What is migration?

“Migration is the movement of a person or a group of persons, either across an international border or within a State. It is a population movement, encompassing any kind of movement of people, whatever its length, composition and causes; it includes migration of refugees, displaced persons, economic migrants, and persons moving for other purposes, including family reunification” (IOM definition).  

When we speak about migration, we often talk about refugees and migrants at the same time. But what are the differences? And what is migration exactly? Migration is a very complex and multifaceted phenomenon. The words ‘migration’ and ‘migrants’ are collective terms which include many variations such as; refugees, labour migrants, forced migrants, displaced persons.

It is very difficult to distinguish between the different forms of migration. Because migrants migrate out of different motivations and causes but use the same routes and even travel together in the same groups. So when we speak about migration we actually speak about mixed migration; referring to cross-border movements of people including refugees fleeing persecution and conflict, victims of trafficking, and people seeking better lives and opportunities.

Permanent or temporary settlement?

People can migrate to find permanent settlement, but also temporary: as a means where they spend a  period in their lives outside of their country of origin. For migrants, their journey rarely exists of this movement from point (A) their country of origin to point (B) the country of destination. Migrants take long journeys where they visit many stops to arrive in the country of destination. It is also very common that the initial country of destination changes throughout the journey. The same is true for migrant’s status; people can migrate to Libya as economic migrants but flee from Libya to Europe.

International agreements

Refugees are a very specific group of migrants. This group of migrants have distinguished rights and protection that are enshrined in global compacts and conventions (For instance, The 1951 refugee convention and Global compact on refugees from 2018). For migration, in general, such agreements do not yet exist.

However, after the large movements of refugees and migrants in 2015, the United Nations held an event that marked the start of the development of two global compacts; one for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, and one on Refugees. The one on migration is expected to be the first internationally negotiated agreement to define a collective commitment to improve cooperation on international migration. On 10 and 11 December, the Intergovernmental Conference will take place to adopt the Global Compact in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Terminology is not neutral

The words we use to speak about migration have a significant influence on how we value or dehumanise the people we talk about.  As mentioned above, for migration, we use a lot of different terms and synonyms that all have different implications for the way we perceive migrants. The Correspondent and One world (two Dutch journalistic forums) have articles about the underlying implication of terms. And why they refuse to use certain terms.

When we speak about illegal migration we criminalise migration as such. But also using terms such as regular and irregular migration have implications for the way we perceive migrants. While regular migrants have been able to get visas and permits, like expats. Irregular migration takes form outside of the regular norms of sending, transit and receiving countries.

Different perspectives on migration

One of the main narratives regarding migration nowadays is that it is something harmful and needs to be fixed by the implementation of policies that control and reduce migration. This is a very western perspective, where migration is seen as threat bringing; instability, security risks and competition in labour markets as well as threats to socio-cultural stability and social cohesion. 

On the other hand, a different narrative exists that sees migration as a source for development and increased (labour) mobility as a driving force for development. Here migration needs to be well governed and facilitated, to maximize and distribute long-term benefits for the countries of origin and/or destination, while minimizing the potential negative aspects.

Migration should not be seen solely in political terms as migration is dynamic and happens as part of societal change. Migration will not disappear when inequalities are resolved, it will just take other forms. We should, therefore, find ways in which migration could take place under good conditions, safe and orderly, where migrants are seen as equal humans instead of nameless numbers and flows. 

Photo: Maurice Weiss

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