gulf crisis of 1990–1991, involving departures under duress and en masse of Asian migrant workers, Palestinians from Kuwait, and Yemenis from Saudi Arabia, as well as mass refugee movements. From 1994 onwards the complex conflagration that engulfed Rwanda, Burundi, and what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo led to complex forced movements of people.

Meanwhile, other long running conflict and displacement continued. In some cases, such as Afghanistan, Somalia and the Horn of Africa, this appeared to be related in some way to the unfolding geo-political upheavals, while in other cases, such as Sri Lanka and Colombia, there did not appear to be much obvious connection with the global changes under way. Concurrently with these new and ongoing forced migration crises was a series of post Cold War repatriation movements associated with the resolution of long-running conflicts in southern Africa, southeast Asia and elsewhere.

Moving from the later 1990s into the current century, the globalization and migration milestones have included, of course, the pivotal moment of September 11 2001 and the subsequent ‘War on Terror’. While the so-called ‘securitization’ of migration was arguably well under way beforehand, it accelerated after this moment, driven by the Western world’s obsession with militant Islamism. The security imperative was among the main drivers of subsequent wars which in turn impelled further forced migration: from October 2001 onwards, the Afghan war and its fall-out of associated refugee flows, return movements and internal migration; and from March 2003 onwards, the Iraq war and associated mass refugee movements and internal displacement. There have also been resurgences in other long-running, intermittent conflicts, such as in Sudan and in eastern Congo.

The expansion of the EU led to important migration-related developments unfolding in the later 2000s. The accession of the ‘A8’ to the European Union on 1 May 2004 marked the beginning of the movement to north-western Europe of hundreds of thousands of east Europeans—far more than had been anticipated. On 1 January 2007, Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU, generating more anxiety about new EU migrants to western European countries. These accessions and associated migration turned attention away from refugees and asylum seekers and on to new European migrants and more widely the implications of intra-EU liberalization of mobility for those from outside the EU, whose in-migration was increasingly curtailed.

Finally, from 2007–2008, the global financial and economic crisis unfolded, accelerating the reconfiguration of the global political economy already under way since the 1990s. At the time of writing, nearly four years into that crisis, the migration fall-out seems not as profound as was first anticipated but, at the very least, the shift in economic power eastwards towards China and India as a result of current developments will sooner or later work through to the migration arena. Middle income countries appear to have weathered the storm better than many ‘advanced’ countries in the ‘global north’, which may well have important consequences for migration, as is suggested in the next section.

Diverging pathways: BRIC, NIC and LICUS
All this has taken place against the background of wider geo-political shifts, notably the divergent development paths of the ‘global south’, such that the categories ‘developed’/‘developing’, ‘global north’/’global south’, and similar terms have become meaningless—if indeed they were ever valid.

Proponents of globalization have claimed that it has pulled 500 million people out of poverty in the 20 years leading up to 2001, largely as a result of the stunning growth of China and India. In 2003 the investment bank Goldman Sachs coined the term the ‘BRIC’ countries to group together Brazil, Russia, India and China as large, rapidly developing countries with huge economic potential. These new powers have joined the ‘Newly Industrialised Countries’ (the ‘NICs’, a term originally coined in the 1970s to characterise the four ‘Asian Tigers’ Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and South Korea, but now extended to a wider range of countries) and the rich oil producers around the Arabian Gulf and in North Africa to reshape the global order.

Other middle income countries, such as Argentina, Malaysia, Thailand, Mexico, South Africa and Turkey, have also emerged on the global stage as important players. In 2005 Goldman Sachs pointed to the ‘Next Eleven’ ‘emerging economies’, including Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Vietnam, underlining that the emergent dispensation is no longer captured by the old north-south framework.

Of course, not everyone, not even the majority, within these countries has prospered, nor has globalisation brought benefits to many other places. ‘Low Income Countries Under Stress’ or ‘LICUS’ was a category coined by the World Bank in the early 2000s. Many though by no means all of these were countries in conflict, or had been embroiled in widespread violence. In the mid 2000s the World Bank characterized 46 states as ‘fragile’, and of these 20 were conflict states or subject to serious human rights abuses which had generated substantial numbers of refugees and internally displaced people.

