International Migration, Globalization, and Indifference

By Dr Ana Margheritis, Politics & International Relations

Pope Francis’ recent reference to the “globalization of indifference” encourages reflection on several dimensions of current international affairs. His was a call to open our hearts to the hardships of thousands of displaced people who struggle to find a better life away from their place of origin, to go from watching to engagement, to be compassionate or, as he put it, to realize that we have “forgotten how to cry.” His July 8th visit to Lampedusa, a tiny island in the south of Italy where African immigrants indefinitely wait in precarious camps to cross the European border, was the Pope’s first official trip outside Rome and a deliberate choice full of symbolic gestures: he threw flowers into the sea as a sign of mourning for those who died trying to reach the coast; he offered an open-air mass in an improvised altar made of parts of boats used by those seeking refuge in Europe; he called on politicians to alleviate the suffering and on all of us to re-focus our attention towards those who live (and die) in the margins of society.

The awakening of consciousness Pope Francis advocates echoes the plight of various contestation movements that have questioned celebratory views of democracy and global capitalism. It calls attention to one of the most neglected aspects of global flows: human mobility, which tends to be seen mainly as free circulation of workers, that is, individuals who move freely in search of better labor conditions, wages, and living standards. According to predominant liberal economic views, the market would eventually regulate international migration and bring in/out flows to an equilibrium. Obviously, this view underestimates several dimensions of the migration problem and cannot account for the politics and policies surrounding people on the move, let alone for the situation of those who are forced to migrate, cannot decide about their displacement (such as migrant children), or have minimum to no chances of building a better life at destination.

In other words, globalization studies have been generally more focused on economic and financial flows than on increasing international migration and, despite some critics, have mostly encouraged an optimistic view that tends to make us oblivious (indifferent, as the Pope would say) to the suffering of millions of people. Even when scholars engage in the study of contestation, their empirical material is usually provided by the leaders or groups that have managed to organize and become visible and vocal, the institutional settings that enable some strategies of resistance to flourish, or the (more fashionable) transnational networks that presumably shape political activism today. Especially in the field of international relations, we are still indifferent to the anonymous voices and particular narratives of those whose lives are really at stake in a number of diverse, uncertain, and often dire migration journeys. Is this an ideological or methodological shortcoming? How long can we afford to disregard the complexities and urgencies involved in international migration?

Apropos of time, I have just listened to a number of distinguished historians debating the meaning and prospects of the notions of time, memory, and history in a lively meeting in Ghent last week. This reminded me of several studies on the non-lineal and non-homogenous idea of time migrants usually hold. Trying to make sense of uncertainty and risk, of lives that are neither here nor there, and permanently dreaming of a return with multiple meanings but no exact date, migrants oscillate between memory and forgetting as a way of coping with the realities of displacement. Their notions of time and history seem to be unrelated to the modernist ones that we usually use to analyze globalization. Is it that their views are different or are our concepts detached from their reality?

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