Once, after I’d given a talk, an academic feminist geographer became very upset while trying to get me to admit that the poor of this world are victims objectively, by definition, because of ‘global structural inequalities’. I replied that I understood how she, coming from her position of middle-class person identifying as socialist, produced poorer people this way. I went on to say, ‘But if you move over to the poor person’s place and ask them how they see their situation, they may well not produce such an image of themselves.’ I thought the woman was going to go through the roof with outrage at my refusal to accept her point as objectively true.
This planet is rife with terrible differences between the poor and the rich, men mostly have more power and money than everyone else and things are getting worse. But given the injustice, I prefer to listen to how people describe their own realities rather than create static, general categories like Exploited Victims. It is also not smart to claim that poor people only leave their countries because they are forced to, with no possibility for their desires and abilities to think and weigh risks. Most poor people don’t leave their countries.
I published Forget Victimisation: Granting Agency to Migrants in 2003, but several people have written to me recently about how up-to-date and useful it is. In the mainstream media, two reductionist visions are common: one that blames migrants as grasping criminals, the other that sees them as sad victims. Unfortunately many people with leftist sympathies and visions fall into the trap of victimisation. Click on the title to get the pdf or read the whole thing below. What I say applies to all migrants, whatever jobs they do, including sex work.
Forget Victimisation: Granting Agency to Migrants
Development, 46.3, 30-36 (2003)
There is a growing tendency to victimise poor people, weak people, uneducated people and migrant people. The trend, which began as a way of drawing attention to specific forms of violence committed against women, has now become a way of describing everyone on the lower rungs of power. Routinely, supporters position them as victims in order to claim rights for them, but this move also turns them into victims, and victims need help, need saving—which gives a primary role to supporters. Much rhetoric about migration has fallen into this pattern: migrants, it turns out, are not only vulnerable to exploitation, a patent truth, but they are ‘victims’.
The other choice, according to sensationalist media treatments, is criminal. Since news on migrants is reported only when disasters befall them, or when they are caught in something ‘illegal’, they can only be positioned in one of these two ways: as past victims of poverty or conflict in their home states and present victims of criminal bands, or as criminals who take advantage of such victims. The victims need to be saved, and the criminals to be punished. This reductionism encourages the idea that there is something inherently dangerous about being a migrant. Since migrants are usually seen as people from the third world, the positioning of so many of them as victims—of economic restructuring if not of criminal agents—harks back unsettlingly to the old category of the ‘native’. And since migrants nowadays are so often women, these natives are constituted as backward, developmentally less than first-world women. This is most overt, of course, in ‘trafficking’ discourses (for example, in Barry, 1979) but can now be heard in general talk about ‘illegal’ migrants.
Ratna Kapur shows how this victimising tendency began in the early 1990s with the project to reveal the widespread, routine nature of violence against women:
In the context of law and human rights, it is invariably the abject victim subject who seeks rights, primarily because she is the one who has had the worst happen to her. The victim subject has allowed women to speak out about abuses that have remained hidden or invisible in human rights discourse (Kapur, 2001: 5).
This strategy has led to many benefits for women. The problem is that the person designated a victim tends to take on an identity as victim that reduces her to being seen as a passive receptacle and ‘encourages some feminists in the international arena to propose strategies which are reminiscent of imperial interventions in the lives of the native subject’ (Kapur, 2001: 6).
The category ‘migrant’, awkward and ambiguous to begin with, becomes more so when it is victimised. In this article, I want to look at what we think we mean when we call someone a migrant, and then suggest that there are both class and postcolonial analyses to be made of this constructed identity and the passivity assigned to it. To do this, I will call on my own research with migrating people in various parts of the world. What I recount is widely known, but not often included in formal studies of migrations.
On the surface, there seem to be patently different kinds of travellers: tourists, people whose work involves travel, refugees and migrants. Tourists are generally defined as people with time and money to spend on leisure activities who take a trip somewhere to do it: they are ‘travelling for pleasure’. Tourism is defined by an absence (work), and tourists are believed to have left their jobs behind to indulge consciously in not working. In the literature, the tourist is someone from the North (the tourism of Southerners is invisible). Some people oppose a status of ‘traveller’ to that of tourist, saying their trips are unplanned, open-ended, longer and more appreciative of the ‘real culture’ of a place. ‘Interacting with the culture’ is the goal for many of these, and this interaction most likely comes about through getting a job. ‘Working’ does not exclude pleasure, then, for first-world subjects.
People who travel in the course of carrying out their jobs are at first glance also clearly identifiable. Whether sent on trips by companies or undertaking them on their own, business travellers are obliged to be on the road. Their trips may be long or short, involve familiarity with the culture visited and the local language or not and require sociability or not, but they have in common that this is not supposed to be ‘leisure time’. But is this true? Many businesspeople also engage in tourism during their trips, using their ‘expense accounts’ to entertain clients, much of this money going to sites where tourists also go (theatres, cabarets, sex or gambling clubs, restaurants, bars, boat trips, sports events). The trips taken to attend conferences, do field work or provide consultations by academics, ‘development’ and technical consultants, missionaries and social-sector personnel also feature tourism. Sports professionals, singers, musicians, actors, salespeople, sailors, soldiers, airline and train personnel, commercial fishermen, farm-workers, long-distance truck drivers and a variety of others travel as part of their professions. Modern explorers search for oil, minerals, endangered species of animals and plants and ‘lost’ archaeological artefacts. Many of these people spend a long time away from home, and their work life is punctuated by leisure and tourist activities. Some of these people have homes or ‘home bases’ in more than one place. Students who take years abroad or travel to do field work are combining tourism and work. The main goal of a voyage for religious pilgrims is not work, but they may work and engage in tourist activities on the way to and from the pilgrimage. And then there are nomads whose traditional way of gaining a livelihood includes mobility.
The dichotomy working traveller/work-free traveller is misleading, and many forms of travel have aspects of both. So what makes a ‘migrant’ different?
This other kind of traveller
Some people distinguish between all the above types and ‘migrants’, on the grounds that the latter ‘settle’. According to this distinction, migrants move from their home to make another one in someone else’s country. They are not positioned as travellers or tourists, since they are looking not only to spend money but earn it. The word migrant is nearly always used about the working class, not about middle-class professionals and not about people from the first-world, even if they also have left home and moved to another country. Instead, the word rings of a subaltern status. Read the rest of this entry »