Looking back to ‘The Postcolonial Age of Migration’: a post-pandemic view

New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series

By Ranabir Samaddar.

My book The Postcolonial Age of Migration was published in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic raged in India and elsewhere. Global mobility had screeched to a halt, as had mobility within India. Locked down in my house when I received a copy, I was driven to reflecting on what I had written: did I do justice to our age in describing it as the postcolonial age of migration?

While writing the book I was aware of the importance of historical sensitivity in making sense of our postcolonial age. Time and again the book goes back to colonial histories of war, plunder, changes in land use, peasant dispossession, ecological marginality, primitive accumulation and the continuities of all these themes in our time. With this backdrop the book discussed colonial practices of violence and border-making exercises and how they were being reproduced today on a global scale. It argued that wars, famines and ecological changes accounted in a big way for today’s migrations and forced migration flows and influenced patterns of labour mobility. This was also the context of the emergence of modern humanitarianism with its specific doctrine of protection. In brief, the book analysed the imprints of the colonial roots of modern humanitarianism and protection.

Yet, as I reflected on the book in the midst of the pandemic, it dawned on me that it was silent on one of the most important realities of our time. The overwhelming presence of COVID-19 made me realise that it did not take into account epidemiological disasters as integral to the colonial history of migration and the postcolonial age of migration. The absence of any concern for migrant workers and refugees in the structure of global public health concerns should have been noted. The book discusses camps and speaks of health concerns of the refugees in camps, but the larger perspective of public health was absent.

India’s history of epidemics offers insights into the country’s poor public health infrastructure. The history of the 1897 outbreak of bubonic plague in colonial Bombay is well known and the present situation of COVID-19 has evoked comparisons. Thousands fled the city in the closing years of the 19th century, spreading the disease in the process. Public health infrastructure was zero. Residents locked themselves up in their houses in fear of plague-control officers who could pick anyone up, quarantine them, and separate children from their families.

A refugee Hindu family during the 1897 bubonic plague, Bombay (Image: Wellcome Images)

In the following 20 years about 10 million people died of the disease across India. Plague was accompanied by other infectious diseases such as cholera, smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis and influenza. Malaria killed millions through the years, and an estimated five per cent of the country’s population perished in the influenza epidemic of 1918-19. As one commentator put it, of all these diseases, it was only the bubonic plague that was declared as crisis. ‘Then, as now, only one out of a handful of deadly afflictions, the one that most directly threatened commerce, trade, and the accumulation of capital—was identified as a crisis.’ The plague became the Bombay government’s priority for the next two decades. As capital and labour began fleeing the city in the wake of the disease, the government implemented massive efforts to bring them back in. We are probably witnessing today something similar to what happened in the past.

The countrywide lockdown of 2020 reminded us of these earlier eras as the country witnessed masses of migrants returning home on foot, a growing hunger crisis, stockyards and storages overflowing with millions of tons of surplus food, and arbitrary powers being exercised across the nation. This was a call back to the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897. In the outbreak of the plague the city of Mumbai (then Bombay) came to a halt. Thousands of workers (according to some estimates 300,000) left the city. This only sharpened the crisis further. The Bombay Improvement Trust was formed to restore the city’s ‘reputation’ of cleanliness. Yet in those efforts, the policy focus was on making the city ‘clean’ rather than setting up and improving public health infrastructure. Cleaning the city was a ‘public’ purpose; ensuring health of the people was less of a priority. We still do not know, as we did not know in 1896-98, if draconian measures such as the sudden and total lockdown can stop or control contagion. So far, we have waited and tolerated a ‘minimum number of deaths’ (including collateral deaths such as of migrants on the roads or rail tracks) to allow the pandemic to pass away. Social Darwinism matched perfectly the economic policies that were to follow the pandemic.

Disease does not act alone. It acts in unison with a policy of eroding public health infrastructure. Pushing refugees and migrant workers to the fence and robbing them of access to the public distribution of food, public health provisions and employment in public works became wittingly or unwittingly a part of disease control measure. In many ways independent India followed the colonial approach.  

In this context the migrant is seen, like the virus, to spread disease. The migrant’s body is considered suspect. Like the virus, in country after country, the migrant has been symbolised as the enemy from outside. We are now accustomed to the idea that our civilisation is at war with a new kind of external enemy. Like a parasite it breeds in the most vulnerable areas of human life, waiting for the moment to release a pathological violence upon its otherwise oblivious prey. The colony also represented this threat to the metropolitan world. Colonies brought ‘tropical diseases’ and were the source of mysterious illnesses and dangers. 

Political society has long held the belief that viruses and migrant workers both belong to the outside. The outbreak of the epidemic and the sudden emergence of thousands upon thousands of migrant workers on the roads in India trying to escape the trap of lockdown signalled the end of the mythical safety of a society of settled population groups and of the state that guards this insularity. The range of policy problems and debacles in coping with the pandemic arose from the ignorance of the phenomenon of mobility – of both pathogens and workers. There is no doubt that any account of postcolonial imprints on the current age of migration will be incomplete without an examination of the interrelated notions of public health and refugee and migration flows.

Ranabir Samaddar is the Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies, Calcutta Research Group. His research focuses on migration and refugee studies, the theory and practices of dialogue, nationalism and post-colonial statehood in South Asia, and new regimes of technological restructuring and labour control. His book The Postcolonial Age of Migration was published in 2020 by Routledge and you can watch an interview with him about the book on the MMB Insights and Sounds 2022 series.

Researching Western privilege in Dubai: a conversation with Saba A. Le Renard

New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series

This is an edited version of an interview with Saba A. Le Renard in Jadaliyya* about their recent book Western Privilege. Work, Intimacy, and Postcolonial Hierarchies in Dubai (Stanford University Press, 2021).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write the book?

Saba A. Le Renard (SLR): When I was doing my PhD fieldwork about the transforming femininities of young Saudi women fifteen years ago, I was shocked by the stereotypical discourses many French residents I met there held on Saudi people. After finishing my PhD, I started working on the statuses, self-identifications, and practices of Western passport holders, first in Saudi Arabia and then in Dubai. During the courses I had followed in Middle East studies, the statuses of Western passport holders had never been a topic, despite many of this group occupying dominant positions in firms and various administrations of the region. My research started with a willingness to question this status, to make ‘Westerner’ the object rather than the implicit subject of knowledge.

In Dubai, as in many places of the world, having or not having a Western passport produces a clear split. Having one facilitates passage across national borders and represents an important differentiator and ranking criterion within the globalised job market, though how and how much one benefits from it differ, notably, depending on one’s position in gender, class and race hierarchies. The book explores how men and women, white and non-white Western passport holders inhabit the privileged status of ‘Westerner.’ It shows how they perceive Dubai’s social order differently depending on their trajectories, and how they nevertheless participate in reproducing it, for instance by implementing salary differentiation when recruiting, or by routinely racialising other inhabitants, described as ‘locals,’ ‘Arabs,’ Filipinos’ or ‘Indian.’ 

J: What particular topics, issues and literatures does the book address? 

