From Invisibility to Recognition: Reflections on the Conditions of Migrants in Our Society

Fr. Graziano Battistella, c.s.
Scalabrini Migration Center
Keynote address delivered at Exodus V [1]
August 31 – September 3, 2017 | Singapore

Credit: UN Photo/Jean Pierre Laffont

From Invisibility to Recognition: Reflections on the Conditions of Migrants in Our Society

There is no scarcity of images or stories to introduce us to the topic. The world of relentless economic growth and profound transformation in the production of economic value is also the world that increasingly marginalizes millions of people or does not allow them to participate in the progress which is called development. A popular sociologist, recently passed away, has stigmatized this situation by chastising our society as a society which produces waste, in particular wasted lives.[2] For many years and many times the Church, among others, has called attention to the increasing gap between those who have and those who have not. That gap can be re-expressed now as the gap between the visible and the invisible, those who have voice and those who do not, those who can move and those who cannot.

Migrants are considered among the invisible, the voiceless, the marginalized persons of today. Obviously, not all migrants. There are big divides in the world of migration today and they cross various intersections: rights, protection, entitlements, treatment, recognition. Ultimately the divides boil down to the level of skills and the legal condition the migrants possess. There is a consistent and considerable difference in the situation of the skilled and unskilled. Traditionally, the skilled enjoy legal protection and recognition while the unskilled can find themselves in a situation of precarity. At an even more basic level is the difference between those who are present in a legal status and can claim some form of protection and those who do not. However, the different condition is not always the result of choice. It is the product of a system which can prosper on the constant creation of redundant persons – persons who have no other choice but to try to go elsewhere – while elevating barriers to the absorption of the same persons when they try to enter into another country.

In this address, I will make some considerations on the visibility and invisibility of migrants. I will first call attention on the categories of migrants who, willing or unwilling, are subject to invisibility, in particular the victims of trafficking, the irregular migrants, the forced migrants, the domestic workers and the unaccompanied children. I will then discuss the multifaceted reality of migrants’ visibility and invisibility and the different perspectives toward it, and I will conclude with the need for recognition and the duty to proximity as a way to overcome the invisibility of migrants.

1. Invisible migrants

a. Victims of trafficking. Trafficking is one of the scourges of our time which prospers through invisibility. The traffickers are often unknown, the means and routes of their criminal activities might be known or unknown and the victims are bound to keep their condition as invisible as possible. Trafficking has been exposed in recent times by governments, media, and non-governmental organizations, but what has surfaced is only the tip of the iceberg. Often combined with modern slavery, the number of persons trapped in trafficking and slavery situations is estimated at 21 million, 14 million of them caught in forced labor, the largest number in Asia-Pacific.[3] On the other hand, the number of perpetrators who are prosecuted remains alarmingly low. According to the 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report,[4] 9,989 victims were identified and 1,930 perpetrators were convicted in East Asia and Pacific in 2016. Shredding the mantle of invisibility which provides the cover to criminals for their huge profits is imperative but the utmost care should be used not to expose victims to retaliation. For them, invisibility often remains the only chance for survival. For victims of trafficking, invisibility is an ambiguous reality, necessary for protection but often detrimental for the fighting of this phenomenon which Pope Francis recently called “brutal, cruel and criminal.”

b. Irregular migrants. The distinction between trafficking and irregular migration is not always easy to make. The trend today is to consider irregular migrants as trafficked persons, but in most cases, they are not so. Irregular migrants are often persons who do not find regular channels to migrate sufficiently available or possible and decide to, or are oriented to, take the irregular ways. Irregular migration is widespread in most destination countries and it is particularly common in Southeast Asia, most specifically in Malaysia and Thailand. Estimates of irregular migrants can reach uneven levels of accuracy for obvious reasons. For irregular migrants, invisibility is their best chance to complete their migration project. Sometimes this invisibility is favored by commonality of language, customs and religion, as between Indonesia and Malaysia. Sometimes their visibility is tolerated, as in Thailand, since they are functional to the local economy. Condemned to remain invisible, irregular migrants are forced to let go of any protection claim they might have even in their situation of irregularity. Invisibility is their strength, as it protects them from removal, but also their weakness, as employers take advantage of it, knowing that the migrants cannot afford to report them and run the risk of expulsion.

c. Forced migrants. The many conflicts and natural disasters in the world force millions of people to seek refuge in another region or country. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 65 million people are forcibly displaced in the world, 22 million of whom are refugees.[5] Natural disasters normally generate movement within the country, giving rise to internally displaced persons (IDPs). There were 24.2 million new displaced persons because of natural disaster in 2016.[6] Although their situation is often temporary, IDPs search visibility to ensure they are provided the proper assistance. Durable solutions, however, are frequently slow in coming and temporary conditions can often become long-term situations, which slowly fall into invisibility. Media interests turn to other, more newsworthy events, and IDPs can drift into oblivion because of their invisibility.

