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Migration makes the world

Far from being the most vulnerable and weak, or just another form of factor mobility in a globalised economy, migrants may be the most powerful individuals.

Roderick Parkes
1 May 2015
Caravan in Mongolia. Shutterstock/ Allocricetulus. All rights reserved.

Caravan in Mongolia. Shutterstock/ Allocricetulus. All rights reserved.Theories of international migration are often dull affairs. Migrants are seen as the mere by-products of greater forces, of economic ‘push factors’ or conflicts. The immobile theorise the mobile, reducing migrants to pawns to be shunted around. But slowly, migrants are turning the tables: a new migrant-scholarship wave has emerged, with a unique perspective on the world. Through this lens, we begin to see migration as a driving force of international order.

If human mobility and nomadism have done much to define territorial order, it is because they came first: we moved before we settled. Moreover, the tension between mobility and order has not yet been resolved. Individuals want to move, but societies need stability. Individuals move for reasons of security, economy, curiosity; societies pin them back down with violence, efficient means of production, and the so-called borders of the mind (ideology and religion). This tension has driven humanity to progress from feudalism to nation-states to empire and beyond.

The scale of human mobility, in one form or another, will never quite match the existing bounds of territorial order. The most successful units of order are therefore those that adapt to encompass mobility. They open up new spaces for people to move about, and to do so in the rhythms and patterns that they like. In so doing these units have to avoid either overstretching the limits of their own social cohesion, or stepping on the toes of other units. Think of international relations as a kind of geospatial competition. The creative spark is human mobility.

It is no surprise that Europeans have become past-masters at this game. They have had to turn their own limitations into a strength. Europe is one label for a particular, millennia-old geospatial problem: the high-density settlement of large populations on a small patch of resource-poor terrain. Europe boasts clement weather but not much more. As soon as European societies advanced beyond nomadism and agrarianism, they started colliding and competing. This has required some creativity when it comes to geospatial management.

So successful were European solutions that they have defined order not just here, but worldwide. Representative democracy, social welfare, tightly regulated borders all emerged to offset tensions between cramped, homogenous peoples; blue sea empires and international commerce provided European societies with access to foreign resources without the need for permanent conquest or emigration. But as these rules spread and became the global norm, international order began to reflect Europe’s very specific geography and patterns of mobility.

Only in the past 50 years have Europeans made an effort to ensure that these rules made sense for other geographies. Western-led economic globalisation contained a promise: it would allow other parts of the world to converge towards western-style prosperity and order. Increased trade and capital flows would create middle classes worldwide, and these middle classes would demand political representation and better domestic governance. The subtext from the west was also clear: prosperity and good governance will come to you, so you do not have to come to us.

Globalisation has not quite delivered on that promise. And Europe, which does not have the United States’ happy geography, is taking the brunt. Resource-rich states on its doorstep have managed to get wealthy without democratising. Their middle-classes have grown more affluent, and so potentially more mobile, but they have nowhere to go. Or their populations are in decline, meaning mobility is viewed in terms of loss of national status and geopolitical vulnerability. One way or another, people are on the move again and order is being challenged.

Europeans have known for some time about the drawbacks of globalisation. They made its supposedly universal formula work only by breaking the rules. In the form of the European Union and ‘free movement’, they scaled up regional human and resource mobility. And they protected themselves from disorderly global mobility by creating a common trade, border and visa policy, not to mention development aid (a promise to foreigners that, although their life was currently hard, it would improve if they stayed put and built up their domestic institutions).

To manage the new patterns of mobility, Europeans will need to draw on all their old reserves of geospatial ingenuity. European officials are putting together an ‘integrated approach to migration and international relations’, their response to the sizeable people flows at the EU’s borders. But this is mainly focused on shoring up the EU – its free movement and border control regimes. As such, officials risk overlooking the true nature of the challenge – the way the EU’s rivals can use migration to rewrite order, and how they are taking the EU’s former exceptionalism as a precedent.

Supporters of Islamic State have actively cited the EU’s rebordering of Europe, its creation of a border-free mobility area, to justify their own ‘free movement’ regime across the Middle East and North Africa – the flow of foreign fighters and the melting of territorial order in Syria and Iraq. Politicians in Moscow point to the EU as justification for their own rewriting of order, for their creation of a free movement bloc across the Eurasian Economic Union and for their country’s ‘politics of population’ in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.

Indeed, look at the world map again and you’ll see that territorial order is being remade to match deep-rooted patterns of human mobility. Nomadism is structuring protest across the Sahel. Russia is covering enormous territories with populations ready to melt away and then return when intruders fail to find a foothold. And countries with a more sedentary view of life are slugging it out to ensure goods and resources reach their populations – the US (a migrant-destination state which people do not leave) vs China (whose Great Wall kept populations in, as much as it kept barbarians out).

The case can be overstated. But other countries understand well the link between human mobility and order, and the vulnerabilities it can create for existing forms of order. They understand that, far from being the most vulnerable and weak, or just another form of factor mobility in a globalised economy, migrants may be the most secure and powerful individuals. As such understandings creep back in, the shape of western IR thinking is gradually being transformed. 

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