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’.
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.