Reframing Migration: A Conversation With Historian Sunil Amrith

The 2017 MacArthur Genius Fellowship recipient's interdisciplinary work on the Bay of Bengal teaches us that movement and migration are central forces in the making of Asian—and global—history.
By Varun Nayar,
Historian Sunil Amrith.

The Bay of Bengal has long been defined by the histories of the nations it borders, but its own story is an outcome of radical flux. On a world map, it appears almost entirely enclosed by South and Southeast Asia's coastal rim. Its irregularly conical body—three times the size of Texas—juts into the Asian continent, flanked by India and Sri Lanka in the west, Bangladesh to the north, and Myanmar and the Malay Peninsula in the east.

Because of this unique geography, the Bay is both place and passage. In one sense, it's a nation unto itself, housing over 500 million people on its precarious coasts: a population comprised of distinct nationalities, ethnicities, and religions. In another, it's a connective tissue between countries that have been physically and commercially reshaped by British colonialism in the 20th century. It presents a fragmented history of human movement in a region of increasingly energetic monsoons, milky silt-ridden waters, and tough tropical cyclones.

Sunil Amrith, a historian and the Mehra Family Professor of South Asian Studies at Harvard University, has been studying this complex history for over a decade. This October, his work—spanning three books and multiple academic publications–won him a MacArthur "genius" grant, for "illustrating the role of centuries of transnational migration in the present-day social and cultural dynamics of South and Southeast Asia."

Amrith is interested in how national and international institutions, from European imperialism to the United Nations, have helped or hindered the movement of people globally. His most recent book, 2013's Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants, reads like a biography of the waters, introducing us to centuries of historical forces that have shaped its surrounding populations.

To better understand where his academic work fits into our current geopolitical context, Pacific Standard spoke with Amrith about reframing the relationship between migration, nationalism, and the environment.

What drew you to the histories of South and Southeast Asia, and specifically the Bay of Bengal?

I grew up in Singapore with Indian parents, so my personal experience of the region has, in a sense, come from observing the constant connectedness between India and Southeast Asia. But when I began studying Indian history at university, I found an absolute disconnect—there was no mention of Southeast Asia. I was struck immediately by how profoundly national and colonial borders have shaped the way professional historians do their work.

My academic research helped bridge together what I intuitively knew to be true, having spent the first 18 years of my life in the region, which is that there are all kinds of connections and flows—migratory, cultural, economic—crossing borders, but these weren't at all academically linked.

The lines we think of when we divide South and Southeast Asia really go right through the Bay of Bengal. When you think about it, there's a lot of arbitrariness in the way these lines have been drawn. I mean, why, for instance, do we consider Myanmar as a part of Southeast Asia and not South Asia? But then, of course, these arbitrary lines become institutionalized—not just in politics but also in academia. South Asian and Southeast Asian studies departments are often quite separate and barely have any contact with each other. I probably don't count as a real South Asian-ist in some people's minds because I work in other regions.

Nearly one in four people on the planet live in the countries that border the Bay of Bengal. In many ways, it represents a mix of the many different vulnerabilities migrants across the world face. What makes the region so special for historians?

A couple of things. The first is scale: Simply the concentration of the population in such a relatively small region of the world. The second is cultural diversity: The Bay is one of the most linguistically, ethnically, and religiously diverse regions of the world. The relationship between these two factors is at the heart of a lot of the work I've been doing and continue to do. What is the relationship between the [demographic] factors that make the Bay what it is and the fact that it's so densely populated?

It's an ideal place to study large-scale social processes, whether that's population growth, urbanization, or movement across borders because of risks, vulnerabilities, or climate and environmental factors.

And a lot of these borders have only become institutionalized within the last 70 years.

Yes, one of the things you see when you study the Bay of Bengal in the 19th and 20th centuries is the drawing of these borders in the first place. South and Southeast Asia were regions, which were so intensively connected under British colonialism and so intensively disconnected after it. This makes it possible for us to study, very starkly, what effect migration control has on the movement of people, especially people confronting various newer kinds of risks. Partly because of that sharp institutional break in the middle of the 20th century, it helps dramatize the kinds of dilemmas other parts of the world will face—and are already facing—as well.

And while, of course, we shouldn't romanticize the colonial period, the Empire wasn't necessarily concerned with how and how many people were moving around, it was actually precisely because labor migration was so exploitative that many Indian and Chinese nationalists worked to stop it.

This perspective also opens up another conversation about freedom in the 21st century. We think of constraints on migration as a violation of people's freedoms—and while this is certainly the case—if you go back to the 1930s and '40s, a lot of Asian journalists, intellectuals, and nationalists began looking at the world around them and saying, "Actually, we feel the way to ensure people's freedom is to stop them from migrating." That freedom can be best safeguarded best within the borders of an independent nation, especially if it was an independent nation committed to redistributing resources in the way India and China were in the '40s and '50s. In a sense, it seemed that the kind of migration that was seen as vast under British rule was now seen as perhaps no longer necessary.

Where does immobility fit into how we define both international and domestic migration?

If you look at India today, you see that immobility often maps onto the most profound kind of social and economic disadvantage. It's often not the poorest people who undertake the longest-distance migration—that was true in the 19th century and it's even more true now. It takes a certain amount of capital, not least because migration is an expensive endeavor. Mobility and immobility map onto existing structures of inequality, and they can often perpetuate them.

