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Journal article

Troubling Freedom: Migration, debt, and modern slavery




Julia Davidson


This article is concerned with the role of debt in contemporary practices of mobility. It explores how the phenomenon of debt-financed migration disturbs the trafficking/ smuggling, illegal/legal, and forced/voluntary dyads that are widely used to make sense of migration and troubles the liberal construction of ‘freedom’ and ‘slavery’ as oppositional categories. The research literature reveals that while debt can lock mi- grants into highly asymmetrical, personalistic, and often violent relations of power and dependency sometimes for several years, it is also a means by which many seek to extend and secure their future freedoms. Financing migration through debt can be an active choice without also being a ‘voluntary’ or ‘autonomous’ choice, and migrants’ decisions to take on debts that will imply heavy restrictions on their freedom are taken in the context of migration and other policies that severely constrain their alternatives. Vulnerability to abuse and exploitation is also politically constructed, and even migrant-debtors whose movement is state sanctioned often lack protections both as workers and as debtors. Indeed, large numbers of migrants are excluded from the rights and freedoms that in theory constitute the opposite of slavery. As argued in the conclusion, this illustrates the contemporary relevance of Losurdo’s historical account of the fundamentally illiberal realities of self-conceived liberal societies. There remain ‘exclusion clauses’ in the social contract that supposedly affords universal equality and freedom, clauses that are of enormous consequence for many groups of migrants, and that also deleteriously affect those citizens who are poor and/or other- wise marginalized.

Journal title

Migration Studies

File Attachments

Economic sectors

General relevance - all sectors

Content types

Policy analysis, Statistics on work and life conditions, and Systemic/state violation of right/freedom

Target groups

(Im)migrants workers

Geographical focuses

Global relevance