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The concept of transmigration has been discussed as a synonymous manner of referring to transit migration in the Latin American academic field. Transit migration is a complex and changing process, which also needs to be analyzed from different perspectives depending on places, countries, policies, economies, migratory flows, etc. It is important to underline that the concept’s origin was conceived in the field of European public policies (Düvell 2010: 2), and it has been a politicized concept since its origins. For the UN Economic Commission for Europe, transit migration means migration from “one country with the intention of seeking the possibility there to emigrate to another country as the country of final destination” (ìbid. 3). Similarly, in 2005 the Assembly of Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva affirmed that transit migrants are “aliens who stay in the country for some period of time while seeking to migrate permanently to another country” (ibid).

There is a wealth of international literature on this concept in the academic field, but most of it has been problematized around the EU-Africa-East Europe migratory corridor (Dowd 2008; Papadopoulou-Kourkoula 2008; Collyer, Düvell, & Hein de Haas 2010; Hess 2010; Schapendonk 2012; Icduygu 2012). For some academics, such as Papadopoulou-Kourkoula (2008: 4), transit migration refers to a “situation between emigration and settlement that is characterized by indefinite migrant stay, legal or illegal, and may or may not develop into further migration depending on a series of structural and individual factors”. The way to approach the concept here modifies the unilineal vision that was developed in the 1990s by the Economic Commission for Europe-UN and the Assembly of Inter-Parliamentary Union in Geneva in 2005, and extends the discussion to several fields of analysis, as the uncertain stay of the migrant within the transit countries gives rise to a number of social, cultural, and economic processes inside the migratory industry.

Transmigration or transit migration in the Americas

Although more recent academic studies use and refer to the concept of transit migration (Arriola 2012; Basok et al. 2015) as it has been used in the arenas of the European discussion, within the academic tradition of migratory studies of the Central America-Mexico-United States corridor, the central concept to refer to this phenomenon has been transmigration -transmigración in Spanish- (Casillas 2006; Castillo 2010). The concept of transit migration in the Americas has been discussed mainly to analyze irregular migration processes in the Central American-US corridor. In the Americas, Mexico is one of the most important transit countries due to its geopolitical location and proximity to the United States (Casillas 2010, Castillo 2010, Rojas 2012; Fernández 2012). Otherwise, and more recently, the transit migration concept has been used to analyze the migratory corridor from Cuba, Haiti, or African countries to the United States, positioning Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama as the main transit countries (Alvarez 2012; Herrera 2013).

Just as in the European context, in the Americas the concept of transmigration was brought into use from the arena of public policy in Mexico through the General Population Act of 1974 ( Ley General de Población ), still in force, where a ‘transmigrant’ person is one who is “in transit to another country and who may remain in national territory for up to thirty days,” thus the academic field has taken up the concept defined in this Law to later discuss the processes of transmigration occurring in Mexico. This phenomenon is not new, since Mexico and Central America have been transit countries for a long time, and although the phenomenon of transit migration has already been problematized (see Zolberg, Suhrke and Aguayo 1989), the concept as such (transit migration/transit migration corridors) was only recently introduced into the academic debate.

Although the corpus of academic work on transit migration (Central American, South American, Caribbean, Asian, or African) in Mexico is still small, the bulk of the academic production on this subject originated in the early 21st Century, and during the last ten years it has expanded significantly (Casillas 2008; Castillo 2010; Arriola 2010; Fernández 2012; Basok et al. 2015). Generally, the current global tendency regarding borders’ externalization and its consequences has led to a greater visibility and knowledge production of the topic. Taking Mexico’s case, most research on this subject originates mainly for the sociological and political sciences field, analyzing the consequences of the migratory legislation in the United States and Mexico, and human rights’ violations of transmigrants in Mexico. In 2010, the kidnapping and mass murder of 72 migrant people in San Fernando, Tamaulipas, made even more visible the increase of Central American migratory flows and thus enabled the need for approaching the phenomena from different areas of knowledge. Analyzing other regions, the modification of migratory patterns in countries such as Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, and Panama, has led the current production of academic knowledge on migratory studies to concentrate on debates regarding transit migration and human trafficking; although in the same way as in the Mexican context, academic work has focused more on the empirical-analytic discussion than on the theoretical approach to this concept (Alvarez 2012; Guevara 2015; Herrera 2013).

