What Causes Migration?

There are so many strands to the discourse on immigration that it is easy to lose sight of the underlying conditions that give rise to different views. Debate focuses on the trees and loses sight of the forest. Is it possible to do otherwise? Probably not, but here I attempt to describe what is happening and why, while not attempting to suggest solutions. Consider the reaction of a visitor from Mars who views conditions on Earth and the associated immigration scenarios being discussed.

Apparent facts

Migration is the result of the availability of land on planet Earth, the people who inhabit the planet now and in the future, and the movement of persons from one part of the planet to another.

Earth is a self contained planet within the universe. Absence space travel and underwater living, the inhabitants of Earth are forced to live somewhere on the land surface of the planet. They are mobile and can, unless impeded, move from one place to another. They appear to do this from time to time.

The total population of Earth has increased. Records estimate that for many centuries the total was about 1 billion. It increased to 2.5 billion by the 1950s, to 7 billion in 2010 and some project it to peak at around 9 billion by 2070. Early and future figures are all estimates, but the substantial growth between 1950 and 2010 is considered reliable, (Wikipedia provides sources of population estimates).

Earth’s population is spread unevenly around the world as a result of many factors including climate, availability of food, birth and death rates and the ease with which people can move from one place to another – more on this later.
Research based on archaeological evidence shows that human beings migrated out of Africa about 130,000 years ago reaching North America about 30,000 years ago – see world map of migratory patterns at http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/journey/.

Travel depended on the initiative of individuals subject to various incentives such as the availability of agricultural land and changes in climactic conditions. For example, during these millennia there were several ice ages that covered parts of the world and then retreated.

Migration of people around the world has existed for thousands of years. Originally people moved with their families and tribes. They probably moved because of adverse conditions at home and the opportunities which they imagined existed elsewhere. Those with initiative often showed the way.

Today, the land area of the Earth is divided artificially by imaginary lines called borders which define geographical entities called nation states. There are about 200 nation states of vastly different sizes, about double the number in 1950. Some have large land areas like Russia and Canada, and others small like Singapore and Mauritius. Some have large populations like China and India and others small like Caribbean and other small island states. Some are wealthy and others poor on a GDP per capita basis.

The governments of states claim the right to organize and control the activities within their boundaries. This includes monitoring whatever crosses their borders whether as trade in goods and services or the movement of people. Required are screening mechanisms and the ability to enforce the state’s rules on those who enter, and sometimes those who leave. Those who gain entry without being screened are described as illegal migrants and the process of entry as equivalent to the smuggling of goods into a country.

The current pressure for people to move from one country to another arises because of differing conditions between countries. The standard of living in some countries is much higher than in others. People are motivated to move to where they can improve the livelihood of their families. The same is true where it is safer to live in some than other places. Modern communications provides the necessary information to potential migrants. Lower transportation costs facilitate their movement.

Because the states’ screening mechanisms act as taps to limit inflows of official migrants, people set themselves up in business to do two things. Some people act as advisors to those who want to enter the country through the legal gateways; and others show people how to enter illegally by bypassing the rules. The latter can be very rewarding but also dangerous in the sense that the person can be prosecuted for smuggling people into the country.

So what?

The barebone conditions of international migration are the combination of the limited land area of spaceship earth, a growing world population that is unevenly spread around the planet, and a desire by people to improve their lives and that of their families by moving from less to more desirable locations. Combine these factors, which I consider as given, with the man-made division of the earth’s land area into artificial entities called states, and you have the basic conditions for migration today. See how the boundaries of the countries of Europe have changed over the past 1000 years at http://www.euratlas.net/history/europe/index.html . Each of these states claims sovereignty over its land area. Whether many small states can actually exercise sovereignty is questionable, but it is the claim that makes migration like trade a topic of universal interest.

I suggest that the factors discussed above set out the background conditions which our Martian visitor might see as the problem which individual countries have to grapple with in administering their immigration policies. This background looks at the forest as opposed to individual trees which represent the interests of individual groups within a country that are concerned with admitting refugees, relatives of previous immigrants, those with particular skills, temporary foreign workers and foreign students. In Canada, there are lobbyists for each of these groups. At the same time, there are those who lobby to reduce immigration using arguments about existing high unemployment, the social costs of integrating newcomers into Canadian society, frictions caused by migrants with different cultural backgrounds, and the need to stabilize the size of the Canadian population.

As I stated at the outset, I don’t have answers to the many issues raised by immigration. I do think that the pressure to find answers will increase as more people are on the move globally and the ability to exercise state sovereignty has weakened.


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