Human migration in a new era of mobility: intersectional and transnational approaches

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Alison MountzWilfrid Laurier University, Canada

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Shiva S. MohanUniversity of Northern British Columbia, Canada

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This review article posits human migration as one of the most pressing social challenges of our time. We argue that challenges associated with migration and displacement will persist if their governance continues in piecemeal, performative and nationalist fashion, with the privileging of resource investment in national border fortification over addressing the root causes of migration and displacement. Advocating for intersectional and transnational approaches, we review some of the important, interdisciplinary dimensions of migration as a phenomenon that touches on every facet of human life. We then discuss how different groups of people on the move struggle with structural barriers to migration, as they attempt to access and then settle into new communities, and the challenges to inclusion and integration encountered in so-called host societies. Topics of discussion include borders and geographical divides, gender, sexuality, race, class, labour, displacement, rights, access and climate-induced migration.

Abstract

This review article posits human migration as one of the most pressing social challenges of our time. We argue that challenges associated with migration and displacement will persist if their governance continues in piecemeal, performative and nationalist fashion, with the privileging of resource investment in national border fortification over addressing the root causes of migration and displacement. Advocating for intersectional and transnational approaches, we review some of the important, interdisciplinary dimensions of migration as a phenomenon that touches on every facet of human life. We then discuss how different groups of people on the move struggle with structural barriers to migration, as they attempt to access and then settle into new communities, and the challenges to inclusion and integration encountered in so-called host societies. Topics of discussion include borders and geographical divides, gender, sexuality, race, class, labour, displacement, rights, access and climate-induced migration.

Key messages

  • Human migration is one of the most pressing global social challenges of the 21st century.

  • Intersectional and transnational approaches deepen understandings of the complexity and multiplicities of human migration.

  • These more nuanced approaches challenge uninformed and easy paths to national or global policy solutions or governance.

Introduction

Human migration ranks among the most pressing global social challenges of the 21st century. Migration is complex in its endless forms and permutations, whether international or internal, labour migration, temporary or circular migration for work, travel for international study, or forced migration. Various global shifts are amplifying and accelerating changes such that we are entering a new era of human mobility. These include, for example, climate change, water scarcity, the rise of xenophobia and nationalism, war and conflict, technological advances in bordering, and the sudden and stunning arrival in late 2019 of the global pandemic brought on by the COVID-19 coronavirus. In this article, we argue that while mobility remains a fundamental feature of human life, migration will persist as a global challenge as long as nation states continue to render people on the move precarious, through reactionary approaches such as policing borders and erecting structural barriers to movement.

While ideas of global governance have recently been discussed and applied to the so-called management of human migration (for example, Betts, 2011; 2013), there exists little global cooperation around the facilitation or regulation of migration, beyond the limited role of the United Nations and its High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the recent Global Compacts on Migration and Refugees (Hyndman and Reynolds, 2020). Furthermore, human migration and displacement are, by their very definitions, inherently unruly and messy, disparate phenomena – at turns patterned and at others wholly unpredictable. Our task here is not to engage in policy making or to critique existing policies; instead, we discuss and advocate for analytical approaches that deepen understanding of the complexities of the causes of migration and displacement.

Displacement, for example, is one major cause and form of human migration. Amid historically high numbers of people displaced from home, now exceeding 90 million (UNHCR, 2021: 8), little has changed in the global response to or governance of this form of migration. People are displaced from home for myriad reasons, including resource scarcity, climate change and war, such as the recent upheaval of over twelve million people from their homes when Russian forces invaded Ukraine (over five million among them displaced internationally, at the time of publication; United Nations, 2022). Yet refugee policies are the only ones designed to address displacement. And, at the same time that displacement reaches a historic high, nation states are retreating from resettlement, removing resources and closing borders. These policies, furthermore, rely on a relatively narrow definition encoded in the 1951 Refugee Convention relating to the status of refugees and its 1967 Protocol.1 Changes to the search for safe haven and global landscapes of refuge suggest that changes in policy and associated legal definitions might be needed, and yet for many reasons – such as disagreement among state actors and fear among advocates that paths to protection will be further curtailed – these are not revisited (Mountz, 2020).

Not only do international organisations fail to govern migration in a global community, but individual nation states also fail in their attempts to develop more comprehensive legislation and policy to govern migration at a national scale in such a way that facilitates mobility. This failure can be attributed to the disparate positioning of different kinds of migration, with some (such as people seeking asylum) vilified and others (such as international students) recruited and celebrated. Governments hold highly contradictory positions in relation to people on the move.

