Wednesday 11 December 2013

What drives human migration?

Why do people migrate? This question is both simple and difficult. On the one hand, it seems reasonable to assume that most people migrate hoping to find better conditions or opportunities elsewhere, such as jobs, higher wages, safety or freedom of expression. This is the implicit assumption underlying ‘push-pull’ models taught at secondary school as well as neo-classical migration theories. Although few researchers would contest that most migrants have good reasons to move however, this does not really help us to understand the complexity and drivers of real-life migration.

To say that most people migrate to find better opportunities is somehow stating the obvious. Push-pull models usually list factors in origin and destination areas, all of which may contribute to migration, but fail to make clear how the various factors combined together lead to migration. Push-pull models fail to explain why there should be a difference between push areas of and pull areas in the first place, and are therefore “a platitude at best”, as a Ronald Skeldon has aptly stated*.

Advert for bus company, Tineghir, southern Morocco - (c) Hein de Haas 
Neo-classical migration theories assume that people migrate to maximise their income or wellbeing. They see migration as a (temporary) response to development ‘disequilibria’ between origin and destination countries, and assume that migration will decline through a process of wage convergence. However, this view ignores that migration has been a constant factor in the history of humankind and can therefore not be reduced to a temporary by-product of capitalist development. Furthermore, the wage convergence assumption ignores how power asymmetries actually can sustain economic inequalities between central and peripheral countries and areas.

Both push-pull and neo-classical models lack explanatory power by failing to provide insight into the social, economic and political processes that have generated the spatial wage and opportunity gaps to which migration is supposedly a response. It is therefore not surprising that the predictions of push-pull models and neo-classical theories are fundamentally at odds with what is seen in real-life migration patterns. For instance, most migrants do not move from the poorest to the wealthiest countries, and the poorest countries tend to have lower levels of emigration than middle-income and wealthier countries. It is often said that the only way to reduce migration from poor countries is to boost development. However, this ignores that the relation between development and levels of emigration is fundamentally non-linear. Important emigration countries such as Mexico, Morocco, Turkey and the Philippines are typically not among the poorest. Going against popular perceptions of a ‘continent on the move’, Sub-Saharan Africa is the least migratory region of the world.

Analyses of historical and contemporary data show that human and economic development is initially associated with increasing emigration**. Any form of development in the poorest countries of the world is therefore likely to lead to accelerating emigration. Such findings contradict conventional thinking, and force us to radically change our views on migration. In particular, we need explanations that do not confuse individual factors or motivations to move (which indeed often refer to better opportunities) with macro-structural explanations of migration processes.

Such rethinking can be achieved by learning to see migration as an intrinsic part of broader development processes rather than as a problem to be solved, or the temporary response to development 'disequilibria'. For instance, in the modern age, much migration within and across borders has been inextricably linked to broader urbanisation processes. It is difficult to imagine urbanisation without migration, and vice-versa. Rather than asking ‘why people migrate’ – which often begs a simple, all-too-obvious and often quite meaningless answer – the more relevant question for understanding migration in the modern age is therefore how processes such as imperialism, nation state formation, the industrial revolution, capitalist development, urbanisation and globalisation change migration patterns and migrants’ experiences.

For instance, how can we explain why development is often associated to more, instead of less, migration? To understand this, it is important to move beyond sterile views of migrants as entirely predictable ‘respondents’ to geographical opportunity gaps. Seeing migration as a function of people’s capabilities and aspirations to move can help to achieve a richer understanding of migration behaviour. Processes of human and economic development typically expand people’s access to material resources, social networks and knowledge. At the same time, improvements in infrastructure and transportation, which usually accompany development, make travel less costly and risky.

It therefore seems safe to assume that development generally increases people’s capabilities to migrate over larger distances. However, this does not necessarily lead to migration. People will generally only migrate if they have the aspirations to do so. Migration aspirations depend on people’s more general life aspirations, as well as their perceptions of life ‘here’ and ‘there’. Both are subjective and likely to change under the influence of broader processes of structural change. Improved access to information, images and lifestyles conveyed through education and media tend to broaden people’s mental horizons, change their perceptions of the ‘good life’, and typically increase material aspirations. Development processes tend to initially increase both people’s capabilities and aspirations to move, explaining why development often boosts migration. Once sizeable migrant communities have settled, social networks tend to reduce the costs and risks of migrating, with settled migrants frequently functioning as ‘bridgeheads’.

If societies get wealthier, overall emigration aspirations are likely to decrease because more people can imagine a future within their own country, while immigration is likely to increase. Although it is often assumed that technological progress increases migration, easier transportation and communication may enable people to commute or work from home, while outsourcing and trade may also partly reduce the need to migrate. In fact, from a long-term historical perspective, technology has facilitated humankind to settle down. Ever since the Agricultural (‘Neolithic’) Revolution began some 12,000 years ago, technology has enabled people to shift away from hunting and gathering to more sedentary lifestyles. In modern times, technological progress has certainly boosted non-migratory mobility – such as commuting, tourism and business travel – but its impact on migration is rather ambiguous. This may partly explain why the number of international migrants as a share of the world population has remained remarkably stable at levels of around three per cent over recent decades.

Nevertheless, wealthy societies remain characterized by substantial levels of migration. We see significant migration even between societies with roughly equal levels of development and wages. In this short essay, it is impossible to do justice to the full set theories explaining this phenomenon. However, a major factor is growing social and economic complexity. Economic and human development typically goes along with increasing educational and occupational specialization. This often requires people to move within and across borders to fulfill the desire to match qualifications and preferences with labour market and social opportunities. The higher skilled therefore tend to migrate more and over larger distances.

This shows that it is illusionary to think that large-scale migration is somehow a temporary phenomenon that will disappear once – an equally illusionary – equilibrium is achieved. More generally, such ideas reflect a flawed, ahistorical view on the history of humankind. It is development itself that drives migration. Migration has therefore always been – and will remain – an inevitable part of the human experience.

 *Skeldon, Ronald (1990) Population Mobility in Developing Countries: A Reinterpretation. London: Belhaven press. 
**de Haas, Hein. 2010. Migration transitions: a theoretical and empirical inquiry into the developmental drivers of international migration. IMI Working Paper No 24, International Migration Institute, University of Oxford.
*** For a seminal overview of migration theories, see here the classic paper by Massey et al. (1993). 


  1. Thanks for the post, and a lot of people mainly do that because they feel that migration can be a new beginning for them. It can help be a change of scenery, it can also help learn more bout the world. That's just my thought on it.

  2. the issue of migration must be dealt with in a way that places the dignity of the family and the individual at the forefront of consideration,
    no 1 migration specialist

  3. yes i agree about migration because people migrate hoping to find better conditions for them. they are migrate to maximize their income for need economically better resources.
    Migrate to Singapore | Singapore top ten Migration specialist


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