Contributions towards a dialogue on caribbean migration


Migration is an inherent fact of Caribbean society, the autochtonous population having been largely wiped out at the dawn of colonization. Today the diversity within its society appears surprising. The first groups arrived during colonization, followed by others at different stages of national construction in response to the needs of each economic period. Furthermore, as each Caribbean nation took shape, significant in migrations followed from each of the neighbouring countries. So anchored is this central fact in the idiosyncrasy of the Caribbean region, that it suffices to to observe the diversity of the cultural activities to conclude that the mosaic is made up of a web of ties so interwoven as to make it impossible to distinguish the identity of one without reference to the other. This in short is the result of wide-ranging migrations that have not stopped over five centuries. However, it is necessary to make clear that differences exist between each of the migration periods in question.

The first migrants typically comprised the labour force brought in from other continents against their will, whether through slavery or through collective indenture contracts. In all cases, the desires of these workers counted for little, and the opportunities for social and geographical mobility depended exclusively on the plantation owners where the immigrants worked. In this sense, it was a recruitment wholly managed and controlled by the plantation owners, whether as part of the first pro-slavery period, or the second with the appearance of the modern sugar industry. It is crucial to underline that, in contrast to what is the case today, ‘immigrants' at that time were not obliged to meet the conditions that apply today in respect of legal entry; namely being in possession of necessary papers, passports, work permits employment contracts, or other conditions or restrictions existing today. On the other hand, even accepting that the proclamation of the rights man dates from the bourgeois revolutions of the 18th century, it was only in the 1880s of the 19th century that one sees worldwide recognition of human rights, and not until 20th century the rights of immigrant workers in particular. All of this indicates that up until relatively recently, there was no recourse available in law to defend oneself against ad working conditions, or the non-respect of contractual norms so widespread in elsewhere.

In an earlier economic model, capital was invested in peripheral territories which in turn required the necessary labour to be imported. Subsequent variations gradually evolved in line with greater diversity of migrant flows, directed towards either other Caribbean countries or to the metropoles of the colonial power. Depending on which, the demand for foreign labour came either from the overseas territories or, as developed later, these workers were recruited by the home countries themselves. This meant that international capital which initially had turned the Caribbean into a region recruiting immigrant labour, subsequently transformed the latter into a source of emigration, and geared to satisfying the major industrial demands of the North. In other words, those enterprises established from the start across different islands, generated in turn a direct demand for Caribbean workers in situ, as well as from their countries of origin. Against this background, it is worth underlining that the development of migrant flows, in all the cases envisaged here, was not a Caribbean-led initiative, rather these flows were generated in response to the demands of international capital.

Caribbean migration in the 21st century is now evolving in the new context of a globalised world. Intra-Caribbean migration assumes a completely different form, but still shaped by the characteristic traits of the long historical process described above. Today's emigrants have no more been able to influence the actual migrant flows within the region than to invent clandestine immigration. Right up to the present day, emigrants have remained in the mould and traces of the first intra-Caribbean migrations, those that responded to the managerial demands of big capital. What has changed are the directions taken by different nationalities, because neither those emigrating, nor those countries recruiting, are necessarily the same. This is equally the case for certain host countries which have become suppliers of labour, as in the case of the Dominican Republic in relation to the Anglophone West Indies, or Puerto Rico in relation to the Dominican Republic, and so on. In addition, there are the flows of migrants to the European metropoles, of relatively recent date. For example, the largest increase in emigration occurred during the 1970s to the United States and Canada, before a belated switch towards Europe. However in respect of all three destinations, the most important wave of migration took place during the “decade of loss,” the devastating effects of which were felt with such force in those countries that two decades on the negative consequences are still in evidence.

