Ran­abir Samad­dar: The Post­colo­nial Age of Migration

This book crit­i­cal­ly exam­ines the ques­tion of migra­tion that appears at the inter­sec­tion of glob­al neo-lib­er­al trans­for­ma­tion, post­colo­nial pol­i­tics, and econ­o­my. It analy­ses the spe­cif­ic ways in which colo­nial rela­tions are pro­duced and repro­duced in glob­al migra­to­ry flows and their con­se­quences for labor, human rights, and social justice.

Ayşe Çağlar reviews Samad­dar’s work in this com­men­tary which was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten for the Insti­tute for Human Sci­ences (IWM) in Vien­na and is also pub­lished in Dialec­ti­cal Anthro­pol­o­gy.

The Mul­ti­ple Tens­es of a Post­colo­nial Age of Migration

“Impe­r­i­al effects occu­py mul­ti­ple his­tor­i­cal tens­es. They are at once prod­uct of the past imper­fect that selec­tive­ly per­me­ate the present and they shape both the con­di­tion­al sub­junc­tive and uncer­tain futures” (Ann Lau­ra Stol­er, Impe­r­i­al Debris: On Ruins and Ruina­tion, 2013, p. 10)

Ami­tav Gosh’s acclaimed 1988 nov­el, The Shad­ow Lines, moved me as no oth­er work did to think about the after­life of forced dis­place­ments in the lives of peo­ple. The elu­sive lega­cies of par­ti­tion have a tena­cious hold on people’s lives and mem­o­ries, and Gosh skill­ful­ly shows this through the entan­gled his­to­ries and sto­ries of two fam­i­lies. The Shad­ow Lines col­laps­es time and space, plac­ing events from dif­fer­ent times and places next to each oth­er as if it were impos­si­ble to tell these sto­ries out­side of their entan­gle­ments and with­out shift­ing between mul­ti­ple tens­es. As Ran­abir Samaddar’s The Post­colo­nial Age of Migra­tion shows, this is indeed impos­si­ble. From the very first to the last pages of his book, The Shad­ow Lines was my silent but dili­gent companion.

The Post­colo­nial Age of Migra­tion is a clar­i­on call to unrav­el the colo­nial gra­di­ent in today’s pop­u­la­tion flows and migra­tion regimes. Show­ing the tan­gi­bil­i­ty of colo­nial pasts and impe­r­i­al pres­ences in today’s mech­a­nisms and strate­gies of pop­u­la­tion con­trol and pol­i­tics, the book pos­es a provoca­tive chal­lenge to stud­ies that fail to see the colonial/​imperial debris in the mak­ing and remak­ing of today’s migra­tions and their gov­er­nance. The real­i­ties of par­ti­tion, the colo­nial state, decol­o­niza­tion, the depar­ture of colo­nial pow­er, and bor­der draw­ings and their long-term effects take cen­ter stage in Samaddar’s well-thought inter­ven­tion. We need a post­colo­nial per­spec­tive to extri­cate their vis­cer­al pres­ence and effects in the age of migra­tion, which in turn requires the acknowl­edg­ment of impe­r­i­al lin­eages in nations’ his­to­ries. Par­ti­tion and its shad­ow lines are at the heart of forced displacements.

It was in the colo­nial age that the gov­ern­ing prin­ci­ples of mobil­i­ty and the con­trol and gov­er­nance of mobile bod­ies, labor, pop­u­la­tion, and cities were laid down.

The Post­colo­nial Age of Migra­tion takes off from a dis­ap­point­ment with Stephen Cas­tles and Mark J. Mills’ sem­i­nal work, The Age of Migra­tion. Despite its glob­al per­spec­tive, accord­ing to Samad­dar, that work fails to grasp the speci­fici­ty of the age of migra­tion as it miss­es the impact of colo­nial for­ma­tions in the mak­ing of the pop­u­la­tion move­ments of this age. It was in the colo­nial age that the gov­ern­ing prin­ci­ples of mobil­i­ty and the con­trol and gov­er­nance of mobile bod­ies, labor, pop­u­la­tion, and cities were laid down. That is why what Cas­tles and Mills iden­ti­fy as the age of migra­tion is, in fact, a post­colo­nial one. The flex­i­ble fron­tier poli­cies and the gov­er­nance mech­a­nisms of the colo­nial age, which not only func­tioned to reg­u­late migra­tion but also pro­duced pop­u­la­tion flows, clear­ly shaped nation states. “The post­colo­nial impact has been main­ly in the form of com­bin­ing a nation state’s bor­der and secu­ri­ty strat­e­gy with old impe­r­i­al-colo­nial strat­e­gy of main­tain­ing expan­sive secu­ri­ty lines and zones, keep­ing vir­tu­al bor­der­lands, expans­es of inde­ter­mi­nate zones, and as result of these a flex­i­ble fron­tier pol­i­cy” (p. 154).

