Human Migration – Causes and Effects

Human beings have been on the move since the beginning of time. That is why what was once a single family has now become a family of nations, comprising some seven billion people, spread out on all the continents of the planet. People have historically moved from rural to industrialized urban areas in search of job and to better their economic conditions.

Migration can be both within and outside one’s own country. A migrant can be either a willing or an unwilling (forced) person.  When it is for the latter reason, we often call them refugees. Thus we can establish two main simplified categories of migration: external and internal.

Internal migration can be due to a plethora of reasons including climatic, e.g., devastating effect on the ecosystem. Based on statistics, some 150 million people will be on the move because of climatic factor in the next 40 years (by 2050). Nomadic peoples across the planet have been engaged in seasonal internal migration for thousands of years. Hilly tribal people in certain parts of the world continue to move from one location to another in search of newer territories for their ‘dry’ cultivation.

Sometimes politics has played a great role in relocation of people from one part of a country to another. In places like Xinjiang –” the Uighur territory in China’s western frontier –” the Chinese government has been encouraging migration of Han Chinese to move to the territory so as to deliberately alter the demography of the region and deny granting of real autonomy to the persecuted Turkic speaking indigenous people. As a result of such a state sponsored relocation policy, the Uighurs are now a minority within their own territory. Both the Chinese and Indian governments have been accused of relocating Hindus and Han Chinese to the restive regions of Kashmir and Tibet, respectively, in obvious plans to alter regional demography. In the state of Assam in north-east India, the ruling Congress party has also been accused of playing politics with vote tally by encouraging internal migration of Bengalis and Biharis from nearby Indian states of West Bengal and Bihar, who are known to vote in big numbers for the party rather than for the separatist ethnic parties.

War and state persecution have also been major factors for internal relocation and migration.

What is, however, of interest to us is that no time in past history have so many people migrated than our time. Truly, migration has become a regular feature of our time with individuals living temporarily or permanently in countries that they were not born in.  

According to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Migrants, a “working migrant” is a “person who is to be engaged, is engaged or has been engaged in a remunerated activity in a State of which he or she is not a national.” Similarly the Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights has established the following categories for migrant/refugees and stateless people: (1) Persons who are outside the territory of the State of which they are nationals or citizens, are not subject to its legal protection and are in the territory of another State. (2) Persons who do not enjoy the general legal recognition of rights which is inherent in the granting by the host State of the status of refugee, naturalized person or other similar status. (3) Persons who do not enjoy either general legal protection of their fundamental rights by virtue of diplomatic agreements, visas or other agreements.

As can be seen it is quite difficult to define what constitutes a migrant and/or refugee how nation legislations may differ in accordance with their own interpretation of the terms. This difficulty has led United Nations to create a permanent commission regarding the question of human rights and the status of migrants and refugees. Unfortunately, while the United Nations might legislate and categorize who is or is not a migrant/refugee, it is all up to individual countries to legislate internally and in the case of totalitarian states human rights are usually breached with regards to those who are “foreign”.

In her article – The Why and the “Therefore” of Human Migration: A Brief Overview (Lives in Migration: Rupture and Continuity), Dr. Sue Ballyn of Barcelona University reviews questions like the factors that contribute to migration and the consequences thereof.

As to the factors that lead to migration are frequently referred to as “push” and “pull” factors.  These are, to a large extent, self-explanatory. “Push” forces one from one’s homeland and “pull” attracts migrants offering, for example, opportunities not available in one’s homeland. Ballyn writes, “The “push” factors have not really changed that much since the human race began to spread across the planet. People have been driven to seek new “homelands” as a result of: famine, drastic climate change, poverty, civil war, wars between nation states, territorial annexation, imperial expansion, religious, racial, ethnic, political and gender persecution. The list is longer and any of those mentioned, together with others one might add, can be considered “forced migration”, which lies at the heart of the verb “push”. Individuals and collectives are impelled by circumstance to move away from their homeland in order to survive and many could and are classified as refugees, especially those seeking refuge from war torn areas, genocidal policies, and states where Human Rights are held in abeyance. However, forced migration can also connote the violent expulsion, taking violent in its whole range of meaning, of both an individual or community from their homeland."

Consider, e.g., the case of Chagos Islanders who were forcibly relocated to Mauritius by the British. The islands, numbering around sixty, were/are part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The reason for this ‘push’ migration, as noted by Ballyn, was to allow the construction of the Diego Garcia Airbase by the USA.

