Migration, whether internal or international, is always a response to existing inequalities. Moving from one area to another also has the potential to reinforce, transform or produce new forms of inequalities (material, symbolic, structural). However, it is not always clear how best to begin thinking about this circular and complex relationship. The sheer diversity of migration streams in the global South and the complex interplay between different forms of inequality and migration requires frameworks that capture both the positive potential of migration as a force for progressive social change alongside its capacity to reinforce existing inequalities and support the status quo.

Presenting at DSA 2020

A recent three-part panel discussion at the Development Studies Association’s annual conference, co-convened by Tanja Bastia, Laura Hammond and Anita Ghimire from MIDEQ, sought to grapple with exactly these issues. Contributions ranged from efforts to develop conceptual frameworks for studying migration and inequality across multiple contexts in the global South to in-depth case studies of migrant flows within and between countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

A diversity of contexts and a concern with every stage of the migration process – from aspirations to journeys to decisions about return – posed the challenging question of where to focus in ‘locating’ inequalities – at origin, at destination or between the two. Similarly, many contributions showed how investigating inequalities and migration requires the inclusion of non-migrants alongside the experiences and outcomes for migrants themselves. This includes those who are ‘left behind’ by migrant family members, those who choose not to migrate while others in their community do and those already living in destinations where migrants settle.

Inequality's impact on migration

Just as fundamental were questions about the types of inequalities that matter most in the context of South-South migration and how they might be identified and measured. Adopting the lens of ‘inclusive growth’, Giles Mohan outlined a research agenda for the Migration for Inclusive African Growth (MIAG) research project that seeks to explore how ‘growth dividends’ from migration can be shared more equitably between the wealthier and poorer in society. Their research in four African countries explores who migrates and why, the consequences for households and the broader economy, and policy implications for efforts to ensure migration promotes more inclusive growth.

Oliver Bakewell and Laura Hammond, co-leads of MIDEQ’s thematic work package on poverty and income inequalities, shared a similar regional focus and concern with economic outcomes. They discussed how various ‘axes of inequality’, such as gender, age, race and religion, intersect with poverty to shape these outcomes at individual, household and community levels. As they suggested, aspirations and capabilities to migrate may also vary for poorer and wealthier individuals at different migration scales, from cross-border movements to regional and inter-continental flows.

A third presentation on Africa by Sarah Edewor extended the discussion beyond labour migration to encompass forced migration as a result of conflict and natural disaster and showed how concerns with a similar set of inequalities are relevant to all forms of migration across the region. Nonetheless, the diversity of these intersecting inequalities poses considerable challenges for investigating how they both shape and are shaped by South-South migration. Manasi Bera, for example, showed how the experiences of female migrants in India varies dramatically between groups, with more women entering the labour market after migration but outcomes shaped by education, class, ethnicity and marital status as well as between urban and rural migrants.

Similarly, two presentations on Nepali migrants explored different perspectives on the gendered outcomes of male migration. Malte Skov presented on masculinities and vulnerability among male migrants themselves. Anita Ghimire's presentation explored gender norms at origin among ‘left behind’ women. Both showed how migration can have gendered effects that are far from straightforward and may reproduce or strengthen existing discriminatory gender norms rather than promote more inclusive or equal relations between men and women.

The diversity of migrant experiences

While these examples focused primarily on low-skilled migrants, as other presentations showed, South-South migration involves a spectrum from low-income labour migrants to highly skilled transnational entrepreneurs. Three presentations from Latin America engaged with this diversity and showed, among other things, how contingent migrant experiences from the same country can be.

Lorena Izaguirre’s research revealed that migrants who left Peru for Brazil in the 1980s and 90s often found themselves in a strong position and capitalised on opportunities to establish highly successful cross-border businesses. Those who left later have struggled to progress beyond informal and precarious street trading despite similar educational and class backgrounds.

Similarly, Yvonne Riaño showed how inequalities among Colombian retornados (returnees) differ sharply between forced migrants to Venezuela, who are now cross-border traders, and former students at European universities who have established inter-continental business networks with connections that span Latin America, the US, Europe and Africa. These inequalities, she argued, can be understood in terms of ‘social mobility capital’, an extension to Bourdieu’s theory of capitals encompassing forms of ‘spatial capital’ and ‘legal capital’ that underpin successful migration.

These capitals are acquired and mobilised by migrants through the crossing of borders, but in ways that are highly unequal and depend upon a migrant’s place of origin and class background as much as their destination. Thus, as Tanja Bastia’s presentation on Bolivia showed, rural, urban and peri-urban migrants may have very different opportunities and experiences (full paper available here), with consequences for themselves, their families and wider social inequalities. In this case, whether migration acted to increase or reduce vulnerabilities for older family members who remained behind depended to a large extent on pre-existing inequalities between urban and rural populations.

Fostering dialogue

Ultimately, whether these inequalities are captured through a concern with ‘capabilities’ or ‘capitals’, and which axes of inequality or intersectionality are critical in a specific setting, it is clear that a comparative perspective across the global South must cope with very significant diversity and there is value in a regional or intra-continental perspective alongside a global lens. Nonetheless, the panel demonstrated that fostering a global dialogue on South-South migration and inequality can generate highly productive conversations about the nature and interplay of multiple inequalities within and between migrants and non-migrants throughout the global South.

DSA 2020 Mohan Presentation

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DSA 2020 Bakewell and Hammond Presentation

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DSA 2020 Edewor Presentation

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DSA 2020 Bera Presentation

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DSA 2020 Skov Presentation

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DSA 2020 Ghimere Presentation

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DSA 2020 Izaguirre Presentation

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DSA 2020 Riaño Presentation

PDF 6.6 MB

DSA 2020 Bastia Presentation

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