“What I think is likely to happen is that at the destination end migrants will be met with growing restrictionism. The kind of lockdown resulting from the pandemic is what nativists, nationalists, anti-globalists have been dreaming of, this is their kind of wet dream” (Alan Gamlen)

cover human geopoliticsI recently interviewed Alan Gamlen for Conversations with Iris. I have known Alan for many years. We cross-path in Oxford when we were both an active part of the vibrant research community working on migration and displacement. We worked together on the Leverhulme-funded Oxford Diasporas Programme. In this period, Alan brought together (often on Thursday evenings in a pub) a group of friends and fellow migration scholars around the idea of creating a new journal for migration research. The outcome of those chats was the foundation of the journal Migration Studies. Alan is now Associate Professor of Geography at Monash University. He has recently stepped down as Editor-in-Chief of Migration Studies, but remains involved as Chair of the Global Editorial Board.  Together we are also editors of  the Global Migration and Social Change book series for Bristol University Press. Alan’s recent monograph, Human Geopolitics (2019) is an excellent examination of diaspora institutions and transnational connections. In a Working Paper published in Compas series, Alan reflects on the pandemic and its potential impact on mobility in the future. We start our conversation from there.

N: Having read your working paper, the big question is, is this the end of the age of migration and what do we mean by that?

A: Yes, whether or not we see the end of the age of migration obviously depends on a lot of decisions that haven’t been made and the great thing about people is that they can change their minds but that said, there’s a lot of writing on the wall.  First, we know that migration has gone through boom and bust cycles before and that it has been expanding really globally since World War II and particularly rapidly since 1990 – the first graph that I showed in that working paper shows how net migration has really expanded in that post war period and 1990.  Second we also know that attitudes and behaviour surrounding migration changed markedly after the global financial crisis and that since then we’ve seen a rise in restrictionist public opinion, political rhetoric, policy making towards migration and also a levelling off globally of net migration rates.  Third we know the pandemic has at least temporarily frozen all forms of human mobility from walking to the shops to commuting to the office to visiting another country and that some of these restrictions are going to be with us for many months to come for health reasons alone.  And finally we also know that the pandemic might dampen some of the long term factors that are driving migration including the demand for immigrant labour which as I said will probably have to fall as a result of unemployment and economic contraction including the generally socially and economically liberal attitudes towards migration in destination countries that’s predominated in the past few decades but which are starting already to become markedly more closed and illiberal and including I think the willingness of migrants to take risks which we know might be reduced by the crisis.  So it is not an inevitability but there are major signs that this post war international boom which has really lifted off since the 1990s is over and that net migration like all forms of globalisation really might go into a downswing.

N: On the other hand Alan, I was wondering that if what is going to fall out from the pandemic is a huge economic crisis and this is likely to affect….well it is going to be global but you just need to go down a scale and we’re probably going to see quite significant differences regionally in terms of who is going to more affected, which countries are more resilient or some countries might be able to turn it into opportunities.  What I mean is the so called push factors are going to be there….in a situation where you can have a famine or a massive disruption of the economic system which may be already weak, that would be a push for people to continue to move.  We are going to see potentially new areas of conflict, also real conflict, military conflict or tensions, social tensions in the near future.  What do you think?

A: That’s a really good point I think Nando.  On one hand some people will be more risk averse and more impatient as a result of this crisis and decide not to migrate as a result.  Other people are going to be desperate for remittances or desperate to flee livelihood collapse or desperate to get out of the circumstances that are kind of stem off effects of the recession resulting from the pandemic.  So that interaction on the one hand some types of people being less likely to migrate and some types of people being more likely to migrate, I think this could lead to some non-linear changes in migration flows in the short to medium term, some unpredictability.  What I think is likely to be more consistent is that at the destination end they will probably be met with growing restrictionism and that’s just because the trend, you know, of border walls going up predates the pandemic considerably and we’ve had a decade of nativists finding their way into power, you know, nationalist, populist governments, politicians finding their way into government and the kinds of lockdown resulting from the pandemic is what they’ve been dreaming of, this is their kind of wet dream so it’s hard to see that the political environment and the policy environment coming out of that towards these perhaps unpredictable flows that might result in the short to medium term will become any more open and in fact it seems likely that it will become more closed.  A final thing to note is that I think Steven Vertovec’s prediction is pretty good there which is that, you know, we might all start to look a lot like Singapore where you’ve got a very tightly controlled indentured labour-like system for low skilled workers and then a much freer, open global mobility system for the cosmopolitan elites.

