The migration industry and developmental states in East Asia

Kristin Surak

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


To the crescendo of calls for systemic approaches to the study of international migration, the nascent field of migration industry studies offers a piquant response.1 Going beyond kin and friendship networks or the development of a “culture of migration, "2 the research gathering around this angle of vision provides new insights into the infrastructures vital for directing movement from here to there. By analyzing the matrix of border-spanning businesses-labor recruitment, money lending, transportation, remittance, documentation, and communication servicesthat open doors to migrants while facilitating connections back home, these studies illuminate how entrepreneurial interest and market mechanisms structure the opportunities available to international movers. Though this field has commendably connected the economic to the social by examining how financial interests and investments may be as important as personal ties in channeling people across borders, it has only haltingly engaged the political, side-stepping the state-as do many of the entrepreneurs it describes-at a loss of analytic breadth. Prior work on the migration industry has focused largely on illegal or informal activities-whether the risk-laden underground economies managed by coyotes, snakeheads, and brokers that traffic people through back doors, or the more mundane transportation, courier, and communication services that operate in the informal sector.3 However, this viewpoint has overlooked the places where the migration industry might wield the most influence over human flows: documented migration. Particularly when entry slots are limited-as with guestworker schemesmigration enterprises or entrepreneurs may be positioned to grab a near monopoly on movement, offering migrants more than just bits of the journey, but an all-or-nothing package deal.4 By working withrather than against or simply under-the state, migration entrepreneurs may not only encounter lower risks, but also a cooperative partner likewise interested in the development of their enterprises and a competitive market around them. Early research in this vein also tended to relegate the state to solely a behind-the-scenes role.5 While it may provide a supportive or restrictive context in which (or against which) the migration industry develops, the state in these studies remained an adjunct to the object of inquiry-a reference point outside the industry itself that crafts an uneven terrain, but retains no power of initiative. Immigration entrepreneurs and enterprises, in current accounts, are yet firmly a “meso-level” phenomenon.6 Yet severing the political from the economic in this way may no longer be warranted in an age of creeping neoliberalism, as governments not only surrender sovereignty to markets, but also reconfigure their own functions along their logic. Even so, the interpenetration of markets and governments is hardly new. Long before the Washington Consensus, developmental states have carried out their functions in “synergistic” relationship with the private sector, guiding economic development while reducing the instabilities of the free market in order to build their national economies.7 In such cases, one would, in fact, be surprised not to find the state partnered with migration industry actors. In his trenchant explanation of Japan’s “economic miracle, " Chalmers Johnson was the first to label and dissect the developmental state.8 When capital was scarce in the aftermath of World War II, the national government stepped in where the financial sector once stood, taking on the debt of industrial expansion. The department in charge of economic development, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), thereby acquired a strong hand in industrial structure policy, as it financed risky investments, guided entrepreneurial decisions, and enhanced the global competitiveness of its goods. South Korea and Taiwan implemented similar versions of the model, instituting the Economic Planning Board on the peninsula and the Industrial Development Bureau on the island.9 Out of the ruins of war, the assurance of the nation’s economic advancement guided by an elite bureaucracy became the state’s raison d’être-so much so that the overwhelming majority of the populations of the three countries consistently stated in polls that the state’s foremost duty was to ensure economic growth. Since the 1990s, all three have been liberal democracies10-a legal grounding that took greater force as martial law fell to rising gross domestic product (GDP)-but the political apparatus remained principally concerned with economic development for the greater good. Throughout most of the postwar period, this mission could be achieved without foreign workers. Hayseeds and housewives, as well as the swell of the baby boom, provided pools of cheap labor readily tapped to quench the thirst of the growing economy. However, these dried by the late 1980s, and businesses began to pressure governments to find new sources. All of the states conceded to the economic demands, but in divergent ways-Taiwan adopted a Singapore-style, tightly managed guestworker program, and Japan instituted a thinly disguised guestworker program while admitting co-ethnics through side doors to fill dirty, dangerous, and difficult jobs, while South Korea alternated between the two models. The intricacies of each offer insight into the possible configurations between states and the migration industry.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Migration Industry and the Commercialization of International Migration
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781136180897
ISBN (Print)9780415623780
StatePublished - Jan 1 2013

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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