“It is easy to assume that this current immobility is truly exceptional. Yet, even as a greater study of immobility is important, scholars need to be cautious in assuming that the immobility caused by the pandemic is truly unprecedented”, writes Dr Yasmin Y. Ortiga (School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University)
Southeast Asia has served as an important site for the study of migration and mobility. The region includes some of the largest labor-exporting nations in the world (such as the Philippines and Indonesia). It is also home to countries that are highly reliant on migrant workers to care for children and the elderly, operate factories, and provide seasonal agricultural labor (such as Singapore, Thailand, and Malaysia).
The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted this entire system, forcing migration scholar to reflect on how cross-border movement might be different in the years to come. In this blog entry, I argue that a key part of addressing this question is raising the understudied issue of immobility. Why people do NOT move? And what does it now mean to “stay in place”?
Meanings for immobility in a pandemic
In the migration field, scholars tend to define immobility as involuntary, where individuals aspire to move, yet face political or economic constraints that prevent them from doing so. However, the work of Diana Mata-Codesal (2015) reminds us that people assign different meanings to different forms of immobility. Just as migration scholars have spent a considerable amount of time making sense of people’s migration aspirations, we also need to understand why many more choose to remain in place.
In 2020, I taught an undergraduate class on the Sociology of International Migration, where students were assigned to interview a relative, a stranger, or a friend on how the pandemic had impacted their migration experiences. What emerged was a diverse set of stories that showed how immigrants within, from, and beyond Singapore interpreted their own immobility.
One group of students had featured the story of Marvin, a Filipino IT professional who was on vacation in the Philippines when border closures prevented him from returning to his workplace in Singapore. While initially furloughed for 2 months, Marvin was able to retain his job and continue working from the Philippines. Yet, having lived in Singapore for more than 15 years, he was eager to return to his host country and applied multiple times for approval for re-entry, all of which were denied. Marvin’s strong desire to return to Singapore fueled a strong sense of involuntary immobility. He felt stranded in his “homeland.”
A different group of students spoke to Tyler, a 21-year old Singaporean who had moved to Australia with his family when he was 15 years old and was now a permanent resident there. Tyler returned to Singapore to fulfill national service requirements for Singaporean male citizens. He had just concluded a 3-year stint in the Singapore army when the pandemic hit. Like Marvin, Tyler was also stuck in a “homeland” that was no longer really “home” for him. He wanted to see his family in Australia and especially missed his younger sister.
Yet, unlike Marvin, Tyler’s immobility is more voluntary. After hearing news of poor quarantine protocols and rising cases of Covid-19 infections in Melbourne, he decided it would be better to remain in Singapore.
How do we make sense of these differences? Marvin and Tyler’s stories signal the need for migration scholars to investigate the experience of immobility even further, and perhaps examine how staying in place can sometimes be desired or accepted.
Is immobility truly unique?
As scholars grapple with the effects of the pandemic, it is easy to assume that this current immobility is truly exceptional. Yet, even as a greater study of immobility is important, scholars need to be cautious in assuming that the immobility caused by the pandemic is truly unprecedented.
Even before this pandemic, migration scholars focused on Southeast Asia have long argued that globalization has not led to a free-flow of cross-border movement. Xiang and Lindquist (2014) had argued that while we have seen the expansion of state institutions, commercial agencies, and networks that supposedly facilitate the movement of migrants, the growth of such migration infrastructure did not actually lead to an increasing number of people who actually move across borders.
Rather, what we have definitely seen is that migration is now more costly, more bureaucratic, and more complicated – and all of this occurs in a region that has supposedly become more global and interconnected.
In my own work, I interviewed aspiring nurse migrants from the Philippines who face multiple barriers in realizing their dreams of working overseas. Like many other professional migrants, nurses who move to places like the UK need to pass multiple exams, accumulate relevant work experience, and apply for visas. The pandemic merely adds to the many challenges they already face. In this sense, we need to understand immobility in the context of existing constraints on people’s movement and understand how the pandemic makes things better or worse.
Just last year (pre-pandemic), Kerilyn Schewel (2020) published an article at the International Migration Review, where she argues against what she called the “mobility bias” in migration studies – or the overfocus on cross-border movement and the tendency to see immobility as a “default situation” or a passive state of being.
Schewel was definitely not the first to make such an argument. Yet, her article signifies how questions of immobility continue to remain understudied. Now, I think we are well aware that remaining in place can be hard and takes a considerable amount of agency.
Perhaps this is the time to “shift our horizons” and I look forward to seeing what this might mean for the study of migration in Southeast Asia
Mata-Codesal, D. 2015. “Ways of Staying Put in Ecuador: Social and Embodied Experiences of Mobility–Immobility Interactions.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 41(14), 2274–2290.
Schewel, K. 2020. “Understanding Immobility: Moving Beyond the Mobility Bias in Migration Studies.” International Migration Review, 54(2), 328–355.
* This post is based on Dr Yasmin Y. Ortiga’s roundtable intervention delivered on 27th October 2020 as part of SEAC Southeast Asia Week 2020. You can access a recording of the “Migration and Mobility in the COVID-19 Era” roundtable here.
* The views expressed in the blog are those of the authors alone. They do not reflect the position of the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre, nor that of the London School of Economics and Political Science.