Asylum seekers and refugees escape from countries who cannot ensure their safety for various reasons and seek visibility to call attention to the situation where they come from and where they cannot return. When escape becomes massive, the attitude of political authorities in countries of resettlement turns blind, as responsibilities to respond to their plight are dumped on those countries that have immediate borders with the origin countries. In Southeast Asia, the most visible asylum seekers are the Rohingyas,[7] unwanted in Myanmar where they are not considered citizens and unwanted in the neighboring countries that do not feel responsible for their situation. Recently, 500,000 fled from Myanmar to Bangladesh, where they found some temporary shelter. Aung San Suu Kyi declared that they can be readmitted to Myanmar subject to verification of their citizenship, which will exclude most from returning. Perhaps 100,000 refugees are in Malaysia, more than 40,000 from Myanmar and they face harassment from local authorities. Those without documents are called kosong (zero) and the authorities threaten that they can do whatever they want with them.[8] The lack of legal status render Rohingyas invisible in Myanmar, and invisible (zero) in countries of asylum.

d. Domestic workers. Domestic work is the most available profession to unskilled migrants in Asia. Domestic workers originate in particular from the Philippines, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. They went first to Hong Kong and Singapore, and later to the Gulf countries and other Southeast Asian countries. When Taiwan began its program of labor import in the early 1990s, it also opened the door to domestic workers and caregivers, an occupation now largely dominated by Indonesian women. Most domestic workers in Asia live in the house of the employers. In this regard, they are invisible to the local society, except during their day-off when they tend to gather together. The invisibility of their occupation is often accompanied by the invisibility of their presence in the legal system, particularly the protection of labor laws. A consequence of such invisibility is that many abuses are committed against them. A newspaper reported in May that “migrant domestic workers in Lebanon are dying at a rate of two per week. Many of the deaths are suicides or botched escape attempts in which migrant women choose to jump off buildings rather than continue working in abusive and exploitative situations.”[9] In some cases, the invisibility is broken and the domestic workers abandon their employer and seek refuge in their country’s embassy. In many other cases, there is no reporting of mistreatment and domestic workers maintain their invisibility as they cannot afford to leave unfinished their migration project, in which most have invested significantly. Attempts have been made to regulate the sector, particularly with bilateral agreements, such as the one between the Philippines and Saudi Arabia, but the level of implementation of such agreements is not certified.

e. Unaccompanied children. The attention to unaccompanied children reached its peak when tens of thousands of them presented themselves to US border officials in 2014. A report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights[10] indicated that in the same year approximately 200,000 applied for asylum in Europe. According to the report, there are many reasons behind the migration of unaccompanied children, including situations of violence, the constraint to become soldier children, domestic violence and forced marriage. For others, however, the attempt was for reunification with the family, to join the diaspora or to study and seek employment. Children are easily victims of exploitation, particularly when left alone; criminal organizations can take advantage of their needs and recruit them for their criminal activities. Pope Francis has called attention to them in the 2016 message: “Child migrants, the vulnerable and the voiceless” and recommended that solutions should go beyond confinement in detention centers and repatriation, and should ensure respect for the rights of children and long-term solutions, which require cooperation both in origin and destination countries.

