Reflections on Unequal Transnational Mobility Privileges

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Reflections on Unequal Transnational Mobility Privileges

  • May 25, 2023
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Dr Abdulkadir Osman Farah, PhD


In most affluent societies, and particularly those in the North, transnational privileges and human mobility remain interconnected. Mobility herewith refers to both the practical and symbolic privileges that societies historically obtained and often remain unreflective about it. The transnationally privileged mobility status increases transnational encounters and connections. Meanwhile those lacking such privileges often long and struggle to access such benefits.
Research on transnational mobility privileges shows how access rests on transnational nation-state privileges aiding or preventing the availability or accessibility to such privileges. This article suggests, that in partially complementing existing research, T.K Oommen proposes the need to reconsider the current nation-state form, which often favours unbalanced transnational mobility privileges mainly through the powerful parties introducing and sustaining the process of ethnification and classification of global social and cultural practices. For Oommen transnational mobility is not about the capability of moving from A to B and C, but rather the process of achieving a dignified and liberating status by encountering and connecting to diverse spaces and peoples- without necessarily undergoing suffering and humiliation.
To remedy such asymmetric structural premises, Oommen calls for the coordinating efforts of transnational societies including transnational civic mobilizations from below, as well as those progressive critical civic groups within privileged societies.





A well-known Danish sailor, Troels Kløvdal, once suggested that the worldly privilege people often talk and constantly long for remains within us (humans) in almost everywhere. With the motto “Imagine if the Earth was a paradise, but there was just no one who had discovered it”[ii]. Kløvdal urges people to just experience and enjoy life. Genuine discovery, he cautions, requires sincere openness to the world by embracing human potentialities. With continual voyaging across oceans and popularly characterized as a “deep sea sailor” Kløvdal enthusiastically led a media-exposed Danish global exploring expedition, sponsored by the Danish state as well as several multinationals. The Danish adventurist visited many coastal cities around the world. During such voyages, Kløvdal and his crew met with profiles and ordinary people curiously engaging in exotic cultural traditions.

Unlike the exclusive transnational mobility privileges Kløvdal and his team entertained, for most people around the world, transnational mobility signifies almost the opposite. For many, the global seas and associated coastal regions represent places of displacement and suffering both historically as well as in contemporary times. Currently, for instance, many people practically live and occasionally disappear in the seas, mostly people from the South, particularly Africans and Asians. According to Saskia Sassen, increasing numbers of people from the south practically became floating (or disappearing) objects in the high seas[iii]. These are mainly refugees- continually on the move without belonging to any concrete juridical territories, often unwanted and repeatedly rejected by privileged nation-state societies.

Similarly, Markus Rediker, considers the seas representing privileged platforms for the transnationally privileged. With an approach of “History from below”, he nonetheless perceives the oceans as equally socio-politically transformative spaces in which, for instance, slaves, seafarers, pirates, refugees, and others continuously make and transform history[iv].

In the current transnationally interdependent world, citizens from affluent societies comparatively have access to more de-territorialized privileges than citizens from lesser affluent societies[v]. In addition, transnational mobility privileges also depend on the nation-state system in which people presumably belong to[vi]. This implies that belonging to a strong and wealthy nation-state provides one with increased transnational mobility privileges.  Apart from the act of excluding people from relatively marginal societies, the nation-state centered processes formally and informally create a form of hierarchy among nations and societies. In addition, many people, including migrants and refugees, continue to suffer in multiple ways, following dangerous attempts to access existing, as well imaginative, transnational privileges.

In responding to such transnational imbalance, transnational critical civic groups within affluent societies, though partially recognizing the significance of existing unbalanced transnational mobility privileges, pursue and introduce alternative approaches of balancing and expanding for potential transnational distribution and sharing[vii]. Similarly, on their part transnational communities (people organized informally at transnational level) insist on diversifying accessibilities to transnational mobility privileges in for instance reaching out for the excluded, often through informal ways by bypassing dominant nation-state platforms.[viii]

T.K. Oommen recognizes the existence of asymmetric transnational mobility privileges. For him, moving beyond the superficial meaning of transnational mobility requires the preservation of freedom and dignified life for people. So far, existing unequal nation-state structures favour and disfavour certain communities depending on social, economic, cultural as well as racial and ethnic positions. In overcoming such transnational livelihood obstacles, T K Oommen proposes societies recognizing and considering people in the current world as interdependent, not just digitally and economically but also in socio-political as well as cultural terms. He calls for a fairer balance of sharing transnational privileges and prosperity. One way of doing it is the appropriation of national and transnational privileges not occurring at the expense of others, creating externalities.

According to Oommen, the pattern of transnational mobility privileges revolves around the current nation-state system that privileges the past rather than the present and the prospect. He adds that particularly the so-called nation-state driven cultural ethnification plays a significant role in maintaining such unbalanced transnational privileges.    This is also related to the process of sociopolitical transformation designed in some parts of the world and downloaded to others- regardless of their own priorities and traditions. In overcoming such challenges, Oommen calls for some sort of wider transnational publicity under which the civil society within the privileged societies and well as that of transnational communities engaging more practically and dialogically, internally as well as externally, with public authorities[ix].