The people of Ocean Island (also known by its Kiribati name Banaba), one of the Kiribati Islands in Pacific Micronesia, were victims of overriding neo-colonialistic economic factors. There were ‘pushed’ out. As to the causes behind such forced migration, Ballyn writes, "The Banaba had something the rest of the world wanted and was going to get at whatever the cost to the people: phosphate. This devastating story of international greed at whatever price has its beginnings round about 1900 when the Pacific Islands Company Limited got the Banaban people to sign away the total right to phosphate mining to the British Company, later to become British Phosphate Commissioners under the joint ownership of the British, Australian and New Zealand Governments. The results of intensive mining, which includes the use of dynamite, have reduced the island’s subsoil structure to something like a honeycomb, or gruyere cheese. The surface cannot sustain buildings with foundations and the island’s ecosystem has been endangered. The removal of many of the Banaban people began in 1945 when the British Government relocated the majority to Rabi Island, thousands of miles away in Fiji. As the island became increasingly unstable further waves of migration followed to Rabi only a few returning once mining finished in 1979. It is now estimated that only some 200 people have returned to live on the island and the debate remains as to the weight of population the island could actually sustain. It has become, to all intents and purposes, inhabitable after thousands of years of human habitation."

Millions of the people across the globe have faced similar ‘push’ factors for constructing dams and barrages, and exploration activities related to energy resources –” coal, oil and gas, and mineral resources when they were forcibly moved from their localities. Many of those victims were never compensated for the loss of their possessions.

Genocidal activities of eliminationist regimes have led to forced migration of millions of victims. Ballyn writes, “If we move back through history we will find multiple examples of violent expulsion of peoples from their homelands often going hand in hand with persecution and genocide. Another form of violent forced migration frequently accompanies agendas of imperial expansion.” She cites the example of how through British colonization of Australia in 1788, not only the indigenous people were slaughtered and forced to relocate from their ancestral homes, the former British convicts were forced to settle in the new colony. She also cites the examples South Africa and of Newfoundland, where the last native was shot in 1823. 

Ballyn says, "South Africa before and during the apartheid era caused a massive removal of African peoples to black townships, while many leading opposition figures and freedom fighters were exiled within or deported from South Africa, tortured, executed or murdered. There is no end to the systematic dispossession and internal exile of Aboriginal peoples across the world from the time of the Greek empire to the neo-colonialism of the twenty first century." Not to be forgotten in this context (which is unfortunately overlooked from Ballyn’s analysis) is the case of establishment of the Zionist state of Israel, which has not only led to the exodus some 700,000 Palestinians but also an influx of many European and American Jews to the Holy Land. The apartheid structure of the Zionist state has also resulted into miserable living conditions for millions of Palestinians living within, who are relegated to the third or fourth class status.

Ballyn believes that “forced” migration is always either as a result of violence or the drive to survive.


Part 2:

As we have already noted the ‘pull’ factor of migration is often related to economic considerations to seek out a better quality of life. Better economic prospective has always pulled many people throughout history to move to newer territories.

But there could be other reasons for the ‘pull.’ Here, I can cite my own example. I came to the western world for pursuing higher studies and ended up being absorbed within the USA first as a Green Card holder and then as a Naturalized Citizen. My wife, who joined me in Los Angeles, was admitted to UCLA to pursue her doctoral studies in Physics. Soon after completing her Ph.D., she, a chairwoman and professor in Physics now with a small campus in the state university system, also got ‘pulled’ into the USA. Financially, both of us come from very well-to-do families, and our decision for migration had everything to do with our frustration about the seemingly hopeless political situation in our native country than anything else. At times I strongly felt about returning to my country of origin only to be rudely made aware that it was not ready to benefit from my years of learning and skills I have gathered, even when I was ready to share such without any economic consideration.

Sue Ballyn’s own migration story moving to Spain from UK to live with her partner and raise family is, similarly, a ‘pull’ phenomenon. Being of European race, she was not considered a migrant though but the Moroccans who moved to Spain on similar grounds were, thus, clearly underlining "the racial equations that work within the definition of migrant in host communities." My wife and I can testify that being of the south Asian origin, we are easily recognizable as migrants to the USA, unlike many white Europeans (Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans) and black Africans who have settled in the USA, being perceived as belonging to either of the major races here (and not as migrants). 

In recent decades, a new ‘pull’ phenomenon is in vogue in many western countries. These countries with low fertility rates amongst the native population (leading sometimes to negative growth rates) are pulling foreigners to move into their territories. These countries need extra people not only to make-up for the deficit in the workforce but also to collect taxes from their income to support the cost associated with caring for the retired older people. (In these countries with longer lives of the retirees beyond their nominal age of retirement, the social security network would collapse, and requires regular infusion.)  This has led many of these countries to open up their gates of immigration to professionals from the developing countries.