2. Migrants’ visibility and invisibility: a multifaceted reality

From the previous brief description, migrants’ invisibility is not a simple reality. At the surface, it seems nonsensical to speak of migrants as invisible persons. If there is anything which connotes migrants it is their visibility because of their differences in the countries of destination. The visibility is characterized by many aspects. The most evident, sometimes, is the external appearance, the way they dress, the food they eat, the places they gather, the language they speak. It is well known that on Sunday Filipino migrants gather at Lucky Plaza in Singapore or Statue Square in Hong Kong, or they hold some kind of market for food and other items outside of churches. Such practices are so visible that it is impossible to speak of invisibility. But one should not stop at the surface of visibility. Instead we have to consider the different layers of visibility and its relevance from different perspectives.

a. Social visibility: migrants who are inserted in the country of destination pursue at the same time social visibility and invisibility. The whole assimilation process was predicated as a development toward invisibility. Migrants were considered assimilated not simply when they felt part of the mainstream, but when the dominant culture acknowledged that they fully belonged.[11] Children of the second generation undergo an identity conflict as on the one hand they are part of the immigrant family and on the other hand they want to affirm that they belong to the new country. In that respect, their desire for invisibility, for being part of the mainstream and not recognized as immigrants, leads them to depart from the family traditions. However, when invisibility is reached, migrants want to affirm their roots, want to acquire visibility because of the distinctive origin and traditions they carry. The development from assimilation, to integration, to multiculturalism and intercultural dialogue is precisely an interplay between visibility and invisibility. From the initial desire to be accepted, to the point of letting go of their original social characteristics, migrants affirm their originality when they integrate instead of assimilating in the new society. Integration allows migrants to feel part of both origin and destination societies, transnational persons in a world which is both globalized and still divided in nation states. The affirmation of their difference is sanctioned when the country adopts multicultural policies oriented to protect the cultural heritage of immigrants. Having achieved new visibility, while at the same time belonging to the mainstream, migrants can be privileged actors towards that intercultural dialogue which can facilitate peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic world.[12]

For labor migrants, with limited or no prospect of integration, the dynamics are different. Society, particularly in some contexts, pushes them toward the invisible confines of labor camps or barracks. The migrants are visible only in the place of work, not in the social interplay with the local society. They are not meant to belong and to remain; they remain visible only in the products of their work, in the subways, airports and high-rise buildings they construct.

b. Legal visibility: labor migration is traditionally accompanied by a low level of protection. We already indicated that some categories of migrants, like domestic workers, do not appear in the labor laws of the country of destination. They are invisible. Even when a level of legal visibility is granted, migrants have difficulty to seek redress, as access to justice remains complex and expensive. The main concern of migrants is to maintain their gainful employment and sometimes they have to forego their claim for just treatment in the workplace for the fear of losing their right to stay and work. Joseph Carens[13] has advocated a firewall between migration status and migrants’ rights precisely to provide migrants with real access to protection, but this suggestion has not been adopted widely. We should not ignore that migrants sometimes pursue wrong forms of visibility, as when they do not respect local customs and laws, but this is often the result of uncertainties and despair.

c. Political visibility. Perhaps more than ever before migration is a highly visible issue for the international community. The large camps of refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, the streams of refugees trying to enter Europe, or the crossing, often lethal, of the Mediterranean by migrants trying to reach the coasts of Italy are highly visible situations. Southeast Asia features also very prominently, with the camps of Rohingyas at Cox Bazar calling for the attention of regional and world leaders. While the flight of migrants, and particularly asylum seekers, is highly visible, the political community is struggling to make it as invisible as possible. In the European Union, countries are refusing a redistribution of asylum seekers among member states and are elevating barriers at the borders to Europe and to individual states to avoid such a possibility. President Trump is trying to raise the wall between the United States and Mexico, and the US Congress is considering a severe reduction of the annual intake of family migrants. Australia has declared some of its territory as unavailable for asylum claims and has entered into agreements with some countries like Nauru and Papua New Guinea to host the asylum claimants. There is a huge political effort to deny the reality of migration and to close the eyes of the respective populations on the plight of migrants and refugees.

d. Religious visibility: contemporary flows of migrants are characterized by religious pluralism. The religious visibility of migrants is sometimes emphasized by external signs of religious belonging, such as wearing crosses or veils, and such visibility has generated political reaction in some countries, like France, where in the name of “laïcité” migrants are required not to wear ostentatious religious signs in public spaces. While intended to protect the freedom of young migrants, such legislation is also minimizing the visibility of migrants. On the other hand, religious visibility – and even practice — of non-Muslim migrants is highly restricted in the Gulf Countries and practically forbidden in Saudi Arabia.

