International migration has always been about two things: opportunity and escape. People are either moving towards an opportunity for a better life, or away from a bad situation where there were limitations on living well. Both United Nations global migration statistics and OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) statistics provide some sketch of these two social forces —moving towards opportunity or away from limitations. The global economic crisis beginning in 2007 slowed down migration flows towards education and employment opportunities in the world’s most developed countries and only began to pickup again in 2010. But even in 2010 employment opportunities are worse than prior to 2007.
War And Refugees
Migration away from a bad situation is usually about war or political repression. Middle Eastern Wars, especially Syria in the last two years, have been the impetus for regional migrations. Economic crisis doesn’t have much effect on stopping people from leaving a war torn country, but it does have some impact on where those war refuges go. With Europe in financial crisis after 2007, many of the war refuges that might have considered trying to get to Western Europe probably settled for less.
Today international migrations involve less than one third of one percent of the total global population. That’s 214 million international migrants in a global population of over 7 billion people. Viewed with these statistics international migration is a rare event. But has it always been such a uniquely small part of human activity? Probably not. If we look way back to migratory tribes prior to the invention of agriculture, people spent much of their lives on the move. Prehistorical migrations are not well understood, but it’s pretty certain that when food supplies in a territory declined the people living there were forced to move on. Without agriculture that had to happen frequently. So what’s the point of looking so far back and speculating on what happened then? It gives us some vague comparative perspective.
The idea is that people used to migrate more than we do today. The world is a more complex place and population size has changed dramatically, both of these facts are reasons why people are more sedentary. But what does this tell us about those people who do migrate? Some migrate, as always, to get away from a territory that no longer offers a workable life. Whereas that was, in times long past, usually due to dwindling food resources, it now usually happens because of war or oppression. Sometimes the oppression comes with a lack of food, but where that happens, as it has in the horn of Africa, it is because of political oppression.
Others flee from territories where the lands are no longer able to produce crops that earn enough in the marketplace to make a living. This is due to a different type of political oppression. Wealthy countries, like the United States and European countries set domestic agricultural support prices to bolster their agricultural industry. Small farmers elsewhere around the globe can’t compete with these artificially set prices (and the soils of whole territories in Africa are thereby forced out of profitable farming). Some of the victims of these global arrangements become migrants seeking better lands to raise different crops.
Moving Towards A Good Thing
The most common reason for migration is to seek a better living in a developed country. Sometimes this is done by going abroad as a student to establish a career. Sometimes this is done by migrating to seek work. According to the UN Population Division report on “The Age and Sex of Migrants 2011” far and away the largest percentage of international migrants, almost 73% are of age 20 to 64. That is the working age group and many of these people migrate specifically to find better working opportunities and 62.5% of these migrants go to developed countries. They are, I suspect, after opportunity in industrial situations if at all possible. Of course, many of the illegal migrants wind up finding low paying agricultural work, but given the chance they would take more advanced industrial or service occupations.
Finally, there is the digital economy. The new economic opportunities that attract top level students, scientists, entrepreneurs and programers from around the world. These people are the privileged few who bring with them their high level intelligence in order to seek cutting-edge opportunities. In time the digital economy will spread to all corners of the globe. It’s likely that as digital networks spread further and deeper around the world, fewer people will migrate to find digital opportunities. For example, if you look for the new “Silicon Valleys” that have popped up around the globe, you’ll get an idea how this process is progressing. In London there is “Silicon Roundabout”, in Beijing there is the northeast corner of the city where the Universities are located and where the digital community has grown strong. There are now many more of these digital enclaves and they offer distributed local opportunities that offset some of the need to migrate in order to find employment. The digital cycle could be changing the way migration happens.
The last area of global migration that we should consider are older migrants. Almost 12% of international migrants are 65 years of age or older. Many, 56%, of these immigrants are female and by-and-large, 45%, they migrate to Oceania, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean. The UN and OECD reports don’t indicate why these locations, but I suspect they are older people headed home to their countries of origin, or older people headed to a less expensive, more pleasant place for retirement.