Migration will be intensified by other top-ranking challenges of our time, namely climate change, water scarcity, conflict and food insecurity, all of which induce migration and exacerbate and prolong experiences of displacement. Globally, media fuel public perceptions of migration, generating crisis narratives and scapegoating people on the move, particularly those exercising human agency and resources to move in ways that do not fit with the role of victim ascribed to them by the trope of refugee. ‘Spontaneous arrivals’, for example, is the nomenclature assigned to people seeking asylum who must arrive on sovereign territory in order to make claims for protection. These are mass migrations that are particularly racialised and targeted for enforcement and exclusion.

As such an interdisciplinary approach to research in an interdisciplinary field proves essential. Using intersectional and transnational approaches to understanding human migration offers productive conceptual language and tools to articulate the multi-scalar, complex and layered dimensions of migration. Intersectionality offers interventions that present identity formations as analytically neither mutually exclusive nor separate from each other, in articulating relationally the specific experiences of migrants and various social contexts at work in transnational fields. Transnational and intersectional approaches therefore facilitate more complex and dynamic understandings of social relations and power structures that inform migrant experiences. We explore both of these approaches in subsequent sections.

We proceed by reviewing some of the important, interdisciplinary dimensions of migration as a phenomenon that touches on every facet of human life. Advocating for intersectional and transnational approaches, we then discuss how different groups of people on the move struggle with structural barriers to migration, as they attempt to access and then settle into new communities, and the challenges to inclusion and integration encountered in so-called host societies.

Interdisciplinary lives and research on migration

Humans are inherently mobile beings and migration a normalised, routine phenomenon, rather than one informed by assumptions of sedentarism that research once applied (Malkki, 1992). Migration is multifaceted and complex; operates across space, time, scale and national borders; and impacts every aspect of human life. This multidimensionality has influenced the ways in which social scientists engage research on migration, contributing to the subject’s interdisciplinarity. The varying approaches of economists, anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, international relations scholars and others have been captured in intellectual paradigm shifts over time. Understandings evolved from linear chronologies and mechanical appreciations of the migration process to more nuanced and multi-scalar analyses. The scope of key academic journals in migration and refugee studies – such as International Migration, the International Migration Review, the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies and Refuge – have reflected these changes over time. In 2005, scholars based at Lancaster University launched Mobilities, a journal that sought to outline new conceptual approaches to migration studies (see, for example, Sheller and Urry, 2006; Cresswell, 2006). The pervasive critique and challenge across disciplinary lines, however, is the risk of reproducing and reifying inequalities and the hierarchical structuring of the world, as a consequence of analysing migration through state-created categories and orderings (Sayad, 2004; Tazzioli, 2015). Scholars have identified this as ‘methodological nationalism’, the privileging of the scale and purview of the nation state in the production of knowledge about migration that orders people into territorial units (Wimmer and Glick Shiller, 2002; Sharma, 2020). We draw here on the traditions of feminist scholarship and critical race theorists (for example, Mongia, 1999; Kempadoo, 2005; Walia, 2021) to engage intersectionality and transnationalism, approaches designed to critique and counter empirical generalisations, and embrace more incisive, inclusive and nuanced understandings, shifting scales to locate migration as a global social challenge.

The study of migration has long been characterised by context-specific, determinant empirical research, and homogenising macro theoretical interventions (King, 2012; Brettell and Hollifield, 2015). Early models of the study of migration were premised on the idea of rational choice; a perspective largely propagated by economists. Here, migration was understood as being solely economically driven, both in terms of people’s motivations to move and with reference to the relative levels of development of sending and receiving contexts (de Haas, 2011; de Haas et al, 2020). The mechanics of this ‘push/pull’ model were eventually broadened to incorporate and interrogate social aspects of migration, which spurred different conceptualisations, through for example, social capital theory. These later theoretical approaches privileged the interconnections and connectivity between sites of origin and destination. Through this lens, migration dynamics were observed as autonomous (Moulier-Boutang, 1998), and outside of state regulation – a major conceptual shift away from centring the state as the solitary scale of analysis (Bailey, 2001; Wimmer and Glick Schiller, 2002; Levitt, 2012).

