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.
Kevin Jae, a member of our Emerging Fellows program initiates publishing a series of blog posts aimed at identifying the impact of migrations on the world order by 2050. This is his first post in our EF blog. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.
The figure of the migrant, diffused in media broadcasts across the world, is a political image that provokes polarizing reactions. The migrant—is it a completely novel emergence in history? Even a cursory reading on the topic reveals that migration is not a new phenomenon. A people—however nationalist myths construct them—have never been resting stagnant within nation-state borders. We are all migrants and mongrels of some sort. All desires for a pure nationalist phenotype are a nostalgic longing for idylls that have never existed.
Why is migration important to understand? While we may look upon past histories of migration with the detached interest of an academic, our contemporary migrations are all-too-close and all-too-urgent: they present an ethical imperative, a duty to decide and to act. This challenge is not one that the global community can neglect and stay a safe distance from.
The most recent mass migration has come from the Syrian Civil war, where an estimated population of 22 million Syrians were scattered about by the vagaries of historical circumstance — 13 million were displaced and 5 million of those displaced found themselves outside of Syrian national borders. The rippling geo-political effects of Syrian mass-migrations (among others) have impacted the world. Liberal democracies around the world agreed to do their fair share and house migrants; however, recent response by recipient states have changed. They have adopted a hostile position to migrants and from the fringes, alt-right parties and their leaders have begun to take center stage in contemporary politics. One commonality in these parties’ platforms has been the rejection of and the anxiety toward the foreign migrant. Migration has changed national politics. National politics, in turn, have changed international politics as nationalist discourse has led to an inward-looking and parochial political vision. The British and American exits from free trade deals and international organizations suggest the first cracks in the liberal world order, with its goals for political and economic international co-operation. A comparatively small displacement led to profound effects around the world.
The future is filled with the possibility of migration. Mass migrations will be a potent combination of push and pull factors: it will be a combination of aspirational desires in rich, urban metropolises and retreats from poverty and political instability. Of course, not all migrant populations will be undesirable. The growing, young demographics in the Global South will be welcomed in the Global North to fill labour shortages. These are likely to be in the minority compared to the potential migrations spurred on by existential threats like climate change, which has the potential to make large swaths of land mass uninhabitable. How might the introduction of a large migrant population, one that grossly outnumbers the current migrants, spark intra-national and international conflicts, both diplomatic and military?
The future of mass migration that we head towards today provokes all of these questions. To neglect this question would be to drive without headlights in the darkness. Through analysis and by writing about this topic, I hope to turn on the metaphorical headlights and illuminate the faint contours ahead. Only in the crudest beliefs in human nature is the fate of humanity doomed to economic rationality and resource-related conflicts from migration. As human beings—and this, fellow futurists should be well aware—we have the power to construct the future. We are not mere passengers driven by fate.
Why is migration important to understand? To shape the future.