Deciphering migrant transnationalism: Debate, development and displacement
Closure (2016) by Joan Eunice Lao. With permission from the author's sister.
To put it simply, migrant transnationalism is the connections and interactions migrants maintain across state borders. These can range from maintaining their relationships with families, friends, and communities left behind, to participating in faith-based organisations, clubs, and associations with fellow migrants in their country of destination.
Yet migrant transnationalism is anything but simple.
This article seeks to trace the diverse perspectives on the term ‘migrant transnationalism’ in three ways: the debate in academia on how to clearly define transnationalism, the simple use of transnationalism among migration and development practitioners, and how transnationalism through state recognition and advocacy work helped address displacement during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Debates in academia
Within academia, scholars have conceptualised numerous typologies, levels, and modes of transnationalism. However, they are divided in how migrant transnationalism ought to be defined and explored in the theoretical discourse.
In the United States, much of the discussion deals with the relationship between migrant transnationalism and their integration. A key question in this debate is, will migrants’ connections to their homeland become a threat to the political stability of the country of destination? Studies of Mexican and Chinese immigrant organisations in the United States point to a resounding no. Migrants are successful in engaging in both civic participation in the host country and philanthropic activities in their homeland.
Migrant transnationalism also takes place in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries that do not extend citizenship rights to migrants. Anthropologist Andrew Gardner differentiates the transnational character of the less-skilled (transnational proletariat) and highly skilled (diasporic elite) Indian migrants in Bahrain. Transnational proletariats are compelled to stay to pay off the high debts they incurred to work abroad in the first place and send remittances to the households that depend on them. On the other hand, diasporic elites build transnational networks across the globe as a livelihood strategy to address the job uncertainties they face in the host country.
Gardner's research is reminiscent of growing studies on reactive transnationalism – acts and practices of migrant transnationalism as a response to their exclusion in the country of destination. However, Neha Vora and Natalie Koch argue against concealing the non-citizen’s feelings and practices of belonging in GCC countries. Legal definitions alone do not reflect other forms of migrants’ practices of citizenship.
As a result, regardless of the citizenship rights afforded to migrants by countries of destination, the above studies have shown that migrant transnationalism prevails and transcends various migration contexts.
The role of transnationalism in migration & development
In migration and development (M&D) work and advocacy, migration took a development turn when migrant remittances were proven to greatly contribute to the economic growth of the countries of origin. To this day, remittances have helped soften the negative impacts of the pandemic, as they have tended to remain steady.
Among M&D circles, migrant transnationalism simply serves as the key for governments, civil society, and the private sector alike to strengthen in order to tap the development potential of migrants and the diaspora.
According to the Joint Migration and Development Initiative, evidence has shown that channelling migrant and diaspora engagement contributes to the development of both countries of origin and destination. Examples are their inclusion and contribution in development planning and investment opportunities, skills expertise, and technology transfer between migrant-sending and migrant-receiving countries.
The development turn in the migration field has even elevated to a global consultative process via the Global Forum on Migration and Development for key stakeholders in migration governance to discuss and collaborate on addressing the challenges and opportunities in migration and its linkages to sustainable development.
(Un)recognised in displacement
The COVID-19 pandemic has displaced migrant workers, who have lost their jobs with little to no resources to adapt to the employment loss. Among measures to provide aid, social protection, and the safe return to displaced migrant workers, philanthropic diaspora activities have been crucial. Migrant transnationalism has been a factor in volunteerism and activism among migrants to contribute aid during crises.
For instance, the Philippines commended the efforts of their diaspora around the world through the tribute series of publications #BayanihanKahitSaanMan (roughly translated as ‘spirit of Filipino unity wherever you are’). These efforts range from the distribution of food packages and relief goods and transportation assistance, to the contribution of the healthcare workforce and the development in mass COVID-19-testing technology in their host nations. The series shows that transnational connections are strong, regardless of the destination of Filipino migrant communities.
Civil society organisations involved in raising awareness of migrants’ rights have elevated the voices of displaced migrant workers who were either stranded in the country of origin, trapped in debt, or returning to the country of destination empty-handed. Through the Justice for Wage Theft campaign, migrant organisations and their transnational connections have documented migrants’ experiences of unpaid wages and their lack of access to remedy this. Migrant advocates continue to lobby governments to address these urgent issues in migration governance.
Despite these efforts, migrant transnationalism and diaspora engagement have not been given the attention they deserve. In other words, migrant transnationalism is likewise displaced in the discourse, as restrictive border management, migrant discrimination and stigmatisation have taken the spotlight within the COVID-19 pandemic discourse.
While the COVID-19 crisis has impacted migration in unimaginable ways, it has opened up online opportunities to continue fostering engagements, even serving as alternative avenues for migrant transnationalism.
In academia, discussions on new perspectives and innovative methodological approaches to exploring migrant transnationalism in different contexts are conducted through the likes of the Standing Committee on Migrant Transnationalism (MITRA) at the International Migration Research Network (IMISCOE) in Europe and the Global Research Forum on Diaspora and Transnationalism (GRFDT) in India, the rest of Asia, Gulf, and other countries.
At the inter-state level, government dialogues and actions on ways forward for the recovery of migrants and their families from the pandemic are held in the annual review of the 2018 Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, a relatively new set of commitments among member states on establishing holistic and responsible migration in all stages of the migration cycle.
In terms of virtual platforms for migrant communities, iDiaspora, a digital platform for diasporas to exchange information, resources, and experiences, convened virtual exchanges among diaspora organisations around the world. These virtual diasporic exchanges shared best practices by migrant communities in collaborating with policymakers and other stakeholders to curb the COVID-19 pandemic.
These are just a few of the growing dialogues across disciplines, nations, and multiple sectors. Will the next meaning of migrant transnationalism also surpass the abstract, legal, and spatial borders it is confined in?
If only it were that simple.
Further reading and resources:
‘On conceiving “migrant transnationalism”’, a podcast where one prominent scholar on migrant transnationalism shares up-to-date research on migrants’ ties across borders. https://www.imiscoe.org/news-and-blog/podcast/1366-on-conceiving-migrant-transnationalism
‘i am a migrant’, a storytelling platform by the UN Migration agency to present migrant stories on the experiences, connections and difficulties they have faced. https://iamamigrant.org
BaLinkBayan, a one-stop online portal for Filipino diaspora engagement. Its name is a play on the Filipino words ‘balikbayan’ (returning migrant), ‘balik’ (return), ‘bayan’ (country), and the English word ‘link’. The portal is an example of state-initiated online engagement to tap migrant transnationalism for development. https://balinkbayan.gov.ph/
Katherine Lao is an aspiring development worker in migration and mobility. She was born and raised in Bahrain before 'returning' to the Philippines to pursue sociology of migration. She aims to widen her knowledge and experience in migration and eventually, discover the running thread between her experience as a migrant, budding sociologist, and newcomer in migration and development. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org