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From globalisation to migration
Do unfair migration policies and environmental disasters make case for new economic system?
Last Modified: 28 Jul 2010 12:10
The Arizona law symbolises growing anti-immigrant sentiment in the US [EPA]

Of the innumerable tragedies caused by the ongoing leak in the Gulf of Mexico, few are as poignant as the plight of Vietnamese fishermen who plied the waters off Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. The fishermen, who today make upwards of half the commercial fishermen in these states, first emigrated to the US as a result of the Vietnam War in the mid-1970s, and today - along with fellow Southeast Asians from Laos and Cambodia - constitute a population of over 500,000.

But thousands of Gulf fishermen are unable to fish today because of the environmental impact of the spill on all manner of species of Gulf marine life.

The experience of the Vietnamese fishermen highlights the complex relationship between globalisation, international migration, the environment, and the role of energy and other crucial global commodities in a system which, whether in Alaska, the Gulf of Mexico, Nigeria or Ecuador, has always extracted disastrous environmental and economic costs from the communities located near the sites of natural resource extraction.

A close-knit community that has still not fully integrated culturally into American society, Vietnamese fishermen once again "feel lost," in the words of one boat captain, as they struggle to obtain the meager aid offered by BP and several charitable organisations. Many are trying to get hired by the very company that caused the disaster - cleaning up the spill in order to make enough money to support their families while the Gulf waters are too polluted to fish.

More than 30 years after they left their home countries, these Southeast Asian fishermen have nowhere new to go.

World's oldest story

The theme of migration has been part of the collective human narrative for as long as there has been recorded history.

It is a central theme of the Hebrew Bible, whose defining stories all involve migration. The ancient Greek myths, as well as classic stories like those of Homer, involve migration. And the history of Islam is essentially a story of one of the most rapid and far-reaching migrations in history.

More recently, modernity as an historical epoch and even idea was born with the waves of European migration to the Americas which began in the early 16th century - the first truly globalised era in human history. These migrations brought hundreds of thousands - and ultimately millions - of Europeans to the Americas, as well as millions of African slaves, led to the near annihilation of the two continents' native peoples, and, through the system of colonial plantation agriculture and resource extraction, enabled the solidification of global capitalism, nationalism and modernity at large.

One of the greatest waves of migration in history occurred during the era of High Imperialism that culminated with the first world war and saw tens of millions of people move to the Americas from Europe to escape the ills of the capitalist system. Another large wave followed the second world war, in response to the greater integration of the world economy, the increasing number of states in situations of war and disarray and the globalisation of communications and transport systems.

In more recent years, the emergence of gray and black markets in migration has become an increasing problem globally, as they are linked almost hand in glove with other illegal flows - of drugs, weapons and human trafficking.

Race to the bottom

Many Southeast Asian fishermen have been forced to work in clean-up efforts [GETTY]

This dynamic has become especially important in recent decades. The reasons for this owe to the paradoxical nature of contemporary, neoliberal globalisation in which economic "integration" is driven in good measure by advances in production, communications and transport. These have allowed goods to be produced and shipped and still be cheaper than locally produced products in advanced capitalist countries, as long as labour costs remain low in the producing countries.

This formula is part of agreements like Nafta, one of whose goals was supposed to be providing enough good jobs for Mexican workers so that they would not need to migrate north. But, as the current Arizona debate makes clear, this has not had the desired effect.

Indeed, the structural adjustment policies at the heart of neoliberal globalisation have, in most places, resulted in decreased agricultural production and productivity, further concentrations of land ownership, lower incomes, wages and living standards, and environmental degradation.

This race to the bottom in terms of wages and labour conditions, as well as the environmental degradation associated with unregulated development and industries, and the numerous wars tied to resources that are crucial for the global economy - whether precious metals mined in the Congo or drugs grown in Afghanistan - have gone hand in hand with increasingly strict immigration laws around the globe because for this model to be successful, the free circulation of capital must be accompanied by a more restricted circulation of people.

