learning pages / Themes and topics

5.4 : Transnationals.

Technologies have not only enabled people to move across the world far more easily than before, but also to keep in close contact with families back home. In particular, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have facilitated the development of complex social connections, crossing national borders and spanning the globe. As a result, a growing number of migrants are now ‘transnational’.

When German sociologist Ludger Pries was researching stories of Mexican migrants in the US in 2007, he came to a fascinating conclusion: cross-border movements were not decreasing for second or third generation immigrants, as might have been expected. 

People still moved to and fro, to study in Mexico, to work in the US or just to spend time in both countries. The once rigid dividing line between Mexico and the US had become more fluid: their identity was partly Mexican, partly American, and they did not see why they should choose between them. 

They had become transnational migrants.

Who are transnational migrants?

To fully understand modern migration, we also need to consider another phenomenon which is becoming more significant: ‘transnationalism’.

New technologies have allowed increasing numbers of people to move practically anywhere on the planet without losing contact with their home country. Sometimes it is faster and cheaper to travel between London and Central/Eastern European cities than to travel from within our countries. And programs like Skype allow us to call anywhere with an internet connection, without expensive phone bills.

In the past, only the wealthiest people could live like this, but it is now becoming common practice. There are people of different nationalities living in the suburbs of London who have never fully left their home country. They call their grandmother to get a recipe from their last visit a few weeks ago; they read a newspaper in their own language on their smartphone while commuting by Tube under the streets of London.

Technologies are now so advanced that not only can people move across the world far more easily than before, but they are also able to keep in close contact with families back home. In particular, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have facilitated the development of complex social connections, crossing national borders and spanning the globe. 

As a result, a growing number of migrants are now ‘transnational’. Transnational migrants feel comfortable in so-called transnational or supranational space, unlimited by state borders. They work in Vienna, live in the Hungarian town of Rajka, their kids visit schools in Bratislava in Slovakia and visit one of their grandparents in Brno in the Czech Republic. Or they live somewhere in between Budapest and Berlin, Warsaw and London, Bratislava and Hanoi, Guadalajara and Tampa, Gujarat and Boston, Bamako and Andijan… and see nothing strange in it at all.

Of course, not all migrants can be considered transnational migrants who, using the words of sociologist Peggy Levitt, ‘work, pray, and express their political interests in several contexts rather than in a single nation-state’, spanning social, political, economic, cultural and other ties and relations across the globe (migrationpolicy.org). 

As their numbers grow, transnational migrants have the potential, in Levitt’s words, to ‘transform the economy, culture and everyday life of whole source-country regions. They challenge notions about gender relations, democracy, and what states should not do’.

And what does this mean in practice?

Levitt uses a wonderful example to explain transnational migration. In her classic work, ‘The Transnational Villagers’, she describes the transnational village Miraflores in the Caribbean, spanning between the coast of the Dominican Republic and a neighbourhood in Boston in Massachusetts, US. 

It all started in the late 1960s when the first villagers took the leap and moved to the US, settling in the Boston area. By the beginning of the 1990s, almost two-thirds of the 550 households in the village had relatives in Boston area, where they tended to live in a single neighbourhood, Jamaica Plain

Even in the 1990s, long before mobile phones or social media, their lives were lived almost simultaneously in both places. When someone was ill, cheating on their partner, or, for instance, finally got a visa, the news spread as fast on the streets of Jamaica Plain as it did in Miraflores.

To give an example of how transnational migration had impacted concretely on the lives of villagers back in the Dominican Republic, Levitt found that young women in Miraflores no longer wished to marry men who had never migrated. The reason? They wanted husbands who would share the housework and take care of the children, ‘the way men who have been to the United States do’.

Transnational optic.

Contemporary social networks are no longer as limited by physical geography as before. People are, thanks to technological advances and affordable transportation, able to bypass those barriers. Journalists need to have a similar approach to their analysis – what Levitt describes as a ‘transnational optic’. The discussion on the need for a global imagination is relevant to this discussion.

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5.1 : Migration as a global phenomenon.

