Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Friday, January 29, 2016

Why are Migrants Coming to Your Country?

And we all think we know the answer to that.

It's because my country has opportunity, jobs, a good social welfare network, the best political system, the most comprehensive system of rights, the highest respect for human rights, the nicest culture, the finest cultural artifacts, the most logical language, and the best weather.  Furthermore,  migrants come from terrible places that are clearly inferior in all ways to our little paradise that we (the ethnic/civic geniuses that we are) have created right here on earth.

May I ever so gently suggest that it's just a tad bit more complicated than that?

The first two weeks of class have filled my brain to overflowing with different theories that all seek to answer this deceptively simple question:  Why do people move around?

Because most people don't.  97% of the people on this planet will never leave their countries of origin - may not, in fact, ever leave the city or region where they were born.  That right there should sober everyone up. Most of the people in the world are not going anywhere, and however lovely your country may be, they will never come knocking on your door asking to come in.  Perhaps it is because they can't, but it is just as likely that they don't want to.

The theories of international migration are concerned with that 2-3% (3.3% in 2015 says the UN) of people who do move - the people we call "migrants."  The United Nations definition of that term is as follows:  "an individual who has resided in a foreign country for more than one year irrespective of the causes, voluntary or involuntary, and the means, regular or irregular, used to migrate." (International Organization for Migration website.)

So what have some of the best and the brightest come up with to explain the phenomenon of international migration?  Here are three theories I find interesting.  Bear in mind as you read that this is my modest attempt to simplify some very complex theories and I invite you to read more about them and not just take my word for it.

Push/Pull Models:  In this model you could think of countries and people as magnets with poles that repel and attract. In these models, people feel "pushed" to leave by difficult conditions  (economic, environmental, political or demographic) in the home country, and they are "pulled" by the powerful qualities (jobs, freedom, opportunity) of the host country.

This, I think, is the model that most people have in their heads.  If a migrant is here in my country, then it must mean that things are pretty bad (or inferior in some way) where he came from, and isn't he lucky to have escaped?

It might surprise you to learn that the push/pull models can't even explain economic migration very well.  For example, most migrants do not come from the poorest countries and move to the richest countries.

Look at this Key Fact from the United Nations 2015 International Migration Report:
"Most migrants worldwide originate from middle-income countries (157 million in 2015). Between 2000 and 2015, the number of migrants originating from middle-income countries increased more rapidly than those from countries in any other income group. The majority of migrants from middle-income countries were living in a high income country."  
Oddly enough, sometimes emigration really gets going when things improve - when a country goes from a poor to a middle-income country.

Neoclassical theory:  This one says that it's all about supply and demand for labor.  Migrants go where they can find jobs and good wages.  Every migrant is a "rational actor" who looks at the costs and the benefits of leaving one country for another and makes an informed decision about where he/she will do well or better.

Sounds plausible until we start counting the ways that human beings can be very irrational.   How many of you who are migrants sat down and did a formal risk and cost/benefit analysis before buying that plane ticket?  How many of you based your decision to move on the advice of friends, a job offer, a charming lad or lass, a short stay as a tourist, a nicely written expatriate biography or social media?

And for those who think that a migrant is in your country because he/she has made a cold-blooded calculation to exploit some feature of your world (social welfare, healthcare, jobs), consider this:  the first class healthcare and fine social welfare networks in France do not trump the impression (not perfect knowledge) that France has no jobs, (something that is not true by the way) and is therefore not a choice destination for migrants (not even refugees).

Migration Network Theory:  This one says it's all about how people are connected.  A migrant network is a web of relationships between people in the home and in the host country who make it easier to migrate.   Family, friends, recruiters, clubs, professional associations and the like are all important because they create a support structure for migrants that helps them navigate the immigration bureaucracy and find jobs, schools for the kids, a doctor that speaks the home country language, and a place to live. And I note here that this is exactly how I found a place in Brussels - through a personal cross-border migrant network.

How do these networks get started in the first place?  The Age of Migration by Stephen Castles, Hein de Haas and Mark Miller have a fascinating list of obvious and no-so-obvious things that they say can kick off a migration network:
"warfare, colonialism, conquest, occupation, military service and labor recruitment, as well as shared culture, language and geographical proximity..." (Castles et al: 40)
So this theory says that very plausible reason that a migrant might be in your country is the existence of  a support structure that has made it easier for him to be where you are as opposed to somewhere else.  Which, to put it another way, means that's it's not really about you or your paradise on earth.

Three different theories and there are, I assure you, many more - World Systems Theory, Globalization Theory, Segmented Labor Market Theory and Migration Systems Theory. Each one looks at the question from a different angle and there is no one theory that explains it all, or has the definitive answer to the migration equation.

I realize that this is not terribly helpful for a voter or anyone who is being asked to make decisions about immigrants to and emigrants from his or her country.  

However, I do hope that the next time you are thinking about migration that you reflect on how very hard it is to answer the question:  Why did they move here? 

Because the theorists don't really know and neither do you.

8 comments:

Ellen said...

One of the things about the most recent influx of immigrants to Europe has been the idea that 1. they are fleeing war; their flight is legitimate, but 2. we don't have the means to pull them in. They've invented a kind of quota system, but some of the countries (the most eastern) don't want the immigrants to come, at all, and others (France, for one) the immigrants are not really anxious to stay. France seems to be a transit country in the minds of many. That's why we have that horrible situation in and around Calais. Those people are all trying to go to England. Some eventually do decide to stay in France.

Maria said...

The reason my family first emigrated to the U.S. is to be found within the three theories you mentioned. 1. In 1969 the U.S. was still a booming economy; Spain was booming in the major cities, not where my family lived. 2. There were jobs to be had in the U.S. much more easily and better paying than the ones my father could find here. 3. And, my mother's uncle had been living in Boston since just before quotas were set up at the beginning of the 1920's. He helped my uncle go to Boston from Cuba, where my uncle had erroneously tried to find a better life. Then, my uncle helped us into Boston.

Anonymous said...

Dear Victoria,
Congratulations on starting your studies, and thank you for the interesting posts you've been sharing with us. I love having your viewpoint on this interesting subject!

Victoria FERAUGE said...

@Ellen - Yes, that's what I'm hearing too. I went to a Belgian Red Cross presentation and they say that the Syrian refugees application for asylum are processed very quickly because no one questions their situation. He also said that people in Brussels have been very welcoming. Their center only has 500 beds and at times they can't take everyone. When that happens the churches and even individuals have responded by offering beds for a night in churches or private homes. My impression was that is far more private generosity than is mentioned in the media.

Yes, France seems to be a transit country. The Red Cross center director said that word of mouth and rumor play a very large role in migrants' decision to apply for asylum in this or that country. Right now France has a terrible reputation for being a place where the bureacracy is horrendous (and they risk spending years in camps) and as a place where the economy really stinks and it's very hard to find work. When my spouse saw that he was horrified. He hadn't realized that his country had such a poor reputation and that even migrants fleeing war didn't want to come to HIS country. Of course, that is the fault of Hollande and the Socialists, right? :-)

@Maria - Yes!!!! Thanks for sharing that. A perfect example of the complex nature of migration. It's rarely just one thing that brings a migrant to a country.

@anonymous - Thank you. I'm having a pretty good time in my classes and seminars. A lot of reading though. One class I'm taking that I don't think I've mentioned is Gender and Conflicts. Fascinating. Not a subject I had ever thought much about and the perspective (gender studies) is completely foreign to me. But.... That's what makes it so damn good. I'm being forced to question my assumptions and look at the world a bit differently.

Tim said...

I am no fan of Hollande but I hope your spouse is not one of those diehard Sarkozy supporters that Arun with a view keeps talking about. It's a long story but I hold Sarkozy and his airhead wife responsible for most of the world's problems right now including those that effect overseas Americans.

Victoria FERAUGE said...

Tim, I'd say my French family is very Center Right so, yes, they would probably vote for Sarko. :-)

Anonymous said...

Oh, it goes back much farther and deeper than that, and that explains how we ended up with both those clowns and their immediate predecessors. (sigh) Cj

Anonymous said...

Thank you Victoria for your thoughtful and balanced essays !