SLR: First, the book contributes to what could be called a postcolonial turn in studies of the Arabian Peninsula, breaking with the longstanding tendency to ignore the imperial history of the region. In this book, I study Westerners not only as privileged migrants but also as local elites, playing a role in the perpetuation of nationality, race, class and gender hierarchies. I deconstruct the discourse presenting Westerners in the Arabian Peninsula as outsiders, having no role in the perpetuation of inequality; this belief is central, I argue, to the construction of their privileged subjectivities. For instance, some parents I interviewed told me that Dubai was great with young kids as it is very practical to have a live-in nanny, but that they planned to leave when their kids would become teenagers, because they did not want the latter to ‘see’ such blatant social injustice. I analysed this need to distance themselves from Dubai’s social order while benefitting from it as a salient element of distinctive Western subjectivities. 

Second, the book aims to contribute to race and migration studies. In the last decade, several authors have criticised the lack of attention for privileged migrants in migration studies. Postcolonial approaches of expatriation, which have shown how whiteness is transformed through migrations, have been very useful to understanding the distinctive subjectivities of Western residents in Dubai. The originality of my approach lies in my choice to compare the trajectories, practices and discourses of white and non-white Western passport holders. It enabled me to identify the specificity of whiteness as a privileged status among Western passport holders (because whiteness, in practice, does remain a privileged position among them), and to make visible the trajectories of non-white Western passport holders that benefit, to a lesser extent, from Western privilege, while also facing forms of stigmatisation and marginalisation. Beyond this, the similarities and contrasts between the two groups reveal how Dubai’s neoliberal discourse on multiculturalism, combined with the use of whiteness in the city’s branding, impact racial categories and produce conditional and limited inclusions. Such reflection echoes works on neoliberalism, multiculturalism and selective inclusions in other contexts, especially the United States and some European countries.

Third, the book is grounded on gender and sexuality studies; it documents how the formation of Westerners as a social group interlocks race, class, gender, sexuality and nationality. Postcolonial feminism as well as intersectionality are important inspirations for such approach. I argue that beside professional aspects, Western distinction lies on specific forms of heteronormativity. On the one hand, Western, white, upper-class couples, in spite of a clear labour division among spouses, identify with gender equality and women’s emancipation in contrast with ‘others’ represented as oppressed or sexist, or as frustrated sexual predators. On the other hand, single Westerners often long for serious, authentic relations, which they present as impossible in Dubai. Many associate authentic love with the West and Westerners, in contrast to Dubai’s so-called materialism and superficiality. By analysing specific models of heteronormativity among Western residents and how they participate in making boundaries between them and ‘others,’ I hope this book brings a contribution to Middle East feminist studies, which have been developing postcolonial and queer approaches in the last decades. 

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have? 

SLR: I hope people interested in the Middle East, in race and migration studies, and in gender and feminist studies will read the book. I think it could help question how Western researchers position themselves while in the field, and also nourish the wider discussion that is currently developing about racialisation in the region.

Since the book is also inspired by race and migration studies and gender and sexuality studies focused on other contexts, I hope it will interest people working in these fields beyond the Middle East. While Dubai has an awful reputation among many intellectual bourgeoisies, some Western passport holders experience it as less racist than their home societies (for instance, France or the United States) and many women consider its streets as more secure than their home cities. As these two elements suggest, Dubai is an interesting society to better understand transnational racial formations, structural racism, gender regimes and the policing of public spaces—impacting gender, race, class, sexuality and nationality hierarchies.

Saba A. Le Renard is a Researcher in Sociology at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris. They are currently researching the place of ‘Westerners’ in the multinational professional worlds of Riyadh and Dubai. You can see them interviewed about their book Western Privilege in the MMB Insights and Sounds 2022 series.

* This interview has been edited and republished here with kind permission of Jadaliyya, the independent ezine produced by the Arab Studies Institute. The original, longer version, published in November 2021 and including an excerpt from Western Privilege, can be found here. Please note that Saba’s book was published under a first name that they no longer use.

Engaging with visions of mobilities within the landscape of risk

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Thomas O’Shea.

When describing the commercial port land of Felixstowe (fig. 1) as a ‘nerve ganglion of capitalism’, a proto-nostalgic horizon ‘blighted by cargo ships’, Mark Fisher (2006) was describing a vision of the natural’s collision course with the monetary in words that ooze forth from the ascetic expanse he walked us through, right up to the journey’s reposeful end point, the burial ground at Sutton Hoo (fig. 2). Here in this space, the increasingly unseen in today’s world is seen so lucidly that upon listening closer Beowulf’s verses may come rushing forth upon the Deben mists to play amongst the ancient mounds and time-worn grasses.

Figure 1. Felixstowe container port is the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom, a point of arrival and nerve ganglion of capitalism responsible for the distribution of material commodities across the land along established networks of commerce (image: Institution of Civil Engineers).

Figure 2. By contrast, the ‘sunlit planetary quality of serenity’ offered at Sutton Hoo engages with a vision of departure (image: thesuffolkcoast.co.uk). Two different points within a geography that speaks to themes of migration, mobility and the conflict of boundary in space and time.

In a space as innately human as this, the purpose of the city, the urban, and what it means to exist in it becomes overwritten in the victorious verse and rhythm of nature and the environment, yet there is an eeriness inherent in this vision. A sense of disconnection and immobility that is increasingly disassociated with the ever-expanding urban centres across the world. This is a sense that many might argue is, itself, becoming increasingly overwritten through development and, possibly more directly, through proliferating networks of digital visualisation and communication.

More of us are living in urban settings and more of us are moving to them. What drives this flight to the city? The deeper motivations can only be described as, much like the conditions of the British weather, myriad. What this mobilisation and migration looks like is relatively more straight forward to describe: a need for access to resources through labour, coupled with a space in which to live and be at home, to rest. Mirrored perfectly in Fisher’s visions from Felixstowe to Sutton Hoo, a seamless cross section of the Anthropocene. Capturing the stillness afforded by a space so radically different to the city, where the scale of achievement, to simply occupy a space with as much concrete matter as is condensed into the wondrous square miles of London, Birmingham, and Manchester, amongst many others, by comparison to that which does not occupy the vastness of Suffolk is astonishing. Historically, progress for those who have settled in these cityscapes has, in many senses, been assured, simply through an increased likelihood of encountering streams of revenue and capital, or so goes the utopian visions of the upwardly mobile Mondeo Men and Worcester Women.

Loosely this might be described as the enabling of capital progress, however these connections, patterns and trends underpinning, however loosely, such stereotypical visions of city living have become much more distant for most within the current global climate. A crude utilisation of Tobler’s first law of geography would, when coupled with Mark Fisher’s nerve ganglion metaphor, lead us to deduce that those closest to capital, to the contemporary capital markets of the city, are not as readily likely to benefit from this proximity as they might once have. This sense of capital mobility associated with the city is now fundamentally more precarious and is visually very different from that seen in the past, offering the first glimpse of the landscape of risk.

Of course, this form of mobility is not completely linear as the city has long also been associated with a flux of capital mobility represented by a great, and growing, disparity between those operating at the top of the metropolitan hierarchy, in gleaming beglassed monoliths, and those looking up at them from the mosaic of avenues and streets below. This structural and spatial inequality of the cityscape is as symbolic of the urban as it is of the human condition it embodies, where products of value are exchanged for labour and where, as David Harvey explained in Social Justice and The City, ‘capitalism annihilates space to ensure its own reproduction.’ Historically facilitated by barbaric internal mechanisms in the West, from blockbusting and redlining amongst a spectrum of variable living standards that extend from unthinkable to the decadent, urbanisation and urban expansion reassembling the natural spaces in the pursuit of capital will naturally enhance and further facilitate the growth of inequity and thus, further strengthen the boundaries of the risk landscape.

