Frontier (Heritage) Migration to India in 2016


Melissa Tandiwe Myambo, a Fulbright-Nehru scholar, is conducting research on contemporary patterns of migration, in particular on people who are leaving industrialized countries (Germany, USA, South Korea, Canada etc.) to move to China, India and South Africa.

Many DW’ers have signed up to contribute to her research through interviews she is conducting to understand why we’ve all decided to move to, live and work in India. In this post Melissa share’s her work through a discussion with Veena Aunty!


“Ah, I see,” says Veena Aunty triumphantly, “people leaving India.”

I repeat myself for the fourth time, “No, I am researching people migrating to


“Oh, you mean coming to India?  People are leaving the West to move to India?”


“But why?”

Veena Aunty has three children, two in the U.S. and one in the U.K. Over a fresh lime soda (sweet and salty), she tells me proudly that they were all “toppers” at the elite Indian institutions they attended before heading West for their postgraduation. They stayed on, as they often do, after obtaining well-remunerated positions in world-class companies. It’s a dream realised — for her — and the thought of any of them returning to India…

Veena Aunty is struggling to understand why people would voluntarily choose to migrate here and leave Paradise aka the West, home of globally-dominant brands, constant electricity and potable water in the taps; the place where “modernity” is not a work in progress but has already been attained. So she takes refuge in numbers, “But surely these expats you say are coming here must be very much lesser than us Indians going the other way?”

Yes, I concede. There are still more Indians going to the West than the other way round but, I warn her, this is not a story about numbers.

In Migration Studies in general, there is a conflation of numbers with impact — and while the biggest migrations the world has ever seen are the rural-urban migrations happening today in China and India, we should remember that significant change can also be effected by relatively small numbers. The area of the subcontinent that makes up what we call India today had a population of about 234 million in 1900 — the British and Portuguese migrants made up less than 1% of that figure, but their influence was profound. Today’s numbers may not seem significant, but these are the people effecting what we call globalisation. These are the globalisers.

Veena Aunty swats away an imaginary fly because we are insulated here in South Delhi’s upscale Khan Market.  This conversation is clearly challenging her dearly-held convictions about how the world is supposed to operate and maybe how it did operate when she was young in the 20th-century. But in the 21st-century, not only do we have a new global economy but, more importantly, a new global imaginary. In other words, migrants going the “other way” are reimagining the world and what it could be.

In 2011, when I began this study on people leaving industrialised countries to move to the “emerging market economies” of South Africa, China and India, I had no idea what was coming.  Both in South Africa, where I completed the first phase of this research project in 2015, and in India where I am currently conducting this research, locals seem to find it incredible that people are moving from western countries even though the evidence is all around them.

Why is it so difficult to comprehend?  We all know that when people really want to make it big, they should move to the West, right?

Well, that depends.  While this may still be true at very elite levels of society, it is not necessarily the case for the average middle-class person. In most western countries, economic growth is stagnant, or at best sluggish, and the middle class is in decline. In India, the middle class is growing and economic growth is expected to be over 7% this year (now with the demonetization of 8 November, 2016, we shall see what happens to that projection).  When the middle class grows, so does opportunity.  Quite simply, the global economy is shifting.

But this is not about economics or mere numbers. Some old-fashioned economists suffer under the illusion that rational man (aka homo economicus) sits down and does a cost-benefit analysis of where he can earn the most for his labour, and then decides to migrate there. Economics is an important part of every migration story, but since migration involves human beings and not machines, rational economic theory cannot fully explain a person’s decision to leave her home for a new country.

Love, life, challenge, family, (racial/ethnic/spiritual/religious) belonging, work-life balance, wanting to be part of something meaningful, the chance to make a difference, the opportunity to define one’s own destiny — these are just a few of the other reasons people migrate.

When I try to explain all of this to Veena Aunty, she appears to be listening attentively. But just when I think she’s starting to get it, she shakes her head definitively.

