Asian Migrations: Social and Geographical Mobilities in Southeast, East, and Northeast Asia

Asian MigrationsAuthor            :       Tony Fielding

ISBN                :      9780415639477

Publisher       :       Routledge London and New York

Year                 :       2016

Price               :      $52.87 (Amazon)

Reviewed by Valerie C. Yap, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

Contemporary migration research often explores migrants through particular facets of migratory processes. In Asian Migrations, Fielding frames migratory processes on a more encompassing manner by using an interdisciplinary approach to analyze and to explain the causes and consequences of various forms of migration flows in Southeast, East and Northeast Asia. This ambitious work addresses broad structures such as immigration policies and the political economies of sending and receiving countries. It also tackles the movement of specific sets of people to particular destination countries, motivations, impacts of migration to the sending countries, and issues of incorporation into receiving societies, among others.

Fielding’s book consists of nine chapters. The introductory chapters provide socio-economic contexts and survey past migration flows to explain the region’s contemporary migration trends.  The distinctiveness and nature of migration regimes are shaped by the shifting political economic landscapes (i.e. decolonization, shifts in political regimes and Cold War politics), and are triggered by interconnected trade and capital flows among economies in the region. Collectively, Fielding refers to the region as East Asia and has arranged most of the book’s layout under three macro regions, namely Southeast Asia (ASEAN countries and East Timor), China ‘plus’ (which includes Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan and Mongolia) and Northeast Asia (Japan, South Korea, North Korea, and Far East Russia). The chapters follow in-depth discussions of internal and international migrations of various migrant communities and diasporic populations within and across East Asia. The concluding chapter summarizes and synthesizes the migration trends in the region.

The complexity of the migration systems of this particular geography lies in the increasing diversity of types of migration and types of migrants. Transnational mobilities mostly flow from less developed parts of East Asia to the more developed countries of the region. Particularly prominent are the migrant workers filling specific employment niches at both ends of the labor spectrum with blue-collar workers on one end and at the other professionals and managerial workers. Migration across the region is dominated by young labor migrants who are moving to major cities as industrial workers as is the case of internal migration in China, and as plantation and factory workers as is the case of Indonesians and Burmese crossing borders to Malaysia and Thailand. While Japan and South Korea supply their skilled workers to most Southeast Asia and China ‘plus’ countries where these economic migrants form corporate enclave communities. We recognize that for the most part, migrants are making strategic economic decisions to migrate so that they can earn better wages and find better life chances for themselves and their networks. But changing realities have also paved the way to other migrations. Parallel to the mobilization of skilled and unskilled labor is the movement of students, retirees, lifestyle migrants and marriage migrants who are also simultaneously moving in and out of the region. Some movements are linked to particular life course transitions while other migrations are used as a means of social advancement or the pursuit of cultural and personal aims.

In these regions, the influx of migrants from here and from elsewhere has contributed to more ethnically diverse and multicultural societies but not necessarily multi-ethnic integrated societies. That is, immigrants have diversified the make-up of a society even to the point of changing gender, racial and cultural relations in communities and across nations, however incorporation and acceptance into the host societies for many are still a challenge. In fact, most policies are designed essentially on how to deal and manage migrant workers, and less on welcoming immigrants with the exception of highly skilled migrants who are considered desirable. But even for them who strive to become integrated are not always afforded equal treatments, and some remain as strangers. The harsh reality of exclusion differs from country to country. In Southeast Asia, immigrant minorities experience systematic patterns of discrimination. For foreign workers in Malaysia, they are treated poorly and are unfairly blamed for social ills (p.62), while the Vietnamese minority of Cambodia is excluded from citizenship, and face legal and social exclusion (p.78). In China, the ‘floating population’ has little to no access to social services and benefits when they migrate to major cities, and are discriminated because they hold a rural hukou. Elsewhere, discrimination has resulted into violent confrontations and ethnic conflicts leading to the displacement of large numbers of people, as is the case of Muslim Rohingyans fleeing Myanmar to Bangladesh.

Moreover, Fielding finds that governments of East Asia approach issues of migration and citizenship with ‘communitarian’ policies that tend to be more “socially conservative, nationalistic (sometimes even racist), inward-looking and somewhat authoritarian” (p.258). This becomes especially striking for co-ethnics who live outside the state and return to the homeland. In Chapter 7, Fielding discussed the recruitment of co-ethnic overseas populations for farm, manufacturing or services work. The Nikkeijin (e.g. Latin American or Filipino of Japanese ancestry) and the Joseonjok (Chinese of Korean ancestry) have experienced difficulties and setbacks integrating into the homeland. In the case of the Nikkeijin, they are segregated from the local population and from other immigrant groups. Despite government rhetoric of the ‘internationalization’ (kokusaika) of Japanese society, and of ‘multicultural coexistence’ (tabunka kyousei), the Japanese still find it difficult to remove the fictive notion of cultural homogeneity, and accept people born and brought up outside Japan as part of ‘their’ society (p.201). And similar to the Nikkeijin, the Joseonjok who work mostly in the manufacturing and service sectors are welcomed back to South Korea for their Koreanness, only to be subsequently found to be very culturally Chinese (p.210).

Finally, this book discusses future mobilities and possible trends in the region. Given that migration has played a significant role in the development of East Asian economies, migration trajectories would still concentrate on meeting those demands and addressing demographic imbalances in particular the declining fertility rates. While the concluding chapter focuses more on possibilities, it does provide two near-certainties about the future. One is East Asia’s graying society. The region is experiencing a rise in elderly populations, and ensuring a supply of care workers will be an important policy agenda. Opportunities in social care expansion will abound for sending and receiving countries with the former seeking out new markets for its workers, and developing training programs on technical skills and cultural linguistic knowledge of host societies. Already in parts of the region like Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, it is an increasingly common practice to outsource care work, and to hire foreign domestic and care workers to care for the elderly. But in other parts of the region like Japan and South Korea, it is only starting to become an option, albeit a limited one due to cultural and political aversions to immigration. Fielding suggests that sending countries improve on their governance and develop themselves as destination sites for retirement migrants in the region. Although an interesting alternative, it still leaves the question of how this can be managed in the future. Also left out is the care drain that will be faced by sending countries as they lose their young working-age men and women to work as domestic and care workers elsewhere. The other near-certainty discussed by Fielding considers climate change as having an impact in the future. Geographically, a number of East Asia’s largest cities are situated on the coast or near major rivers. They are thus more likely to be exposed to environmental risks and to induce population movements whether temporary or permanent in nature. Although Fielding does not expand on this discussion, this area of migration management is a knowledge gap that needs to be explored further.

Overall, the book captures the breadth and depth of the dynamics of contemporary migration and mobility in Southeast, East and Northeast Asia. Fielding’s ability to highlight the distinctiveness of each of the macro regions gives readers opportunities to make broad comparisons, and to understand better how complex and interdependent the countries are. More importantly, the book emphasizes the role that migration has played in the growth of East Asian economies, and how migration will likely continue to be of importance in the future. The book serves as a good supplement resource material to scholars and students of migration, geography and Asian studies. Having knowledge of the region will help readers understand current migration events and explain different conceptions of rights, society, values from an East Asian perspective.


Suggested citation

Valerie C. Yap (2018), Review of “Asian Migrations: Social and Geographical Mobilities in Southeast, East, and Northeast Asia”, by Tony Fielding, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 11, no. 2.