What's driving migration?

Author:Kane, Hal

Unprecedented numbers of people are on the move worldwide, and changing conditions are likely to drive the numbers even higher.

In the 1990s, more people are moving away from their homes and countries than ever before in history. Most would prefer to have remained where they were. But our public debate has yet to address the broad question of why this is happening. Instead, we continue to focus on the refugee crises of the moment--on the Haitian and Cuban boat people, for example, or on immigration quotas.

To achieve real stability, however, requires a clearer understanding of just what it is about the world's politics, economics, or security that is causing so many people to move. That is the first step toward making people more secure in their homes, and it will be no small task: the classic pressures of persecution and war, which have displaced people in the past, are now changing and being joined by a variety of new forces.

This is no aberration or temporary trend. Involuntary migration has become an ordinary activity, which occurs every day and in almost every part of the world. It has come to reflect the events of our time--the breakup of the Soviet Union, the desperation of Africa, widening income disparities around the world, and many other developments. And it is taking place in the shadow of rapid population growth in lands not prepared to absorb more people. It is accompanied by the environmental degradation of areas once rich in natural resources, by spreading conflict, and by social disintegration.

Some of these forms of disruption, like population pressure and the depletion of natural resources, are almost certain to worsen further. The greatest waves of displacement may therefore be yet to come, but let's look first at the waves of the past.


The causes of migration have changed over time. Throughout most of history, migration followed the movement of peoples as they acquired new territory or merged with other peoples. Movement was therefore a matter of conquest, settlement, intermarriage, or the religious conversion of prior inhabitants. Thus, for instance, the Normans invaded northern France; the Aztecs migrated south from Northern Mexico; and the Polynesians voyaged to New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island. Migration was a collective movement--the movement of large groups of people or whole peoples, not a mass movement of individuals, as it is today. And migration was often voluntary, not dictated by a simple struggle to survive. In general, these were the features of movement until around 1500.

From then until late in the nineteenth century, the slave trade changed the nature and volume of migration. On historical maps of migration, slaves account for several thick lines connecting Africa to the Americas, especially South America. A set of thinner lines connects Africa to Europe, the Middle East, and the Persian Gulf, where many slaves were also taken. A small number of indentured servants went from Britain to Australia. In all, roughly 14 million people are thought to have moved under force during these four centuries.

By contrast, from 1500 until the early 1800s, probably only 2 or 3 million people crossed national borders voluntarily. A few arrows point across the migration map from Europe to North America. Others go from Europe to South America. One arrow goes to South Africa, and one to the South Pacific. A few point between African countries, and one goes from China to Taiwan. Those are all of the flows large enough to warrant arrows.

Individual voluntary migration became a major trend for the first time in the early 1800s. European feudal systems were disappearing and steamships were available to move people around quickly and easily. Around 60 million Europeans left for new lands in search of economic, religious, or political freedoms during the following hundred years. About 12 million Chinese and 6 million Japanese left their homelands for other parts of southern and eastern Asia. An estimated 10 million left Russia and Central Asia, and a million and a half left India for Southeast Asia and Africa.

But nothing on those historical maps prepares the viewer for the sheer mass of people etched into current maps of migration, where as many people can move in one year as moved in entire previous centuries. The total number of international refugees during just the last four decades of the twentieth century probably exceeds the total for involuntary international migrants in all previous history. Modern migrations are written in a web of lines that now covers every part of the map. Today, every region either sends or receives migrants. Nor would anything on those historical maps even hint at the remarkable diversity of reasons people now have for leaving their homes and countries. Today's migrants tell an extraordinarily varied catalog or stories--far more diverse than the tales their predecessors offered.

Those stories suggest that many trends--some of them perhaps centuries old--are reaching a kind of climax. Apart from the long-established migratory pressures of war, persecution, and the pull of economic opportunity, migrants are now responding to scarcities of land, water, and food that are more widespread than ever before. They arc leaving because of overcrowding in decrepit squatter settlements that now house huge numbers of people, because of post-Cold War changes in political climate, and because of widening disparities of income.

This is why most of the world's migration has yet to happen. As these pressures grow and converge, in countries not yet in the news, new waves of migrants are likely to appear. They will tell stories about water scarcity or about falling life expectancy, or other issues not yet a part of our thinking on national security--and not yet understood as forces capable of driving migration. Yet these forces are liable to accelerate, contributing in many developing countries to an unstable mixture of rapid economic change, social disintegration, and unrelenting demographic pressure.


The world's official refugee population, which is only a small fraction of overall migration, has risen to 23 million people from 15 million at the beginning of the decade. As recently as the mid-1970s, only about 2.5 million people could claim refugee status--about the same number as in the 1950s and 1960s. But these numbers reflect the strict standard established by the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees, which remains in force today. The convention defines refugees solely in terms of persecution: a refugee is any person who "owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable to...return to it."

But that official definition hardly begins to explain why people decide to leave home today. For instance, official refugees are outnumbered by people displaced within their home countries. These "internally displaced" migrants may be unable to return home, but they don't qualify for refugee assistance because they have not crossed an international border--one of the criteria for official status. Approximately 27 million people fall into this category. They are refugees in fact but not in name.

Others fall outside the official definition...

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