And then there is the case of pulling in tens of thousands of computer experts (e.g., from India) during the Y2 scare of the so-called Millennium Bugs. Many of these special visa holders have since been absorbed into these countries because these adopting countries needed their expertise on an on-going basis and that they don’t have enough people internally to fill in such roles. Massive immigration is necessary in many of these countries to sustain the lifestyle that their people got used to. Such needs need not all come from the technology sector, but can be in the low wage-earning non-technical areas. In many of the oil-rich countries of the Arab world, there are not enough local people to run the factories, hotels and malls or sweep their streets and toilets in the airports. These countries have been pulling in millions of temporary workers (especially from South Asia) to work in those sectors. For decades many foreign doctors, engineers, nurses and pharmacists have also been working in the Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. Many of them have found out that it is easier for them to later settle in western countries, esp. the USA and Canada.

The USA, with most of the best research universities, has been pulling tens of thousands of best talents from around the globe to study and contribute to on-going research works. Outside the students coming from the rich oil producing countries and some of the emerging powers in Asia (esp., Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore), the USA has been able to retain ninety percent of these students who have become American citizens. As a result of this brain-pull phenomenon many of the breakthrough technologies owe their discovery and success to these new immigrants in the USA. The USA, a nation of refugees, is more successful than most other nations because of such a ‘pull’ policy.

For decades, the USA has also been attracting workers –” mostly poor and illiterate – from Mexico and other Central and South American countries to sneak into illegally and work in low wage-earning sectors of the economy. However, without social security number, their wages could not be taxed. Consequently, the federal and local states were losing a fraction of such incomes earned within the illegal migrants. At various times while the government agencies punished employers who had hired illegal migrants, such practices were never vigorously carried out everywhere because of the heavy demand for cheap labor in those economic and social sectors that needed them to be more competitive in the global market. The U.S. Congress, therefore, slackened laws allowing many such illegal migrants to apply for amnesty and eventually pulled in. In the 1980s and 1990s, the USA even allowed illegal migrants who had worked in the agricultural sector to apply for permanent residency status. While the privilege was for farm workers (mostly from Mexico), many Asian, African and Latin Americans who had never worked as agricultural workers took advantage of this opportunity to apply and become legal residents of the USA. [The issue of granting legal status to illegal entrants or extending amnesty to such individuals continues to be a hot debating item in every presidential election since the days of President Ronald Reagan.]

Let’s now consider the atypical case of the Rohingyas of Myanmar (Burma) who are recognized as the worst persecuted people on earth. Their status has no parallel in our time. The apartheid regimes there have declared them ‘stateless’ denying them citizenship rights in spite of the fact that they have been one of the earliest settlers in Arakan (Rakhine) state of Burma for nearly a millennium.

Refugees International has highlighted the plight of the Rohingya people stating: “Official Burmese government policy on the Rohingya is repressive. The Rohingya need authorization to leave their villages and are not allowed to travel beyond Northern Rakhine State. They need official permission to marry and must pay exorbitant taxes on births and deaths. Religious freedom is restricted, and the Rohingya have been prohibited from maintaining or repairing crumbling religious buildings. Though accurate statistics are impossible to come by inside Burma, experts agree that conditions in Northern Rakhine State are among the worst in the country. Rohingya refugees commonly cite land seizures, forced labor, arbitrary arrests, and extortion as the principal reasons for flight. Once a Rohingya leaves his or her village without permission, he or she is removed from official residency lists, and can be subject to arrest if found.”

“A stateless people, the Rohingya have nowhere to go and are marginalised even in Burmese refugee communities. The Rohingya are not the only stateless refugee people in the world. What has forced them out of Burma and is attempting to undermine their very existence within their homeland is the deliberate construction of them as stateless."

The Myanmar government has been practicing ethnic cleansing to get rid of the Rohingya people ever since Ne Win came to power in 1962. Simply speaking, they don’t want them there and as such have created the ‘push’ factor for the Rohingyas to move out, failing which they can even get killed in any of the periodic pogroms that are orchestrated by the government forces at the central and local levels with full support of the racist Rakhine Buddhist majority in Arakan. The dream of living a safer and secure life outside Myanmar surely ‘pulls’ the Rohingya to seek asylum or refuge in any country willing to give them a shelter.

