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Friday Forum: Maryann Bylander

October 22, 2021 @ 12:00 pm - 1:30 pm

Safe, Regular, Orderly: The Spectacle of Safe Migration in Southeast Asia

Maryann Bylander
Associate Professor of Sociology
Lewis & Clark College

Over the past decade, ‘safe migration’ programs have expanded across Southeast Asia. These programs are funded and implemented by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations (IOs), often through development assistance from states in the Global North. Safe migration programs do a range of things. For instance, where Cambodians deported from Thailand were once dropped off by Thai authorities at the Cambodia-Thai border, they now go through a lengthy process of official return at the newly established NGO-supported Migrant Assistance Center. Based on data collected from this center, NGOs track clusters of recent irregular migration, which they use to designate particular communities as high risk for human trafficking. Those communities become targets for education campaigns discouraging irregular movement. At eight newly established sites around the country Migrant Worker Resource Centers deliver assistance and information to would-be, current, and returning migrants. There are also financial literacy trainings for migrant workers and their families, self-help groups to help migrant families save, a systematized way of tracking grievances in the recruitment process, and regular evaluations of the Cambodian government’s efforts to meet their migration-related goals, among other things. Only a fraction of these practices were in place prior to 2010, and all were created either by, or in partnership with, development actors (NGOs and IOs).

This paper interrogates the discourses and practices of safe migration programming in Cambodia. Drawing on multi-sited ethnographic work, it describes how safe migration programs seek to engender safety, the assumptions these programs hold about what makes migrants safe, and how these assumptions relate to migrant experiences. Based on an analysis of multiple sites of safe migration programming, I describe how these interventions rely on a form of rendering technical (Li 2007) that obscures the causes of precarity in migrant lives, legitimizes new forms of control enacted by states, and responsibilizes migrants for the exploitation and abuse they experience. Ultimately I suggest that while safe migration projects clearly serve the needs of development organizations and states, they provide only a spectacle of care for migrants.

This event is free and open to the public. A recording of the talk will be made available on the CSEAS YouTube channel.


October 22, 2021
12:00 pm - 1:30 pm
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