The advent of the new mobilities paradigm (Sheller and Urry, 2006) in 2005, however, seemed to provide a critical bridging of these aforementioned gaps. This more recent paradigm, operationalised across transdisciplinary spheres, provided an intervention that linked capitalism and migration through a historical lens by incorporating elements such as the unequal distribution of power shaping core–periphery dynamics into its theoretical framework (Molinero-Gerbeau and Avallone, 2022). These works undercut the normative social science logics of place and sedentariness (Malkki, 1992), as normal. This, however, also poses a disciplinary challenge, as critics suggest that the mobilities perspective ignores the autonomy of migrants and reifies the role of states (Kalir, 2013).

In tandem with these evolving paradigms, the interdisciplinarity of migration can also be observed through the variety of methods used to research migration (Vargas-Silva, 2012; Iosifides, 2013; Zapata-Barrero and Yalaz, 2018), across various geographical contexts (see Carling, 2015). In addition, there exists an important and broad body of work that focuses on, among other things, the infrastructure of enforcement (for example, Godenau and López-Sala, 2016; Walters, 2018; Noori, 2021), which include the structural and material barriers to migration, and analyses of global governance mechanisms. There is also much work done by international relations scholars who approach migration through geopolitical lenses, sociologists and political geographers who study carceral geographies (for example, Moran et al, 2013), and scholars who study gender and migration (Zlotnik, 1995; Donato and Gabaccia, 2015; Abel, 2018).

Though we have presented an overview of genealogies of approaches to the study of migration, feminist and critical race scholars occupy a through-line across disciplines to unearth and understand the mundane. Scholars in these fields have approached migration in various ways to understand how people who belong to different social groupings face different opportunities and barriers to their migration and mobility.

Engaging intersectional and transnational approaches to human migration

The multiplicity of variables and categories that constitute human migration compels an intersectional appreciation to understanding migration processes and their complexities. Intersectionality’s philosophies emerge from feminist and critical race theorisations, specifically surrounding Black feminism in the 1980s, as elucidated in the works of Kimberlé Crenshaw (1989) and Patricia Hill Collins (1993). An intersectional approach offers a critical framework to think through power differentials, enabling an examination of the interrelations of categories of gender, race, ethnicity, class and other identity formations that influence the complexities of difference and impacts on everyday experiences (Ressia et al, 2017). At its core, intersectionality makes legible usually obscured power relations that impact all aspects of the social world (Collins and Bilge, 2020). That is, intersectionality allows for demonstration of how identities intersect to create disadvantages for some, and privileges for others. We engage this intersectional application to unpack and understand the social inequities, injustices, oppression and challenges faced by migrants that are embedded in the global human migration complex.

We use intersectionality here, not as a theoretical positioning, but rather as an analytical frame. Key work from Floya Anthias (2012) acknowledging the ‘outcomes of differentiation’ and ‘social divisions’ among migrants operationalised the deconstructive work of the intersectional approach and its application as a heuristic device in migration research. This work signalled a significant shift from previous observations of the naturalised approach to research of singling out gender, race, ethnicity or class, with little research on the intersections between them (Acker, 2006). Yet still, Carastathis et al (2018: 6) have noted that ‘the majority of (forced) migration scholarship continues to approach the subject without attending to the simultaneity of experiences and co-implications of positionalities shaped by gendered, racialized, class, and sexuality-based power relations’.

Intersectional approaches in migration scholarship are not new; they have been implicitly applied to migration work, but not identified as such. For example, scholars, largely focused on the Global South, have traced established pathways of international movement as a consequence of colonialism and empire in an attempt to discern just how enmeshed migrants and immigrants were in (settler) colonial logics that are also intertwined with relations of race, class, gender and sexuality (Yeoh, 2017; Stasiulis et al, 2020). Contemporary migration work using the intersectional lens has sought to challenge and deconstruct existing legal labels and categories that populate migration policies, highlighting the disconnections and variabilities of social experiences and realities of migrations (Chulach and Gagnon, 2013; Ludwig, 2016). Intersectional analyses have also noted that categorical definitions vary between the architects of policy and people on the move, observing that circumstances are differentiated between person and person, and moment to moment (Hyndman and Giles, 2016) in the migration landscape. Scholars using an intersectional lens have also unearthed systemic discrimination in migration policies and systems, by privileging empirical research about the exacerbation of perceived threats through intersecting categories (Koirala and Eshghavi, 2017) or the privilege or oppression in research using singular categories of experience (Ayoub, 2017). Intersectionality has also facilitated comprehensive questioning of the sustainability of proffered solutions for migrants (Yacob-Haliso, 2016).

