People at the Margins: Belonging and (Im)mobility in Superdiverse Asia

Title: 1262 | People at the Margins: Belonging and (Im)mobility in Superdiverse Asia
Area: Northeast Asia
Stream: Sociology
Presentation Type: Panel Presentation
Helena Hof, Zurich University, Switzerland (organizer, presenter, chair)
Miloš Debnár, Ryukoku University, Japan (presenter)
Kim S. Lim, Waseda University, Japan (presenter)
Yujin Han, Waseda University, Japan (presenter)


Everyday realities in contemporary Asia are characterized by the multiple layers of diversification that have transformed its societies. This panel utilizes the concept of superdiversity which offers a fresh and promising angle for understanding the complexities of migration, mobilities and immobilities in contemporary Asia, a region at the crossroads of weighing the challenges and opportunities of a diverse population and citizenry.
The case studies presented here capture dynamics of superdiversification by analyzing social positions and identities of ‘newcomer European migrants’ in Japan (Debnar), highly educated yet professionally junior and legally precarious labor migrants in Singapore (Hof), stateless Chinese in an a benign authoritarian state with specific tenets for membership within the nation (Lim) and ‘permanently temporary’ North Korean defectors whose pre-migration careers are not recognized in Japan where they live in legal insecurity (Han). The four ethnographies reveal how despite all differences between these groups of ‘outsiders’ in terms of socio-economic, legal, and ethnic background, belonging or the wish to belong is defined in relation to involuntary immobility or the longing for mobility. These migrants are invisible in their host countries and the political discourse, either because they are stripped of citizen rights despite their long-term residency (Lim and Han) or because they are considered to be the frictionless mobile elite (Debnar and Hof). We hope to bring belonging and identity with migrants’ ongoing mobility or involuntary immobility into conversation. Through the lens of superdiversity and our empirical studies, this panel strives to stimulate discussions between the audience and presenters.

Panel Abstracts:
Striving to Stay, Bound to Leave: Highly-educated Europeans in Superdiverse Singapore
Singapore’s history as an immigrant nation, its pride on managing its multiracial population and its sophisticated immigration policy obfuscates the bifurcated politics of division between ‘highly-skilled’ migrants, cushioned by preferential conditions and offered the opportunity to settle in Singapore, and the heavily-restricted ‘low-skilled’ labor migrants whose presence is surveilled and explicitly temporary. This presentation examines the diversification of so-called skilled migrants in Singapore by analyzing the politics of and discourse on their legal status and their lived experiences. Amidst the Singapore government’s tightening immigration policies and the rising bar towards temporary and permanent residence, the migrants in focus of this presentation occupy a largely invisible ‘middling ground’ between the two groups at each end of the stratum of desirability. Drawing from an ethnographic study of 38 skilled European migrants whose modest salaries and early career stage place them at the lower end of the category of the ‘skilled migrant’ in Singapore, symbolizing the diversification of migrants in Singapore and the arbitrary construction of migrant categories. This results in the inability to obtain permanent residency nor the job security of traditional expatriate contracts. An analysis of their narratives unravels the legal and social construction of the undesired and desired 'other' even in superdiverse Singapore, preventing middling migrants in developing a sense of belonging and in turn propels their onward geographical mobility.

Europeans in Japan – A Patchwork of Social Positions
This paper utilizes the concept of super-diversity (Vertovec 2007, 2015) to unveil the diversity within the contemporary European migrants in Japan, by focusing particularly on how the intersections between different legal statuses, labor market positions and identities result into complex patchwork of social positions within the receiving society. Based on empirical evidence from interviews with more than 60 subjects over the last decade and other available data, the case of Europeans in Japan presented in this paper illustrates how the shifts in contemporary migration flows, visa regimes and social changes lead to “super-diverse” condition. Whereas Europeans as representatives of the so-called ‘white migrants’ are often presumed to be a socially and economically unproblematic, relatively homogenous group of migrants or mobile elites, such shifts create complex and stratified social positions in terms of legal statuses, or labor market positions. Moreover, identities of such migrants further obfuscate the traditional dichotomies (e.g., mobile versus immobile) or categories (e.g. ethnic groups), by complex relationship among different dimensions, such as choices of mobility and immobility, forms of sociality (ethnic/cosmopolitan/convivial), or attitudes towards the receiving society. Particularly, this paper focuses in detail on the choices of mobility and immobility the migrants take, the timing of such choices within life-course, discontents and contents with aspirations on such choices, and how these choices in combination with other factors, such as labor market positions or legal statuses, create a complex patchwork of distinct patterns or social positions within the receiving society.

Dreams and Strategies of Mobility Among the Stateless Chinese of Brunei
Southeast Asia is at the heart of a dynamic and diverse Asia, with a burgeoning working age population amidst a fast changing economic and socio-political landscape. This presentation examines the trajectories of a largely invisible group, namely, the stateless Chinese of Brunei. Utilizing a qualitative approach not only emphasizes the enduring and intertwined legacy of migration, ethnicity, and post-colonial nation-state making in the construction of the ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia, but importantly, provides a glimpse into the motivations, actions, and general narratives of ‘self-making and being made’ (Ong, 1996, p. 737) in tandem to nation-state policies.The semi-structured interviews conducted with stateless persons living in Brunei as well as stateless persons who migrated to Canada, and eventually obtaining Canadian citizenship. shed light not only on a largely overlooked population, but also examines how these ‘outsiders’, largely assumed to be stuck and immobile, are able to wield various alternative resources, be it cultural, social, economic, or institutional, and devise strategies in order to render themselves mobile. Their stories also explore the multifaceted nature of their belonging and/or unbelonging, positioning themselves as Chinese, as being of Brunei, or Canadian, or all three, demonstrating identity as a continuous, dynamic process rather than a static, rigid category, and the importance of such claims in a globalized, fluid world.

Living as Invisible Immigrants: North Korean Defectors in Japan
Currently, there are about 200 North Korean defectors in Japan. These defectors constitute Koreans who have formerly resided in Japan during the colonial era and their descendants. These Koreans immigrated to North Korea through the repatriation project conducted between 1959 and 1984. The Japanese government allows defectors to enter Japan only if they can prove that they or their ancestors used to live in Japan. However, these defectors become invisible in Japanese society after settlement because the Japanese government obfuscates ethnic categories where North Korean defectors are included in a generalized category of "Koreans" and North Korean defectors themselves do not openly reveal their identity given the negative image of North Korea.I have conducted interviews with 20 North Korean defectors living in Japan and examined how lack of belonging and politics of everyday exclusion have caused these migrants' liminal state both in Japan, despite its shift towards a more welcoming migration policy, and in North Korea, which did not actively accommodate these culturally Japanese Koreans.Now that North Korean defectors started to live in their new settlement in Japan, the Korean ethnic groups which forms a large proportion of 'foreigners' in Japan has become more intricate. Shedding light on the existence of North Korean defectors in Japan will debunk widely held notions of Japan as a racially homogenous country. The experiences of non-belonging both in Japan and North Korea illustrate aspirations towards settlement and the importance of identity claims as among those excluded from Japan's increasingly open migration policies

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