Samaddar’s cri­tique direct­ed at The Age of Migra­tion is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant because Cas­tles and Mills’ book has been cen­tral for the com­ing-of-age of crit­i­cal migra­tion schol­ars, par­tic­u­lar­ly those in the glob­al North who desired to move migra­tion schol­ar­ship and pub­lic debates beyond the migra­tion-return-inte­gra­tion-social cohe­sion stale­mate in main­stream stud­ies. The Post­colo­nial Age of Migra­tion seeks to ani­mate an ana­lyt­i­cal vocab­u­lary beyond the estab­lished reper­toires of tra­di­tion­al and crit­i­cal migra­tion stud­ies. This forms the back­bone of Samaddar’s crit­i­cal read­ing of the con­tem­po­rary migra­tion dynam­ics and regimes in rela­tion to var­i­ous colo­nial prac­tices, tools of pop­u­la­tion con­trol, and gov­er­nance mech­a­nisms. It is this vocab­u­lary that enables him to chron­i­cle and ana­lyze the rela­tions and con­nec­tions between the dynam­ics of migra­tion, colo­nial­ism, states, empires, pow­er, bor­der and fron­tier for­ma­tions, and var­i­ous forms of forced migra­tion together.

In con­trast to the elu­sive pres­ence of Shad­ow Lines, Ray­mond Williams’ influ­en­tial Key­words is a very vis­i­ble com­pan­ion of Samaddar’s endeav­or. How­ev­er, the key­words in The Post­colo­nial Age of Migra­tion nei­ther elab­o­rate the time-space-bound vari­a­tions of the cen­tral terms of migra­tion schol­ar­ship and gov­er­nance, nor aim at a geo­graph­i­cal exten­sion to places with a colo­nial past. Instead of detail­ing select­ed key­words and their vari­a­tions, Samad­dar maps out fam­i­lies of key­words to track and ana­lyze the rela­tions between the entan­gled dynam­ics and process­es of migra­tion, colo­nial­ism, states, and bor­der and fron­tier for­ma­tions. Indeed, it is these dif­fer­ent clus­ters that set the intel­lec­tu­al and pub­lic worlds of today’s schol­ar­ship and pub­lic debates on migrants and migra­tion regimes apart.

The Post­colo­nial Age of Migra­tion is more than a book about decen­ter­ing the his­to­ries and genealo­gies of the con­cept of forced migration.

Samaddar’s ana­lyt­i­cal vocab­u­lary is less about the dif­fer­en­ti­a­tion of cat­e­gories of forced migra­tion and their genealo­gies through a rigid grid to sort out refugees, inter­nal­ly dis­placed peo­ple, and envi­ron­men­tal and eco­nom­ic migrants, and more about the futil­i­ty of such efforts. It is a call to rec­og­nize the mas­sive and mixed nature of pop­u­la­tion move­ments. The Post­colo­nial Age of Migra­tion is more than a book about decen­ter­ing the his­to­ries and genealo­gies of the con­cept of forced migration.

The chal­lenge of dis­en­tan­gling the post­colo­nial gra­di­ent of today’s world of migra­tions is not about high­light­ing the colo­nial left­overs and imprints or a gener­ic indict­ment of colo­nial his­to­ry, but about expli­cat­ing the active and ongo­ing force of colonial/​imperial for­ma­tions in con­tem­po­rary process­es of pop­u­la­tion move­ments and their gov­er­nance. As Ann Lau­ra Stol­er ele­gant­ly put it in her 2013 book, impe­r­i­al debris could only be thought in mul­ti­ple tens­es but nev­er as a com­plet­ed passé com­posé. A fail­ure to note and ana­lyze the reap­pro­pri­a­tion and the active lives of the imperial/​colonial for­ma­tions in the pol­i­tics of the present eas­i­ly miss­es the mul­ti­ple his­tor­i­cal tens­es of these processes.