This does come down to a fundamental connection between capital and risk, where risk is largely framed in the context of ‘asset loss’ but the landscape in which it is most acutely observed, where capital value is most apparent, the city, is where it is, and will continue to be, predominant. Harvey concludes his vision on the engagement with political process as fundamental to traversing the forms of inequality and injustice generated and facilitated through ties to this form of ‘development’. Consequent of the unprecedented recent times we have lived in, and now continue to live through, together, the public inquisitions regarding the moral constitution of those responsible for overseeing political processes challenges any desire for engagement. Age old theoretical undercoats of societal constitution and modernity begin to peel away under the searing heat of growing public discontent whilst those at the very zenith continue to profit financially.

The risk landscape is one fraught with conflict and is perpetually in crisis. However, were this crisis to be wholly one of capital, it would affect everyone. Capital and inequity are one facet of the greater conflict the risk landscape has with the environment at large, as even when this crisis is framed in the context of equity, it finds equilibrium in the continuation of the trend that, depending on where you are categorised within the social hierarchy of the city, you will continue to be worse off from here on out and no amount of ‘levelling up’ will bring about a truly positive change to this course. We are beginning to feel this at home, on a personal scale now through a volatile geopolitical landscape, but that doesn’t mean that labour is any less abundant. The boundaries of the risk landscape will continue to expand beyond this and find a continuing but ultimately existential conflict with the natural environment, generating an accelerated form of risk that is much more linear in outcome. The general message related to this is clear: ‘Adaptation of current modes and systems to emergent environmental risk is needed, with further mitigation required to prevent the acceleration of this risk’

The modern human age is liquid, where change and continuity are seen to different degrees and operate at various tempos across time. Were I to define which of the processes discussed throughout this missive are representative of change and continuity, I would posit that the ultimate defining factor of both lie in the hands of nature and not my own. Whilst social categories become redefined through mechanisms closely tied to the city, overwriting of old landscape structures through the proliferation of the urban over time generates a legacy of risk through reparation and over expansion. In appropriating space that is not in the interest of that which inhabits that space, be it the development of floodplains to accommodate homes, the utilisation, or lack, of land due to pollution from past industry, processes of land reclamation, we are clutching at straws. Yet, capital is generated and claimed with little interest for the longevity or safety of those inhabiting these new spaces, asserting a dynamic of equitability for whom exactly?

It is in this dissection of value, its definition and by whom (or what), that the vision of the risk landscape becomes truly material. How these values shift, and to what benefit, must continue to be explored if we are to make a sustainable vision of the city into a liveable environment, equitable for all who will call it home. If our mobility within this exploration could be versed in the cognitive, as Mark Fisher did for us, then we are becoming more aware of the trends that connect the naturally seen and unseen with the landscape of risk. Supporting us in the delineation of what is really of and for us against that which appears to be, revealing what it is to be truly of and for the natural.

Thomas O’Shea is a postdoctoral research associate with the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol. The primary focus of his research is on developing understanding of the human-water interface with specific interests in the application of social theory, urban and hybrid geographies towards shaping narratives and strategies of sustainability.  

Migrants and miners: gender, age and precarious labour in a Tajik resource extractive landscape

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Negar Elodie Behzadi.

Migration is both gendered and aged. It is also deeply tied to the emergence of new extractive landscapes around the world, marked by extractive frontiers pushing into already stressed and fragile environments.  The story of the village of Kante in Tajikistan, of its male migrants and its coal miners – men, women and children – illustrates the ways in which multiple forms of precarious labour appear alongside these new landscapes.

The village of Kante, Tajikistan, 2014

In Tajikistan, a landlocked country in post-Soviet Muslim Central Asia, men started migrating seasonally for work following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. In Kante, a village of 1,500 inhabitants on the slopes of the Fann Mountains, 2,000m above sea level, the men gradually began leaving a derelict landscape and a run-down collective tobacco farm. Like most Tajik male seasonal migrants, they left for Russia to find new livelihoods and to escape a country torn by civil war. During the seven years of conflict, which followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, men who did not fight travelled as far as the Kamchatka peninsula in search of work. Some Kantegui mountaineers became fishermen. Others went to Moscow, Sverlovsk, Irskuk and other big Russian cities to do ‘mardikor’ (the work of men) on construction sites.

Young boys coming back from the mines with coal bags on donkeys, 2014

When the war ended, some men came back to Kante, only to find destroyed infrastructure, abandoned fields and an uncertain future. So most returned to Russia. In Kante, as in the rest of Tajikistan, migration became a way of life and a rite of passage – every real man in Tajikistan has migrated, provided for his family back home, drunk alcohol in overcrowded compounds, travelled illegally through borders. Some have slept with Russian women, fallen in love, even taken a second Russian wife, leaving a Tajik wife back home (Behzadi, 2019). Life has also changed for those referred to as ‘the left-behind’. Women, children and the elderly live without husbands, fathers or sons for most of the year. Men become absences, photos, voices down the phone, heroic stories, the amount of remittances arriving at the Western Union in the local town.

Unlike villages in the rest of the country, however, Kantegui men have an alternative to migration. The village lies on one of the largest coal reserves in the country. After the fall of the Soviet Union, families started digging up the mountain with pickaxes to extract coal, using donkeys to haul their load. At first, families extracted the coal for subsistence, but later they started selling it on a growing informal market. This coincided with a broader turn to coal as a major source of energy across the country. Following Uzbek/Tajik resource conflicts, Uzbekistan shut off the pipeline providing Tajikistan with gas in 2012/13, leading to a new Tajikistani coal development strategy (Behzadi, 2019). The same year, a formal Sino-Tajik mine was established in the village, which blew up the Southern slope of the mountain with dynamite. The rolling stones and big machinery crushed some of the donkeys of the informal miners and damaged their houses. The company brought in engineers and managers from China and pushed informal miners away.

Map of informal and formal mining areas in Kante, 2018

In 2014, around 300 men from Kante and neighbouring villages worked in the formal Sino-Tajik mine. Most Kantegui miners in the ‘Chinese’ mine were men who had retired from migration, tired of the back and forth between Russia and the village. In their 30s and 40s, these men had nothing to prove anymore – they were the ‘djahon didir’ (those who have seen the world) who had come back to a quieter life (Behzadi, 2019). But the formal mine does not offer jobs to all. Those who do not work for the Chinese carry on splitting their year between labour migration to Russia in spring and summer and informal coal mining in autumn and winter. In 2014, around 500 men were working in the informal mines. The hardship of their labour and the simplicity of their tools contrasted with the relative ease of labour in the Chinese mine. Although less arduous, however, work for the Chinese project is a mixed blessing: precarious contracts, unpaid salaries and difficult relationships with Chinese managers take their toll in other ways. And the trade-off is significant: men who accept work for the Chinese mine know it is threatening the very existence of their village. The Chinese are ‘taking all our coal’, many villagers say, in particular the informal miners. Part of the informal mines have already been destroyed, and they fear that the whole village might follow.

