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International Migration: 10 reasons migrants embark on a journey

Updated: Apr 16, 2019

Discussions surrounding migration deem it everything from a human rights issue to an inaccessible privilege, and is often labelled a 'crisis' and a catalyst for political turmoil. But even as a force that is so hotly debated, few understand its main drivers.

Many migrants embark on a journey escaping dire socioeconomic conditions or natural disasters. Media focus is predominantly on the escapees that flee conflict to face the arduous migration system that is visibly against them. However, not all migration stems from this: only 10% of the world's international migrants are refugees or asylum seekers, and less so are irregular migrants (those that cross borders illegally).

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry poses with the Melissa Organisation, a a migrant aid group. Photo: US State Department 2015

The World Migration Report and the Migration Data Portal focus on the fact that migrants embark on a journey because they can: information technology makes communication possible and information readily available, both of which facilitate migrants’ journeys enormously, and new modes of transportation also make the possibility of migration an achievable reality. Moreover, higher incomes because of remittances or economic growth in the origin countries also lead to migration because the journey becomes affordable.

Therefore, people migrate for many reasons, and they do not act independently from each other. Here are the top ten:

1. Escaping hardship, conflict, and persecution

  • Perhaps the most covered by the media: a large number of migrants are fleeing war and hardship.

  • By the end of 2016, there were 22.5 million refugees worldwide, the highest number on record. However, this number has been contracting since 2012.

  • There were 2.8 million asylum seekers, mostly in Germany and the USA.

  • Most of the refugees and asylum seekers are fleeing endemic violence: 79% are mostly from Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Somalia, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, Myanmar, Eritrea and Burundi.

  • Migrants fleeing persecution based on race, religion and/or membership to a particular group may apply for asylum or refugee status elsewhere, and international law strongly encourages countries to accept asylum seekers and refugees. However, there is no statute holding countries accountable if they deny seekers entry, causing many immigrants to remain in uncertainty or to return to their conflict-stricken countries.

Migrants in the Serbian border into Hungary in 2015 (Photo: Wikipedia)

2. Seeking a better life

  • Even those that are not necessarily facing war or explicit violence seek to relocate for better opportunities.

  • One can assess a “better life” in levels of happiness. The World Happiness Reports calculates percentage changes in happiness of migrants when they move to a new country. Included in these calculations is the (a) accepted assumption that migrants’ happiness is usually the same or similar to locals’ happiness, (b) that overall migrant happiness depends equally on both their destinations' level of happiness and the level of happiness in the origin country, and (c) that one of the main factors influencing migrant happiness is the host country’s attitude towards immigrants.

  • For reference, the United States, which is the biggest destination country for migrants, ranks 18th in the WHR Ranking of Happiness, whereas India, the biggest origin country, ranks 133rd.

  • Some of the countries that produce the highest number of refugees and asylum seekers, Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Central African Republic, and Burundi, all rank more than 130th.

3. Displacement because of environmental factors

  • Each year since 2008, more than 25 million people become displaced due to natural disasters, five times more than those displaced by violence. There are also more host countries (118) for migrants displaced by natural disasters than those displaced by war and conflict (37).

  • The 1992 UN Convention on Climate Change called for countries to understand how migration patterns are affected by environmental factors and natural disasters.

Guatemalan migrant children, 2011.

4. Family reunification

  • There are no global treaties specifically related to family unity, but it usually refers to the rights that ‘respect, protect and support the family, including its ability to be together’. A universal meaning of ‘family’ also does not exist, though the UNHRC says it embodies ‘all interpersonal relations that are held to constitute a family in the society concerned’.

  • Since many family members are pressured to migrate to send remittances back home, families are often separated. When the first in the family to migrate deems it suitable, either because they became properly documented or reached a certain economic level, they usually start the process to bring the rest of their family.

5. Employment

  • 2013 data indicates that there were around 150 million migrant workers worldwide, almost 2/3rds of the global migrant stock of that year.

  • Most of these are in the services sector, with the remaining generally working in construction, manufacturing, and agriculture.

6. Studies

  • In 2016, there were 4.8 million internationally mobile students, almost one million more than in 2011.

  • Internationally mobile students differ from “foreign students” and “credit-mobile students” in that they migrate for the main purpose of studying elsewhere. "Foreign students" refer mostly to those who migrated for other reasons (i.e. parents’ work, asylum) and thus study in a different country by default, and “credit-mobile students” are those that study abroad for a shorter period of time, and not usually towards a degree qualification.

  • The biggest destinations for internationally mobile students are: The United States of America, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Germany and the Russian Federation. (UNESCO)

  • The biggest sender countries are: China, India, Germany, South Korea, Nigeria, France, Saudi Arabia and several Central Asian countries. (UNESCO)

7. Following cultures of migration

  • Children in origin countries grow up either around migrating people, or receiving remittances from migrants in other countries, this creates a culture of migration. In countries like Eritrea and Ethiopia, migration has become normalised to the extent that staying in the country has become stigmatised.

8. Economic reasons: remittances

  • For countries like Kyrgyzstan and Haiti, remittances make up between 24-34% of their GDP, making remittances a main source of income for both individuals and the entire country.

  • Having a migrant family member living abroad is normal, and many families pressure other members to migrate, mostly males of working age (15-60) that are able to send remittances back home.

9. Because it is facilitated

The International Migration Organisation's "Migration App" (MigApp) is contributing to safer and more regulated migration.

One big factor influencing migration is the increased ease of doing it. Most migrants would rather opt for regular pathways instead of irregular movements in order to settle and work elsewhere, and this is facilitated via bilateral and international agreements regarding movement. Therefore making it easier for migrants will in turn make it more likely that they will choose to migrate.

  • The availability of information has aided in this respect, making migrants’ journeys safer.

  • Higher income levels and economic growth also leads to rise in international migration levels, explained by the “Migration slump”, where migrants with increased income levels choose to migrate because they can afford it, therefore leading to a boom of migrating nationals. However, this curve drops after some time, because conditions in the origin country have stabilised. Therefore, migration has a stabilising effect in this respect.

10. The “Just because” or “why not”factors

  • Many studies and policy talks centre on the economic, social, and political factors surrounding migration, but ignore on big driver of migration that underlies them all: the “just because” (Global Citizen).

  • In order to understand this one better, it would be necessary to understand the reasons why some people choose not to migrate, especially when they are mired in conflict, surrounded by a culture of migration, and/or want to pursue a better life.

  • The idea is that migration is not always the top choice, for reasons that have yet to be determined in the World Migration Report. Therefore, even when all the previous reasons are present, there is still an element of “just because” or “what if” that fuels migrants’ decisions.

  • “Just because” is not a whimsical thought, it encompasses the idea of uncertainty that migrants face, that when paired with a notion that they either (1) have nothing to lose, or (2) can always come back, leads to a “why not”.

The fact that most migrants migrate through regular routes and "just because" does not mean that refugees and asylum seekers are not a pressing issue. Migration patterns is a reflection of deeply rooted political and economic issues, and even if international migrants represent less than 4% of the world's population, it is a 4% that faces long-term uncertainty and difficulties in their destination countries, regardless of their status upon entering.

Author: Ana Hernandez

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