In research on human trafficking and sex work, as one example, Kamala Kempadoo’s (2005) scholarship adopts an intersectional lens to interrogate the institutionalisation of trafficking narratives and anti-trafficking interventions that take on a securitarian framing. These institutionalised approaches to understanding human trafficking, she argues, obscure global structural inequalities that inform migrants’ experiences. Kempadoo’s analyses are sensitive to intersections of gender, race, class, ethnicity and power relations. Her analytical focus shifts from state control and policing of migration to centre the complex interactions of migrations, exploitation and precarity, gender stereotypes and patriarchal family values.

Using an intersectional lens to study migration enables closer analysis of the varied ways that lived experiences influence the temporal and context-specific decision making and experiences of people on the move. There has been an observed privileging of migration governance conversations related to diversity, racism and psychosocial matters that delineate a shift from ‘who’ and ‘what’ to ‘how’ and ‘why’ (Pisarevskaya et al, 2020). Scaling intersectionality (Thimm and Chaudhuri, 2021) is an approach taken by feminist geographers that involves a shift in scale from global and national scales to the embodied scale of individuals, families and households, sometimes referred to as ‘the global intimate’ (Pratt and Rosner, 2006). Such an approach enables focused attention on social context, that is, the historical, intellectual and political forces that work to inform embodied experiences of space and place (Collins and Bilge, 2020). Using this framework facilitates closer interrogation of frames of reference to understand differential migrant experiences, and how tensions and productivities are facilitated and exploited by structural barriers, towards a more complex and dynamic understanding of social relations and power structures (Rodó-de-Zárate and Baylina, 2018).

Transnational approaches also widen the frames of migration research in important ways. Recognition of the complexity of migration through multiple social connections and its repositioning outside of state control offered conceptual tools developed through the widely popular transnationalism paradigm originating in the 1990s (for example, Rouse, 1992; Glick Schiller et al, 1992; Vertovec, 2009). This approach encouraged a more scaled and specific focus on networks forged and sustained across national borders through the migration process, and on how these transnational movements and networks were created, through, for example, research on migration journeys (Schapendonk, 2012; Bridgen, 2018; Ilcan and Squire, forthcoming). However, the highly popular framework has also been critiqued for its deliberate ignorance of the role of the political (Pries, 2008) whereby states control and regulate the movement of people (Kivisto, 2011; Salazar and Smart, 2011), overlooking power relations between social groups.

Transnational approaches address structural and political contexts in multiple countries to situate migrations as multisited, as unfolding across multiple households and communities simultaneously, and deepening understanding of the pervasive cross-border interconnection and simultaneity of migrant communities. They present important tools in garnering insights into the implications of these continued connections between sites of emigration and immigration, where migrants forge new connections that reshape landscapes, triggering questions around integration, membership and citizenship. The combination of these two approaches – intersectionality and transnationalism – forges important and urgent conceptual space for questions that interrogate varied aspects of the migration experience that inform and expose limits on the ways that human migration can be managed or governed through policy.

Structural boundaries and barriers to migration

Why do so many structural barriers to movement persist in the face of the need that governments, societies, economies, individuals, households and communities have for human migration? In February 2022, for example, Canada’s Minister for Immigration, Sean Fraser, announced a plan to welcome more than 1.3 million newcomers by the end of 2024 (Keung, 2022). Like European countries with ageing and shrinking populations and facing deepening crises of care for more vulnerable populations (as populations age), Canada faces shortages of care workers, particularly in health and other sectors recently filled by immigrant labour (Walton-Roberts, 2020). Canada sets these kinds of immigration ‘targets’ periodically, but rarely invests enough in bureaucratic infrastructure to achieve them. At the time of this announcement, critics of the plan were quick to point to the country’s already existing backlog of 1.8 million applications (Keung, 2022).

Elsewhere in the world, countries facing similar labour shortages and shrinking populations are also restricting rather than opening legal pathways to immigration, seemingly contradicting their own needs for labour. In Europe and beyond, nationalist and populist movements favour stricter border controls and tighter restrictions on immigration, which mean tighter border controls (see Tazzioli, 2020).

The historically recent formation of Westphalian nation states has carved the globe into discrete territories where governments exercise control over resources and populations, claiming control of membership and mobility as a sovereign right to determine belonging. Harsha Walia (2021) identifies these practices as ‘border and rule’. Nandita Sharma (2020) calls this the postcolonial order, with a key function being to separate people both geographically and socio-economically into discrete populations. As John Torpey (2000) and Radhika Mongia (1999) argue, the invention of the passport was always tied to this kind of colonial subject-making. Martina Tazzioli (2020) and other social scientists writing about migration enforcement practices demonstrate how contemporary bordering practices are informed by and infused with colonial practices of power, such as containing people in confined spaces.

