Monday, July 19, 2010

Migration in China: A Model for Climate Migration?

Following up on the report of the climate change migration study, I'd like to examine the migration issue further. The Globe and Mail published a story on China's new treatment of migrant workers from the countryside who work in Beijing. Migrants are being locked down in gated communities that prevent them from going through the city overnight. However, it also locks them into squalid conditions with no access to the city's resources. The lock-down is so tight that many migrants complain they can't get to their jobs in the morning, or get home before the gates close at night.

From the Globe and Mail:

"Now China is gating off low-income villages, where migrant labourers from the countryside (the people who built those expansive villas) live in near squalor. The newly erected fences and nighttime curfews are designed to hold in the residents, and the criminality that supposedly emanates from these communities. “Enhance the idea of safety and reduce illegal crimes,” reads a red banner hanging over the main road to one such village south of Beijing, home to some 7,000 migrants

That road into Shoubaozhuang is guarded 24 hours a day by two uniformed guards and partially barred by an accordion gate that closes tight at 11 p.m. each night. Until 6 a.m. the next day, the residents are sealed in. Only those with passes are allowed to come and go, their movements recorded by a video camera stationed over the entrance.

It’s one of 16 villages around Beijing that for the past two months have been locked down at night, under a program local authorities call “sealed management.” They say the aim is to get a better handle on the millions of migrant workers who have moved to the Chinese capital in search of work, and who often end up living in poor, dirty and rapidly growing places like the villages south of Beijing, some of which have seen their population grow tenfold in recent years."

This summer, I read Factory Girls: from village to city in a changing China by Leslie Chang. It's an ethnography of the lives of migrant women who work in the factories in city of Dongguan, souther Guangdong Province. The portrait of this process of migration, in which teenage women leave their farming villages and work in the cities, is mostly positive. The young women left a village life in which they had no chance for education, no chance for work that paid any sort of wage, and felt otherwise condemned to a life of rural poverty as the wife of a poor farmer. As terrible as the working conditions were in Dongguan, for them it was better than the prospects in their home villages.

That pattern of migration was different from the one described in the locked shantytowns of Beijing in that most of the young women lived in dormitories in their factories (and they paid for those accommodations from their monthly pay checks.) The young women were able to return to their home villages whenever they felt the need, if they were in-between jobs or relationships. Chang wrote that because these young people could always return to their home villages, Dongguan never developed the shantytowns that are now commonplace in Beijing. If migrants ran out of money, they simply went home until they got the chance to "go out" again. But most of them never wanted to go home outside of a holiday visit at the Chinese New Year.

And in yet another contrast, Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock (Feb. 11, 2010) spoke with David Satterthwaite, a Senior Fellow at IIED with the Human Settlements group, who has done extensive work with people in shanty settlements like those described in Beijing. David's take on shanty developments is that poor people are quite ingenious at building their own homes and solving their own problems. What they need is the assistance of governments to install the sewer and water infrastructure that they are not able to construct by themselves.

David also commented on the process of migration, and said that migration is actually an adaptive strategy. Families will often split migration so that some family members live and work in a city, while some live in rural areas, so that the family as a whole can access resources in one of several places: paid labor, food, child care, education, etc.

Whether migration becomes an adaptive strategy or a disaster seems to depend on the response of governments in the receiving territories. If migrants are locked down into squalid conditions, and constantly persecuted by police as "illegals", as is happening now to Mexicans in the southwestern United States, then migration will result in increasing rates of poverty, sickness, criminality and death. But if migrants are allowed to move about freely as their needs change, to connect to resources without being penalized for their status, migration may be a highly adaptive strategy for coping with catastrophic climate change.

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