Revisiting Transnational Migration Issues in East Asia: the historical paranoia over national sovereignty

Whilst accurate data is impossible to come by, there is no doubt that transnational migration has become an increasing phenomenon in East Asia over the last couple of decades:

The process by which immigrants [cross international borders and] forge and sustain simultaneous multi-stranded relations that link together their societies of origin and settlement. (Glick Schiller et al., 1995, p.48)

This evolving process has posed several problems to states in the region, especially in relation to national security:

The protection of the sovereign state from external or internal threats.

Stranded at sea: Rohingya migrants escaping persecution in Burma are treated as a burden and even a national security threat by regional states
Stranded at sea: Rohingya migrants escaping persecution in Burma are treated as a burden and even a national security threat by regional states

However, these problems have arisen not necessarily as an inevitable result of regional population movements but primarily because of the way East Asian states conceptualise the issue of transnational migration. This essay will argue that East Asian states perceive essential transnational migration networks to be national security threats because of their strict upholding of the key principles of Westphalian national sovereignty:

  • The territorial integrity of the state
  • Cultural homogenisation
  • State autonomy over its internal affairs
  • Non-interference in other states’ internal affairs (Joffe, 1999, pp.124-5; Beeson, 2003, pp.359-361)

Secondly, it will suggest that this in turn has resulted in the imposition of restrictive immigration policies in most states in the region, thus fostering an increase in irregular migration which:

takes place outside a legal framework usually through trafficking, smuggling and overstaying of visas, not always at the fault of the migrant (Koser, 2005, p.5)

This creates greater problems for national security, as migration networks become criminalised. The essay will conclude by suggesting that the failure of East Asian states to find effective solutions to irregular transnational migration, as a result of their sovereign concerns, is exacerbating these security problems. This can only be resolved through greater accommodation of migrant networks and increased multilateral cooperation. The essay will draw on examples from across the region to highlight how the security problems brought by transnational migration are interlinked, regardless of the development status of individual states.

Transnational migration has become a necessary by-product of the process of globalisation, whereby people follow the movements of capital and labour requirements across borders predominantly in order to secure more profitable employment. (Hollifield, 2000, p.151) This is particularly applicable to East Asia, where developed and rapidly developing countries require the surplus labour of the region’s poorer nations in order to maintain high production levels. (Lee, 2005, p.166) Even China, the world’s most populous country, is facing labour shortages in its crucial manufacturing centre in the Pearl River Delta. (BBC News, 22/02/2010) The obvious way to prevent these shortages is through migrant labour, meaning transnational networks are theoretically an important contributor to economic development. However, a problem arises in East Asia in that these networks are often seen as a national security threat as well as an essential labour source.

The desire amongst East Asian states to preserve their national sovereignty is especially strong given that many are still involved in the nation-building process following external colonisation and occupation. (Narine, 2005, p.424) Consequently, any challenge to this concept is perceived as a national security threat. Transnational migration is seen as one such challenge as it supposedly leads to a breakdown in border control, threatening the territorial integrity of the state, even if little evidence supports this view. (Koser, 2005, pp.10-11) Furthermore, because transnational migrants are often of a different ethnic and cultural heritage than the indigenous population, it has been argued that they form independent communities that “take on the form of exile diasporas, determined to establish their own nation-states.” (Castles, 2002, p.1158) For example, some see the arrival of transnational migrants in Japan as a challenge to the country’s uniquely homogenous society and cite cases of ethnic conflict between migrants and natives as a sign of the threat migration poses to internal stability. (Sellek, 1994, pp.193-4) Whilst such cases may be infrequent they are perceived as a national security threat because of their potential challenge to the sovereign norm of cultural homogenisation.

Additionally, East Asian states have sought to link the issue of transnational migration with other domestic problems. For instance, rising immigrant numbers are often linked to increases in crime rates in the host country, something the Malaysian government has frequently claimed when referring to the influx of Indonesian workers in the last two decades. (Caballero-Anthony, 2008, p.166) Moreover, the idea that transnational migrants aid the spread of infectious diseases because of long transit periods is another concern. (Jakarta Post, 19/02/2007) These phenomena are seen as national security threats, as they undermine the credibility of the state, thus challenging its survival. Although isolated events may occur where migrants cause such problems, the idea that they create a proliferation of crime and disease transmission in host countries is probably a “myth.” (Wickramasekera, 2002, p.5) Nevertheless, it is the perception of the states that is significant and therefore transnational migration poses a dilemma for them, as they try to balance their economic needs with their sovereign concerns.  In attempting to achieve this, most regional states have enacted very restrictive immigration policies since the 1990s that permit the entry of only a small number of temporary migrants to suit their economic demands. (Skeldon, 1998, p.39) However, these policies are simply causing greater irregular migration, which is posing more serious problems to national security.

