Sovereignty, security, and migrants: Making bare life

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Low-wage migrant workers constitute a growing segment of the labor force, especially in the emerging markets of the developing world. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), 22 million migrant workers, out of an estimated 81 million worldwide, can be found in countries across Asia alone (International Labor Organization 2004). In Southeast Asia, crossborder flows of migrants1 in search of work may well constitute the single most significant factor inter-linking the economies of neighbors who otherwise are dependent on trade ties with larger and more powerful states in the North. This phenomenon has, in turn, generated much anxiety in receiving countries about the social, political, and cultural impacts of an immigrant workforce. Newspaper articles in Malaysia, for example, highlight the “problems” presented by migrants and government policies in response to migrant labor (Cruez 2006; Singh 2006). Migrants are blamed for noise pollution, indecent exposure, drunkenness, crime, and a lack of civic consciousness.2 Migrants and migrants’ rights advocates, however, note the extreme vulnerability of all low-wage migrants in the global economy and their precarious political and legal existence. Labor migrants’ general conditions of employment, and their vulnerability to abuses from the point of recruitment in the sending state to employment in the receiving country underscore the vulgar distinctions between “migrant” and “citizen, " or “self” and “other, " which are accentuated in a neoliberal world order and further reworked in sovereignty and security discourses. Security and sovereignty discourses generally position citizen and migrant in oppositional and mutually exclusive terms across different national contexts, and the policing and control of migrants are a key element of national debates. For example, in the United States of America (USA), immigration stirs passions along a social and cultural register marked by a potent combination of hypernationalism, hyperbolic anti-immigrant sentiment, and a production of a threatening “them” evident in civilian border patrols.3 In Malaysia, a civilian volunteer corps, RELA (Ikatan Relawan Rakyat Malaysia)-a state creationis invested with the power to conduct immigration raids.4 Members of RELA freely express their sense of “social duty” in finding and getting rid of migrants who are blamed for rising crime and other social problems.5 While significant similarities may be seen in the reception and treatment of migrants generally, there are also important differences among these contexts. Differences may center on the articulation of national security objectives and their impacts, claims of state sovereignty amid a decentralization of sovereign power and authority, and divergent societal responses. This chapter looks to Southeast Asia, focusing on the Malaysian case, in asking these central questions: How and why are constructions of sovereignty and security implicated in the treatment of migrants? How are migrants characterized in a postcolonial context where state sovereignty and national security are juxtaposed against neoliberal economic strategies and social policies that desire migrant labor? Does the plight of low-wage migrant labor in Malaysia signal exclusion or inclusion, or both, and, in what ways? Who is implicated in the production of inclusion/exclusion of migrants and why? Utilizing Giorgio Agamben’s work on the exception and bare life in conjunction with a postcolonial critique, I explore the characteristics of migrant labor flows and situate them in a wider historical and socio-political frame. Drawing on the distinctions between bare life-homo sacer-and ordinary political life as articulated in Agamben’s work, I argue that migrants are made bare through the articulation of sovereign power, security discourse, and the project of postcolonial state and nation making. Bare life is captured in the figure of the homo sacer or “sacred man”, according to Agamben, which is “life that cannot be sacrificed and yet may be killed” (1998: 82). More specifically:.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationInternational Relations and States of Exception
Subtitle of host publicationMargins, Peripheries, and Excluded Bodies
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages21
ISBN (Electronic)9781135251819
ISBN (Print)9780415776950
StatePublished - Jan 1 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'Sovereignty, security, and migrants: Making bare life'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this