Sino-Tajik mine containers in Kante, 2014

Like migration, extractive labour in mines is gendered and aged. Women and children cannot work in the Sino-Tajik mine, but they do work in informal mines. In the past decade about 20 women have been going mining every day high above the village, and sometimes at night when they know they can go unseen. Some of their husbands, like Nadirah’s (a female miner in her 30s), left the country straight after their wedding and took a second wife in Russia. Now he sends only sporadic remittances. Nadirah goes mining with a friend and her daughter who is 13. Her work is considered ‘ayb’ (shameful) in the village and, as a result, Nadirah is stigmatised and excluded from social networks. But while it is considered unacceptable for women to work underground, it is tolerated for children. Most children start at the age of five, leading the donkey in and out of the coal galleries to the market while their parents extract the mineral on the coalface. ‘Coal,’ says Gulnissar, a mother of a 10-year-old child coal miner, ‘there is only coal in children’s heads today.’

Male seasonal labour migration, the ‘shameful’ work of female miners and the spread of child mining comprise a few of the many precarious forms of labour that emerge in new extractive landscapes around the world. The story of Kante illustrates the fragmentation of societies along gendered and aged lines that occurs in such extractive landscapes. These new extractive frontiers also often emerge in places that are already socio-ecologically stressed, such as in the countries that emerged following the fall of the Soviet Union.  

Negar Elodie Behzadi is a Lecturer in Human Geography at the School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol. She is a feminist political geographer and political ecologist who explores questions of resource extraction and migration in Tajikistan and France. She has also co-directed two ethnographic films on resource extraction in Tajikistan: Komor: Journeys through the Tajik Underground and Nadirah: Coal Woman.

(All images by the author.)

What protections are available to people displaced by climate change?

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Kathryn Allinson.

Climate change will impact all our lives in the coming years and many people will experience extreme events due to climate  change resulting in displacement, both internally and across international borders. This has become the reality for some already within low-lying archipelago islands within the South Pacific, such as Tuvalu and Kiribati. Despite the certainty of increased climate change-related displacement, there is still no specific frameworks which protect those moving for climate related reasons (see a detailed discussion here).

The site of the village of Tebunginako, Kiribati – relocated due to severe coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion (image: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia

Are people displaced by climate change refugees?

Under Article 1(A) of the 1951 Refugee Convention, climate-related displacement does not constitute grounds for international protection. I will take the essential elements of Article 1(A) in turn. First, a refugee must have crossed an international border, whereas climate-related displacement is expected to be predominantly internal.

Second, a refugee must have a well-founded fear of persecution. Persecution requires an egregious violation of human rights, which is assessed in light of the nature of the right and the severity of the violation (see here for further discussion). It also requires that the fear of persecution must be well-founded – this does not require certainty – but it must not be far-fetched and should be based upon both an objective assessment of the likelihood of persecution and the subjective nature of the individual’s fear (see Chan v Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, 1989). Climate change is unlikely to fulfil this requirement despite the detriment it can have on an individual’s access to human rights. It is unlikely to meet the severity threshold even in relation to socio-economic rights and, as McAdam (2016) highlights, it is difficult to identify a ‘persecutor’ that the refugee fears; instead, many refugees are likely to be moving to states that are major greenhouse gas contributors.

Third, persecution must be related to a reason given by the Convention of ‘race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion…’ The impacts of climate change do not discriminate. Even if an individual did establish persecution based upon an egregious socio-economic rights violation caused by climate change, they would need to argue that this affected them because of their membership of one of these groups. At best, an individual could argue that a government had consciously withheld assistance to address the impacts of climate change to a specific group, amounting to persecution (see here) but the group must be connected by an immutable characteristic (Applicant A v Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, 1997), not just the impact of the climate change.

Courts have firmly established that the Refugee Convention does not protect victims of natural disasters, slow-onset degradation, poor economic conditions or famine – even when the country of origin is unable or unwilling to provide protection (Canada (Attorney General) v Ward, 1993; Horvath v Secretary of State for the Home Department, 2001). UNHCR has echoed this in its own discussions of how to respond to climate-related displacement (see here and here).

What protections are available to people displaced by climate change?

A response to climate-change related displacement must therefore be sought through other international legal mechanisms. In 2009, the UN Human Rights Council recognised under resolution 10/4 that there is a ‘core inter-linkage between human rights and climate change’ such that those displaced by climate change would be able to rely on the obligations outlined in the ICCPR and the ICESCR. In particular, this would include state’s non-refoulment obligations as the cumulative effect of socio-economic harms can amount to inhumane and degrading treatment such that an individual cannot be returned to such conditions (see Sufi v Elmi, 2011). However, courts may require an immediacy to the rights violation such that future fear of climate-related impacts is insufficient grounds to provide protection from return (see AF(Kiribati), 2013).

In the specific situation of small island states whose territory is threatened by climate change, the law relating to statelessness may also be able to provide some protection and a remedy (see the 1954 Statelessness Convention; Rayfuse 2009). UNHCR has a mandate to prevent and reduce statelessness enabling them to work with states to respond, including coordinating international cooperation, providing protection and resettlement. However, issues concerning when a state will have ceased to exist under international law remains unsettled. For example, for a state to be recognised by international law, Article 1 of the Montevideo Convention requires a permanent population, territory, government and capacity to enter international relations (see Lauterpacht, 1944, and Crawford, 2007, for further discussion). However, there is a lack of clarity on when these criteria will cease to be fulfilled. The problem that international law has grappled with until now has been when new states are formed, not when existing ones have disappeared. As a result, it is unclear when protection for stateless persons of ‘disappeared’ states will be triggered.

There are also regional frameworks that provide broader protections to displaced people, beyond the narrow 1951 definition. In particular, the 1969 OAU Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems and the 1984 Cartagena Declaration both contain provisions relating to ‘events seriously disturbing public order’, which could be taken to include the events resulting from the effects of climate change. These are both non-binding instruments, whereas Article 5(4) of the Kampala Convention is within a binding instrument and explicitly includes protection for those affected by climate change:

 ‘States parties shall take measures to protect and assist persons who have been internally displaced due to natural or human made disasters, including climate change.’

This focusses protection on internally displaced individuals and ensures that signatory states are required to provides protection and assist those displaced by climate change.

The Kampala Convention is largely based upon the UN Guiding Principles on internal displacement which, under Principle 6(d), outlines that internal displacement is prohibited including in the context of disasters. The principles then provide a framework for states to respond to internal displacement, including that resulting from disasters. The extension of human rights protections to those fleeing climate change is echoed in the Global Compact on Migration, which calls for humanitarian visas for people migrating due to natural disasters and climate change (see objective 2 and 5), as well as similar commitments in the Sustainable Development Goals. Such a response to climate-change related displacement is required under the commitments of Article 14(f) of the Cancun Adaptation of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). This aims to enhance understanding, coordination and cooperation with regard to climate change induced displacement…’ These instruments represent moves by the international community to consolidate existing legal frameworks to respond to climate-change related displacement. However, they are not binding treaty law. They demonstrate political commitments not legal obligations. It is evident that, outside the Africa region, mechanisms for protecting individuals from climate-change related displacement are often non-binding and ad-hoc.

The future of climate-related displacement

The term ‘climate refugee’ is conceptually flawed. Such individuals will not constitute refugees for the term ignores the complex causation involved in any displacement, let alone that related to climate change, which in itself is a multi-causal phenomenon. Whilst human rights law, the law relating to statelessness and regional arrangements do provide for some protections to individuals displaced by climate change, these approaches remain disparate and uncoordinated. A lack of clarity can lead to legal loopholes that are abused by states to limit protections.

To respond to this complexity, there are calls for a separate framework for cross-border climate migrants. Commitments within the Global Compact on Migration and the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the Cancun Agreement, represent attempts by the international community to start to coordinate and elucidate protection for climate-related displacement. However, much more must be done to ensure clarity on the personal, material and temporal scope of protections and obligations for climate change-related displacement.

