International Migration

International Migration

In this article, we shall discuss international migration (or transnational migration) in international relations. We shall discuss such themes as recent migration data figures, causes of international migration, safety issues for migrant workers, as well as other effects of international migration.

International migration is understood as “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, 2011). Humans have been migrating since early in our history. In fact, there have been different periods of migration, whether it was during colonialism, the rise of economic power with the United States (and with that immigration into the country), migration as a result of war, as well as current migration with regards to labor (Koser, 2009).

There are a number of questions that need to be asked when thinking about international migration. One of the most important questions that people may with regards to international migration patterns and trends has to do with migration data. It is necessary to have sufficient data so that we can better answer questions about the global phenomena. For example, just some questions that have been raised with regards to transitional migration are: “How many migrants are there? What are their main characteristics? How do migrants contribute to host and origin societies? How does the role of immigrants evolve over time?” (OECD, 2013: 1). We will be discussing some of these questions, as it is important to understand international migration.

History of International Migration

While there is a great deal of attention to more recent developments related to international migration, this topic is one that has been a part of human rights for centuries. People have migrated in search of food or shelter, for religious reasons (there exist examples in the Abrahamic monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam), and also for exploration–looking for new lands or resources. In other cases, people were enslaved and their human rights were repressed, as they were forcefully moved (International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 2012). We have also seen international migration take place following conflict; this was evidence during World War I, World War II (IFRCRC, 2012), and many other civil and international conflicts. 

What Causes International Migration?

There are many factors that individuals migrate to other countries. As Koser (2009) explains, “the reason for the recent rise in international migration and its widening global reach are complex. The factors include growing global disparities in development, democracy, and demography; in some parts of the world, job shortages that will be exacerbated by the current economic downturn; the segmentation of labour markets in high-income economies, a situation that attracts migrant workers to so-called “3D” jobs (dirty, difficult, or dangerous); revolutions in communications and transportation…; migration networks…etc… (Koser, 2009: 44-45).

As we see, there are many reasons for international migration.

Temporary Migration

When we speak about transnational migration, it is important to discuss both temporary migration and permanent migration. With regards to temporary migration, there are a number of reasons why we see temporary migration.  For example, one category of temporary transnational migration is tourism. It is said that there are over 900 million people visit international countries every year, with this number believed to be rising. People go to vacations, to religious pilgrimages, as well as travel for education, health, amongst other reasons.

Irregular Migration

There has been a rise in what Koser (2009) calls “irregular migration,” which has been labelled with terms such as “illegal” or “undocumented” migration. It is believed that there are about 40 million irregular migrants today. And it is also believed that “[e]ach year, an estimated 2.5 million to 4 million migrants are thought to cross international borders without authorization” (Koser, 2009: 46). But while people have tried to gauge international migration figures, this is not without challenges. As Koser (2009) explains, “[o]ne reason that it is difficult to count irregular migrants is that even this single category covers people in a range of different situations. It includes migrants who enter or remain in a country without authorization; those who are smuggled or trafficked across an international border; those who seek asylum, are not granted it, and then fail to observe a deportation order; and people who circumvent immigration controls, for example by arranging bogus marriages or fake adoptions” (46). Another challenge to accurate statistical data has to do with  changing legal statuses. Someone who does not have citizenship, or a right to be in a country, can work to do so (Koser, 2009). Thus, for these reasons, data, while available, does not get at the exact situation with regards to the exact prevalence of transnational migration.

What are the Effects of International Migration?

There are a number of effects of international migration on the individual, the migrant’s family, as well as both the country of origin, and the host country. For the individual, there could be psychological, emotional, and physical effects of migrating to another country. As discuss here in an article on rights issues of migrant workers, many migrants’ human rights are violated by those looking to control them and to control their work. As the Red Cross (2012) explains “…there is an inherent vulnerability in being a migrant, which can be more problematic in some situations than others. Migrants, by definition, are outside their places of habitual residence’ and often countries of origin (many times also away from their families), in a place where they might not understand the language and/or culture. They usually lack their familiar or community support mechanisms and can be exposed to racism, xenophobia and discrimination” (3).

Unaccompanied Children

One aspect of international migration that has received international attention has been the issues of children migrants, and unaccompanied children migrants. Unaccompanied alien children (UAC) are individuals who are not citizens of a country, are under 18 years of age, and who do not have a parent or other legal guardian with them in country in which they are in without sufficient legal status. There has been a rise of unaccompanied children (who do not have legal status in the United States) in recent years, with as many as 52,000 migrant children from Central America before 2014 was over (Kandel, Bruno, Meyer, Seelke, Taft-Morales, & Wasem, 2014). There are a number of reasons while so many unaccompanied children are migrating from Central America to the United States. 