Discussion, empirical relevance, and critical perspectives around the term

Studies on flows of transit migration (whether on a regular or irregular basis) are subject to the analysis of complex processes, with diverse aspects and multidirectional scenarios. Transit migration is constituted by what some theorists have called mixed migration flows; that is, the latter are constituted by migrants who are forcibly displaced from their countries of origin (because of violence, war, environmental disasters), economic migrants, refugees, or asylum seekers. Such categorizations are part of a broader debate about what a transit migrant or economic migrant is, questioning the reasonableness and roots of said categories. However, one of the main questions and criticisms concerns focusing on when someone can be defined as a transit migrant, since the uncertainty of the future settlement remains unknown (Papadopoulou-Kourkoula 2008; Düvell 2010), what factors determine the transit migration (Dowd 2008; Collyer 2010; İçduygu / Yükseker 2012), and on which geopolitical spaces this human mobility occurs (Hess 2012). In addition, some authors have suggested the term’s incompatibility with investigating transit migration processes and have analyzed it with different analytical categories, such as stranded migrants, stuck migrants, or forced immobility (Stock 2012; Collyer / de Haas 2012; Schapendonk 2012). Criticism has also been expressed regarding the binary division of the concept; for example, being / not being in transit (Bakewell 2008), its unilateral approach (Basok et al. 2015), and statism (Arriola 2012). Currently, although more generally, the concept of transit migration has been adopted as a starting point to analyze this mobility phenomena, and it continues to be discussed and reformulated.

Beyond the analyses by public policy makers, current studies on transit migration have emerged in different disciplines such as human geography, refugee and forced migration studies, and anthropology and cultural studies, to develop more analytical tools to complement the discussions of this complex process. In Mexico, for example, some ethnographic studies have been carried out in the last decades (Arriola 2005, 2012; Fernández / Espinoza / Choy 2012; Rivas Castillo 2010), which use different theoretical perspectives to analyze transit migration as life conditions within the migration process. Arriola (2012: 193), for example, proposes that the transit migrant is a person in-on transit ( en-de tránsito ) or in the transitory phase ( transitoriedad ), taking into account the person’s possibility to decide to re-start the migration process at some point. Moreover, Basok et. al. (2015) claims that trajectories and migrants’ experiences during transit are shaped by the precarity of the transnational spaces, by the bio-politics of citizenship, by the migratory industry, as well as by the agency and techniques of the self.

Restrictions of the term

Due to its empirical origins, and the analytical-theoretical follow-up that it has experienced regarding migratory policies in the European Union (i.e., border externalization), primarily policymakers and European academic groups have primarily discussed the concept of transmigration. Yet the concept is known and discussed at the international level, taking as source of analysis the processes derived from the main global migration corridors, i.e. Turkey-Germany, Peru-Chile/Argentina, Central America-United States, among others.

The rapidity and continued changes of migratory flows, their disintegration and reconstruction, and their duration, indicate that the conceptualization of transit migration, and especially of irregular migration, becomes a challenge, since the volatility in mobility patterns are very high and have impacts on various scales. For example, the destruction of the World Trade Center and the 9/11 attacks in the United States led to the reinforcement of the US-Mexico border and with it a series of consequences at the local and transnational level that in turn modified the mobility patterns in the northern and southern borders of Mexico as well as in the interior of its territory. Similarly, following the environmental catastrophe that struck Haiti in 2010, coupled with the recent withdrawal of the United States’ assistance policy to this country, thousands of Haitians have been stranded since October 2016 at the US-Mexico border (a total of almost 14,000 arrived in Tijuana from January to October 2016, coming from different transit countries, including Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Panama), with some intending to cross and others seeking refugee recognition in the United States.

The mentioned examples should demonstrate that developing a homogeneous concept that categorizes transit migration is complex, since social, political, and economic factors are entangled and generate not only new mobile migration flows, but also new constellations of undetermined immobility processes. Papadopoulou-Kourkoula (2008) understands transit migration as a process and at the same time as a contingent that involves phases of in-betweenness while people are migrating and not just a unidirectional perspective from emigration to settlement. Such a perspective helps to understand transit migration as a process that is determined not only by migration policies at the international level but also by “transit economies” in social and geopolitical spaces (Hess 2012) and by transit biographies. That is, the entanglement of various social dimensions that determines human mobility in terms of migration practices and experiences. Although these contributions have brought into the discussion many aspects of this phenomenon the concept still has many limitations and continues to be blurred .

Yaatsil Guevara González

Please cite as:
Guevara González, Yaatsil. 2017. “Transmigration.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspective. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/t_Transmigration.html.


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