Today’s con­trol and gov­er­nance of labor mobil­i­ty that pro­duce migrant labor as polit­i­cal­ly invis­i­ble group with­out rights were laid down in colo­nial and impe­r­i­al rule.

The gov­er­nance tech­nolo­gies of impe­r­i­al rule were strong­ly anchored in dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed and racial­ized access and rights in colo­nial fron­tiers. Samad­dar writes: “For pop­u­la­tion to be man­aged and pop­u­la­tion groups to be sta­bi­lized and gov­erned, colo­nial rule need­ed flex­i­ble bor­der poli­cies. Such pol­i­cy allowed expan­sion. It includ­ed admin­is­tra­tive poli­cies for foot­loose pop­u­la­tion groups, and more impor­tant­ly, mea­sures that enabled shift­ing of bor­der in case of need”. (p. 150) The gra­dat­ed forms of sov­er­eign­ty of the colo­nial fron­tier poli­cies, which ensured the flex­i­ble man­age­ment of labor sup­ply, estab­lish­ing the reg­u­la­to­ry prin­ci­ple of colo­nial rule, were tak­en over by mod­ern nation states. Today’s con­trol and gov­er­nance of labor mobil­i­ty that pro­duce migrant labor as polit­i­cal­ly invis­i­ble group with­out rights were laid down in colo­nial and impe­r­i­al rule.

The Post­colo­nial Age of Migra­tion was made in IWM long before the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic. How­ev­er, read­ing it in times of Covid-19 could have not been more suit­able to see the post­colo­nial gra­di­ent in today’s labor and pop­u­la­tion move­ments and their gov­er­nance. One does not need to go very far to detect the increas­ing reign of flex­i­ble fron­tier strate­gies and mech­a­nisms in today’s migra­tion and bor­der gov­er­nance. A quick look at the clo­sures of Euro­pean bor­ders and the var­ie­gat­ed per­me­abil­i­ty with­in and of these vis-à-vis labor mobil­i­ty in the wake of Covid-19, or at the frac­tured legal geo­gra­phies and admin­is­tra­tive maze of refugee camps on Greek islands, show how well and alive these fron­tier poli­cies are. Every strict clo­sure at the height of the pan­dem­ic made sure that the bor­ders remained dif­fer­en­tial­ly open to sea­son­al and tem­po­rary (pre­dom­i­nant­ly agri­cul­tur­al, domes­tic, and health care) work­ers with an arma­ture of excep­tion­al admin­is­tra­tive and sur­veil­lance sys­tems and tech­niques put in place.

There is no doubt that Samad­dar con­vinc­ing­ly shows that our age is a post­colo­nial age of migra­tion. How­ev­er, the chal­lenge remains in terms of track­ing and ana­lyz­ing the ways these for­ma­tions work their way not only through con­tem­po­rary inequities and into pol­i­tics, but also into forms of resis­tance and alliances. If we see the res­ur­rec­tion of these struc­tures and rela­tions in the con­tem­po­rary strate­gies of pop­u­la­tion con­trol, it might also be impor­tant to scru­ti­nize their inroads into the com­mu­ni­ty-based forms of pol­i­tics of care and their pos­si­ble dis­con­tents. The Europe-Asia Research plat­form on Forced Migra­tion at IWM and the Mahanir­ban Cal­cut­ta Research Group picks up this chal­lenge in light of the ori­en­ta­tion The Post­colo­nial Age of Migra­tion pro­vides. Rather than sim­ply adding the his­to­ries and dynam­ics of forced migra­tions in Asia to the almost can­on­ized ques­tions of migra­tion schol­ar­ship and debates in Europe or vice ver­sa, the plat­form seeks to shift the ana­lyt­i­cal lens to ask dif­fer­ent ques­tions about forced migra­tion, migrant labor, and their con­tra­dic­tions and entan­gle­ments, as well as bor­ders and, above all, pol­i­tics in Europe and Asia. This requires a post­colo­nial per­spec­tive for us to have a tru­ly glob­al one.

This com­men­tary has been repub­lished with the kind per­mis­sion of the Insti­tute of Human Sci­ences (IWM) in Vienna.


Ayşe Çağlar

Ayşe Çağlar is the Head of the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Vienna, and a Permanent Fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences (IWM).