Border policing is indeed a key tool in the contemporary regulation of human migration and mobility, whether in the material regulation of people at checkpoints, the use of drones to police European and American borders or the operation of what Louise Amoore (2006) calls the data-driven ‘biometric border’, building on earlier scholarship by, for example, Roger Rouse (1992), Michael Kearney (1991), and Etienne Balibar (2002) on the notion that borders increasingly operate everywhere, and even earlier work by Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) that ties border policing to the body. States advance new forms of policing and bordering, in part by developing new technologies that enable digitalisation and rely on private companies that develop and run them (Amoore, 2006). Although borders have been fortified with walls, fences and checkpoints, a phenomenon that has intensified since the end of the Second World War, such mechanisms were always tied to colonial histories, to settler colonialism, and – as Reece Jones (2021) argues – to White supremacy. While border guards and policies may facilitate the easy passage of goods and funds, borders have also always been used to enact violence on the ‘others’ of the nation state (Jones, 2016).

Borders function as both the primary geographical location and operational mechanism that regulates human mobility. Their fortification is not coincidental, but classed, racialised and gendered to welcome some groups – consistently, the wealthiest people – while excluding marginalised, racialised and economically disadvantaged people. Countless national histories of immigration law and border policy detail xenophobia, nationalism and racism at work across time and space. The contemporary rise of populism in North America, tied in no small part to the Donald Trump administration, and across Europe, is but the latest expression of this fortification and demonstrates the prominent place that borders play in the geographical imagination of the social body. Contemporary White supremacist groups looking to ‘purify’ the nation seek to ‘Make America Great Again’ in the name of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’, usually sought for and by White citizens – as in the recent development of so-called ‘trucker convoys’ stationed in the Canadian capital of Ottawa and along major border-crossings. While ostensibly developed to protest public health measures put in place during the pandemic like masking and vaccination requirements for truckers, the protests soon became the site of racist, exclusionary expressions of nationalism.

Mainstream media and more obscure and closed websites and social networks alike aid in the circulation of anti-immigrant ideas. There, one can easily read the common tropes of crisis narratives about migration as threat to the social body. This is not a new phenomenon; it is one that social scientists have long written about (for example, Bigo, 2002). But again, the narrative takes on new tones and inflections, scapegoats for social ills and economic hardship of the moment, now taken up as the causes of populist movements.

Borders therefore take on multiple roles with regard to distancing: they geographically distance people by regulating mobility and excluding groups of people. But they also operate in socio-economic and social forms of distancing, differentiating between classes of workers and immigrants, adding to global gorms of polarisation and economic disparity. One prolific and pervasive contemporary example is the exponential growth in temporary forms of labour contracts, often facilitated by international organisations, like the International Organization for Migration, that formalise precarity by cementing the temporariness and therefore the precarity of workers (Vosko et al, 2014). Such socio-spatial regulation at the scale of nation states advances what Joe Nevins (2008) identifies as a form of global apartheid that divides hyper-mobile elite classes from the more numerous and marginalised masses, located particularly in the Global South, but whose migration to the Global North is facilitated in temporary fashion that forecloses upon paths to citizenship or upward social mobility. Such socio-spatial distancing extends to the mapping, enforcement and policing of national borders.

The regulation of migration also infuses contemporary politics surrounding the global governance of displacement and protection, particularly targeting people in search of safe haven in the form of political asylum. Policies that inhibit the movement and increase the incarceration of potential asylees have grown so extreme as to amount to the political, social and economic death of asylum (Mountz, 2020). In fact, much recent scholarship about asylum is infused with border deaths at sea (Steinhilper and Gruijters, 2018; Mainwaring, 2019).

The situation for refugees is similarly stalled, as the globe reaches a historically high number of people displaced. According to the UNHCR (2021), over 90 million people were displaced by the end of 2020. This figure encompasses a mix of internally displaced persons and those displaced externally beyond their home countries. Rather than seek sustainable solutions, the main haven provided has been identified as ‘Protracted Refugee Situations’ in the form of refugee camps. Such camps are not only proliferating, but remaining in that they offer few paths to resettlement and instead become cities unto themselves, with few opportunities or resources (Hyndman and Giles, 2016).