Indonesian migrants have often been subjected to harsh treatment and minimal protection in neighbouring Malaysia
Indonesian migrants have often been subjected to harsh treatment and minimal protection in neighbouring Malaysia

The imposition of restrictive immigration policies in most East Asian states has not diminished the desire for transnational migration or prevented employers from hiring migrants in these countries, as economic considerations persist. (Van Meijl, 2007, p.17) What they have done is changed the characteristics of transnational migration in East Asia, with up to forty per cent of regional population movements now thought to be irregular. (Lee, 2005, p.165) This increasing irregular migration is not merely the result of more people being smuggled across national borders but also due to the manipulation of entry visas. For example, thousands of transnational migrants enter Japan each year on “trainee” or “pre-college student” visas with the intention to work illegally rather than enter education. (Sellek, 1994, p.188) These migrants not only enter host countries on invalid grounds but often remain there after their visas expire (Stahl, 2003, p.34), thus contributing to the irregular migrant trend and making it harder for regional governments to monitor population movements. This in turn increases the chances of covert transnational communities, separate from mainstream society, from forming, which theoretically poses a greater challenge to the notion of cultural homogenisation.

Escalating irregular migration in East Asia is being exploited by transnational criminal organisations, which can profit from the phenomenon. Migrants often pay such organisations to smuggle them across borders and if they are unable to pay then they can be forced into criminal employment with the groups as compensation. (Piper, 2005, p.205)Transnational migration networks have consequently become criminalised largely due to the policies of the sovereignty-concerned states, which offer more severe challenges to regional security.   (Curley & Wong, 2008, p.180) Firstly, irregular transnational migrants are recruited into the drug-trafficking industry as a means to cross national borders. (Emmers, 2003, p.1) Drug-trafficking has become an increasing problem in East Asia, which is both a major producer and consumer of drugs (Dupont, 2001, pp.204-5), and has undoubtedly been aided by the recruitment of irregular migrants in the transport of illicit merchandise. This is a severe concern for the national security of regional states, for as Emmers suggests it:

can reduce a government’s capacity to govern, weaken the credibility of financial institutions and undermine social order by questioning the rule of law and increasing the level of violence. (2003, p.2)

This security threat has been evident in Laos, where state security forces often clash with drug traffickers using migrant routes across the Thai border (Thayer, 2004, p.112) and even developed nations like Japan, where overstaying migrants become distributors for thriving criminal gangs in return for being kept illegally in the country. (Friman, 1996, pp.974-5)

Secondly, female irregular migrants unable to pay their smugglers are increasingly forced to work in the illegal sex businesses of the region in order to pay off their debt. (Bishop & Robinson, 1998, p.17) This has contributed to thriving sex industries in Japan and Thailand in particular, as there is a ready source of illegal workers and widespread demand from both domestic and foreign “tourists.” (Seabrook, 1996, pp.79, 130) These industries help fund criminal organisations such as the Japanese Yakuza (Lee, 2005, p.182), who use the money to “dispose over modern military equipment and to corrupt politicians, judges and police authorities,” thus threatening the autonomy of the state over its internal affairs. (Emmers, 2003, p.4) Furthermore, the proliferation of irregular migrants in the sex industry has led to the spread of infectious diseases like AIDS across the region, particularly when migrants return to their country of origin, as exemplified by Burmese Shan women returning from Thailand. (Beyrer, 2001, p.547) The link between transnational migration and human trafficking is often overlooked by regional states. (Skrobanek et al., 1997, p.7) Yet they remain interlinked problems, with McFarlane’s claim that transnational crime only became seen as a regional security threat in the mid-1990s (2005, p.301) coinciding with an increase in irregular migrant networks due in part to restrictive immigration policies.


Thirdly, a further problem posed by irregular migration in East Asia is the role it plays in facilitating transnational separatist movements. Not only have regional states enforced restrictive immigration policies but many have also placed limitations on the migrants they do allow across their borders. For example, in Southern Thailand, transnational migrants arriving from Malaysia are forcibly assimilated into Thai religious and political culture, despite their Islamic affiliation. (Albritton, 2005, pp.166-7) This is in line with the sovereign concern of forging a united national identity (Narine, 2005, p.424), which the Buddhist state of Thailand obviously sees as being threatened by Islamic infiltration. Consequently, migrants become potential recruits for the Muslim separatist movement in Southern Thailand, as they can forge links with their Islamic homeland of Malaysia. This separatist movement has claimed over 3,000 lives in the last five years and been increasingly linked to acts of terrorism against local civilians (AFP, 19/03/2008), therefore becoming a severe threat to national security. These movements are widespread across the region, including between Indonesia and the Philippines (Hedman, 2006, p.191), and are becoming increasingly interlinked with irregular migrant networks. Therefore, the restrictive immigration legislation enacted by regional states has merely resulted in their security fears regarding transnational migration becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In addition to this, their failure to effectively address the issue of irregular migration is exacerbating the problems these criminalised networks pose to national security.  As Schloenhardt recognises, “transnational problems require a multilateral response.” (2008, p.36) However, the strong concern for protecting national sovereignty amongst East Asian states, institutionalised by regional organisations such as ASEAN (Acharya, 1997, pp.328-9), has limited the chances of this occurring in several ways.  Firstly, states in the region are reluctant to pool their sovereignty (Higgott, 1997, p.177), as this naturally requires a degree of reliance on other states in managing their affairs. This limits the potential for resource-sharing to combat transnational issues. (Narine, 2005, p.424) Alone, many states in East Asia have insufficient resources to secure their borders either as a result of poor socio-economic development, as highlighted by Laos, or inadequate allocation of resources in developed states such as Japan. (Emmers et al., 2008, pp.65-6) Shared border security and intelligence gathering regarding irregular migration, and the criminal organisations often associated with it, would help overcome such limitations. Although some attempts at the latter have been made, many regional governments refuse to disclose such intelligence to neighbouring states despite the relevance it may have to their national security. (Piper, 2005, p.224) Furthermore, the lack of a coherent regional definition of irregular migration means data is collated in various ways by different states, making any shared intelligence conflicting and of questionable value. (Laczko, 2005, p.11) In regards to the former, multilateral law enforcement along state borders remains limited to small-scale operations. (Emmers et al., 2008, pp.74-5) This lack of significant multilateral cooperation makes borders easier to penetrate for irregular migrants and their sponsors, ensuring criminalised networks continue to flourish.

