Sociology of Migration Research Paper

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Few people today spend their whole lives in their native village or neighborhood: most experience mobility from country to town, or between regions in one country, while a minority migrates across national borders. Even those who do not migrate are affected by movements of people in or out of their communities, and by the resulting changes. Migration is an important factor in the erosion of traditional boundaries between languages, cultures, ethnic groups, and nation-states. Migration is not a single act of crossing a border, but rather a lifelong process that affects all aspects of the lives of those involved. The outcome may be temporary residence abroad followed by return, or permanent settlement in the new country. The latter may lead to complete integration into the receiving population, formation of ethnic minorities which remain distinct from the majority population, or emergence of transnational communities (or diasporas) that have close links with members of the same ethnic groups in the country of origin as well as in other migrant-receiving countries. In view of its allembracing character, migration studies is an interdisciplinary field of study, to which all the social sciences make important contributions. However, this research paper will concentrate on sociological aspects of migration.

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1. Definitions and Categories

Migration means crossing the boundary of a political or administrative unit for a certain minimum period (Boyle et al. 1998, Chap. 2). Internal migration refers to a move from one area (a province, district, or municipality) to another within one country. International migration means crossing the frontiers that separate one of the worlds’ approximately 200 states from another. Some scholars argue that internal and international migration are part of the same process, and should be analyzed together (Skeldon 1997, pp. 9–10). However, this research paper focuses specifically on international migration, because of its links to globalization and its significance in creating multi-ethnic societies.

The great majority of border crossings do not imply migration: most travelers are tourists or business visitors who have no intention of staying for long. Migration means taking up residence for a certain minimum period. Most countries have a number of official migration categories. For instance, Australia distinguishes between permanent immigrants, longterm temporary immigrants who stay at least 12 months, and short-term temporary visitors. However, Australia is a ‘classical immigration country’ with a tradition of nation-building through immigration, so public debate concentrates on permanent immigrants, who are expected to settle and become citizens. Other countries prefer to see immigration as essentially temporary. When Germany recruited so-called ‘guestworkers’ from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, they only received one-year residence permits. In time, it became difficult to limit residence and migrants were granted permits for two years, then five years, and finally for unlimited residence. Similarly, the policymakers of labor-recruiting countries in Asia or the Middle East today do not want foreign workers to stay permanently, but may find this difficult to prevent in the long run.

Such variations show that there is nothing objective about definitions of migration: they are the result of state policies, introduced in response to political and economic goals and public attitudes. International migration arises in a world divided into nation-states, in which remaining in the country of birth is still seen as a norm and moving to another country as a deviation. One way in which states seek to improve control is by dividing migrants into categories.

(a) Temporary labor migrants, men and women who migrate for a limited period in order to take up employment and send home money (remittances).

(b) Highly skilled and business migrants, who have qualifications as managers, executives, professionals, technicians, or similar.

(c) Irregular migrants (also known as undocumented or illegal migrants), who enter a country, usually in search of employment, without the necessary documents.

(d) Refugees, defined by the 1951 UN Convention as persons residing outside their country of nationality, who are unable or unwilling to return because of a ‘well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.’

(e) Asylum-seekers, people who move across borders in search of protection, but who may not fulfill the strict criteria laid down by the 1951 UN Convention.

(f) Family reunion, migration to join relatives who have already entered an immigration country under one of the above categories.

(g) Return migrants, people who return to their countries of origin after a period in another country.

2. The Volume of Contemporary Migration

Since the Second World War, international migration has grown considerably. Two main phases can be distinguished. The first lasted from 1945 to 1973: the long boom stimulated large-scale labor migration to Western Europe, North America, and Oceania from less-developed areas. This phase ended around 1973, with the ‘Oil Crisis,’ which triggered a major recession. In a second phase from the mid-1970s, capital investment shifted away from the old centers, and transnational forms of production and distribution reshaped the world economy. The older industrial countries experienced new types of inflows, while new immigration countries emerged in Southern Europe, the Gulf oil countries, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The late 1980s and early 1990s were a period of unprecedented migration (Castles and Miller 1998).

According to UN figures (Table 1), the global migrant stock (the number of people resident in a place outside their country of birth) grew from 75 million in 1965 to 120 million in 1990. International migration appears to have grown more rapidly in the 1990s, reaching an estimated 135–140 million people, including some 13 million United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees-recognized refugees by 1997. Nonetheless, international migrants make up only about 2 percent of the world’s population (Zlotnik 1999).