The following sections first present and discuss the conception of transnational mobility privileges or the lack of such privileges. Secondly, Oommen’s proposition of cultural ethnicization as the critical force framing such processes. Thirdly and finally, selected empirical cases of civic transnational community activities in countering the asymmetries of transnational mobility privileges.


With an increasingly interdependent world, most societies engage in diverse forms of transnational encounters and connections. Such ties and transactions occur when people, belonging and identifying with societies, associations, and networks formally or informally, reach out to people in similar or different networks. Such exchanges could happen unintentionally as well as purposefully in which people pursue diverse separate or joint relationships and endeavors. Such complex encounters and connections occasionally produce coordination as well organizational challenges at multiple levels.

In attempts of resolving such potential transnational mobility privilege impasse, Oommen proposes the need for lesser amplification of nation-states as well as its embedded partial claim of hierarchy and homogeneity[x]. Following intense migration and the emergence of complex and flexible citizenships in most parts of the world, he adds, we should probably instead concentrate on analyzing the existence of dialectical, interdependent national and transnational societies. This means that attempts of exclusively grouping societies as members of formalized structured societies belonging to a particular people with distinct homogeneous language, culture and territory might not properly work in an increasingly complex and diversified world. In the current world, there should, therefore, be spaces for multiplicity of belongings and sovereignties[xi]. Calling for the modification of the current nation-state system by introducing the possibility of alternative national encounters and connections potentially through the fostering of new non-kinship national ties of constitutional patriotism[xii].

In addition, dealing with transnational imbalances requires attentive and collaborative approaches- not just on the premises of the secluded interests of the wealthier parts of the world- but also the formation of alternative joint projects addressing the challenges. Societies can for instance introduce new forms of education, recognition of people, the prohibition of aggression, particularly that of the wealthier parties of the world against the lesser wealthier societies.

In the current more complex and globalized world, a kind of socio-politically fabricated transnational mobility privileges, in which most of the people are connected and can access each other without necessarily socio-politically and socio-economically moving upwards, prevails. The paradox is that though people remain connected and closer than ever to each other, many nonetheless feel disconnected and dissatisfied in multiple ways. Consequently, while some parts of the world experience expanded transnational mobility privilege, a kind of abundance of mainly accessing what they need and demand, others experience intensely devastating suffering as well as continuing serious decline of both prospective development as well as basic livelihood necessities.

The idea of establishing transitional authority for protecting or preserving transnationally balanced privileges has occasionally surfaced. This might in return require formal agreements between existing authorities- those in the north and those in the south. The north wants loose partnerships where they mostly decide what is to be done- Some kind of paternal relationship with the rest pf the world. The south seeks equal partnership- in which existing asymmetries are jointly resolved.

Finally, in recent years, attempts to challenge the nation-state centric approach to transnational mobilities and related privileges increased as the number of city networks and transnational solidarity movements and sanctuaries emerged. Such networks and movements aim at reducing the gap between the so-called citizens and strangers[xiii]. In addition, transnational communities originally from the south also create their own specific spaces within the North. Spaces designed for privileged transnational ties with the homeland- often occurring following experiences of exclusion within the nation-state system.

[i] An extract from a chapter in a forthcoming book on the works of TK Oommen

[ii] Washuus, Dorte (2017) “Tænk, hvis Jorden var et paradis, og ingen havde opdaget” ( Imagine if the Earth was paradise, but there was just no one who had discovered it) det accessed April 2023.

[iii] Sassen, S. (2012) When the global arises from inside the national. In World Yearbook of Education 2013 (pp. 47-61). Routledge; Sassen, S. (2013) Introduction: Deciphering the global. In Deciphering the global (pp. 1-18). Routledge.

[iv] Rediker, M. (2015) Outlaws of the Atlantic: Sailors, pirates, and motley crews in the age of sail. Beacon Press.

[v] Harpaz, Y. (2021) Conspicuous mobility: The status dimensions of the global passport hierarchy. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 697(1), 32-48.

[vi] Croucher, S. (2012) Privileged mobility in an age of globality. Societies, 2(1), 1-13; Akıncı, İ. (2022) ‘Ways to stick around’: im/mobility strategies of ageing, temporary migrants in Dubai. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 1-17.

[vii] Pogge, T. (2007) Freedom from poverty as a human right: Who owes what to the very poor?. UNESCO.

[viii] Robertson, S. and Roberts, R. (Eds.) (2022) Rethinking privilege and social mobility in middle-class migration: Migrants ‘in-between’. Routledge.

[ix] Oommen, T. K. (2006) On the Historicity of Globalization: Construction and Deconstruction of “Others”. In Social Change in the Age of Globalization (pp. 3-18). Brill.

[x] Oommen, T. K. (2004) Socio-political transition in the Indian Republic and the European Union. European Journal of Social Theory, 7(4), 519-537.

[xi] McMichael, P. (2009) Global citizenship and multiple sovereignties: Reconstituting modernity. In Hegemonic transitions, the state and crisis in neoliberal capitalism (pp. 37-56). Routledge.

[xii] Habermas, J. (2015) Between facts and norms: Contributions to a discourse theory of law and democracy. John Wiley & Sons.

[xiii] Squire, V. (2011) From community cohesion to mobile solidarities: The City of Sanctuary network and the Strangers into Citizens campaign. Political Studies, 59(2), 290-307.