Wednesday, 27 July 2016

The Domino Effect: The politics of international migration

by Shezane Kabura                             

With a background in humanitarianism and international development, I am familiar with aspects of forced migration. I am particularly passionate on refugee issues hence my dissertation research lies within the investigation of UNHCR as a surrogate state in the case of Daadab, Kenya. As important as my work and study on forced migration has been, I wanted to broaden my scope of study by coming for three months to South Africa and in particular to Migrating out of Poverty’s southern Africa partner, ACMS.
I couldn’t have been more right! Since I arrived in Johannesburg, topics on economic and labour migration have topped the agenda. Personally, this has been the best opportunity to engage with this new field of study. What is even more interesting, is the fact that I have learnt that even though my country hosts one of the largest refugee populations in Africa, the rate of emigration from Kenya is increasingly becoming a concern for policy makers. This then gave me an idea for my first MOOP blog. In an age when neither refugees nor migrants are particularly welcome, the line between the two is increasingly blurred and the terms themselves have been weighed down by politics. 
When I think about international migration and all the policies surrounding it, I refer to Plato’s cave as an allegory. One has to step outside the cave to see what is not immediately visible and then go back in and see what can be visibly fixed. Theoretically, economic migrants, choose to move in order to improve the future prospects of themselves and their families whereas refugees have to move if they are to save their lives or preserve their freedom. Yet, reality is much murkier. People often move for various reasons that may include fear of persecution as well as wanting to find better economic opportunities. The integration of international migration and securitisation policies in the new world order has led to international migration being framed as a threat to national, physical and economic security. What we face today is a paradigm change within an unchecked slide into an era in which the response for international migration is restrictive in nature, in contrast to the trends of a decade or two ago towards open borders. This causes a domino effect in migration policies around the world as countries compete to be the toughest, seemingly in the hope of protecting their own territories.
Spatial mobility is a fundamental social and historical aspect of African life, but what sets it apart from other regions, however, is that most African international migration is intra-continental, consisting of regional movements within the continent by refugees, nomads, undocumented migrants, and seasonal labour migrants. Although the “spectre” of African refugees seeking asylum in Europe has received a lot of media attention, other forms of international movement migration have also increased, namely the circulation of low-wage labour, the permanent exit of skilled workers from Africa to other continents, and the irregular migration of undocumented workers at all skill levels. Moreover, unlike refugee flows in all directions across Africa, people migrating for work or business opportunities gravitate to economies they perceive to be more developed, within the four main African sub-regions or on other continents.

In my opinion, countries are only evaluating their obligations through a cost versus benefit framework. States only comply if the fiscal cost is low and if they think that it will cause perceived harm in their own societies. In South Africa, for example, the (not yet passed) Refugee Amendment Bill of August 2015 purports to ensure that the asylum application process is streamlined to distinguish economic migrants from people with a bona fide case for refugee status.[1] The new provisions provide for the South African migration authority to not ask questions about why people have fled their countries to seek refuge elsewhere, but instead about an asylum applicant's skills, economic circumstances, employment history or number of dependents, which are not relevant to an asylum application. The questionnaire includes detailed questions about education level, employment history and skills, including a request that asylum seekers (who usually flee in a hurry) provide documentation in the form of testimonials and pay slips! In many countries, there is no provision for low-skill labour migration and hence this new Bill is an example of a state trying to deal with the global situation of many economic migrants trying to enter countries via the asylum application systems. Distinctions like these are made because across the world low-skilled labour migrants are generally viewed as much “less deserving” of states’ and citizens’ sympathy and support than refugees.  

Furthermore, research shows that no (or vague) labour migration policies and agreements are linked to endogenous societal vices like corruption which risks the integrity and functionality of many states’ governance systems and socio-economic development. In a recent working paper published by Migrating out of Poverty, researchers outlined the cost of South Africa’s expenditure on immigration enforcement and made estimates of the potential costs of increasing immigration control.[2] I was also interested that the research found that the costs to the South African state of enforcing its migration policy are largely unknown to the South African public and the state itself.
The paradox of international migration lies in the continuing proliferation of labels for mobile people that no longer seem adequate to encompass people who migrate willingly, those who flee for their lives, and the whole spectrum of migration and self-determination that falls in between. Deteriorating economic, social, political, and ecological conditions across the continent have produced changes in the places African migrants move to, as well as in its pattern, composition and dynamics. As a result, it seems to me that the terminology on human movement is in a real muddle. I think a fundamental task in 2016 for policy makers and researchers in the academic world is an urgent rethinking of the conceptualisation of mixed migration.
I personally believe that the old assumptions made by states on the cost of taking in these ‘mixed migrants’ can no longer apply. Nevertheless, I can see that changing the old assumptions is dependent on the transformation of nation-states’ various types of behaviour. In terms of philosophy, the ability of states to reconstruct a realm different from that of Dante’s inferno which is grounded on the appropriate distinction between the value of human life and the political world seems crucial. I think all nation-states and their citizens have to realise that people are no longer living in isolated territorial spaces and that all people have a moral obligation in how we shape our transnational interactions. The time has come to thoroughly review states’ behaviour in order to end the current cycle of organisational and institutional dysfunction, and to transform it into efficacy. States essentially need to be held accountable.


[1] Lange, I. (July 2016). Campaign against xenophobia launched. The Citizen. Retrieved from
[2] Mthembu-Salter,G., Amit, R.,  Gould., C. & Landau, L. (September, 2014). Counting the Cost of Securitising South Africa’s Immigration Regime. Migration out of Poverty. Working Paper 20. Retrieved from

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