Another significant change lies in the causes of migration. At the outset, it is certainly true that the latter was based on the specific needs of multi-national companies and their countries of origin. Today, it is the Caribbean societies themselves which, because of the structural imbalances of their respective economies, are ‘motu proprio' forcing the departure of a significant proportion of their populations. If it is patently clear that migration continues to be driven by demand on the part of the host countries, it remains no less true that the donor countries benefit from the chance to reduce internal social tensions created by current development strategies. Paradoxically, whilst significant growth is being achieved in certain countries, so too, is an even greater relative increase in poverty. One of the effects of globalization is that a country's population as a whole benefits from a better social environment in respect of individual freedoms, as seen in improved access to information and means of travel. This, in turn, allows would-be emigrants the possibility of more effectively preparing their departures to host countries where extensive social networks in abundance are in place to offer ready support for the move.

Another particularity of the current emigration is the way in which the countries of the greater Caribbean have created an impressive diaspora of transnational societies (in the sense as used by Alejandro Portes). Accordingly, Caribbean countries may exhibit cultural, economic and sometimes even political frontiers internally within these host societies. This transnationality in turn facilitates the development of a common pattern of daily life existing simultaneously in two countries. This mode of organization in the life of the immigrant increases room for negotiation with the authorities, as much in the countries of origin as in the host societies, if only because it concerns a population whose power resides in the possibility of affecting situations either positively or negatively. However, given that today emigration is no longer perceived as being to the benefit of capital, but rather to that of the workers, forceful measures restricting immigration have been imposed. It is now clear that host countries are adopting policies of excessive control when faced with refugees without papers, but which in itself does not address the causes of the problem. Intent on refuting immigration, local citizens employ tactics designed to instil a sense of fear amongst the migrants. In addition, the resurgence of xenophobic groups proclaim an outdated nationalism and chauvinism to justify politically the rejection of immigrants simply because they are foreigners. But the most serious consequence of the emergence of these radical groups is that they can appear in countries which, at the same time as employing foreign labour, are seeing part of their own population emigrating to other countries. The fear of immigration stirred up by these groups has created such a hostile environment that the ensuring ethnic conflicts in some countries may produce ever increasing negative consequences in years to come.

However, for the countries supplying emigrant workers, the latter have become a human resource (albeit ‘excluded' from their country of origin), and once abroad are viewed as indispensable to the homeland left behind. This is not only in terms of remittances sent home by emigrants but also through their social presence and often the political contribution they can make to the host societies. Also recognized, in respect of previously different roles undertaken in their own countries, are the contributions made by these absent nationals in effecting change through their own insertion into global society. It should not be forgotten that in the currently accepted economic model for the service sector, the impact whether positive or negative, does not correspond to a strategy applicable in our own countries. Rather it is consequent on inequalities in economic growth and social exclusion inherent in the model. Hence, this is one reason why host countries need to pay necessary attention to this issue, and to sponsor global accords for managing migrations.

It is clear that, for the Caribbean, this problem has assumed a crucially important place on the political agenda. The countries providing the most emigrant workers, whether across the region or the continent, come from within the Greater Caribbean. At another level, it is worth recognizing that given the manner in which the issue of immigration looms large in the host countries, this in itself has become a decisive factor in inter-state relations. In this sense, the immigration question is of as much concern to donor as to recipient countries. It is time that states put in place an overall policy given that immigration is not only growing uncontrollably, but that it is generating new sets of problems such as:

  • The establishing of measures of control by states;
  • The possession or not of identity papers;
  • The illegal people trafficking;
  • The impact of immigrants within host societies, socially, economically and politically.

From the standpoint of the donor countries, their impact is notable in terms of:

  • The siphoning of labour;
  • The importance of monetary remittances made by nationals abroad;
  • The role of transnational and cultural influences.

For these reasons, it is now time to develop a dialogue that attaches respect to the dignity of immigrants and to the need for a regulatory framework on immigration. For as long as the numbers continue to grow, not least where entry is uncontrolled and illegal, this situation will impinge massively on the mutual security of the countries involved and the people who live in constant exposure to the dangers of human trafficking. The starting point in any regional and global dialogue is the recognition that intra-Caribbean migration is intense, multi-directional, and continually growing. Moreover, as this mobility of peoples is recognized as intrinsic to the very structure of the present society, it is important to see in these migrations a positive contribution in development terms, given that it focuses on social and cultural characteristics central to the identity of the Greater Caribbean.

Author: Ruben Silie Valdez