Kathryn Allinson is a Lecturer in Law, University of Bristol Law School. Her research concerns the establishment of state responsibility for breaches of international law focussing on the interaction of human rights and humanitarian law in relation to displacement, and the protection of socio-economic human rights during conflict.

For more on climate change and displacement see the MMB blog by Ignacio Odriozola about at a landmark decision by the United Nations Human Rights Committee on people seeking international protection due to the effects of climate change: Climate-change displacement: a step closer to human rights protection.

Eurofisch: hyper-mobility, cosmopolitanism and the European eel’s appeal

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Peter Coates

Unlike the Atlantic salmon, the snake-like European eel (Anguilla anguilla) is widely perceived as devoid of charisma. An epic reproductive journey is integral to the salmon’s appeal. But an equally spectacular migration, if in reverse, defines the European eel. The sea-dwelling salmon returns to its freshwater origins. The freshwater-inhabiting eel goes back to its oceanic birthplace. Natural distribution represents another key point of similarity and difference. The salmon spans the North Atlantic, its European breeding grounds confined to more northerly freshwaters. The European eel, with its broader temperature tolerance, populates a wider latitude. Its habitat ranges from southern Iceland and Russia’s Kola Peninsula to the southern Mediterranean – despite the name, North Africa’s rivers and lagoons contain this eel species – and, on the Atlantic coast, as far down as the Canaries. From west to east, they are distributed from the Azores to Georgia.

‘Artisanal’ dipnet fishing for elvers from the bank of the River Severn at Wainlode, Gloucestershire, on a spring evening in 2017 (Image: Environment Agency. Reproduced by permission of the Sustainable Eel Group).

The eel’s Europeanness is most vividly demonstrated by its genes. Whereas the salmon displays high genetic diversity and reproductively discrete local populations, European eels all belong to the same breeding population. This singular, panmictic identity is rooted in a shared birthplace: the West Central Atlantic’s Sargasso Sea is a melting pot where every eel of the opposite sex is a potential breeding partner. And the place the next generation calls home could be anywhere within the species’ European range. Lacking the salmon’s homing instinct, the offspring of eel parents that spent their adult lives in Norwegian and Tunisian waterbodies respectively might settle in Wales. Alternatively, this progeny could end up in Portuguese freshwaters, or wherever the currents carry the tiny larvae (leptocephali) during their up-to-three-year odyssey. The European eel is the only truly pan-European fish: a paragon of cosmopolitanism I call ‘Eurofisch’.

On reaching western Europe, leptocephali metamorphose into glass eels. Shoals of these transparent mini-eels – also known as elvers in the UK – start entering southern Europe’s estuaries in December. But in 2012, fisheries scientists reported that ‘recruitment’ had fallen by up to 95 per cent since 1970. An Extinction Rebellion event in Yeovil, Somerset, in the summer of 2019, underscored the species’ critically endangered status. Protestors dressed as eels participated in a ‘drown in’ and a ‘European eel’ addressed South Somerset District Council.

I’ve recently examined the reasons for this drastic decline; tracked the emergence of concern; considered the remedies; looked at trafficking in glass eels for East Asia’s ‘grow-out’ farms that a Plymouth University project has characterized as an ‘unnatural migration’; and reflected on the prospects of eel appeal spreading. Mobilising popular support for eels is more difficult than drumming up enthusiasm for mammals, either terrestrial and marine (for example, ‘T-shirt’ animals such as pandas, polar bears, whales and dolphins). Few who have seen the 1979 movie version of Günter Grass’ novel, The Tin Drum (1959), will forget the stomach-churning scene on the Baltic beach near Danzig (Gdansk) where a fisherman hauls in a horse’s head writhing with eels that he pulls from ears, nostrils and throat.

Elvers wriggling upstream at Bradford on Tone, Somerset Levels, UK in April 2014. (Image: Andrew Kerr. Reproduced by permission of the Sustainable Eel Group).

What I’d like to convey here is the richness of Europe’s eel heritage and how Eurofisch illuminates what it means to be European. The silver eel (the final, Sargasso-ready life stage) has the highest calorific value of any European fish. A venerable and varied culture of consumption unites Europe, from Spain to Sweden and from Ireland to Italy. Since early Christianity, roast eel has been the dish customarily served at midnight on Christmas Eve in Rome and Naples. The epicentre of Italian eel gastronomy, though, is Comacchio. Since the 1300s, this town in the Po Delta has hosted a silver eel fishery based on lagoons stocked with glass eels entering from the Adriatic. Eels are skewered and roasted, marinated in barrels, then canned. La Donna del Fiume (1955) starred Sophia Loren as an impossibly glamorous worker in a Comacchio cannery that’s now a museum.

In the early 1900s, glass eels were swept up hyper-tidal estuaries such as the Severn, Loire, Gironde, Minho and Tagus in tremendous quantities: surpluses were fed to pigs, fertilised vegetable plots and made into glue. In France, glass eels were boiled and served cold (‘spaghetti with eyes’). Meanwhile, in Severn estuary villages, super-abundant elvers were fried in butter or bacon fat, scrambled with eggs, or boiled and pressed into gelatinous, fried cakes. In Victorian London’s East End, whose labouring population could not afford salmon or meat, itinerant vendors of stewed and jellied eel and the ‘eel and pie’ shop were odoriferous fixtures of the cityscape. Dutch traders were supplying London by 1400 and in the late 1600s schuyts – ships fitted with wells for live export – established a mooring near Billingsgate fish market. Squirming cargos arrived almost daily until the early 1900s; the last schuyt docked in 1938.

In Frampton-on-Severn, the Easter Monday elver eating competition was woven deeply into village life. Male contestants gobbled down a pound of fried elvers. A contest for women (only required to consume half a pound) was founded in 1973. With steeply declining numbers and sharply rising prices, the contest was cancelled in 1990. Revival followed in 2015 – with ersatz elvers known as gulas, produced in Spain’s Basque country. Dubbed ‘elvers’ locally, gulas consist of surimi, blocks of fish paste from Alaskan pollack and Pacific whiting.

In June 2019, the Sustainable Eel Group, a science-led, Europe-wide campaign organisation, marked its tenth anniversary with a two-day meeting at the Natural History Museum and a week-long eel celebration. A highlight was the arrival at ‘Dutch Mooring’ of a reconstructed schuyt, absent from London’s riverscape for over 80 years. My visit coincided with that of Pieter Hak, proprietor of the Noted Eel & Pie House, Leytonstone. Hak told the Dutch crew that his great grandfather, a schuyt captain,sent his youngest son to London to learn the eel pie business in the 1890s. After he met and married the daughter of an English eel and pie shop owner, they opened their own place in Bow in 1926. Hak gave the crew a copy of Stuart Freedman’s paean to this hallowed Cockney institution, The Englishman and the Eel (2017); Hak appears on the cover, grasping a live eel. (Note, however, that an Italian immigrant established London’s oldest surviving eel and pie shops in 1902.)

Two years after leaving the EU, this sort of fishy connection can help, in a small way, to conserve a sense of Britain’s Europeanness. Britain’s eels belong to a wider European family, biologically and culturally. Our migratory eel also has a resounding message in an age of mass trans-border movements, reminding us that where we call home is not always where we, or our parents, were born.