The multiple forms of movement and classifications of migrants invoke the fraught governance politics attached to people on the move, and to the state. From internal to international migration, each form and classification assumes certain subjectivities. These categorisations have direct implications for the protection of workers’ rights. The politicised forms of classification also reproduce states’ sovereignty over the means of movement. ‘Receiving’ or ‘host’ territories are inefficient in their categorisation of people on the move and in the resolution of their applications and cases. So, for example, backlogs in existing asylum systems, and limited resources and supports for newcomers affect lived experiences of integration. However, defining migrant categories is much more complex than definitional prescriptions. There exists considerable blurring across the categories. Alexander Betts (2013) characterises movements, for example, as ‘survival migration’, akin to Saskia Sassen’s (2002) ‘survival circuits’ of labourers in city regions – people fleeing the economic consequences of the underlying political situations, rather than political persecution per se. Betts underscores the developmental approach to migration governance, and the potential for host countries to benefit.

Whether resettlement of refugees, temporary labour contracts or skilled labour migration lotteries, there are not enough legal paths to migration to accommodate either the desires and needs that people have to move or the needs of economies to recruit and facilitate that movement. People struggle to find paths to migrate, to have their skills and experience recognised once they do, all of which exacerbate states of precarity (Vosko et al, 2014).

When people do find paths to immigration, as they attempt to access and then settle into new communities, they face myriad challenges to inclusion and integration encountered in so-called host societies. These relate to racism, cultural and linguistic differences, and access to livelihood. In the recent mass displacement of Syrian nationals following prolonged conflict in Syria, for example, the resettlement of so many in European and North American countries prompted intense periods of negotiation with new languages, cultures, labour markets and social policies in host countries around the globe (Ilcan and Squire, 2022).

The arrival of the global pandemic brought on by COVID-19 in late 2019 only exacerbated the separations and exclusions that we have begun to map here. National governments responded quickly by shoring up borders, shutting down refugee resettlement and the processing of asylum claims, and many other forms of immigration.

Human migration as global social challenge

While many international agreements have been developed to guide the governance of migration and displacement, few actually do the work of governance; they suggest diplomatic ways forward, but lack teeth in the form of enforcement or sanctions, should such guidelines not be adhered to by nation states, the primary governors of migration. The UN-sponsored Global Compacts for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) and Refugees (GCR), for example, are at once success story and cautionary tale in the transnational governance landscape. While these Compacts signal the potential of multiscale cooperation among varied actors and entities in the regulation of international migration, the divergences, controversies and structural challenges that littered the negotiating processes still haunt the implementation of these institutionalised frameworks (Hyndman and Reynolds, 2020).

Migration thus remains a salient topic in global governance discourse. Quickly changing global and globalising forces – natural, socio-economic, political – continue to influence and change patterns of migration. Trends indicate that the volume of people on the move continues to rise rapidly, while the process of migration itself is increasingly complex and dangerous. We observe, however, that the governance of migration remains siloed, and primarily attached to ‘crisis’ narratives (Bigo, 2002; Menjívar et al, 2019; Pécoud, 2021). The actions of nation states in individualised scenarios are usually at odds with the expectations of the Compacts. Nation states continue to involve themselves in regulatory and policing acts at their nominal borders that contravene the degree of cooperation and approach to which they have committed. This prompts questions specific to the adherence and implementation of the Compacts. With continued competing priorities, perspectives and expectations, do states and international organisations have the sustained cooperation capacity to efficiently and effectively operationalise global governance infrastructures, as agreed (see Hyndman and Reynolds, 2020)?

The ‘fragmented tapestry’ of global governance, through the multiplicity of actors and agencies at various scales of engagement, constitutes a major structural challenge to any notion of coordinated migration management (Koser, 2010; Betts, 2011). High-level multilateral agencies such as the United Nations (UN), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the International Labour Organization (ILO) each operate with differentiated aims and objectives that are contextually and temporally specific. This variegated approach reflects and reinforces the heterogeneity of migration itself and how the process unfolds in and across sites of origin, transit and destination. Further, the variance in migration outcomes, especially those observed at the level of nation states, reveal that governments are uncertain about what they want to achieve with their local migration policies (Martin, 2015). Governments’ decisions are fragmented, ad hoc and reactionary as they are impacted by the competing expectations of their localities, and their international commitments. There also exists an ongoing complex negotiation about the global governance of regulation versus rights of people on the move. Sacrificing people’s rights also creates spaces for the forging of new paths of dangerous and irregular movement.