Within their own religious affiliation migrants are visible and sometimes that visibility can be threatening, as in the case of a large number of Filipino migrants overtaking the small number of local Christians within Catholic communities, particularly in Asia. At the same time, it is common that migrants are required to keep a low profile and, while allowed to express their faith in their language and traditions, they might have to do so in the church basement. Also, the religious invisibility of migrants might be expressed by their lack of representation in church structures such as the parish council and among church leadership. The migrants are welcome to the church, as long as they remain silent.

3. Visibility and invisibility: a matter of perspective

As we have shown so far, invisibility is often a requirement of the condition of migrants. However, we have also noted that the attitude toward visibility or invisibility is not a homogeneous reality. Rather, it is a matter of perspective both in the society where the migrants are, as well as among the migrants themselves. The perspective depends on the position one has toward migrants and the position in which migrants find themselves.

In countries of destination, the political and social organizations which are against migrants will tend to increase their visibility by distorting facts and perspectives. This is well documented in political discourses and media language. Numbers often do not correspond to official statistics and are not put in the proper context. The inflow of new migrants is considered intolerable, even if their percentage of the overall population might be very small. The arrival of migrants is always portrayed with terms such as “wave” to generate a perception of threat. When a crime involves a migrant, his origin is overemphasized. Obviously, this is not the visibility that migrants need.

Visibility and invisibility are negotiated also by the migrants themselves, and depend on the position they are in. Successful migrants tend to increase their visibility, sometimes in ostentatious ways by purchasing expensive items or being profligate when returning home. Sometimes this visibility does not correspond to actual reality, as migrants do not want to admit their difficulties and failures. Also, migrants would like for their contributions to the local economy and society to be visible.[14] A study by the Moressa Foundation concluded that in Italy migrants generated 131 billion euros in 2016, equal to 8.9 percent of GDP.[15] However, their contributions are normally downplayed and left invisible. On the other hand, migrants in irregular situations and victims of trafficking try to remain as invisible as possible, while those who have integrated refuse to be considered migrants.

These different attitudes toward visibility and invisibility imply that the issue cannot be addressed uncritically. I would like to argue that ultimately the ethical questions that visibility and invisibility generate should be addressed from a perspective of recognition.

4. The need for recognition

Recognition has a long history in philosophical discourse. Aristotle addressed it first in the Poetics, analyzing the plots of epics or tragedies by Greek authors, and observed that it was often a key element, together with the reversal of intentions, to produce surprising results. “Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons.”[16] The many examples of recognition and the changes it originates in Greek literature are not unique. Similar examples can be found in the Scripture. Just to limit our attention to the New Testament, the various episodes of recognition of the risen Lord come immediately to mind, in particular the one of Mary Magdalene or the disciples of Emmaus. After recognizing the Lord, the disciples changed as persons — instead of sadness they were feeling joy — and they changed their plans and returned to Jerusalem. According to Zappella,[17] the whole gospel of Mark can be considered a delayed recognition, with Jesus refusing to be recognized as the Messiah because it would have been a wrong recognition, and delaying it until after his death on the cross, where he is recognized by the centurion: “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mc 15:39).

Recognition acquired an ethical dimension with Hegel, who theorized that we arrive at self-consciousness only through a process of mutual recognition, which implies that we have moral duties toward the other. Recognition is not just a cognitive, but also a normative process.

Contemporary philosophers have further developed the argument by focusing on the condition of the marginalized as a condition of disregard, of negation, from which they can emerge only through recognition. It is a process which can occur successfully only if the migrants are participating in it, if they are not just object, but also subject of recognition. Many movements –think for instance of the anti-racism movement or the feminist movement– engage in the politics of recognition to ensure that the marginalized, the invisible, are granted equality of recognition, as everyone is entitled to the same respect because endowed of the same common dignity.

Politics of recognition are insufficient if they simply lead to universal equality. As argued by some philosophers (Charles Taylor among them),[18] politics of recognition can be blind to the differences among people. In their view, recognition requires acknowledging the rights of minorities. Consequently, they are critical of the alleged equality of liberalism, as it often consists of the position of the dominant culture, oblivious of the differences and rights of minorities. Politics of recognition means also respect for differences.