As Kandel et. al. (2014) explain, 

The analytic dichotomy between push and pull factors often blurs in actual circumstances. For example, family reunification may occur after a parent from an origin country secures employment in the United States. Yet, having an employed parent in the United States may easily make a child in an origin country more susceptible to extortion or kidnapping by criminal gangs, which in turn, may motivate the child to migrate to the United States. Hence, having an employed parent in the United States ostensibly acts as a “pull” factor while the threat of violence acts as a “push” factor, but in this example, the latter would not occur without the former.

Migration to another country stems not only from macro-level circumstances such as violence and economic hardship but also personal circumstances and characteristics, such as marital status and risk tolerance. Most children have multiple motives, and how those motives influence their decisions to migrate depend on a range of factors that cannot be measured easily” (1).

 A number of unaccompanied migrant children who were interviewed offer a number of factors for migrating to the United States, for example. Many of the children are looking for their families; they may have one (or more) parent working abroad, and they are hoping to be able to reach them.

Other children are looking for work. The lack of employment opportunities in their country of origin has driven children to look for work elsewhere. Thus, a related factor is the issue of poverty. In interviews done with migrant children, ” Endemic poverty also appears to play a role in the emigration of unaccompanied minors, as 16% of those interviewed mentioned economic deprivation as a motive” (Kandel, Bruno, Meyer, Seelke, Taft-Morales, & Wasem, 2014: 5). The GDP per capita rates in Central America are starkly different than that of the United States. For example, 

“Per capita gross domestic product (GDP) in 2014 is estimated to be $4,014 in El Salvador, $3,684 in Guatemala, and $2,368 in Honduras. The countries have maintained what are viewed by most economists as generally sound macroeconomic policies in recent years, and enjoyed stable economic growth until the onset of the global financial crisis and U.S. recession in 2009. At that time, the Salvadoran and Honduran economies contracted and the Guatemalan economy slowed significantly, demonstrating how all three countries are vulnerable to external shocks as a result of their open economies16 and close ties to the United States. Although all three economies have rebounded since 2010, growth rates have yet to fully recover… El Salvador posted an economic growth rate of just 1.6% in 2013, the lowest of any country in Central America” (Kandel, Bruno, Meyer, Seelke, Taft-Morales, & Wasem, 2014: 5).

For them, they view the United States as a place where they can make money, something they don’t see happening in this own state. This poses additional challenges for them, however, since many of the children don’t know English language very well, don’t have an education, and are too young to be legally employed. Thus, if they find work at all in America, “such constraints would likely relegate them to low-skilled, low-wage sectors of the U.S. economy” (Kandel, Bruno, Meyer, Seelke, Taft-Morales, & Wasem, 2014: 12).

Others still are hoping for an education, something they feel they cannot get at home (Kandel, Bruno, Meyer, Seelke, Taft-Morales, & Wasem, 2014). Education is actually one of the most requested rights that children have. In many cases, they do not have the money to afford school, or do not have the time to attend classes, since many children often work instead of going to school.

But along with these factors for children migrating to the United States, “[v]iolence also played a large role in their decisions to emigrate. Nearly half of the children (48%) said they had experienced serious harm or had been threatened by organized criminal groups or state actors, and more than 20% had been subject to domestic abuse. As recently as 2006, only 13% of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America interviewed by UNHCR presented any indication they were fleeing societal violence or domestic abuse” (Kandel, Bruno, Meyer, Seelke, Taft-Morales, & Wasem, 2014: 4). For example, children often are living in areas that are controlled by street gangs. In addition, in a number of the countries of origin, the state is having trouble dealing with gangs and the drug trade (Kandel, Bruno, Meyer, Seelke, Taft-Morales, & Wasem, 2014).

In addition, there are many children who have migrated because of domes violence. As scholars explain “Many children also must contend with violence at home. Although domestic abuse—including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse—often goes unreported and undocumented, it is believed to be widespread in the region. According to scholars, Central American cultural norms legitimize the use of violence in interpersonal relationships, including physical discipline of children and violence against women. Studies have found that children who are left behind as a result of one or both parents migrating abroad are more vulnerable to abuse. This is especially true of children whose mothers have migrated” (Kandel, Bruno, Meyer, Seelke, Taft-Morales, & Wasem, 2014: 9).