Perhaps the most important factor for policy that responds to migration shifts is clarity and specificity. As you've mentioned in your second book, Migration and Diaspora in Modern Asia, it is essential to protect those that would otherwise "fall between the gaps of the different regimes of protection." What do we lose when we talk about migration in broad strokes?

I want to insist on the complexity of migration and its motivations. That's the only answer I have to this reductive simplification I've seen across the world of the figure of the refugee, or the illegal immigrant, which is equally problematic and destructive to people's well-being and reception in other countries. In reality, we're dealing with a spectrum of forced and voluntary migration, not an either/or. Even the migration we see as wholly voluntary is being shaped by all sorts of factors and constraints: whether that's debt, the environment, or the existence of family networks.

How do these simplifications spell danger for those needing protection from newer vulnerabilities—such as climate change—for which we don't really have any institutional apparatus in place yet?

One of the things that the history of the Bay of Bengal teaches us is that we need to be careful not to simplify the relationship between the environment and migration. While sudden environmental change, crises, or disasters can certainly be a cause for migration, you learn that it's not as simple as that; we're not just talking about anthropogenic climate change.

It's been predicted that a vast majority of people displaced by climate change will remain within their own countries instead of crossing international borders. Often times this is because they simply can't, often because of the securitization of borders, even if that would be the safest solution for them. In that sense, what often stands between environmental catastrophe and migration are human institutions and their histories.

Before we posit any direct link between environmental change and migration, we need to be asking: Where can people go? Do they live near a border? How secure is that border? What networks do they have from their local communities? Even as we see the acceleration of climate change as a factor for migration, people's choices will continue to be shaped by the histories and institutions they live with. Climate migration is so often not a dramatic displacement but a gradual encroachment of new kinds of risk.

This tightening of national borders in the face of increased global connection appears to stem, at least in part, from our inability to grasp the full breadth of migration and its motivations. You've previously written about the scope and meaning of national citizenship altogether, and how these definitions could be more fluid. Is that a utopian line of thinking in your field?

I don't think we should abandon utopian thinking. The reason why so many of us study the history of migration is to reframe our contemporary situation, where migration is far too often thought of as a sudden crisis. We look at frameworks from earlier generations who've tried to make sense of a mobile world, in terms of how they thought about citizenship, belonging, and identity.

That said, I do think I alternate between a realistic and pessimistic sense that things are about as bleak as they've ever been, certainly in my life, in terms of hostility and violence toward migrants globally. But I suppose the inspiration one can draw from studying the past is that these things do go in waves and cycles. There have been previous moments of intense hostility toward migrants and those have been overcome by political creativity, by organizing, and often by the kind of co-existence you see in urban neighborhoods and everyday life that go against nationalist ideologies because people in these areas have lived together for years and get along. I don't think it's an accident that voting populations that are most hostile to migration often exist in places that have very few migrants.

Why use cities and urban centers specifically as a model?

There are many cities around the world—especially those that have strong traditions of urban self-governance through, say, a mayor—which have been much more accommodating to migrants and national diversity than the nation states of which they are a part. One only needs to think of a city like London, which is officially more accommodating and cooperative of migrants and newcomers than the United Kingdom. Another is São Paolo's urban government in Brazil, which is able to provide migrants with increased access to various social services, such as housing and some level of corporate or community support.

A fisherman throws a net out to catch small fish on the Nagapali Beach along the Bay of Bengal in Myanmar.

One can see these examples in many parts of the world—and I see them brought up in arguments about climate change and migration as well. City governments are often in a position to do more than national governments, which do not always have the political will or incentive to make these kinds of commitments and changes.

Another thing about cities like London or New York is that their migrant populations, crucial as they are, have also historically been in flux.

Yes, and I think that creates a kind of self-understanding. Many of the world's largest cities, especially old ones that have incorporated large numbers of migrants for over a century, do think of their populations as in flux. Every one of these cities would fall apart if it wasn't for migrant labor, and I think that understanding exists even among powerful corporate forces that rely on low-paid and often-undocumented migrant labor to provide essential services.

This, of course, isn't to say that there isn't hostility toward migrants in cities as well, but elected officials in these areas often feel less pressure to take a certain tone. That's why at the urban level there's more likely to be support for something like amnesty, which would allow undocumented worked to become regularized. It's because so much of the city acknowledges its reliance upon—sadly—the very economic and social inequalities that migration allows to thrive. It makes these cities function.

At a time of such geopolitical instability, how can taking this long, historical view help us define migrants and refugees in a more specific and directly helpful way?

Well, at least in the legal terminology, I think it's very important to continue to recognize the right to asylum, and to think about the specific kinds of persecution that ought to result in universal protections for people. Given our world today, it's crucial to support the right to refuge.

The distinction between migrants and refugees is also complicated, so it doesn't serve us well to focus our energies on policing that distinction. The whole problem with the international apparatus built to protect refugees is that, when it turns on itself, the whole project becomes to define who can and can't benefit from certain protections. It creates a perverse incentive to define people at risk as not refugees and not needing help. Obviously, people will fall through the gaps.

Migration is such a capacious category that, for me, the emphasis needs to be on complexity. Now, of course, that complexity sometimes doesn't translate very well into accessible narrative, so in that case a focus on individual stories and the whole range of human motivations and compulsions for people moving long distances remains something very important for the media to do.

If we can make that historical consciousness more widely known and accepted, hopefully it becomes just that little bit harder to construct this "Golden Age" before migration. It's very important to show that there have been phases in the histories of almost every country—certainly ones I know and have studied—where migration has been vast and normal and complicated, but nevertheless very much a part of their national histories.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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