Why are migrants discriminated against?

by Yutaro Nishioka

However you define the term “globalization,” it must be associated with the exchange of goods, ideas and people around the world. As the wave of globalization heightens, people’s movements from a country to another, i.e. migration, also increase. Some can travel easily, while others can’t. According to Katharine Sarikakis’s article, “Access denied: the anatomy of silence, immobilization and the gendered migrant,” contrary to media representation of migrants costing the economy, overall, non-EU migrants make a significant contribution to labor input. However, the “mobility” in terms of geography, politics, culture, legislature, and society is not equally for everyone.  The article says that the status of migrant subjects is described as loss of communication rights, and that migrants, especially female ones, lose their status as an “interlocutor” through silencing and immobilization. The article also states that the status of female migrants is determined by the international gender division of labor, institutional patriarchy and sexual violence.

But why is that the case? Why are migrants, especially the female ones, deprived of their communication rights and mobility? The article quotes, “whether we are willing to debate seriously and pay attention to the conditions of people who are not citizens or voters is a test of this House and a test of our humanity.” So I would like to discuss the possible causes of the discrimination against migrants.

First, I argue that the fact that many people don’t even pay attention to or realize the conditions of the lives of migrants is one of the causes of discrimination against migrants. Those that have little “connection” with the migrants could not care less about the migrants’ lives, because the improvement of the condition of the migrants’ lives would not affect the lives of non-migrants. They are only concerned with and too busy trying to improve their own lives rather than the migrants’, just like the migrants would not be interested in improving the condition of the non-migrants’ lives. This lack of connection – connection in the sense that one does not care about the improvement of the life of a person in a foreign group of people – between the lives of migrants and non-migrants, I would argue, is one of the causes of discrimination.

Another possible cause of discrimination against migrants is associated with human psychology. According to Steven Neuberg, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, “people perceived as being foreign—perhaps because they look different than us, speak different languages, eat different foods—automatically activate perceptions of disease threat. And groups who are perceived to pose disease threats activate prejudices characterized by physical disgust” (Bushwick, 2011). Psychologists say that it is natural for people to over-perceive threats, which causes emotions of fear, anger, and disgust towards outsiders. “Whether it was Italians or Irish, Poles, Jews, Germans, Chinese or whomever, each of these groups were initially perceived to pose a wide range of threats and consequently evoked powerful prejudices. It was only once people came to see these groups as nonthreatening, usually as they were seen to adopt “American” norms, that they were perceived as Americans,” says Neuberg (Bushwick, 2011).

Neuberg seems to address discrimination only from an individual’s perspective, but his theory can be extended to the societal level to shed light on structural racism. Stereotypes and discriminatory ideas that stemmed from one individual’s interaction with another foreigner gets perpetuated to others and spread to a larger group of people, i.e. society, creating preconceived notions about people whom they’ve never even met.

This is why some foreigners are not perceived as a disease threat, and others are. Those that the natives came to accept as nonthreatening are today less discriminated against. Those that came to be accepted by the natives can be seen by the natives not only as “nonthreatening” but even as “beneficial.” For example, the natives could learn new culture, technology, etc. from the foreigners.

Although Neuberg fails to mention this in Bushwick’s article, historically, his theory has also presented itself as being bidirectional. This means that even after the foreign migrant group was seen as nonthreatening, certain historical events could affect this perception and revert them back to being seen as threatening; e.g. Japanese that had been allowed to live in the US became “threatening” to the Americans during WII when Japan and US were fighting. Therefore, foreigners that were once assimilated could be “re-discriminated” against by historical events.

According to the case study written by Huong, Huynh, Li, Lopez, and Yuda (2009), “migration can offer women important opportunities that include a chance to improve her economic, social, or gender-related status leading to improved lifestyle and self esteem.” However, many of those women are exposed to vulnerability through exploitation, human trafficking and abuse. The study states that much of the work done by migrant women is not regarded as “work,” because the kinds of work they engage in are often care work, domestic work, factory work, and entertainment, which is why their work is often under-paid and under-valued. Receiving countries’ laws often do not support permanent migration for unskilled labor workers, which may put women in a more vulnerable position as they are more likely to engage in undocumented migration and the informal labor sector with poor working conditions, exploitation, low wages and abuse.

As Neuberg suggests, people need to learn to see the “outsiders” as nonthreatening in order to prevent hostility and discrimination against them. We also need to raise public awareness of the issue so as to address the lack of “connection” between the lives of migrants and non-migrants, and the disadvantages that women migrants currently face.


Bushwick, Sophie (2011). “What Causes Prejudice against Immigrants, and How Can It Be Tamed?” Scientific American. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-causes-prejudice-aga/

Huong, H. T., Huynh, N. T., Li, W., Lopez, P., and Yuda, M. 2010. Migration case study: Why does gender matter in migration? In Solem, M., Klein, P., Muñiz-Solari, O., and Ray, W., eds., AAG Center for Global Geography Education. http://cgge.aag.org/Migration1e/CaseStudy4_Singapore_Aug10/CaseStudy4_Singapore_Aug10_print.html

Sarikakis, Katharine. 2012. Access denied: the anatomy of silence, immobilization and the gendered migrant. Ethnic and Racial Studies 35(1).

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2 thoughts on “Why are migrants discriminated against?

  1. Pingback: Chinese as “honorary Whites” in Apartheid South Africa | JAPANsociology

  2. Pingback: The 1.5 Generation: Succeeding for the Family | JAPANsociology

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