Sociology of Migration Research Paper

However, migration is concentrated in certain countries and regions. The UN study shows that 90 percent of the world’s migrants were living in just 55 countries. In absolute numbers, most migration is between less-developed countries, but in relative terms, the developed world has been more affected by immigration. The 1990 immigrant share in total population was highest in Oceania (17.8 percent) followed by North America (8.6 percent) and Western Europe (6.1 percent). The immigrant share in population was far lower in Asia (1.4 percent), Latin America and the Caribbean (1.7 percent), and Africa (2.5 percent) (Zlotnik 1999). In the 1980s and 1990s, flows from less-developed to developed countries have been grown rapidly, despite attempts by receiving countries to restrict such movements. In addition, there have been large flows of labor migrants from the least developed countries of the South to the newly industrializing countries, especially in East Asia. Although women have always formed a large proportion of migrants, their share has gradually increased: by 1995 about 48 percent of all international migrants were women, and they outnumbered male migrants in about a quarter of receiving countries (Zlotnik 1999). There was a shift in the character of female migration, with a trend away from movement as family members of male workers or refugees and an increase in the number of women who moved independently or as heads of households (Lutz et al. 1995).

3. Causes of Migration

The causes of migration are highly complex, and various social sciences explain them in their own ways (Boyle et al. 1998, Massey et al. 1993). Economists focus on disparities in levels of income and employment between sending and receiving areas, while demographers examine differences in fertility, mortality, age-structure, and labor-force growth. However, the mere existence of disparities does not always lead to mobility: the very poor rarely migrate, and there are many areas with huge reserves of underemployed people who remain where they are. Sociologists therefore focus on two sets of causes, which may be seen as macroand microfactors. The former refers to the role of powerful institutions—states, corporations, markets, and international organizations—in initiating and regulating migration, or in putting up barriers against it. For instance, temporary labor migration to Germany in the 1960s and the Gulf oil states in the 1980s was organized by states and employers for economic reasons. Attempts to restrict labor migration and asylum-seeker movements to Western Europe in the 1990s were also state actions involving a fair degree of intergovernmental collaboration.

Microfactors refer to the social networks developed by migrants and their communities (Boyd 1989). Networks based on family or on common place-oforigin help provide shelter, work, assistance with bureaucratic procedures, and support in personal difficulties. Access to migration networks can be seen as a form of ‘social capital,’ a resource that makes it possible for migrants and their families to face the challenges of displacement and sometimes-hostile environments. Some people (both migrants and nonmigrants) become facilitators of migration. A ‘migration industry’ emerges, consisting of recruitment organizations, lawyers, agents, smugglers, and other middle-people. Such people can be both helpers and exploiters of migrants. The strong interest of the migration industry in the continuation of migration has often confounded government efforts to control movements.

A useful approach is ‘migration systems theory’ which analyses the linkages between macroand microfactors (Kritz et al. 1992). Typically, migratory chains are started by an external factor, such as recruitment or military service, or by an initial movement of young (usually male) pioneers. The ‘cultural capital’ needed to embark on migration can also be provided by access to education or international media, which raise awareness of opportunities elsewhere. Once a movement is established, the migrants follow established routes and are helped by relatives and friends already in the area of immigration. The connections between migrant community and area of origin may persist over generations. Remittances fall off and visits home may decline in frequency, but familial and cultural links remain. People stay in touch with their area of origin, and may seek marriage partners there. Migration continues along the established chains—and may increase dramatically at a time of crisis.

4. Migration and Development

The most important question for countries of origin is whether migration assists or hinders development. Migration may hinder development by siphoning of qualified personnel (the ‘brain drain’), removing dynamic young workers and reducing pressures for social change. Migration often involves a transfer of the most valuable economic resource—human capital— from a poor country to a rich one. It is only worthwhile for the emigration country if the gain in human capital (enhanced skills and productivity) through working abroad can be productively utilized upon return and the transfer of income from immigration to emigration country outweighs the costs of upbringing of the migrant.

Labor-exporting countries often pursue short-term aims, concerned with generating jobs for an underutilized workforce and with getting the maximum possible inflow of worker remittances (Abella 1995). Global migrant remittances increased from US$2 billion in 1970 to US$70 billion in 1995 (Taylor 1999). Many countries therefore encourage emigration for employment. This may mean government involvement in recruitment and deployment of workers, regulation of nongovernmental recruitment agencies, or simply laissez-faire with regard to spontaneous movements. Most emigration-country governments have policies to prevent abuse or exploitation of their citizens while abroad, and to provide assistance in case of illness, accident, death, trouble with the law, disputes with employers or other emergencies. However, regulation of emigration from less-developed countries is often ineffective, as the large number of irregular migrants demonstrates. This allows exploitative employment and abuses like the trafficking of women and children for prostitution.