The failure of states to pool their border resources to combat irregular migration also contributes to what Godson terms the “political-criminal nexus.” (PCN) (2003, pp.259-61)Poorly financed security forces and politicians responsible for border protection are often left underpaid for a virtually impossible task, making them open to corruption. (Emmers, 2003, p.10) For example, despite heavy police presence and crossing checkpoints, Burmese criminal groups are able to smuggle irregular migrants across the Thai border because of their capabilities in purchasing protection from corrupt officials. (Beyrer, 2001, p.547) The “PCNs affect regional cooperation, colour relations with other states, and contribute to local instability in geostrategic regions of concern.” (Godson, 2003, p.264) However, whilst some multilateral declarations condemning transnational corruption have arisen in East Asia, they have not been followed by decisive action. (Schloenhardt, 2008, p.45) This is typical of responses to transnational issues in the region, with optimistic multilateral rhetoric being undermined by the reality of unilateral sovereign concerns. (Khoo, 2004, p.50) In this case, corruption is perceived as an internal issue meaning it continues to be dealt with at the national level (Emmers et al., 2008, p.78) because of the region-wide sovereign norm of non-interference in other states’ domestic affairs. (Acharya, 2003, pp.379-80) This is despite the fact that in regards to irregular transnational migration, corruption has simultaneous security implications for several states. This further absence of multilateral action surely encourages transnational criminal groups to increase their exploitation of irregular migrants, as their chances of being punished are minimised by state collusion.

The non-interference norm prevailing in the region also enables East Asian states to pursue their own migration policies without having to face external criticism. Therefore, whilst the majority of states have restrictive immigration policies, some also allow significant emigration depending on their domestic needs. (Goss & Lindquist, 2000, p.400) This is particularly evident in the case of the Philippines, which explicitly encourages emigration to more vibrant economies so that Filipino transnational communities can generate additional wealth for their homeland. (Suzuki, 2002, p.99) Such regional incoherence in migration policies contributes to irregular transnational flows, as those encouraged to emigrate are forced to find illegal entry into states trying to restrict immigration. This helps create the tension between origin and host countries that Wickramasekera warns is an undesired effect of irregular migration (2002, p.26), as states’ conflicting policies seemingly exacerbate each other’s security problems. These sovereign concerns are restricting multilateral cooperation against irregular transnational migration to non-binding statements of ambition such as the Bangkok Declaration, which called for a “comprehensive and balanced” response to the issue from regional states. (1999, p.2) Without acting upon such promising dialogue, states will continue to target the problems posed by this phenomenon in a unilateral manner, further entrenching the criminalised networks and the security problems they create.

ASEAN's strong non-interference norms has often made decisive action on transnational issues difficult
ASEAN’s strong non-interference norms has often made decisive action on transnational issues difficult

The concerns of the East Asian states about the threats posed by transnational migration to national security have become a self-fulfilling prophecy because of the policies they have enacted to try and protect their sovereignty. The increase in irregular migration as a result of such legislation has given increased strength to a plethora of transnational criminal networks, facilitated the spread of potentially devastating diseases and even proved a catalyst for separatist activity in the region. These phenomena lead to the insecurity of national borders, a reduction in state autonomy over its internal affairs, the undermining of the governing capacity of the state and weaker cultural homogeneity, ensuring the objective of safeguarding sovereignty is not even being achieved. Furthermore, a lack of coherent multilateral solutions is intensifying the security problems posed by transnational migration and deepening inter-state tension. States in East Asia need to be more accommodating to migrant networks, which still remain important for regional economic development. In doing this they will reduce the needs for migrants to seek irregular routes across borders, which are often associated with the transnational crime that has become a severe regional security threat. However, as long as East Asian states remain committed to a strict preservation of Westphalian national sovereignty, it is unlikely such accommodation will occur. Rather, states will remain focused on ineffective unilateral solutions geared towards restricting immigration, creating a continual cycle of increasing irregular migration that will become further interlinked with transnational crime. Without significant multilateral cooperation in breaking this cycle, transnational migration in East Asia will continue to pose regional security problems and the human costs of irregular migration will remain overlooked.




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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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