There is a long pause until finally Veena Aunty says peevishly, “Why do you keep calling them migrants? They are expats and if they are coming here, as you say, they don’t stay long!”

India is an immigrant-receiving nation. There are Afghanis, Africans, Bangladeshis and Japanese alongside many migrants from the West.  However, only one of these categories of migrants is commonly referred to as “expat,” and this has everything to do with the world order created by colonialism. It’s time to decolonise our minds…

The term ‘expatriate’ obfuscates the truth of the matter. The reason people don’t normally call them migrants is because most people called expats usually come from ‘developed’ countries.  In the global hierarchy of nations created by imperialism, people from ‘developed’ countries have many privileges, one of which is that they don’t migrate, they just expatriate.  People have the impression that they just parachute in on a fantastic expat contract for a short time and dwell in a bubble that floats somewhere above the ground, remaining unaffected by the elements or the force of gravity.

However, “expats” are the same as any other economic migrant. They have crossed a border in search of opportunity or livelihood in another place. The UN defines a permanent transnational migrant as a person who spends a year or more in another country. In the Indian case, many migrants spend several years in the country (over a decade) and while some do come on packages that allow them immediate access to the good life, many have come on local contracts and have to find housing and transport arrangements for themselves.

Today’s frontier migrants are chasing not only the frontiers of global capitalism as it intensifies in the “emerging market economies” but also rejecting the old capitalism of the West. As one young Frenchman living in Delhi said to me, “That system is dead,” and he is not sure what new order will emerge.

I came up with the term frontier migration because in my reading and in my interviews with frontier migrants, I was struck by their propensity to literally describe India and South Africa as a new frontier. Importantly, the idea of the frontier is historically-loaded because it connotes the violence of settler colonialism in the “Wild West” but today, it is used by all types of frontier migrants. Unlike historical frontier migrations in colonial times, today’s frontier migrants are not all white Europeans, and this is another reason the term ‘expat’ should be avoided.

The term is implicitly elitist, classist, and racialised. Most expats are assumed to be wealthy and white. However, if we rethink expats as frontier migrants, a pattern of migration from a more “developed” economy to a “developing” economy, then we find that there are three types of frontier migrants.

There’s the general frontier migrant, who leaves Japan, South Korea or the West for India. Then there are frontier return migrants. These are the guys even Veena Aunty has heard of (and every Indian PM since Rajiv Gandhi in the 1980s up to and including Prime Minister Narendra Modi has tried to entice back).  They leave India and go to Silicon Valley for 20 years, then come back to India and hey presto, Bangalore is a techie wonderland. And finally, we have the frontier heritage migrant — a much less visible category, but perhaps the most intriguing. These are people coming from the West but whose parents or grandparents or great-grandparents were from India. They identify India as their ancestral ethnic homeland even though they may have never lived here or even been here before.


Not much research has been done on frontier heritage migrants (to my knowledge, there is only my own current project and the work of sociologist Sonali Jain), but this trend is increasing not just to India but in the case of China as well where, for example, we might find a fourth-generation Chinese-American born in San Francisco opting to relocate to Shanghai.

Many frontier heritage migrants return to countries their forebears had left for manifold reasons.  Sonali’s research found that many second-generation, American-born men and women of Indian descent were moving to India because of business opportunity.  However, in my research thus far, I have interviewed many frontier heritage migrants from Germany, the UK, and the US who are involved in social enterprises and/or NGO work.  Their reasons for moving cannot be reduced to economic opportunity and for some, they end up staying in India because of one of the most significant intangibles –  a feeling of belonging.  How can we quantify a sense of “feeling at home” or belonging?

Veena Aunty is signalling for the bill. These confused expats, or frontier migrants, or whatever they are called, are threatening her staunchly-held views about the order of the world. I don’t say this to Veena Aunty but her youngest daughter wants to return home soon. She plans to become a frontier return migrant and launch her own PR company.

Will Veena Aunty be able to handle it?

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