In her overview, Sue Ballyn, however, categorizes the Rohingya migration as part of the ‘pull’ factor only. She writes, “As to the second category that does not respond to push factors are those people who are stateless and exiled from all social and legal benefits in their own country. Those who seek refuge outside their own frontier, where possible, obviously are pushed out by a laws or situations which have deprived them of their nationality. There is a community in question worth looking at in this regard and about whom not much is being done on an international level. The Rohingya people in Burma (Myanmar) have been fleeing to Bangladesh and Malaysia in countless thousands. Racially, religiously and linguistically the Rohingya people are distinct to mainstream Burmese society. Under the 1982 Citizenship Law brought in by the military junta, the Rohingya people were not recognized as citizens along with the descendents of Chinese and Indians living in the country. While individuals of Chinese and Indian descent could claim their own national citizenship once outside Burma, the Rohingya people could not.”

While Ballyn’s analysis about the Rohingya problem is correct, I disagree with her on treating their migration issue as part of a ‘pull’ factor. I believe it to be a hybrid case with both factors working simultaneously. As a matter of fact it is difficult to think of a ‘push’ factor without the ‘pull’ factor in play concurrently. Whenever ‘push’ exists, the targeted people will be drawn to ‘pull’ factors for reasons for their emigration.

As to the consequence, Ballyn rightly doubted that even a step towards democracy may not be sufficient to stop marginalization of the Rohingya. She says, "Should Burma recover democracy, would the historic reticence regarding the Rohingya in their own country relieve their inner exclusion and marginalisation? One would like to think so, but their present marginalisation among Burmese refugees suggests that maybe not.” And, as the recent experience of so-called reform movements within Myanmar has amply demonstrated, Ballyn is absolutely right. The leaders of the so-called democratic movement have proven to be closet fascists, and no better than the military regimes that have ruled the country for the last half a century. 

Stateless people like the Rohingya are a particularly vulnerable group; of no homeland, they technically have no document which will allow them to claim a nationality and thus a homeland to which to return should they so desire.

Refugees International estimates that there are some twelve million stateless people and comments on some of the consequences that arise from this “non-status”: “Stateless status often keeps children from attending school and condemns families to poverty. Because statelessness often originates in past conflicts and disputes over what constitutes national identity, granting citizenship, which can only be done by national authorities, is inherently difficult… Nationality is a fundamental human right and a foundation of identity, dignity, justice, peace, and security. But statelessness, or the lack of effective nationality, affects millions of men, women, and children worldwide. Being stateless means having no legal protection or right to participate in political processes, inadequate access to health care and education, poor employment prospects and poverty, little opportunity to own property, travel restrictions, social exclusion, vulnerability to trafficking, harassment, and violence. Statelessness has a disproportionate impact on women and children."

As to the "pull" factors, Ballyn writes, “‘Pull factors’ have not changed over centuries, nor will they for the foreseeable future. While war, famine, persecution and a long list of etceteras exist so will the “pull forces” that drive migration outwards: a better standard of living, security, hope for future generations, among others. Unless we can provide a world in the near future in which resources can be equally shared across national frontiers then migration will persist. The thousands of migrants that move legally/illegally in the twenty-first century do so because capitalism has created a massive rift between those who have and those who have not, even within a nation’s own frontiers.”

Lack of freedom, safety, security, democratic and economic rights including those pertaining to ownership have also resulted in ‘pull’ phenomenon for people to emigrate.

Concluding words:

Is it possible to stop these ‘pull’ factors for migration? I agree with Ballyn that unless the so-called first world nations are genuinely interested in “filling in the rift”, providing infrastructures and support on all levels for developing nations to become self sufficient migration will continue because of the pull phenomenon. 

How about the ‘push’ factors? Can we stop these? I tend to believe that while not all problems, e.g., like those of climate refugees can immediately be solved, but there is no excuse for stopping the push phenomena which cause forced migration. I would like to believe that by identifying and prosecuting the state and/or non-state forces that are responsible for forced migration we can show that such crimes against humanity will not be tolerated. No government should reward these parties for their horrendous crimes. Unfortunately, as we have repeatedly seen greed is tarnishing human morality, and thus, shamelessly, many of the governments do business with those culprits. This rewarding phenomenon thus makes a mockery of the whole issue around forced migration, and the bleeding and suffering never ends.

With fierce global competition, fast pace of emerging technologies and customers’ demands for better, on-time and cheaper products and services, the world we live in today is quite different than the world lived by our parents and grandparents. And so will the trend be for our children and grandchildren. There is no turning the clock back. This economic reality of our time is making the old ideas of ‘pull’ migration rather invalid or impractical forcing pundits and planners to rethink their strategy and find alternative solutions to address them. Multi-culture and integration (and not chauvinism or exclusion) is becoming the signature solution to this reality of our time.

As such, those countries that can pull and utilize the talented and necessary resources faster and appositely are going to be better off tomorrow than others that don’t. That is the hundred trillion dollar formula for sustainable growth and prosperity. Kapish?