As Juan Somavia, the director-general of the International Labour Organisation explained: "Globalisation has so far not led to the creation of sufficient and sustainable decent work opportunities around the world .... Better jobs and income for the world's workers has not been a priority in policy-making." Because of this, migration has become increasingly illegal in recent years, and yet it remains, as a recent UN report describes it, "a dynamic and diversifying force in global development".

Fear of migration

Despite the anti-immigrant mood in the US - as symbolised by the recent tough immigration law passed by the state of California - the US is by far the largest host country of migrants - 13 per cent of its population.

Freedom and greater economic opportunities are the major pull factors host countries offer, while the need to escape poverty, war and authoritarian systems are among the greatest push factors.

Migrants send almost $170bn to their home countries each year, making a significant contribution to those economies. But this must be placed within the context of the continued poverty of the developing world - half of humanity lives on about $2 a day, well over one billion lives on half that, and at least 600 million people live with "geographic disadvantages" that encourage migration.

The roughly 175 million people who today live outside their country of birth is only three per cent of world's population, largely because of greater restrictions and border controls, and the creation of smaller and smaller states to contain people. 

Kofi Annan, the former UN secretary-general, explained in 2003 that the new waves of migration bring "many complex challenges" to host societies, but warned that we must not "lose sight of its immense potential to benefit migrants, the countries they leave, and those to which they migrate".

Yet the fear of unregulated, mass migration continues to gnaw at host societies in the West and is a major reason why many Europeans have been against EU enlargement.

New blood, old world

The fear of unregulated, mass migration gnaws at host countries in the West [GETTY]

The "graying" of Europe's populations - caused by a combination of low birthrates and longer life spans - means that the influx of younger workers is crucial to the long-term health and growth of advanced European economies. The World Bank and IMF have predicted that a 3 per cent growth in the labour force in high-income countries through immigration would produce $356bn in global economic gains per year - larger than the gains from trade.

But the influx of "new blood" from the developing, and particularly Muslim, world challenges the core ideologies of the nation-state with its territorially, ethnically and religiously grounded identities, leaving even relatively open and liberal societies such as the Scandinavian countries to rethink their more open immigration policies.

Policy-makers now face the challenge of designing a system that allows for the fair flow of people, skills and remittances and until they do so, Africa, Latin America and South and Southeast Asia will remain sources of migration, and tension.

The idea of "co-development" once pushed by Jacques Chirac, the former French president, remains little more than rhetoric. Western countries can barely get pledged monies to help earthquake victims in Haiti half a year later, never mind restructure the global economy in a way that would significantly improve the lives of the world's poor.

A sustainable future

IN depth

More from Mark LeVine:

  Beyond hypocrisy
  The burden of hypocrisy
  The meaning of strangulation
  The cautionary tale of Helen Thomas
  Israel's 'friends' also to blame
  The terrors of occupation
  Obama and the curse of moderation
  'Stupid' law or 'soul' of the US?
  The world is not flat
  Hypocrisy and the end of empires

Migration has always been a core process of global politics and historical change. The Vietnamese boat people now struggling to make their living shrimping and fishing off the Gulf Coast came to the US as a direct result of a Cold War ideology that saw the possibility of a domino effect of then "Third World" countries joining the Communist bloc as among the greatest threats to the West - and specifically to Western-led global capitalism.

The BP Deepwater Horizon spill is another facet of globalisation which is ultimately inseparable from the dynamics that brought hundreds of thousands of people from Southeast Asia to the Gulf of Mexico. America's thirst for oil has for more than half a century led it to spend trillions of dollars to control territories and protect key resources across the globe - in the process causing large scale dislocation and often environmental destruction as the price of achieving its economic and political aims.

Usually, it is the local peoples in "far away" places who pay the price for US access to relatively cheap oil and commodities, but with this latest disaster the price is cutting much closer to home. The question remains whether Americans learn from this latest tragedy and begin to reground their economy in a more sustainable and less destructive system.

What is certain is that, unlike the Vietnamese who arrived on the Gulf shores three decades ago, for the vast majority of Americans migrating to a new land, the very process that made the US the greatest immigrant country the world has known, is no longer an option.

Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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Al Jazeera
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