N:  In your work on the global governance of migration you really emphasise the role of UN agencies and clearly after the so called refugee crisis we have seen a reorganisation of the global governance of migration, the work around the global compacts, IOM becoming a UN agency etc. etc. and that’s what’s in a sense a response to a crisis, a big crisis that pushed this process of rethinking and transformation.  Are we going to see a new big transformation following the pandemic?

A: Well I think that both the United Nations level promotion of global governance of migration and the national sovereignty based response to that and demand to control migration are going on at the same time and that’s going to continue.  It’s true that global migration governance has really ramped up in the last few years and there’s a couple of things going on: one is a long term agenda that many national governments and international organisations have had to create better coordination at the international level and that has been very incremental. The other as you’ve seen is a series of shocks which has forced governments who otherwise wouldn’t have really thought about the problem to come to the international community for a cooperative solution and that’s led to….you know, made it possible to form new and international forums and initiatives that previously weren’t feasible, that would have been in resistance, so that’s happening and will continue to happen.  But the real divide here is that the countries which send migrants are generally poorer and are in favour of migration governance happening at the global level, while the countries that receive migrants are generally wealthier and are against global governance and migration and that’s been true for many decades and that’s really the fault line that’s running down the middle of the debate about the global governance of migration and I think what the pandemic has done is to strengthen the arguments of the anti globalists, the anti immigrationists, the sovereigntists, sometimes the nativists or the neo nativists and strengthened their arguments for restricting immigration and indeed allowing them to take hold and control immigration in ways which they had only previously dreamed of.

N: Obviously you are based in Australia and so you are the best placed to answer this question but the Australian model, the points based model is basically the holy grail of migration policy here in the UK – sometimes I got the impression that we are facing one of the classic phenomenons that the grass of your neighbour is always greener, especially if it is a far away garden that you cannot really check in the details, so I was wondering how the pandemic is affecting the Australian approach to migration?  Can you see some emerging impact of the pandemic on how Australia is governing migration or is going to govern past this time?

A: That’s a really good question. Yes, but before I say that I just, you know, agree with you wholeheartedly that this grass is always greener approach is one of the best ways for a policy entrepreneur to get people to take notice of the policy that they particularly like.  So say, ‘hey what I’m advocating has worked really well in Timbuktu’ and it’s really the Australian model is a really great way to provide social proof for an idea that you want to promote – I totally agree with that and that’s behind the policy mobilities dynamic that I was looking at in Human Geopolitics actually so you’re right there.  There’s social proof that British policy makers are trying to use, by referring to Australia and yet the policies that they’re trying to implement don’t really necessarily work like the Australian system and in fact it would be really hard, if not impossible to import the Australian model wholesale as a kind of plug and play operation – it’s just not realistic so I agree with you there.  In terms of what’s happening to Australia I think there’s a realistic possibility here that we are seeing the end of what has essentially been a long post war boom in immigration so if you look at a graph of the percentage of foreign born in the Australian population since the 19th Century, it’s a big U, a big U curve with the low point right in the middle of the 20th Century, you know after World War I, Great Depression, World War II, you know, not a great time to travel internationally and then after that gradually we have seen a steady upsurge in migration and particularly since the 1990s really.  It has been a real boom in international migration you know the latest wave of globalisation and I think there’s a realistic possibility that we’re going to see a reduction in the number of international students and working holidaymakers who are making their way to Australia on a temporary basis, I think it is realistic that there will be a reduction in the employer demand for migrant labour given that there’s very high unemployment at the moment and there will be political pressure for employers to take Australian workers above migrants.  There will also be fewer jobs on offer and I think it is also realistic that migrants may be less inclined to move, people who, you know who would normally be planning to make a move to a place like Australia might decide to hold that back until times are a little bit less risky.  So that’s a slightly long winded answer to your question but I think there’s a realistic possibility that in Australia and actually more broadly that we might be seeing a downswing in migration coming up.

N: Thank you very much Alan, it has been a pleasure to talk to you and hopefully we get more opportunities in the future.