Shoba Arun, Reader in Sociology, Manchester Metropolitan University
I watch those lines getting longer, hazier and staggering. Families and children walking hundreds of kilometers during the hot Indian summer. Children on the back of worn out parents – their tired piercing eyes lashing out to humanity. These are ‘migrants’ who lived and worked across many regions of India in the construction, retail sectors and who wanted to return to their home states when the government declared lockdown. Why are they migrants, in their own country? For years, they have sweated to build homes and other key infrastructure such as bridges and roads in cities that define rising India. With lockdown, they became no one’s responsibility. Their long walk led to many deaths from starvation and stress and heartbreaking accidents and conflict, relegating them within the language of victimhood, rather than subjects of deeply entrenched social and economic power structures, of caste, class and region.
The current moment is a critical turn in global studies and migration research to centralise reflexivity to question the nature of our knowledge production, and to address the risk of migration studies of reproducing hegemonic structures and problematic definitions. The labelling of migrants serves the dual purpose of victimhood construction within debates of race, racism, inequalities and discrimination (BME migrants as vulnerable or exposed to more risks) and the perpetuation of the ‘dangerous’ other (terrorist or savage) or the dehumanised (helpless refugees fleeing conflict or hardship) juxtaposed against the dominant majoritarian – all of which sets the tone of discourses on migrant identities in a globalised context. The diversity of migration needs to be addressed more coherently within migration studies.
The temporality of mobilities, hastened by the internationalisation of higher education and ensuing movements of students have caught many unaware too. Such groups also labelled as migrants, and those on short term visas and work permits have had other traumatic experiences. I was an international student once, a BME worker and then a settled migrant from a colonial country who longed to be part of her motherland. My eyes rove across the long queues popped up in the UK as international students went short of food when Universities closed, and their temporary jobs ceased. Many got holed up in their tiny rooms, unaware of how to get help but whatsapping their distressed families back home – those who thrashed out their economic assets for their children’s’ education in hopes of a better future as promised by those agents of western education. In other circumstances, precarious workers were the victims, like the Uber driver who was found dead in his room, and in hunger as he was too scared to get help in fear of eviction. Another skilled IT worker was airlifted with the help of community leaders and crowdfunding, back to his country and to his loved ones as he was dying from terminal illness.
Transnational care chains have been much discussed within Mobility debates, including the gendered dimensions of care. While there is much attention to migrants arriving to Italy by boat but takes of Romanian health workers, mostly women in Italy who have left their families back home to care for the elderly and the sick in other host countries do not receive much attention. Health and care workers, many identified as BAME, are migrants perhaps mostly defined as first generation, – and serving the health sector as frontline workers. Some of these were recruited as international or overseas to address skill shortages in the NHS – but clearly have been more exposed to the deadly virus. The reasons cited were the lack of PPE, being in front line departments such as emergency, and as locum workers with little choice in how their roles are allocated. Many sadly have lost their lives in their fight to protect our lives, and to serve the NHS. Other BAME populations, who were once migrants, were identified as ‘at risk’ because of underlying conditions aggravated by structural inequalities in health and housing.
The Covid -19 Pandemic is indeed a turning point to reflect on the epistemological and ontological concerns about migration studies globally. Who is a migrant, and how is a migrant defined, and in whose eyes? My current research on Migrant Children and Integration poses a striking question as how generations of migration define changing experiences of children. Often, migrant children are interchangeable with BAME children vis-à-vis the colour of their skin or religion – but such lines of divide based on stereotypes need to be shattered!
Present discussions on migrant workers and the labour markets have revolved around how migrants have been concentrated in precarious forms of work, often summed up by the ‘d’s – in difficult, dangerous and dirty work. These now denote the key forms of front-line work that have helped the economy and households survive during the lockdown as well fighting the pandemic. Not to mention the frontline health or transport workers, or the temporary workers flown in from Eastern Europe to work in fruit harvesting. It is clear that key work and key workers will need far more than claps once we survive.
There are questions on how we engage with knowledge production on migration processes, which cannot be separated from race and inequality, eurocentrism, situated positions of researchers, or contested public debates. The term migrant virus or China virus used by Trump has unleashed a “tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scare-mongering”, as noted by the United Nations chief António Guterres.
In hope, we continue to traverse the slopes of knowledge production in global studies and its circulation, questioning patterns of such knowledge utilization in policy, politics, or institutions.
Credit foto: Bhuvan Bagga/AFP via Getty Images