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Embedded inequalities in migration from the Global South

By Toni Cela | Issue 23

Photo by Miko Guziuk on Unsplash.

Migration is central to human existence as it is fundamental to self-actualization, the pursuit of life goals, and the search for human security. With the emergence of nation-states and the threat of dwindling natural resources, migration has become increasingly regulated for some but not others.

When discussing migration, dominant narratives from the Global North mobilise the term “migrants” as a code to signal low-income, poor, marginalised, or dispossessed status. This status for some justifies their immobility or fosters apathy toward their plight. This contrasts with other terms such as “expat” used for people on the move perceived to be wealthy or highly skilled, or “foreign national", underscoring their belonging in stark contrast with the migrant who is searching for a home. In these dominant narratives, the focus is disproportionately on South-North migration, with South-South migration (SSM) garnering much less attention despite its prevalence.

Further, these narratives frame migration policies that impede collaboration among professionals, even within countries in the Global South. Professionals from countries labelled “poor” or “low-income” who are developing collaborative initiatives are subject to the same governance regimes as so-called migrants when attempting to cross borders. We at the Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development (INURED), based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, are partners of the Migration for Development and Equality (MIDEQ) Hub, funded by the UK Research and Innovation Global Challenges Research Fund. Being based in Haiti, INURED faces the often insurmountable challenge of having our network of academics, professional researchers, and human rights leaders participate in cross-border collaboration with their peers. Drawing on this example, I reflect on the strategic use of the term “migrant” embedded in countries’ border control policies and how this term obscures the broader impacts of such policies on development efforts in the Global South.

Though there is no universally accepted legal definition for the term “migrant”, the International Organization for Migration’s (IOM) working definition of a migrant includes any person who, temporarily or permanently, moves away from their home to another location within or outside of their country. IOM further suggests that the term migrant is an umbrella category that may include anyone from seasonal labourers to foreign exchange students. Yet, this definition obscures that the term is often deployed as a warning. While there is concern about that which is foreign, being foreign can be viewed positively if you have resources or socioeconomic capital. However, the term migrant is often used to evoke racial, ethnic, and class biases that produce anxieties among those to whom this term is applied. “Migrant” is the term of choice for xenophobes or those who refer to themselves as “nationalists”. It is also the preferred term of policymakers set on controlling their borders to protect national interests irrespective of how those borders came into existence. For many prosperous nations, today’s abundance is the result of historical and contemporary exploitation of human and natural resources in faraway lands.

We are living in an era of increased global inequalities. Population growth threatens food systems, clean water access, and the environment, with those in low- and middle-income countries disproportionately affected. There is a global sense of human insecurity due to legacies of colonialism and slavery, dwindling resources, and conflict that has fueled border securitization efforts and emboldened nationalists and xenophobes the world over. As more powerful nations erect walls and barriers of various kinds, whether literally or figuratively through their policies, the mobility of citizens from the Global South has become extremely limited. This is a reality that their professional class and elite cannot escape without renouncing their citizenship, as they are subject to the same border regimes as their less fortunate compatriots.

Over the past four years, the MIDEQ Hub has been studying SSM with a team of over 120 researchers, most of whom are from the Global South. Each year, we come together to take stock of and reflect on our accomplishments and the work that remains to be done in one partner country in the Global South. Yet, ironically, the Haiti research team has been rendered practically immobile due to the very same border management regimes we are studying. Haiti’s moniker in the global media as “the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere” signals to host countries that its citizens will only deplete their resources. It has one of the lowest passport power rankings in the world; Haitian nationals require a visa to visit 136 of the world’s 195 countries. Truth be told, the poor pay more applying for visas with no guarantee of approval. There are no refunds for rejections and desperation compels many to reapply. Therefore, investing in international capacity building is a costly and risky endeavour for resource-limited institutions in the Global South.

In 2019, the MIDEQ Hub met in Nairobi, Kenya, which has a streamlined online visa process. However, the Haiti team would have to fly through the US, which requires applying for a transit visa with no guarantee of approval. In 2022, we met in Kathmandu, Nepal, and in 2023, in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The options included flying through the US or the Dominican Republic (DR), with whom Haiti shares a border. However, the DR also poses distinct challenges for Haitians migrating within the region. Recently, Dominican officials and local intermediaries were revealed to be exploiting Haitians by charging more than six times the actual cost of a tourist visa, or up to USD $600 – notably, the DR does not issue transit visas. Haitian mobility, already highly restricted, is now under threat by the Dominican President’s recent border closure and suspension of visa services due to an ongoing dispute over the building of a canal in Haiti that could affect Dominican farmers.

Legal migration is increasingly becoming a privilege afforded to fewer people around the globe. When we employ the term migrant, we overlook the extent to which inequalities embedded in global migration governance regimes impact nations in the Global South. It impedes collaboration among nations most affected by political, economic and social inequalities. It restricts our ability to learn from, share, and connect with our allies and peers. It denies us opportunities to develop the human capacity needed to challenge and redress inequalities. Mobility is a human condition. We must not continue to watch with indifference the erection of walls, closing of borders, or the many lives lost as people flee violence, persecution and war by land and sea.

Toni Cela is the Coordinator of the Interuniversity Institute for Research and Development (INURED) and an affiliated scholar at the University of Miami’s Department of Anthropology. Her research interests include: anthropology of disaster and recovery, adolescents and immigration processes, anthropology of education, migration and health, diaspora and development, and Haitian youth identity formation. Dr. Cela co-edited with Prof. Louis Herns Marcelin and Prof. Henri Dorvil, Haitian Youth in the Americas, a trilingual (English/French/Haitian Creole) volume published by the Presses de l’Université du Québec. She was a 2013-2014 U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Haiti.


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