Different countries and the populations within them have very different relationships to globalization. Some have prospered. Some have been lifted out of poverty. Still others in fragile states have suffered violence, conflict and displacement. In the grand scheme of things then, we may distinguish:

  • Up to 50 failed, fragile and conflict-affected states that contain maybe a billion people and which are the source of many of the world’s refugees and other forced migrants.
  • Developing poor and middle income countries that are on an upward development trajectory, some of which are the source of labour migrants. While not at war, these are sometimes unstable; some have insurgencies in parts of their territory producing refugees. They also often host refugees.
  • The emerging economies, the BRIC countries, ‘the next eleven’, and so on that are often both source and destinations for migrants. Some, like Iran and Nigeria, are also in turmoil and produce refugees.
  • The old NICs (Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea and Taiwan) and the rich oil producers that are the destinations for labour migrants under tightly controlled conditions.
  • The overdeveloped, over-consuming industrialized and post-industrial countries -- the 30 or so OECD countries -- that are destinations for migrants and refugees, but also feature in the circulation particularly of high skilled migrants.

Added into this mix, two global thresholds have recently been crossed that will play into the reconfiguration of migration worldwide. First, more than half of the world’s population is now urban, underlining the importance of rural-urban migration as a global force.  And second, middle income countries rather than low income states now account for most of the world’s poor, which may well mean, as suggested below, that much of the world’s future migration action will be in middle income countries.

The reconfiguration of the global migration order
Migration is notoriously difficult to predict, and even more so given these global shifts. But there are a number of features which will likely be sustained in coming years as the global migration order reconfigures.

1. The efforts of ‘northern’, over-consuming states to deter, restrict and contain migration—or rather, unwanted migration—will continue, particularly given heightened concerns about security since 2001. The process of ‘externalization’ of migration management, and of asylum management in particular, will continue, as, for example, the EU’s borders are ‘exported’ further and further beyond the EU to countries on the margins of Europe and beyond. Much of this complex of control, deterrence and containment has long been a feature of prosperous destination countries (at least since the 1980s) and has had mixed results, to say the least. Nevertheless this trend will likely continue and accentuate.

2. The age of large-scale asylum migration to western states or the ‘global north’ -- about 10 million asylum applicants in OECD countries in 1980–2002, of which eight million were in the 1990s --  is over. This ‘asylum closure’ or ‘asylum stop’ is perhaps akin to the labour migration stop in the mid 1970s in much of Europe, and will have similarly far-reaching effects. The global reconfiguration of forced migration is considered further below.

3. Other migration streams will meanwhile continue to ebb and flow. Indeed, ‘mixed migration’ will continue to be the order of the day as refugees travel in the same migration streams as those seeking work or betterment, making use of the same brokers and agents, treading the same routes, and winding up in the same communities in transit or at the destination.

There will be continued recruitment of highly skilled workers and professionals to ‘northern’ and increasingly to emerging countries, varying in intensity according to labour market needs, and temporary migration of low-skilled workers to sectors where there are labour shortages.

Family reunion, migration for marriage and student migration (the largest categories of migrants to ‘northern’ states and probably worldwide) will continue on a substantial scale, though under tighter control than before.

Irregular migration will also continue to contribute to meeting demand for low-skilled labour.

4. The diasporas that have been created or augmented by migrants and refugees fleeing conflict are in the process of transforming the world political economy and will continue to do so. Particularly since the end of the Cold War, and peaking in the 1990s, mass refugee movements have led to the formation or transformation of substantial diasporas that have consolidated themselves in destination countries, and have engaged themselves in various forms of transnational activity. This is bringing about a world historical change, as new or resurgent diasporas have diversified and expanded substantially in the last two decades, and have come to operate as increasingly important players in world affairs—economically, politically, socially and culturally.

Their pervasive relations with the homeland—both private (through remittances and other transfers) and public (through collective transfers, donations, lobbying and political activity)—will deepen, and home governments will increasingly reach out to them for financial and other resources.

