Critical perspectives on crisis and migration

Recent research investigates how crisis and migration come together in various places around the world, showing how these situations are experienced by people on the ground, how they are spun by political actors, and how they fit within longer histories of social change and mobility. 

Anna Lindley
16 May 2014

Crisis and migration have a long association, in popular and policy discourse, and in social scientific analysis. Despite the emergence of more nuanced and even celebratory accounts of mobility in recent years, there remains a persistent emphasis on migration being either a symptom or a cause of crisis.

A man stands surrounded by the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in the city of Tacloban, Philippines

A man stands surrounded by the devastation wrought by Typhoon Haiyan in the Phillipines/Flickr/Henry Donati/Some rights reserved

Since the mid-2000s, alongside protracted conflict situations, a series of new crises with strong migratory elements have hit our headlines, from the global economic crisis, Arab uprisings, and the East African drought, to the Haiti earthquake and typhoon Haiyan. Meanwhile, tensions around migration are mounting, sometimes prompting serious backlashes, from Kuala Lumpur to Johannesburg to Athens, and with daily tragedies in hostile border zones. Terms like ‘crisis migration’ and ‘migration crisis’ are acquiring increasing and renewed currency among academics and policy-makers alike. A recent book project by researchers at SOAS and colleagues at other institutions provides fresh perspectives on this routine association, critically examining a series of politically controversial situations around the world.

Concepts and connections

Crisis is a concept loud and – often – vague. But two features stand out in how we understand crises. First, crises are not a ‘normal’ state of affairs; they are commonly understood to involve some kind of marked discontinuity, although they may differ in onset and trajectories. Second, crisis intimates some kind of significant and pervasive threat to human needs and goals, which may play out at a micro or more global scale. Crisis analysis often revolves around measurement of trigger variables and immediate consequences. But it is also important to understand underlying structural processes; the lived experiences and perceptions of people on the ground; and the political construction of crisis by dominant actors.

Migration, meanwhile, may be understood spatially, as a movement between distinct places and involving the crossing of some kind of socially significant frontier. It is also clearly located in time, as a movement that leads to the establishment of some kind of regular life in the chosen destination. Of course, states categorise people on the move in ways that powerfully shape how we think about migration, most obviously as internal or international, temporary or permanent, forced or voluntary.

Different branches of social theory take rather different views of crisis and migration, and how they coalesce.  In functionalist approaches, crises tend to be seen as the temporary result of rapid transition, punctuating a broader social equilibrium or modernisation pathway. Alongside this we can trace a long history of viewing migration as perhaps inevitable but somehow dangerous, deviating from dominant spatial orders which naturalize people’s connections to place.

By contrast, crisis is a central and recurring feature of the progression of capitalism in Marxist-influenced analysis; with migration featuring as an integral part of processes of primitive accumulation and the production of a ‘reserve army of labour’, tending to serve the interests of capital, a major challenge being how to build solidarity across diverse groups. The rise of neoclassical economics marked a turn towards more ‘mobility positive’ views, drawing on the idea that the free movement of labour, capital and goods led ultimately to equilibrium and convergence, the opposite of crisis. Meanwhile, post-modern approaches have challenged conventional, territorially-bound and singular notions of family, identity, home.

International development policy-makers have increasingly celebrated migration as a ‘tool for development’, focusing in particular on remittances as a solution to the crisis in development financing, as a bottom-up solution to the hardships faced by many communities around the world. Ultimately, however, this ‘migration and development’ policy agenda has remained heavily circumscribed by the interests of rich states, which still fiercely guard their migration controls, albeit with frequent discrepancies between rhetoric and reality. Changing global migration dynamics have been met with increasingly assiduous efforts to ‘manage’ migration, and the erosion of political will to uphold official protections reserved for refugees. There is growing policy concern about crisis-generated migration, and migration-generated crises.


Exploring crisis-migration relationships and responses across diverse contexts, we aimed to get a better understand of how concepts of crisis and migration unfold and coalesce, paying close attention to how people experience ‘crises of migration’; how the situations are structured within longer histories of social change and mobility; and how they are constructed politically by different actors.