The discussion among philosophers continued in the dispute between Honneth and Fraser.[19] While Honneth insisted that, to ensure equality to all, recognition is the most fundamental aspect, Fraser objected that recognition can be meaningless if there is no redistribution of resources. The discussion comes from the dispute between liberals and communitarians, between the priority of right or the priority of good. Although it is not our purpose to enter into such a dispute, I would be inclined to agree with Fraser that it is not necessary to make recognition and redistribution an antagonistic choice. Migrants deserve recognition in many different respects, but then such recognition should lead to access to opportunities as migration is ultimately a search for redistribution in a context of inequality.

For Christians, the recognition of migrants is not simply a duty which derives from the relation with the other, which allows me to recognize myself, but also a teaching received from the Lord.

In the parable of the Samaritan (Lc 10:25-37), the Lord has taught us to recognize the one who is abandoned on the street. Such recognition is possible only by approaching that person, by becoming proximate to him. As migrants attempt to be proximate to us, by arriving at our borders, our choice to be proximate to them is the only way to love one another, and ultimately to love God.

In the teaching of the Lord, the recognition of migrants takes us even further. It leads us to recognize the Lord himself, as he said: “I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Mt 25:35). Thus, the migrant becomes a sacrament of my recognition of the Lord, a privileged way in which I can recognize the Lord and invite him in, which cannot be kept separate from the recognition and receiving of the Lord in the Word and the Eucharist, and which is the way to salvation.

In fact, if we recognize the Lord, he will also recognize us in front of the Father (Mt 10:32). It should not be just a private recognition, it should be public.[20] It is confessing that Jesus is Lord. Therefore, the recognition of migrants must also be public, liberating them from the non-recognition (invisibility) to which society would like to confine them. Failure to recognize migrants will be failure to know ourselves and ultimately failure to know the Lord.


[1] Keynote address delivered at Exodus V, Singapore, August 31 – September 3, 2017. Exodus is a formation initiative for pastoral workers with migrants in Asia. This was the Fifth Exodus conference organized by the Episcopal Commission for Migrants and Itinerant People (ECMI) of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

[2] Bauman Zygmunt (2003). Wasted lives. Modernity and its Outcasts. Cambridge: Polity.

[3] Human Trafficking by the Numbers, January 7, 2017. http://www.humanrightsfirst.org/resource/human-trafficking-numbers

[4] US Department of State (2017). Trafficking in Persons Report 2017.

[5] UNHCR. Figures at a Glance. http://www.unhcr.org/figures-at-a-glance.html

[6] IDMC (2017). Global Report on Internal Displacements 2017.

[7] Battistella Graziano (2017). “Rohingyas: The People for Whom No One Is Responsible,” International Migration Policy Report. Responsibility Sharing for Large Movements of Refugees and Migrants in Need of Protection. A Report of the Scalabrini migration study centers.

[8] Palgrem Pei, “Adrift in ASEAN: Tackling Southeast Asia’s Migration Challenge,” The Diplomat, September 2, 2015.

[9] Su Alice, “Africa: Slave Labour? Death Rate Doubles for Migrant Domestic Workers in Lebanon,” All Africa, 15 May 2017. http://allafrica.com/stories/201705191000.html

[10] A/HRC/33/53

[11] Gordon M.M. (1964). Assimilation in American Life. The Role of Race, Religion and National Origins, Oxford University Press, Oxford (MA).

[12] UNDP (2204). Human Development Report 2004, United Nations, New York.

[13] Carens Joseph (2013). The Ethics of Immigration. Oxford University Press.

[14] UN ESCAP (2015). Asia-Pacific Migration Report 2015. Migrants’ Contributions to Development. ST/ESCAP/2738

[15] Il PIL “straniero” vale 131 miliardi. Il Sole 24 Ore, 16 October 2017.

[16] The Poetics of Aristotle. Edited with Critical Notes and Translation by S.H. Butcher. London, MacMillan and Co, 1902.

[17] Zappella Luciano (2016). Il mondo della Bibbia, 132 Aprile-Maggio 2016, pp. 48-53

[18] Taylor Charles (1992). The Politics of Recognition. Princeton University Press.

[19] Fraser Nancy and Alex Honneth (2004). Redistribution or Recognition? A Political-Philosophical Exchange, London: Verso.

[20] In most cases, the Greek term used in the New Testament for “recognize” is γιγνώσκω or one of its variations, which refers to the cognitive process of recognizing someone or something. In Mt 10:32, instead, the verb is ὁμολογέω, which means to confess.

Author Names

Graziano Battistella

Date of Publication October 31, 2017

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