There is a lack of coordinated strategies to assisting returning migrants with re-integration. Most migrants are left to their own devices and frequently face difficulty in finding employment commensurate with the skills they have acquired abroad. They may end up running small unproductive businesses which often fail. Savings may be spent on consumption and dowries rather than investment. Research indicates that adequate counseling and information both before and after return, as well as help in obtaining investment credits are factors conducive to successful reinsertion and maximization of positive effects on development. Maintenance of social networks in the home country is crucial for a successful return.

5. Settlement and Ethnic Diversity

For receiving countries, the key question is whether immigration will lead to settlement, formation of ethnic communities, and new forms of ethnic and cultural diversity. For instance Gulf oil countries do not allow family reunion and settlement, yet their economies are structurally dependent on foreign labor. This is leading to increased length of stay and family formation, despite the rules. Similarly, there is evidence of settlement and emergence of ethnic neighborhoods in Japan and other Asian labor-importing countries (Mori 1997). Migration generally leads to settlement of a certain proportion of the migrants due to the social networks mentioned above. Another factor is the increasing strength of human rights safeguards in many countries, which make it difficult for governments to deport migrants or to deny them the right to live with their families.

Immigrants often differ from the receiving populations: they may come from different types of societies (for example, agrarian–rural rather than urban– industrial) with different traditions, religions and political institutions. They often speak a different language and follow different cultural practices. They may be visibly different, through physical appearance (skin color, features, and hair type) or style of dress. Some migrant groups become concentrated in certain types of work (generally of low social status) and live in low-income residential areas. The position of immigrants is often marked by a specific legal status: that of the foreigner or noncitizen. In many cases, immigration complicates existing ethnic or racial divisions in societies with long-standing minorities.

Culturally distinct settler groups almost always maintain their languages and some elements of their homeland cultures, at least for a few generations. Where governments have accepted permanent settlement, there has been a tendency to move from expectations of individual assimilation to recognition of cultural difference. The result has been the policies of pluralism or multiculturalism introduced in various forms in North America, Oceania and parts of Western Europe since the 1970s. Where governments refuse to recognize right to community formation and cultural difference, immigrants tend to turn into marginalized ethnic minorities.

At a time of economic restructuring and farreaching social change, some groups in the receiving populations may see immigrants as a danger to living standards, life styles and social cohesion. In Europe, extreme-right parties have grown and flourished through anti-immigrant campaigns. Similarly, one reaction to the Asian crisis of 1997–9 was to blame immigrants for unemployment and other social ills, and to introduce policies for large-scale deportations. The overall experience since the 1950s is that immigration almost always leads to cultural changes, which may be perceived as threatening. The result is often a politicization of issues connected with migration and the emergence of conflicts that may take many years to resolve.

6. Migration, National Identity, and Citizenship

If, as Albrow (1996) argues, the age of modernity is being replaced by a ‘global age,’ it seems that international migration is even more crucial in the new epoch than in the preceding one. This is not surprising: if the central mechanisms of globalization are crossborder flows and transnational networks (Castells 1996, Held et al. 1999), then flows of people are clearly as important as flows of finance, commodities and ideas. However, while states generally welcome these other types due to their economic benefits, they are often suspicious of migrants, whom they see as a threat to national culture and identity, and hence as a major factor challenging the nation-state.

The nation-state, as it has developed since the eighteenth century, is often based on myths of ethnic and cultural homogeneity. Immigration and ethnic diversity threaten such ideas, and the emergence of multicultural societies creates major challenges to national identities. Fundamental institutions, such as citizenship itself, are likely to change in response to diverse values and needs. The trend to development of transnational communities is a further challenge to the nation-state: modern forms of transport and communication make it possible for immigrants and their descendants to maintain long-term links with the ancestral homeland or with diaspora groups elsewhere (Basch et al. 1994, Cohen 1997).

The classical countries of immigration have been able to cope with this situation most easily, since absorption of immigrants has been part of their myth of nation building. But countries that place a common culture at the heart of their nation-building process have found it very difficult to resolve the contradiction. This applies to many European countries, but also to many postcolonial nation-states in other continents. Asian states have tended to adopt quite restrictive rules on naturalization and citizenship, and find it very difficult to accept the possibility of integrating new immigrant populations (Castles and Davidson 2000, Davidson and Weekley 1999). However, migration continues to grow for economic and cultural reasons, and is likely to remain a potent force for social transformation in the future.


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