Interesting insights are offered by studying crisis-generated migration in the Middle East and North Africa, Somalia, and Mexico. With recent shifts in Arab migrations often depicted as creating an ‘immigration crisis’ in European destinations, Adam Hanieh and Philip Marfleet argue we need to shift attention to the longer history of the ‘migration-crisis nexus’ in the Middle East and North Africa, highlighting the often over-looked role of external influence (including colonial, neoliberal and recent politico-military interventions) in shaping processes of regional change and migration over the last 200 years. Narrowing the focus to Egypt, they highlight the social differentiation of migration, with ‘temporary’ labour migration becoming a permanent survival strategy for people on the hard end of neoliberal reform, compounded by recent political instability.

Questions of timeframes and wider structural processes are also critical to understanding how crisis and migration coalesce in Somalia. Laura Hammond and I challenge the dominant narrative of Somalia as being in ‘constant crisis’, based on evidence of dramatically shifting socio-political landscapes over the last twenty-five years.

However, a narrative of Somalia as endemically crisis-ridden performs various functions for political actors: it is easily mobilized to justify both action and inaction, and it distances political actors from responsibility for missed opportunities, intransigent strategies and poorly conceived interventions. Meanwhile, we highlight the need to go beyond the dominant image of displaced Somalis as humanitarian victims, and do more to understand the multi-causal, differentiated and strategic aspects of contemporary mobility, and its centrality to processes of social change in Somalia.

New arrivals rest in the shade at the Dollo Ado reception center, Ethiopia, after their long journey from Somalia

New arrivals from Somalia face a harsh, uncertain fate in this Ethiopian camp/Wikimedia/P. Heinlein/Some rights reserved

While the Somali situation has long been seen as catastrophic, Laura Rubio Díaz-Leal and Sebastián Albuja focus on a crisis downplayed, in Mexico. Challenging the dominant view of Mexican migration as economically-motivated movement northwards, it is clear that violence and insecurity arising from confrontations between the government and the drug cartels since 2007 have generated major internal displacement. Opinion polls and narrative research demonstrate that this violence has been experienced as a major crisis by ordinary citizens across Mexico. Statistical analysis links the violence to significant new trends in internal forced migration. However, the government has systematically denied the severity of the situation, in an effort to protect its domestic political legitimacy and international credibility. As a result of this policy inertia, the crisis continues: people continue to be displaced, and met with minimal assistance, transmitting pressures to receiving areas.

Meanwhile, ‘immigration crises’ of various kinds have been declared in recent years in South Africa, Europe and East Asia: closer analysis unsettles common assumptions about these situations. For example, examining the impact of the global economic crisis on migrant workers in East Asia challenges the common notion that migration is a temporary feature easily stopped or reversed in the context of economic crisis. According to Dae Oup Chang, the regionalising circuit of capital in East Asia has ensured continued structural demand for migration. Echoing evidence form the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, the crisis has had some effects on migration indicators in major labour-importing countries, but this is less significant or prolonged than one might expect, or government rhetoric suggests. However, the squeezing of migrant workers has provided strong additional impetus to the development of a more assertive political subjectivity among migrant workers.

Meanwhile, Julien Jeandesboz and Polly Pallister-Wilkins unpack how the Arab uprisings were immediately constructed as an ‘immigration crisis’ for the European Union, showing that political emphasis on crisis enables the adoption and practice of emergency measures, while in fact masking the continuation of routine practices of immigration control. Crisis labelling also sets particular spatiotemporal limits on analysis, diverting attention from more severe structural issues and inequalities that drive much contemporary mobility beyond and into Europe.

Analysis of the situation in South Africa also challenges dominant discourses on migration. Iriann Freemantle and Jean Pierre Misago document how the government framed the wave of anti-outsider violence in 2008 as a ‘non-crisis’ or ‘just crime’, denying the existence of xenophobia as a major structural problem, despite the displacement of some 100,000 people. At the same time, the government claims the country is facing an immigration crisis, positioning foreigners as antagonistic to South Africa. Meanwhile, it formulates social cohesion as a problem of inherited racial division, effectively denying the relevance of other forms of politicised difference – South African nationals who were targeted in the violence as outsiders, and long-term international migrants do not fit within this discourse. Taken together, these political stances ignore the evidence on the ground, and work to legitimise xenophobic violence, allowing social instability to fester and recur.

