The Philosopher's Eye

News and brain candy for the philosophy community

Mobility is “here to stay”

Guest Author: A. M Findlay, Editor, Population, Space and Place

The erection of new barbed wire fences on the Hungary – Serbia frontier, the re-appearance of border guards asking for papers on cross-border trains into Germany, and the heated exchanges between European leaders on the issue of how to respond to the influx to the EU of hundreds of thousands of people in recent weeks are all signals that the contemporary state has not adapted well to the new mobilities of the current era.

In a globalised world, population mobility is multi-causal demanding sensitised policies differentiating economic migrants, international student mobility, refugees with internationally recognised rights, asylum seekers fleeing hostilities and many other kinds of mover. Mobility researchers have long shown that these different categories are interlinked and far from unproblematic, yet recognition of the different drivers of mobility seems scarcely to enter the rhetoric of many state leaders whose political interests lie elsewhere.

Most European politicians, while no doubt well informed by the academic community, have their eye on the large proportion of their electorates who cling to the view of space and place as fixed assets and of boundaries as defendable lines which need to be re-inforced to exclude the ‘other’ from the resources of the state. And as has been the case throughout much of history, most of those who are mobile face powerful resistance from interest groups who feel threatened by the external forces driving change. Unlike in the past, however, those who are mobile have access to new networks empowering them to achieve their ambitions. It is not only the transnational corporations of the 21st century that have overcome the nation state’s ability to harvest taxes from economic flows, but it also the smartphone-holding transnational networks of the world’s mobile populations who have the capacity and flexibility to outwit the lumbering indecision of a weakened system of state governance. Transnational communities now have the capacity to quickly circumvent the outdated barbwire defences of the state, simply moving to other frontiers and new entry routes, and informed minute by minute by transnational community members on both sides of the boundary line about how to re-position themselves.

Cars running in the crossroad

Mobility is “here to stay”. Researchers have long-shown that migration is only a small part of the much wider set of mobilities pervading contemporary society. In virtually every walk of life global mobility has been increasing. For example the search for world class educational credentials has seen an ever rising number of students moving abroad to study. And like so many other mobile people, these educationally-linked moves are seldom permanent in intention. Short-term objectives of studying in another country have been shown to be part of life-mobility aspirations with study in one place being a trampoline to onward or return movement in order to achieve life objectives that have been mapped out against a perceived world of opportunity. In this tweeting internet age, young people from around the world are now informed of the trajectories offered by transnational living. The mobility revolution of the 21st century is here to stay. It is here to stay not only in the sense of many transient movers becoming more settled citizens (Platts-Fowler et al, 2015), but in the sense of mobility culture being an enduring feature of our increasingly diverse, globally inter-connected society (Johnston et al 2015).

There is no sustainable way for states to go back to impermeable closed frontiers and immobile governance structures relying on detention of illegal migrants and repatriation for those that have got beyond the barbed wire frontier. Despite this, detention practices seem to continually be expanding, even although research has shown that it harms people (Lietart et al, 2015) and does not deter irregular migrants (Silverman et al, 2012). Equally, countries like Albania in the 1980s learned that it is impossible to sustain closed borders for any length simply by banning emigration and policing exit points. In 2015 governments of major destination countries may gain legitimacy amongst elements of their electorates by talking tough on immigration and organising media events to publicise the latest enforcement measures to detain illegal migrants, but attempting to hermetically seal frontiers to all human mobility is impractical in the modern state. In neo-liberal economies flows of international students help finance the higher education sector, international tourism is a key part of the economic system and international business travel is central to the functioning of global capitalism. In this context it is not only hypocritical to legislate against human mobilities generated by dire military conflicts and humanitarian crises, but it is also utterly futile. Managed migration policies of course remain an important goal in social democracies seeking to offer good governance, but more important is the need to develop state policies to manage ‘mobility’, with its much more diverse drivers and actors. Attention needs to focus for example on how to develop policies for transnational social protection schemes for mobile families (Faist et al, 2015) and how to persuade long-term residents that population mobility is a healthy part of global systems of exchange. States that succeed will prosper since mobility is here to stay. Those that fail and simply seek to close frontiers and detain illegal migrants will appear in the history books as the King Canutes of our age.


This post has been contributed by Population, Space and Place as a part of our segment on Migration and the current Syrian Refugee Crisis.

Here is our last post on follow-up questions from our round-table discussion. Be on the lookout for more posts to continue the conversation.

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