Peter Coates is Emeritus Professor of Environmental History at the University of Bristol. Some of the material in this post appeared in ‘Protecting Eurofisch: An Environmental History of the European Eel and its Europeanness’ in Greening Europe: Environmental Protection in the Long Twentieth Century – A Handbook (2022). Peter wrote a book on Salmon (2006) in Reaktion’s ‘Animal’ series and is currently writing a squirrel history of the UK.

For more on the European eel and its migration read the MMB blog by Michael Malay about the movement of the human and non-human in the Severn Estuary near Bristol: ‘Above the mud, the oystercatchers wheel with their sharp cries.’

Digital home working and its sustainability potential: human immobility and the mobilities of stuff

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment, in association with the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

By Chris Preist and Dale Southerton.

Despite the huge human and economic costs of the COVID pandemic, many commentators have observed that this disruption – or shock – to our resource-intensive daily lives could offer a catalyst for the great societal transformations necessary to meet the climate emergency.

Radical growth of home working is an oft-cited example. According to Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures 50% of those in employment did some work from home in April 2020. This mainstreaming of home working has been facilitated by the rapid appropriation of digital devices and services into our everyday lives. It has been accompanied by equally rapid development of cultural skills and competencies required to (collectively) use those devices and services in a satisfactory way. And has led to major adjustments in how we work but also how we shop, interact, use our homes, engage with our local communities, learn, care for others and so on.

Home working during the pandemic, March 2020 (image: Simon Evans on flickr)

The question is whether these shifts could lead to systemic environmental gains. Is it an environmental ‘good’ or ‘bad’? As ever with academics, our answer is ‘it’s not straightforward…’, but when viewed from a systemic perspective it does offer an opportunity to re-imagine sustainable ways of life.

When considering the environmental impacts of any technology or practice, understanding will be shaped by the scope of the analysis: what is considered inside the system being studied and what is ignored. A narrow scope, focused only on the technological parts of the system, makes it more straightforward to quantify the results (such as a ‘carbon footprint’ of something) but means missing out the broader implications – such as how any technology interacts with diverse social practices. One approach to this problem is to consider different scopes for analysis that address the direct, indirect and systemic impacts of a technology. We apply this framing to home working to consider some possibilities.

Direct impacts are the environmental costs of constructing, using and disposing of a technology. Engineering methods, such as life cycle assessment (LCA) (or more colloquially, ‘carbon footprinting’) can be used to model the technology’s life cycle, systematically collect the relevant data and then apportion the ‘environmental burden’ to the different applications of that technology. In the case of digital home working, this will include the impacts of manufacturing the equipment used and providing the electricity to keep it operational: both the home laptops and Wi-Fi, but also a share of the networking equipment used to connect workers with their offices and each other, and the data centres used to power the applications they use. Accounting for this ‘hidden materiality’, and the large consumption of energy used by data centres, has led to some fearing that the impacts of digital home working are substantial. Applying University of Bristol models developed for digital services to video conferencing suggests that the truth is somewhere between the two. A ballpark estimate for the climate impact of a one-hour video conference, for example, would be about 50-100g CO2e depending on the setup used – roughly equivalent to driving 400-800m in a typical family car. This suggests that we should not let concerns about the direct environmental impact of digital services put us off a move to home working.

Indirect impacts are the environmental costs of changing social practices related to the digital service. What do people stop doing? What do they start doing? Again, LCA can be used to quantify these – but only if one understands the nature of these changes. Social science insights are essential here, both to identify what changes to practice might occur, and to collect the data to quantify the extent to which they change across diverse populations.

In the case of home working, the most obvious changes to practice are reduction in travel to work and decreases in energy use within workplaces. These two factors will potentially be substantially larger than the direct impacts of technology use – but will be more variable and harder to predict across the population. Reductions in heating and lighting in the workplace were, it would appear, largely offset by rises of domestic energy use (Hook et al., 2020). The most dramatic potential environmental savings are from the sharp reduction in commuting, with the Department for Transport reporting a 60% reduction in private car usage during 2020 and a 90% decline in the use of public transport. But even here we must consider a range of related indirect effects of the apparent immobility of people. During the same period, we witnessed a huge increase in online shopping as people ordered their goods for home delivery. The ONS shows that online retail sales increased from just under 19% of total retail sales in November 2019 to almost 40% within a year. Groceries, clothing, household products and takeaway foods saw the largest growth.

The digital devices and services that allowed us to adapt so quickly to conditions of apparent human immobility also offered the technological affordances and cultural skills necessary for a commensurate growth in the circulation of goods, ordered online and delivered (often as individual items) to the homes of the immobile. Measuring these effects – especially if trying to capture the relative weighting of a trip to the shopping mall to purchase multiple items versus delivery of multiple individual items purchased online – would be necessary to estimate indirect impacts.

Systemic impacts consist of a huge range of elements that shape, and are shaped by, technologies and social practices. In the case of home working, we pick out three core elements: infrastructures, cultures, and modes of provision. To consider the impact and potential of home working we need to recognise the changing home to include the re-purposing of space for home offices and the technologies required, from the high tech (digital devices and networks) to the low tech (desks and storage). Local communities are also changing, and development of local service infrastructures to support mass home working (for example, the re-invention of the local high street) together with a corresponding decline of city-based office infrastructures will be required if home working is to be viable over the longer term. Each of these changes come with their own direct and indirect environmental impacts.

Cultural shifts must also be considered. Workplace cultures of presenteeism, long working hours, the status of private offices, and daily meetings are all challenged by home-working regimes. In addition, the rising use of digital platforms shows signs of fostering modes of provision through informal networks (such as familial and community based) that have, in recent history, been marginalised by the dominance of market modes of provision. Community sharing initiatives (such as food box schemes, local delivery hubs, community stores) coupled with the accumulating practical challenges of privately owned goods (as symbolised by the increasing percentage of domestic space devoted to storing seldomly used consumer goods and the decreasing use of expensive private cars) have been argued to indicate a shift towards collaborative consumption: the rejection of privately owned goods in favour of sharing (Southerton and Warde, forthcoming). While the direct and indirect environmental impacts of such systemic shifts are unknown, the potential to reduce the material flows of goods and reduce the impacts of human mobility are clear.

Thinking in terms of the systemic implications of home working – symbolised by the immobility of people and rising mobility of goods during COVID – is more important than only measuring direct and indirect impacts. As things stand, we are moving in the direction of ‘hybrid’ working, presumably on the grounds of a ‘best of both worlds’ assumption. From a systems level perspective there is a huge risk that we end up with two systems: workplaces and home working. Whether this ends up being the worst of both worlds, layering new resource-efficient systems over old resource-intensive systems, will largely depend on whether debates regarding the post-COVID world takes the opportunity to re-imagine and re-configure the systemic impacts of technology and human practice on the environment (Geels et al., 2015).

Chris Preist is Professor of Sustainability and Computer Systems at the University of Bristol. His research focuses on the environmental impact of digital technology and consumer electronic goods. Dale Southerton is Professor in Sociology of Consumption and Organisation at the University of Bristol. He studies consumption, its role in organising everyday lives and its significance in processes of societal change.

The politics of climate justice, migration and mobility

Special series on Migration, Mobilities and the Environment

Migration Mobilities Bristol (MMB) and the Cabot Institute for the Environment bring together researchers from across the University of Bristol to explore connections between movement and the environment from a multi-disciplinary perspective. These diverse approaches highlight the importance of developing frames that incorporate both migration and environment, and in so doing benefit our understandings of both. Here, the directors of MMB and the Cabot Institute introduce the blog series.

