Kevin Jae, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the effect of migration on international relations in his fourth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
International migration has the potential to affect international relationships almost by definition. When the citizen of one state travels into the borders of another, they are foreigners and outside the safety of the home country. International embassies and consulates developed to protect citizens who are abroad, and infringements to the rights of a citizen of one state by the host state can lead to a souring of relations. This has happened recently with the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd. The Chinese government arrested two Canadian citizens and put sanctions on Canadian canola exports in retaliation. However, it is important to note, as is stressed previously, that migration rarely exists without an institutional context. Migration may affect international relationships, but this presupposes an existing agreement that facilitates the movement of people between two or more states.
The influence of individual migrants on international relationships between states is often negligible in comparison to the actions taken on the state level. Migrants present an opportunity – nation-states can use migrants within their borders to advance their interests. Migrants are instrumentalized for economic gain, as in the case of South Korea. The migrant population in South Korea has grown from roughly 40,000 in the early 1990s to about 2 million today through various labour movement programs and marriage migration programs. These migrants have created of a class of multi-lingual and culturally fluid “Kosians” (a portmanteau of Korean and Asian) and naturalized non-ethnic Koreans. The Korean state has used these migrants to bridge economic relationships between Korea and other states.
Instrumentalization happens in other ways as well. Migrants can be used as pawns for international power plays, demonstrated by the E.U.-Turkey deal in 2016. The deal presented a way to put a stop to flows of migration for European states under duress. Turkey agreed to control the refugees going from Turkey to the Greek Islands. In response, the European Union pledged an initial €3 billion to Turkey. Additionally, there was a political component that reconfigured international relationships, such as visa-free travel into E.U. states for citizens of Turkey and new talks for Turkey’s membership into the European Union.
Top-down state policy can instrumentalize migrants to change international relationships, but contemporary events have shown that migrants change international relationships from the bottom-up as well. The response to migrations have led to nationalist movements across the European continent and in the United States by political movements largely categorized as the New Right or the Alt Right. These political movements have gained traction, partially motivated by an anxiety of the international migrant. Contemporary political events like Brexit and the election of President Trump, who campaigned against international free trade deals like NAFTA, are signals of an emerging and contentious vision of the world order. This new vision of the world challenges the normative liberal world order, the latter with its large trade blocs like the European Union that facilitate free movement of capital and labour.
Migrants and migration are able to influence international relationships between state actors, both from the top-down and from the bottom-up. States can actively utilize migrants to advance their interests; however, they are at the same time beholden to their citizens. Migration has proven to be a contentious issue in recent times, and recent political movements have reconfigured international relationships from the bottom up.