Remittances sent by members of such diasporas have become an integral part of the global economy, and will increasingly be incorporated into global circuits of (finance) capital. This can be seen at the micro level in efforts made to entice remitters and remittances away from the ‘informal’ sector and into the ‘formal’ sector: ‘banking the unbanked’, as it is known. At the macro level it can be seen in measures like the ‘securitization’ of countries’ remittance futures which are becoming increasingly important in the global financial scene.

5. Despite rapid development in some countries of origin in the erstwhile ‘global south’ like India and China, as noted above, migration pressure in these and other places will continue to drive millions of people to seek better lives as a result of continuing imbalances in human security—broadly conceived to include socio-economic insecurity as well as physical threats and actual violence. The migration fall-out of the Arab Spring of 2011 bears this out.

Nevertheless, it remains the case that only 2 -3 % of the world population are international migrants, a figure that has remained roughly constant over the last century or more; there are currently around 200 million international migrants, including refugees. The majority of the world’s population will remain in their countries of birth—although they may move within their countries of residence for survival or betterment: perhaps 750 million currently do so. Many of those staying put will continue to be supported by family members abroad, and are now part of the global migration order by virtue of their links with such migrant family members.

6. Those who are driven to move by conflict and persecution or simply to better their lives will, if their paths to ‘northern’ countries are blocked, continue to leave worse off, fragile and failing states and make their way to emergent middle income countries. This trend is already reflected in figures for new asylum applications: in the mid 2000s South Africa became the destination for the most new asylum applications worldwide and has been so for the three years to 2010. Malaysia, Kenya, Turkey and Ecuador are among the other middle income countries that have become significant destinations for asylum seekers in recent years. ‘Migration transition’ states that have become new destinations for migrants also include middle-income countries like Morocco and some East European states on the margins of Europe; Mexico and Brazil in Latin America; and Thailand in Southeast Asia.

As the more affluent continue to depart fragile and failing states, they leave behind a rump society of the poor, differentiated into those who have relatives abroad and transnational connections with them (and therefore sources of income through remittances) on the one hand, and on the other those that do not have such transnational connections.

Towards self-organisation for human security
Many of these changes are reflected in the global reconfiguration of forced migration worldwide. Despite a resurgence in the mid 2000s, mainly due to the Iraq war, refugee numbers currently appear to be waning globally. As already noted, the number of asylum seekers making for ‘northern’ states appears to be on the decline.

There are also shifts in the composition of UNHCR’s ‘persons of concern’, that is, the wider catchment of forced migrants protected and assisted by UNHCR: in particular, in recent years there have been fewer refugees globally and more internally displaced people. These changes in numbers and proportion of forced migrants may have several explanations. The control, deterrence and containment measures that make up the ‘externalization’ policy thrust outlined above may be biting and becoming successful from the point of view of northern, receiving states. Another explanation is perhaps more positive: fewer people have to flee because (with some notable exceptions) conflict is on the decline or has been resolved and people can go home. It may also be that people are still fleeing conflict, crisis and distress, but more are staying in their own countries as internally displaced people or in their regions or neighbourhoods of origin, partly because of containment measures.

As suggested above, there may be diversion of asylum seekers to middle income countries, such as South Africa, Turkey, Mexico, Malaysia and Brazil, often making use of diaspora and network connections. Lastly, people from conflict regions may still be coming to states in the global north, but do not claim asylum and rather enter through other means (illegally, or as students, tourists, working holidaymakers, or through marriage), living illegally rather than exposing themselves to the authorities by making an asylum claim.

Possibly all of these trends are in train and will become more significant. We may expect then, as conventional forms of ‘protection’ provided by states continue to wither, that new ways in which people seek safety and security will emerge. Rather than relying forlornly on states to provide human security, they will make use of their transnational networks that are coming about partly as a result of the shifts in the global order that this piece has explored. As the state continues its general retreat in the face of the demands of apparently untrammeled (while state-subsidised) finance capital, self-organisation has become a necessity for migrants no less than for citizens more widely.  Maybe in the long run that’s not such a bad thing.

This piece draws on an article which will appear in the Journal of Refugee Studies in 2012.  Full supporting references for what is written here will be found in that publication.