Migration is not a new phenomenon: people have been on the move since the dawn of humankind. Indeed, the history of humanity is a history of migration – some have even argued that movement is our natural state. Migration has always been an essential part of our adaptation to environmental stress, social upheaval and other challenges. The same is true today, even though it has now become global in scale.

5.2 : What is migration?

Simply put, migration is human movement from one place to another. It may involve a single individual or an entire community, internal resettlement within a country or a journey spanning multiple continents, forced flight from the threat of violence or a voluntary search for opportunities elsewhere. Indeed, in many cases it can involve a mixture of patterns and motivations: for instance, migrants may have to flee very real dangers to themselves and their families, while at the same time actively plan for a better life elsewhere. Migration has a variety of facets and there are plenty of reasons – some even seemingly contradictory – why people decide to leave or stay.

5.3 : Terminology matters: From ‘economic migrants’ to refugees.

'Migrant' is an overarching term for anyone (with the exception of tourists) who moves from one country to another for a significant period of time. A refugee is a person who flees from conflict, persecution of a natural disaster and seeks sanctuary in another country. (In many situations of insecurity, many or even most of those forced to move may in fact remain within their country: these internally displaced people, also called IDPs, rarely receive the same amount of attention in international media, despite often facing considerable challenges). An economic migrant is a person who moves in search of education, employment and other opportunities outside his or her country. Asylum-seekers are people who have applied for asylum in another country. Finally, stateless people are those who have either been deprived of or were born without citizenship.

5.5 : Migration and development.

Migration is often closely linked to processes related to development. There is no single definition of development, but in broad terms it can be understood as the potential for individuals and communities within a society to access services, employment and other opportunities on an equitable basis. If people do not have a chance to develop their potential, if they are excluded from participating in development, they might decide to move.

5.6 : Migration and minorities.

A minority may be a group numerically inferior to the rest of the population but also in some cases larger in number, but in a non-dominant position. Minorities usually possess certain ethnic, religious, linguistic and other characteristics differing from those of the rest of the population. Due to their marginalized position within society, they are vulnerable to discrimination, and are unable to secure an equal share of development opportunities. This all makes these communities more exposed to various challenges that they may attempt to resolve by deciding to move.

5.7 : Smuggling.

According to the UN definition smuggling "is a crime involving the procurement for financial or other material benefit of illegal entry of a person into a State of which that person is not a national or resident." In principle, it implies a level of consent among those being smuggled – as opposed to those subjected to human trafficking, who are effectively captive to their traffickers. Once a migrant is smuggled through a border to their agreed destination, the relationship is usually over, while human trafficking generally involves the continued coercion of victims, often over a period of many years.

5.8 : Fortress Europe.

Since the EU was established, the borders between its member states have been dissolving. Yet at the same time, its external borders have hardened – an approach widely known as ‘Fortress Europe’. Even for those fleeing persecution, entering the EU has become increasingly impossible for most refugees. As a result, many have been forced to take more dangerous routes, with a corresponding rise in the number of dead or missing people as desperation leads them to seek out smugglers and puts them at risk of human trafficking. Fortress Europe does not stop at its actual borders, but goes deep into neighbouring countries or even further in some cases in an attempt to create a buffer zone through a web of agreements, funding, detention centres and naval patrols.

5.9 : Misinterpreted facts on migration.

Migration is an important issue in public debate and policy-making – across Europe and worldwide. And the media are part of it. Sometimes they build their narratives around migration on pure myths or speculation. At other times, however, they may reply on more subtle distortions and misconceptions: these may be, strictly speaking, factually correct but presented or interpreted out of context or misleadingly.

5.10 : Migration causes.

Migration is typically caused by a variety of factors, both ‘push’ and ‘pull’. People might decide to move because of a range of factors, be it employment, security, opportunities, education, even love, unavailable to them in their home country and ‘pulling’ them elsewhere. On the other hand, there can be compelling drivers of displacement such as conflict, persecution, natural disasters and other immediate threats, that push them to migrate. In this post we focus on the latter – push factors related to forced migration.

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