The global governance of migration strikes at the heart of nation state sovereignty, which constitute questions around national borders and national identity. Who do governments allow to enter and remain in territory, and who may become citizens? Domestic policies and laws are in tension with international obligations, where, often, local actions and posturing are privileged. Migration is a particularly politically fraught issue at the domestic level, as it is tied to political popularity (Rother and Steinhilper, 2019). Political parties tend to strategically engage popular perceptions of migration to mobilise support from the electorate. In engaging the subjectivities of national identity, this usually results in contrarian actions, relative to external expectations, the needs of the country, and migration generally. The GCM and GCR set out the guiding principles and objectives for how migration management and refugee protection should be addressed in states – sites of origin, transit and host. These Compacts are based on previously laid architectures in conventions and practices – ideas and efforts that Hyndman (2021) argues are not new. While the Compacts signal great cooperation between states and other entities, their operationalisation, in fact, work to contain people on the move, in efforts to maintain the status quo. The Compacts, in essence ask, how can displacement be contained ‘over there’, offshore (Hyndman, 2021: 15)? In the same vein, other scholars have argued that the Compacts privilege measures that focus on state to state movement and not across regions (Maple, Reardon-Smith and Black, 2021). This gives Global North countries dominance in the migration landscape through their self-serving domestic policies. It is an ongoing commentary that serves to bolster the elevation of the individualised objectives of the nation state over their global commitments.

A critical and prohibitive feature of international governance treaties and agreements on migration, including the Global Compacts, is the absence of regulatory mechanisms to ensure the honouring of obligations by signatories. These institutional agreements are non-binding, which means that states are not mandated to ratify and incorporate international guidance into their domestic laws and policies. Further, states are able to shirk their commitments without legal repercussions or significant material consequence. The traditional ‘name and shame’ approach by multilateral agencies to draw attention to offending signatories has not proven to be effective, as state actions usually remain unchanged.

The input of civil society and migrant organisations’ perspectives in crafting a rights-based approach to governance in the Global Compacts has also been tied to a role of keeping states accountable (Rother and Steinhilper, 2019). However, the ways in which this can be done is still unclear, as even their inclusion has been critiqued as being tokenistic. There remains an urgency, however, in ensuring that states honour their commitments to the Compacts. This may take the form of stringent ramifications for unilateral state action and/or non-action on the matter of migration.

The question remains, do existing global governance infrastructures have the capacity to keep apace with the observed intensification and nuances in global mobility and migration? The successes of implementation of the Global Compacts’ guidance, in particular, hinge on surmounting the structural and political challenges previously faced in the negotiating process. With the absence of political will to implement these frameworks, in addition to checks and balances, the global migration landscape will remain fragmented and continue to be politicised through the reproduction of ‘crisis’ narratives, and manifest increasingly deadly structural barriers to movement. Further, while the Compacts are articulated and framed within the context of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, we are hopeful that unlike the moving target of the previous Millennium Development Goals, that the goalpost isn’t once again shifted. In present circumstances, it appears that the global governance of migration is positioned to fail and that safe, orderly and regular migration will remain aspirational.

Conclusions

We have suggested that global migration enters a new era as it ascends to become one of the most pressing global social challenges of our time. In this article, we have mapped some of human migration’s many empirical forms, patterns and variations, as well as key structural barriers to mobility and challenges to the global governance of migration and displacement. We have discussed and advocated in favour of intersectional and transnational approaches to human migration. We positioned these as critiques of existing efforts to govern migration and consequential practices that might go further than existing agreements to address shared needs for labour migration and resettlement commitments that counter the spreading, violent effects of nationalism, racism and xenophobic populism taking hold around the globe.

There is no question that the arrival of the global pandemic brought with it increased social polarisation and the intensification of barriers to human mobility, beginning with the fortification of material boundaries designed to police entry. The pandemic has therefore brought renewed attention to how migration becomes so readily and quickly politicised. But there were also, importantly, simultaneous and strengthened calls for the abolition of some boundaries that separate and divide, like detention facilities. At the same time that nation states were exposed in their protection of their own citizens and their rapid exclusion of non-citizens, they faced global solidarity movements hewn to counter White supremacy, xenophobia and the nationalist narratives that compel them forward.

With social polarisation and socio-economic inequality rendered more extreme by the ongoing global pandemic, and displacement intensifying daily with new and ongoing conflicts around the globe, we have arrived at a critical historical moment where more research is needed that sheds light on these changes. In this article we have discussed both the contours of the lived experiences of migration and mapped some of the extensive infrastructure designed to regulate or govern migration. What is needed now is intersectional and transnational research on migration that attends to both structural barriers and human agency and resilience to move and survive in spite of the violent borders built to separate and divide. Research that engages migration in intersectional and transnational ways facilitates understanding that the permutations and possibilities of migration journeys are endless.