Border closure is a common response to mass influxes of refugees. Katy Long’s analysis of three such border closures – Turkey/Northern Iraq in 1991, Macedonia/Kosovo in 1999 and Kenya/Somalia from 2007 to 2012 – shows that the language of national refugee crisis may be deployed by governing elites to mask and manage subnational discontents. But in the very real humanitarian emergencies that can result from these situations, the international community often fails to challenge the border closure itself, instead responding with new and ingenious programmes (such as in-country safe zones and humanitarian evacuation). Humanitarian action can effectively serve to mask the politics of border closure, and hide the role that nation-state structures play in producing refugee flows.

Finally, Tania Kaiser’s ethnographic study of Sudanese refugees focuses on the family, challenging the notion that family life disintegrates in the context of crisis and migration. Humanitarian actors typically emphasise the importance of material and technical assistance to address refugees’ immediate needs, and also the importance of restoring family unity. But ethnographic research shows how Sudanese refugees both experience and manage crisis through the family, transforming and adapting social relations and livelihood strategies in the context of protracted displacement, even dispersing further in pursuit of individual and collective goals.


Four main themes arise from the analysis. First, it brings migration from the margins to the centre of discussions of social change and crisis. Crisis and migration are not isolated, anomalous events, but processes firmly embedded in wider patterns of social change and transformation, connecting closely with, for example, histories of colonialism, nation-state formation, de-agrarianisation, industrialisation, urbanisation, deregulation of trade, financialisation, labour market flexibilisation, global and regional geopolitical shifts, demographic shifts, and climate change. Also, migration is not a mere side-effect of crisis, as sometimes depicted, but is actually often central to how people experience and respond to crisis, plays a major role in how crises unfold, and may transmit the effects of crisis to far-off places. Crisis may disrupt, intensify, or otherwise shape routine social and migration patterns, practices and differentiation, and may have changing effects as it unfolds. At policy level, crisis-mode responses may reflect, or break with predominant modes of governing migration.

Second, we cast a spotlight on the intense politicization of relationships between crisis and migration. Political actors often strenuously construct migration situations as crises to divert domestic discontent, or to secure support for exceptional policy measures. Conversely, we also find contexts where political actors engage in ‘business-as-usual’ discourse, downplaying extreme migration experiences, especially where acknowledgement would undermine their legitimacy and credibility. Across both over- and under-hyped situations, weather-related analogies and humanitarian terminology is often used to describe migration in contexts of crisis, to obscure questions of political responsibility. Gaps between rhetoric and reality abound, evident both in instances where restrictive, crisis rhetoric is belied by the permeability of borders on the ground, as well as in instances where much-vaunted liberal values are belied by deaths at the border and denials of protection. Much more research is needed on the responses of migrants to crisis and categorization: these situations may not only be the scenes of suffering, but also of the emergence of new political subjectivities, agency and resistance.

Third, although the spotlight is most often on crisis generating emigration and immigration generating crisis, other ‘spatialisations’ come to light. Crises may also immobilize, preventing people from migrating, or returning home. Out-migration may act as a safety-valve (averting crisis in places of origin), or alternatively cause acute labour shortages and social disarticulation. Mass repatriation may impose immense pressures. When crises hit migrants’ places of residence, multiple outcomes are possible: migrants may return, or move onwards, but personal ties and on-going structural demand for immigrant labour often mean that migrants stay put and weather crises. Indeed in many countries a mass exodus of migrants would substantially undermine the economic model, public services and social stability. We need to be attentive to the ‘spatial fix’ of crisis analysis: moving from beyond over-worked ‘immigration crises’ to origin, transit, regionalised and transnational perspectives so as to help bring other realities into focus.

Lastly, this research encourages a nuanced, cautious and critical approach to routine associations of crisis and migration. Notions of ‘crisis migration’ and ‘migration crisis’ reflect some aspects of contemporary realities. But they are also politicized constructs, easily mobilized in policy discourse to support restrictive approaches which constrain rather than enable people’s attempts to cope with crisis through mobility.

Crisis and Migration: Critical Perspectives will be published in June 2014 by Routledge.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData