Kevin Jae, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the drivers of migration in his second post for our EF blog. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
Migration is an overdetermined phenomenon. Unlike a science experiment, we are unable to identify a series of dependent and independent variables to construct a predictive framework. As with many complex, real-world problems, we can turn towards history for inspiration. History may not repeat itself in perfect imitation, but the present moment often sounds out like a variation of the past. With a patient ear, we may be able to detect a melody, a theme, a musical structure - this will help us better understand and contextualize migration in the contemporary world. The melodies of the pre-historic past are too faint to hear out. With this in mind, we can listen to the migrations of the past century for our purpose.
Migration can be roughly categorized into migrations by push factors and by pull factors. This conceptual framework separates the migrations that happen by necessity (the push factors) and the migrations that happen by choice (the pull factors). Push factors include poverty and military conflict. In these cases, migrants find the prospects of the unknown better than the present circumstances before them. An example of the former are the two million Italian migrants travelled to the United States in between 1900 and 1910. One case of the latter is the Vietnam War and spread Vietnamese diasporic populations all across the world. Pull factors include voluntary, long-term immigration for a better life and short-term movements of skilled labour across national boundaries. The former are immigrants to Canada and the latter are expats. However, whether migration happens by push factors or by pull factors, in none of these situations was migration a predictable and foregone conclusion. The historical circumstances that provide the impetus for migratory desires are elusive and they escape hard predictions. One must maintain constant vigilance to multifarious trends. The future is constantly being shaped and reshaped.
Historical circumstances are only one part of the dialectic. Migration does not happen in a vacuum: there is always a political and institutional structure that facilitates and guides the flow of these migratory desires. The German gastarbeiter (guest worker) program in the mid-20th century was created to address labour gaps, leading to the Turkish migration to Germany. One purpose of the European Union was for the creation of a free market for capital flows and labour. While history provides the drivers of migration, the political and institutional framework of the present moment directs to where migrants are driven.
On a more fundamental level, political and institutional structures define the discourse of migration. Above, migration was separated into those by push factors and by pull factors, but even this is an artificial categorization. Intolerable political and economic circumstances may push migrants away from the home country and pull them to one that will improve their situation, but there is no moment when migrants by necessity transform into migrants by choice. Participants of the German gastarbeiter program may have left because of a lack of economic opportunities and because of their desire to earn higher wages. Politics and clever framing play a significant role as an intermediary force. Additionally, institutions, whether national or international, provide the larger structure for migration. Even when migrants do not use these formal frameworks - by crossing illegally, for instance - these transgressions are negatively defined by the established institutional structure. Migration and migrants are ultimately a political category for analysis.
What are the drivers of migration in the past? Above, two separate dimensions that drive migration are discussed. The first are the historical circumstances that create the impetus for migration. While we can make careful conjectures about latent migratory events, one must be nimble and open to multiple possible futures. The second is the institutional and political structure. The institutional and political structure fundamentally defines the discourse of migrants and migration. Through it, migratory desires are directed to a tangible destination.