Cross-posted from Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power – Blog post by Matt Withers, Macquarie University, Australia

Transnationalism is a fundamentally agentic concept. Emerging as a critique to methodological nationalism, it emphasises processes that occur between, beyond – and often in defiance of – the boundaries of the ‘nation state’. Applied to international migration, it stands as a dominant paradigm for framing sustained economic, social and cultural ties maintained by migrants across international borders, and enduringly celebrates the agency of transmigrant actors with fluid connections to countries of origin and destination.

Our Identities article, ‘Forced transnationalism and temporary labour migration: implications for understanding migrant rights​‘, takes a very different view of transnationalism. We suggest that, while the tone-setting ‘first wave’ of the transnationalism literature offered an important critique of assimilationist immigration regimes in the global north, its agentic emphasis had little resonance with highly-restrictive guest-worker migration prevalent across the global south – particularly the major migration corridors of Asia.

In these settings, state power was then, and still is now, pivotal in circumscribing the transnational existences of millions of migrant workers who emigrate out of economic necessity but are trapped between multiple political and economic interests that ensure their migration is strictly temporary. Though scholarship on transnationalism has typically shied away from defining these temporary labour migrants as transmigrants on account of the narrow scope of activities presumed to be carried out by the remitting labourer, this seems disingenuous.

The social strains of transnational existence are no less relevant to migrant domestic workers labouring in the households of west Asia, for example, than any other migrant whose life is sustained within, but also fragmented across, the boundaries of nation states. Moreover, as the temporal parameters of migration regimes across the global north have likewise contracted in alignment with narrowed political and economic motives, and pathways to permanency have diminished, the reduced agency of transmigrants is becoming apparent across an ever-greater share of international migration.

In recognition of this incongruity, we argue that transnationalism needs to be better reconciled with political-economic structures that stifle the agency of temporary migrant workers, requiring a more attentive theorisation of the limitations to migrants’ human and economic rights arising from spatial configurations of state power and economic exploitation. Here we draw on the work of Raul Delgado-Wise, as well as other scholars who have challenged the binary representation of ‘forced’ humanitarian and ‘voluntary’ labour migration, to demonstrate how uneven development at global, regional and national scales – along with a corresponding deprivation of rights arising from the migration policies of countries of origin and destination – have produced widespread instances of ‘forced economic migration’ in which foreign employment is a survival strategy.

For workers bound up in this position of protracted precarity – i.e. caught between economic exclusion at home and economic exploitation abroad – efforts to sustain economic, social and cultural ties across borders are often necessitated by a state of forced transnationalism that restricts these interactions to faint facsimiles of a more embedded social reality.

Though we do not claim that all forms of transnationalism are involuntary or yield negative outcomes, our contribution is to draw attention to an overlooked counter-narrative rife within temporary labour migration regimes that are commonplace in Asia and spreading globally. Reconceptualising transnational in this manner not only represents a theoretical pivot on the dominant narrative of migrant agency, but encourages a dialogue between transnationalism and precarity that we hope leads to an improved understanding of where rights limitations in countries of origin and destination overlap to produce survival migration.

This, in turn, holds promise for strengthening rights-based migration governance by identifying how prevalent rights frameworks, such as the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s decent work agenda, can better address inequalities at both ends of migration corridors and encourage genuine transnational agency by supporting migrant rights activism from above and below.
Blog post by Matt Withers, Macquarie University, Australia

Read the full article: Piper, Nicola & Withers, Matt. Forced transnationalism and temporary labour migration: implications for understanding migrant rights​. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2018.1507957​