The story of humanity is of people constantly in movement. Anthropology, history and sociology are disciplines that study how people migrate, come into contact with others, and build and manage communities all over the world, from ancient to contemporary societies. Although human migration is ubiquitous across time, the designation of people as certain types of migrants is a relatively new phenomenon in history. Consider the various labels now affixed to people who leave their place of birth:
- Internal versus international migrants;
- Legal versus illegal, irregular or undocumented migrants;
- Voluntary versus forced migrants;
- Economic migrants versus refugees and asylum seekers;
- Permanent versus circular migrants;
- Primary versus secondary (or chain) migrants; and
- Smuggled and trafficked migrants
Because we have evolved into a world of nation-states – sovereign entities charged with defining and protecting the interests of their citizens – it is necessary to quantify and define types of migration.
Yet, trying to categorize this phenomenon into designations like those above is extraordinarily tricky. Most migrants fit into more than one category at a fixed point in time and/or over the course of their journey. Temporary excursions turn permanent. Refugees become economic migrants. Legally documented travel becomes illegal when a visa expires or when a third country is entered in transit. Some migrants don’t make it to their intended destination; some change their original motivations, resulting in a change of their migration “status.”
Is someone whose crops fail in one country, causing him to move to another country to find work, a voluntary or forced migrant? Is he an economic migrant or an environmental refugee? If he intends to return home at some undesignated time, is he a permanent migrant, temporary migrant or circular migrant? Will he be considered legal or illegal? What if he experienced persecution of some kind in addition to economic hardship in his country of origin – is he a migrant or an asylum-seeker? What if his travel takes him across disputed international borders or into contested territories – is he an internal or international migrant? Is he an internally-displaced person or refugee? The migrant’s designation is up to officials in his country (or countries) of destination (which may differ from each other).
In the migration lexicon, relocation is not even necessary for a status-change to occur. Consider the case of people living in territories that become independent. An ethnic Russian living in Ukraine was simply an internal migrant within the Soviet Union before 1991. With the dissolution of the USSR, he became an international migrant without even moving. People living in the former Yugoslavia met the same fate as new borders formed. Similarly, Arabs of Palestinian descent became overnight international refugee-designees when the state of Israel was formed. Some of these Palestinian refugees who move within Israeli territories daily to work then also become economic migrants.
These labels are more than merely descriptive. Specific rights, responsibilities and benefits come with different designations, resulting in the regulation and politicization of human movement. Below is a sampling of how human migration is now labeled:
- Internal migration describes people on the move within a country; international migration involves crossing a recognized international border.
- Voluntary migration describes people who move of their own free will in search of a better life, usually motivated by economic reasons. This category describes migrant labor, as well as chain migration that results when families and community members follow the primary migrant to the country of destination.
- Forced migration refers to refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and asylum seekers. Refugee status is conferred on international migrants when a particular set of conditions linked to oppression and fear of persecution in one’s home country are satisfied. Asylum-seekers are those awaiting the award of refugee status. Internally displaced persons (IDPs) are forced internal migrants.
- Legal migration is undertaken with the consent of the destination country, given through official visas and permits. The terms of the consent usually include entry, stay and exit parameters for the purpose of travel, work, education, family reunification or asylum. Migrants may be designated as temporary or given “permanent foreign resident” status and may choose to pursue a path toward naturalization, or citizenship.
- Illegal or irregular migration occurs when a migrant crosses an international border without documentation showing the consent of the destination country, or when a legal migrant’s documentation expires or status changes while in-country. The latter occurs when a person “overstays” a travel, work or education visa. Many migrants are in constant transition between legal and illegal status.
- Permanent migration is one-way movement, although many of those who seek permanent migration undergo many temporary migrations before achieving settlement. Temporary migration may be seasonal or motivated by specific labor demands in destination countries; it may be the result of dislocation from conflict or natural disasters. It may be undertaken in pursuit of education or special training. Circular migration involves return, and often repetition. Circular migrants keep connections in two or more countries and are considered to be more transnational in character, often holding dual citizenship.
- Skilled migrants are courted by industrialized nations with special visas and other dispensations. Engineers and software technicians from India and China are examples of skilled migrants in high demand. Unskilled migrants are those who can be employed with minimum training and education.
- Environmental migrants or environmental refugees are relatively new designations and have yet to be officially defined. These can be the victims of acute natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, storms and droughts. They can also be people who are forced by gradual climate change to permanently relocate as the viability of their land erodes. Examples include residents of the Maldives and other low-lying island areas projected to be affected by rising sea levels and farmers in the increasingly dry Sahel region of Africa.
- Smuggled migrants are voluntary illegal migrants who pay for the services of a middle-man to avoid detection and gain irregular entry. Trafficked migrants are those who are illegally and involuntarily transported against their will or by trickery for slave labor (often in the sex trade). Eighty percent of trafficked persons are women; 50% are children.
Current Trends: Who are Today’s Migrants?
It is difficult to obtain accurate data on migrant populations, but certain trends are evident:
- Most migrants are internal. Countries do not generally collect data on citizens moving within their own countries, so figures can be unreliable. This applies to involuntary migrants as well – there are twice as many IDPs as refugees.
- There are an estimated 200 million international migrants in the world today. This represents approximately 3% of the world’s population, or 1 in 35 people. If all international migrants were consolidated in the same country, it would be the 5th largest nation in the world.
- The radius of international migration has been steadily expanding over the last century, with four times more countries involved than in 1900. Seventy-five percent of international migrants are concentrated in 12% of the world’s countries. North America (Canada and the US), Europe, Oceania (Australia and New Zealand), and the former USSR (due to breakup of the USSR), are home to the most international migrants.
- Most migrants originate in Less Developed Countries (LDCs). Roughly 62 million have relocated from a LDC to a More Developed Country (MDC). A nearly equal amount (61 million) have moved from one LDC to another LDC. Only 14 million have gone from a MDC to a LDC; 53 million have moved between MDCs.
- Although the overall level of international migration has remained fairly steady over the last decades, it has become more diverse. There are more women in the migrant population today; they are classified as primary economic migrants as well as chain (spouse/family reunification) migrants. There are also more skilled migrants than in the past as wealthy industrialized nations and Newly Industrialized Countries (NICs) compete for science and technology workers.
- Numbers of refugees, asylum-seekers, and IDPs are on the rise for the second year in a row, following five years of declining figures.
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