By Bridget Anderson and Guy Howard.

Migration is often mobilised to illustrate the enormity of the challenge of climate change. Some Small Island States in the Pacific, for instance, may become uninhabitable with sea-level rise. Highly vulnerable countries in South Asia, including Bangladesh and the Maldives, may see large proportions of their populations forced to move because of sea-level rise, floods and salinisation of water. US climate envoy John Kerry recently fuelled fears of a future where food production collapse would force a ‘hundred million people’ to move. His comments strongly implied that even those of us who imagine we are protected from the frontline of climate change will be faced with the challenges of ‘climate refugees’ in their millions.

Seven Sisters Park flooded, 2020 (image: Peter Castleton on flickr)

Kerry’s remarks were heavily criticised, but this is not to deny that there is a connection between the world’s ecosystems and environment and human movement. It is easiest to causally relate environmental factors to migration in situations of ‘rapid onset disasters’ – destructive events that occur suddenly, such as typhoons or floods. In these situations, people move to survive, but often to a place of safety a short distance away, and they return to rebuild homes and lives once the emergency has abated. But many environmental changes are taking place over periods spanning two or three generations. ‘Slow onset’ environmental change can be a primary or contributing factor to deteriorating socio-economic conditions – increasing periods of drought, or crop yields declining rather than collapsing, for instance. In these circumstances, migration can be an important way to diversify income streams. Environmental change may also contribute to shifts in land usage and land ownership, which again may result in migration.

Declining resources can also prevent people from moving, especially when resources are slowly depleted over a generation or more. Limited access to capital can force people into illegal or exploitative migration or lead them to delay moving until forced to do so in an unplanned way – perhaps because of a rapid onset disaster that they no longer have the resilience to cope with.

The challenges faced by people who don’t move may become more severe when combined with conflict. For example, in Somalia, armed conflict has hindered the movement of pastoralists, who would otherwise relocate as a response to drought. It has also limited the possibilities of humanitarian organisations to assist them. Human mobility and environmental change are deeply interconnected but need to be understood systemically not simplistically if we are work towards climate justice.

Understanding the relationship between migration and environmental change in a more holistic and integrated way has important policy implications. For example, economic factors can mean that people migrate to places of environmental instability as well as migrating from places of environmental instability. Currently 55% of the world’s population lives in cities, and it is forecast that by 2050 this will increase to nearly 70%; nearly 60% of forcibly displaced people move to urban areas (World Bank, 2020). Many cities are extremely vulnerable to future environmental change, and already experience high temperatures, sea level rise, water stress and threats to health. Rural to urban migrants are often especially vulnerable, as they tend to move to neighbourhoods with high population density that are prone to environmental risks – think of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, or the slums of Dhaka, Nairobi and Mumbai.

In these contexts, migrants, whether rural-urban or international, can be represented as an environmental problem in themselves. The movements of the poor are also represented as a root cause of problems: migration destroys carbon sinks, ‘environmental refugees’ put pressure on already scarce resources and services and so on. Rather than seeing the interconnections of human movement and climate change, the risk is that the politics of climate and the mobility of the poor – that is, ‘migration’ – are framed as oppositional. As a result, in wealthy countries we are seeing increasing tensions between politics of the environment and politics of migration, as illustrated by John Kerry’s remarks.

It is critical, then, to recognise the complexity of the connections between (human) movement and ecosystems. This new blog series, co-published by MMB and the Cabot Institute for the Environment, draws attention to some of these connections and raises questions for further research to help us understand in more depth the relationship between movement and the environment, and its political significance. The contributions in the series approach this relationship from many angles, ranging from the role of water access in shaping migration to debates around the status of the ‘environmental refugee’. One analyses the environmental footprint of home working versus office working to explore the sustainability potential of our increasing immobility. Others focus on animals and plants on the move: we have writing on the ecological context of bird migrations and on the hyper-mobility of the European eel. Meanwhile, other posts look at the movement of goods and how humans locate themselves in, and move through, landscapes of extraction and risk. In bringing together such diverse topics we hope this series will encourage new conversations about the connections between migrations, mobilities and environments.

Bridget Anderson is Professor of Migration, Mobilities and Citizenship at the University of Bristol, and Director of Migration Mobilities Bristol. Guy Howard is Global Research Chair Environmental and Infrastructure Resilience at the University of Bristol, and Director of the Cabot Institute for the Environment.

The cure or the cause? The impact of medical tourism on global health inequality

By Ella Barclay.

Migration motivated by the improvement of one’s health is not a new phenomenon. Nineteenth-century doctors around the world prescribed visits to foreign spas to improve wellbeing and London’s Harley Street was one of many internationally renowned centres for medical care. Despite this, there has been a recent boom in such movement, with individuals increasingly opting to access care beyond their state borders (Morgan, 2010). This phenomenon, termed ‘medical tourism’, has developed into a globalised industry, with states now viewing healthcare as a commercialised product. Various destinations have chosen to profit from this trend, even marketing themselves as ‘international healthcare capitals’ (Hanefeld et al., 2014). However, concerns have been raised regarding the actual value of this phenomenon, with many questioning whether this growing market is helping or hindering global equality.

Medical tourism as the cure

Contrary to the assumption that the healthcare industry thrives in economically developed countries, the rise of medical tourism has been described as a case of ‘reverse globalisation’ (Connell, 2013), shifting power and wealth back into less economically developed states (LEDCs). These destinations have embraced the commercialisation of international medical care, offering up affordable treatment to citizens of, typically, more economically developed states who wish to travel abroad for their procedures and simultaneously experience the tourist aspects of these ‘exotic’ destinations (Johnson et al., 2010). Funnelling large sums of their state budget into this sector, LEDCs have profited greatly from this phenomenon, with medical migrants contributing significantly to the medical and tourist sectors.

(Image: Annie Spratt on Unsplash)

The growth of this industry within LEDCs also counters the effects of ‘brain drain’, by creating jobs within the healthcare sector (Oberman, 2013). Where the mass migration of medically trained individuals to Western states was previously the norm, leading to labour shortages within native states, the rise of medical tourism in LEDCs has created many new healthcare centres, offering highly paid jobs to citizens (Cohen, 2011). This again boosts the state’s economy by allowing for a ‘return investment’ in their residents; the individuals who are trained within (and, therefore, funded by) the state remain within that territory to ‘give back’ to the economy. Here, one could argue that Western states will suffer from labour shortages as we heavily rely on this migrant workforce. However, as people increasingly seek treatment abroad, the strain on state resources will be simultaneously alleviated. Subsequently, the wait time for elective treatments within national systems will be reduced, thereby benefiting medical tourists and residents alike.

Lastly, with the growth of the global market for any commercialised good comes competition and innovation (Lee et al., 2011). Each state wants to offer the newest and best treatment to its high-paying customers, thereby continually funding medical research, technology development and infrastructure, to ensure they are the go-to medical tourist destination. This ongoing competitiveness has hastened medical advancements over the past two decades and greatly improved the quality of healthcare available globally.

Medical tourism as the cause

The novelty of this phenomenon means the medical tourism market is not well regulated. Although the quality of care provided by verified clinics is improving, there are no regulations in place to prevent unqualified and illegitimate clinics from targeting foreign patients. Defined by critics as ‘rogue medical tourism’ (Hunter and Oultram, 2010), individuals offer impossibly cheap treatments, exploiting the naivety and frugality of medical migrants by allowing non-medical staff to carry out procedures in unsanitary and inadequate surroundings. This aspect of medical tourism not only causes harm to the individual but also re-asserts the strain on their home healthcare system, as they will inevitably want to address any ‘botched’ treatments within their own country.