Acknowledgements

We thank the anonymous reviewers for their feedback and Ana Visan and Momin Rahman for suggestions and insights. All mistakes are our own.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Export Citation
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  • De Haas, H. (2011) The determinants of international migration: conceptualizing policy, origin and destination effects, International Migration Institute Working Paper Series, Working Paper 32, 135.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • De Haas, H., Castles, S. and Miller, M.J. (2020) The Age of Migration: International Populations Movements in the Modern World, 6th edn, London: Red Globe Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Donato, K.M. and Gabaccia, D. (2015) Gender and International Migration, New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

  • Glick Schiller, N., Basch, L. and Blanc‐Szanton, C. (1992) Transnationalism: a new analytic framework for understanding migration, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 645(1): 124. 

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Godenau, D. and López-Sala, A. (2016) Multi-layered migration deterrence and technology in Spanish maritime border management, Journal of Borderlands Studies, 31(2): 15169.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hyndman, J. (2021) Global compacts of containment? Geopolitics by design, in H. Al-Harithy (ed) Urban Recovery: Intersecting Displacement with Post War Reconstruction, Abingdon: Routledge, pp 1534.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hyndman, J. and Giles, W. (2016) Refugees in Extended Exile: Living on the Edge, Abingdon: Routledge.

  • Hyndman, J. and Reynolds, J. (2020) Introduction: beyond the global compacts, Refuge, 36(1): 6674. doi: 10.25071/1920-7336.40768

  • Ilcan, S. and Squire, V. (forthcoming) Syrian experiences of remaking home: migratory journeys, state refugee policies, and negotiated belonging, in Y. Shamma, S. Ilcan, V. Squire and H. Underhill (eds) Making Home Away: Migration, Displacement, Resettlement, London: Palgrave. 

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Iosifides, T. (2013) Qualitative Methods in Migration Studies: A Critical Realist Perspective, Farnham: Ashgate.

  • Jones, R. (2016) Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move, London: Verso.

  • Jones, R. (2021) White Borders: The History of Race and Immigration in the United States from Chinese Exclusion to the Border Wall, Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kalir, B. (2013) Moving subjects, stagnant paradigms: can the ‘mobilities paradigm’ transcend methodological nationalism?, Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 39(2): 31127. doi: 10.1080/1369183X.2013.723260

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kearney, M. (1991) Borders and boundaries of state and self at the end of empire, Journal of Historical Sociology, 4(1): 5274. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-6443.1991.tb00116.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kempadoo, K. (2005) From moral panic to global justice: changing perspectives on trafficking, in K. Kempadoo, J. Sanghera and B. Pattanaik (eds) Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights, Boulder, CO: Paradigm.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Keung, N. (2022) Canada wants to welcome 1.3 million newcomers over three years – but can its immigration system keep up?, The Toronto Star, 14 February, https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2022/02/14/canada-unveils-plans-to-welcome-13-million-newcomers-over-three-years.html, (Accessed: 14 Feb 2022).

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    • Export Citation
  • King, R. (2012) Geography and migration studies: retrospect and prospect, Population, Space and Place, 18(2): 13453. doi: 10.1002/psp.685

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kivisto, P. (2011) Modernization, development and migration in a sceptical age, in T. Faist, M. Fauser and P. Kivisto (eds) The Migration–Development Nexus: A Transnational Perspective, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 20424. 

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Koirala, S. and Eshghavi, M. (2017) Intersectionality in the Iranian refugee community in the United States, Peace Review, 29(1): 859. doi: 10.1080/10402659.2017.1272316

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Koser, K. (2010) Introduction: international migration and global governance, Global Governance, 16(3): 30115. doi: 10.1163/19426720-01603001

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Levitt, P. (2012) What’s wrong with migration scholarship? A critique and a way forward, Identities, 19(4): 493500. doi: 10.1080/1070289X.2012.676255

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ludwig, B. (2016) ‘Wiping the refugee dust from my feet’: advantages and burdens of refugee status and the refugee label, International Migration, 54(1): 518. doi: 10.1111/imig.12111

    • Search Google Scholar
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Alison MountzWilfrid Laurier University, Canada

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Shiva S. MohanUniversity of Northern British Columbia, Canada

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