Photo courtesy ABC

The governments of Sri Lanka and Australia have recently reached an agreement over how to define the flow of undocumented migrants between these two countries. Both governments seem to agree on the benefits of using the category of “economic migrant” to refer to the thousands of young people who board small vessels to sail the long and dangerous journey to Australia in the hopes of reaching its shores safely. Sri Lanka would rather acknowledge the dearth of opportunities that youths face in the country than deal with human rights advocates who blame migration on the persistence of political violence, discrimination and insecurity amongst Tamil populations. Australia is ready to promptly deport the starving and the poor, although the government still believes it is their moral responsibility to protect asylum-seekers. “Economic migration” is thus presented as an apolitical phenomenon which needs to be handled exclusively as a problem of financial hardship and dealt with effective poverty reduction policies, completely bypassing questions of power and politics in either country.

An article recently published by Emily Howie (2013) of the Human Rights Law Centre in Australia, showed the careful election-related political and moral calculations that underlie statements by Australian politicians, as well as their difficult bargaining with the Sri Lankan authorities who have given the Australians an inkling that a change in their discourse could unleash a massive flow of boats landing on their coasts. Howie’s insightful article rejects the economic arguments that explain recent migratory flows to Australia and claims that there are complex political issues at hand. However, her work only pays scant attention to the problematic language that is being used by Australians and Sri Lankans, briefly pointing out that “the economic concerns that are motivating people are themselves inextricable from the effects of the war, post-war struggles, political problems, persecution, systemic discrimination and other forms of of injustice” (2013, 98).

The problem with economic migration as approached by Howie is that it presents it as a question of degree, assessing how political vs. economic are an individual’s motivations at the time of departure, in order to determine whether someone arriving on the Australian coast is a refugee or an economic “opportunist,” as Sri Lankan authorities like to call their migrants. The central problem is that economic migration is always a profoundly political phenomenon rooted in power dynamics that are built over years of systematic efforts to marginalize and exclude specific groups of people. Economic migration as a category can help explain the immediate hardships that an individual faces, but is a totally inadequate and misleading concept when it comes to explaining why an entire community seeks to leave a country.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) itself holds some reservations over the term, adducing that it is “often loosely used to distinguish from refugees fleeing persecution.” From an IOM perspective, an economic migrant is a broad category that identifies a group of people who leave their place of origin not under the figure of a refugee or an asylum-seeker. It makes good sense to make this distinction when states and international organizations are dealing with people directly involved in armed conflicts or who live in districts ravaged by the consequences of war. In this sense, people looking for ways to emigrate from Sri Lanka in 2013 are, for the most part, different from those who tried to flee while their villages were being shelled by the Sri Lankan army in 2009. However, past this very broad distinction, we may find that economic arguments by themselves are a poor indicator of why people decide to leave; and we may want to think about the more global connections that exist between migration, economy and politics.

Economic migration “usually arises from and reflects on economic inequality or inequality of economic opportunity between politically discrete zones […] Such inequalities include differences in workforce requirements, perception of differences in standard of living, and perceptions of difference in ideological inclination” (Gupta & Omoniyi 2007, 8). Using the word “economic” can be misleading in that it portrays a situation in which the financial conditions of a community can be appraised as an entirely separate category from the political conditions in which that community lives. I use the word community advisedly, as migration is almost always a collective endeavor. At the individual level, it is possible to understand the economic logic behind a prospective migrants desire to migrate, yet this economic rationale can strip bare the political contexts that give rise to the situation of poverty in the first place. As such, the problem with the concept of economic migration is not that it casts a shadow on matters of political importance, but that it creates an entire category of people that can only exist by oversimplifying the actual conditions in which they live their lives and by portraying a superficial interpretation of the motives that fuel migrants’s desires.

In a response to Howie, Muttukrishna Sarvananthan criticized her article for obscuring the fact that for most people the ultimate reason for migration is poverty, although Sarvananthan himself cites political motives fueling the desires of virtually every prospective migrants he mentions in his own article. To Sarvananthan, the absence of an immediate threat to the life of an individual, transforms her desire to leave into a personal yearning purely guided by a quest for material advancement. But if poverty is conceptualized as an economic problem exclusively related to scarcity of material resources, strategies to eradicate it will only continue in their failure to acknowledge that discussing poverty is futile if we ignore its structural causes, ethnic biases, ideological underpinnings and political value.

Migration takes place not so much when people live in a general state of poverty, but when they perceive that there are structural reasons that produce and sustain this inequality. In this sense, Sri Lankan youths are frustrated with the unavailability of opportunities for progress, which is different from observing a general state of economic stagnation across the country. Youths in Sri Lanka perceive that development prospects are unevenly distributed and monopolized by some very circumscribed groups in the country that seek the economic favors of the governing elites. There is a widely held perception that although it may be possible to live a peaceful and safe life in the country in 2013 without being a government supporter, it is virtually unimaginable to attain any type of economic or professional success without having to show one’s loyalty to the government at one point or another.

Sri Lankan youths who do not attempt to leave the country are thus not those who enjoy a comfortable economic situation, but mainly those who believe that their position in the current national political context provides them with a fair chance of success. Conversely, many who have the educational qualifications and economic conditions that would enable them to lead a prosperous livelihood in the country, consider that the risks of manifesting political allegiances or ethical values that are not in accord with the mainstream ideologies that guide contemporary Sri Lanka, may jeopardize the chances of success that they would enjoy abroad. The problem of economic migration is therefore not one of illuminating material conditions in detriment of the political aspects that generate poverty, but a conceptual problem by which the profoundly ideological and political causes of poverty are left unattended, and where only the consequences of poverty are ineffectively and superficially addressed with economic development policies.