International clinics may also offer treatments that are illegal in other states, such as euthanasia or stem-cell research (Higginbotham, 2011). The availability of these treatments could be seen to enhance autonomy, however, there remains a question of where the line can be drawn concerning treatment that is seen as unethical in one state yet permitted and even promoted in another. Evidently, claims of ‘enhanced quality of healthcare globally’ by proponents of medical tourism are debatable.

Similarly, there is a question of whether this supposedly high-quality healthcare benefits all persons, or simply the elite few who can enjoy the luxury of medical tourism. Having recognised the potential economic value of this industry, state funding currently prioritises healthcare efforts that serve foreign, wealthy patients, as these yield a profit. More money is put into the development of the luxury provision of healthcare, than into the necessary provision of healthcare to impoverished persons; in an effort to harness the full potential of medical tourism, states are neglecting the wellbeing of their own citizens (Bookman and Bookman, 2007). Not only are these individuals denied access to this high-quality care due to their inability to pay, but they also lack basic health rights, such as access to sanitation and clean water, highlighting the need to invest in this lower sector of care provision, not de-fund it. This constitutes a ‘dual medical system’, in which the standard of care available is dependent on one’s socioeconomic status, thereby increasing healthcare inequalities within the state (Manna et al., 2020). Although medical tourism may reverse the effects of globalisation by placing wealth back in the hands of LEDCs, on a national scale the growth of this industry makes the disadvantaged worse off. Claims that this phenomenon is benefiting LEDCs when inequality within these states only grows are misinformed.


Medical tourism may have the potential to benefit global health inequality, but the current over-investment into this sector is exacerbating the already compromised health of those worst-off, creating a dichotomy within the provision of healthcare. To view health as a commercialised product rather than a human right is to ignore the importance of access to healthcare for basic wellbeing and growth. Until this inequality is addressed, and a basic level of care is provided to all within and across states, it is both misguided and unethical to invest in a global industry that favours luxury over human rights.

Ella Barclay is a PhD student in Sociology at the University of the West of England. Her research focuses on the sexual and reproductive rights of undocumented migrants within the UK’s hostile environment and involves ethnographic research with migrant mothers in Bristol. Ella completed the MSc in Migration and Mobility Studies at the University of Bristol in 2020 and is an MMB Alumni Ambassador.

Forced labour in supply chains: missing links between industrial and sexual labour

New writing on migration and mobilities – an MMB special series

By Rutvica Andrijasevic.

I was in the midst of fieldwork researching the working conditions of migrant workers in the electronics industry in Central and Eastern Europe when the press ran the story about Serbian workers working and living in slavery-like conditions in Slovakia. Various articles in Serbian press, culminating with the report of a journalist who worked undercover in the Samsung Slovak factory, denounced the latter for treating workers like slaves without any rights. These reports were corroborated by the Belgrade-based NGO Anti Trafficking Action (ASTRA), which explained that the exploitation and violation of rights of Serbian workers in Slovakia is widespread not only in electronics but also in automobile and food industries.

Despite being in possession of formal contracts issued by temporary work agencies that recruited them in Serbia, workers were the subject of fraud and deception with respect to pay, working time, health insurance and social security contributions. They were locked into contracts whereby they were liable to pay damages to the employer if they left or switched employers during the probation period. If workers did not work or were fired, they had to pay for the accommodation themselves and were required to leave the dormitory immediately. In case of irregularities, workers were unclear whom to contact as they worked at plant in Slovakia but were recruited by a Serbian agency, signed a contract with a Hungarian agency and then were paid by a Slovak agency.

Overall, as Tonia Novitz and myself discussed in a recent article, this is a workforce trapped within a labour engagement that they have entered voluntarily but found difficult to exit, tied into a contract with a particular employer, under the threat of a financial penalty and/or non-payment of wages, subject to illicit deductions from pay, vulnerable to deportation, risking homelessness because of tied accommodation, isolated by geography and language, and distant from any meaningful legal protection. The case of Serbian workers in Slovakia exemplifies, as we have argued elsewhere, a regulatory failure of the current legal and corporate regulatory matrix to protect workers and prevent the conditions in which unfree labour can thrive.

What struck me in the Serbian-Slovak case was the similarity between Serbian workers’ working and living conditions and those of migrant women in the sex industry that I have researched in the past. Tellingly, it was the NGO ASTRA, with expertise in assisting the ‘victims’ of human trafficking, that took upon themselves the task of drawing policy makers’ attention and demanding that the government protects the rights of Serbian workers.

Yet, while on the ground there seems to be quite strong parallels between exploitation of migrant workers in the electronics assembly and those in the sex industry, academic literature draws strong lines of demarcation between the two groups of migrants. In fact, the scholarship on unfree labour in supply chains that studies industrial labour and that on human trafficking that examines sexual exploitation are separate and distinct bodies of research.

I suggest that what links the sectors of industrial and sexual labour is not only similarities of forms of control over migrant workers but also legal classification of their work. As I explain in my recent article ‘Forced labour in supply chains: Rolling back the debate on gender, migration and sexual commerce’, the separate treatment of sexual and industrial labour exploitation both by researchers and in law and policy has inadvertently posited sexual labour as the ‘other’ of industrial labour. Consequently, this separation has obfuscated how the legal blurring of boundaries between industrial and service labour is engendering new modalities of the erosion of workers’ rights that are increasingly resembling those typical of sex work.

It is perhaps understandable that scholars of unfree labour in supply chains discount debates on human trafficking, as they do not want to get caught up in vehement discussions over whether sexual labour constitutes economic activity or violence against women. Yet, to do so is to overlook the large body of work on human trafficking by migration, post-colonial and transnational feminist scholars who have shown the interdependency between sexual labour, industrial labour and broader economic development. It is also to overlook the fact that unfree labour pivots on forms of control and exploitation, whether by employers or the states, that are embedded in normative assumptions about gender and sexuality.

This is the image at the back of the business card of a workers’ dormitory in Slovakia, where some of the migrant workers mentioned in the opening paragraph were housed. The image is striking for its overtly sexualised overtones. The shape and the colour of the dress and the inviting and provocative bodily position bring up an immediate association with women working in a strip club rather than in an assembly plant. Dormitories, located in the proximity of assembly plants, merge the productive and reproductive spheres in order to enable employers to extend control from the factory floor to workers’ sleeping and living quarters, thus extracting additional value from workers’ ‘private’ lives. The overtly sexualised overtones of the image remind us, time and time again, that gender and sexuality shape both production arrangements and social relations of reproduction so as to enable labour’s enrolment into regimes of capital accumulation.

It is my suggestion that researchers concerned with understanding and eradicating forced labour from supply chains should look at the critical literature on trafficking for sexual exploitation to understand both the mechanisms that employers use to confine workers and the ways in which capital mobilizes difference to extract value from labour. Sexualizing of labouring bodies is, after all, the very condition for the expansion of transnational capital.

Rutvica Andrijasevic is Associate Professor in International Migration and Business at the University of Bristol. Her current research investigates the globalisation of Chinese firms and how ‘Chinese’ modes of production and management are engendering new migration flows in Europe.