Sadly, children who are unaccompanied in their international migration may be more susceptible to human trafficking. A number of children are paying smugglers (who often in turn pay criminal organizations) to be moved from their country to other destination countries such as the United States. This is often very dangerous, and there have been cases where the smugglers have sold the children, or, in other cases, killings have occurred if the smugglers have not sufficiently paid the criminal organizations (Kandel, Bruno, Meyer, Seelke, Taft-Morales, & Wasem, 2014: 9) that might be running or overseeing the operation.

International Migration and State Action

The local and national level governments can do a lot to help migrants and asylum seekers as they migrate internationally, and through cooperation with other countries (namely, the relationship between the country of origin and the host country is vital), states can do a better job of helping international migrants. 

The country of origin can be quite active during what is termed the “pre-departure” phase of international migration. In fact, some argue that what transpires at this point is every important for the overall safety and security of the migrant. To begin, the individual who is planning on migrating could receive some sort of assistance from their state with regards to finding a job. A representative from the country of origin can also sit down with the future international migrant and discuss the legal process associated with their migration, help them with any necessary paperwork, explain their work might be in their host country, and also answer questions that they may have about the entire process (ILO, 2009).

In addition, the potential migrant should also be educated on any risks associated with traveling. As the International Labour Organization (2009) points out, “Citizens should be thoroughly educated about unscrupulous private recruiters, traffickers and trafficking in human beings, and the dangers and risks of migrating under irregular conditions. Attention must be paid to educating and warning women about the special problems and conditions they could face because they are women, such as trafficking, and the conditions of certain forms of work held predominantly by women migrant workers, such as domestic work” (8). They could also lead education campaigns in their respective countries (ILO, 2009). Here, they can also be educated about potential abuses while in the new country, given that there have been many cases where the migrants’ rights (and also their pay) have been taken from them by host governments or some non-state criminal actors (ILO, 2009). Knowing that these sorts of violations have happened, a country of origin can also implement laws punishing anyone that committed rights violations (ILO, 2009). 

Knowing that the recruitment process can be quite risky, the country of origin can find reputable employment recruiters. Here, not only should they have find the good ones from bad recruiters, but they can also make a contractual agreement where the rights of the migrant will be respected. Here, “

They should require written employment contracts contain- ing minimum standards of terms and conditions of employment for their citizens in the areas of wages, working hours and time off, safety and health, medical care, the right to retain their identity documents, and other important terms and conditions. Where employers provide housing and food, the written contracts should cover that as well and should contain minimum standards. If employers charge their workers for housing and food, the rates charged should be fair” (ILO, 2009: 9)

In addition, they can also help with the costs related to applying for international work as a prospective migrant. Thus, “This not only lessens the burden on migrants, but can also keep them from turn- ing to irregular channels because of an inability to pay the fees. It is of great help to migrant workers to receive information about the culture and conditions of life that exist in the destination country before they leave. Other forms of helpful information, such as financial literacy training and low- cost ways to transmit remittances, in order to maximize their value, can also be given” (ILO, 2009: 9-10).

Here, the host county can also be of help. They can communicate with the country of origin, letting them know about any information that is pertinent to the migrant. They can also make them aware of any particular rights abuses that they have uncovered (ILO, 2009). Moreover, they can also help set up ways to better monitor recruitment (ILO, 2009).

Migrant Rights Upon Arrival

The host country should be doing a number of things to ensure that the rights of the new migrant are protected. Not only should they be in constant contact with the country of origin, but they should also have mechanisms and offices in place to ensure that economic or other forms of exploitation are not taking place. In addition, they can set up ways to even address any disputes that arise between the migrant worker and the employee. Furthermore, they should also be accessible to the migrants, helping answer any questions that they may have through offices or some sort of telephone hotline (ILO, 2009). They should also educate the migrant workers on their human rights (ILO, 2009).

In addition, they can serve other consular roles. As the ILO (2009) explains, Consular services can also perform outreach to certain groups of migrant workers who are particularly vulnerable to abuse, such as women, or those who are isolated, especially domestic workers, who are mostly women and thereby doubly vulnerable. They may be called upon to provide emergency assistance, especially when their citizens have nowhere else to turn. They can facilitate the systematic transmission of information regarding abusive employers and industries to officials at home to take measures to prevent their citizens from migrating to work for them” (11).

It is imperative that the migrant is not unaccounted for, and does not feel helpless while in the new country. An inefficient system by the host country can sadly easily lead to migrants being taken advance of. Therefore, there must be ways in which the state can help the migrant throughout the entire time s/he is in that country. And if some problem does arise, the host country should continue to be sharing that information with the host country. However, they should be sharing information in general, even if it just to update the host country on that migrant’s conditions. 

International Migration: Returning to the Country of Origin

After a migrant returns to the country of origin, that country should do what it can to help the individual “with reintegration back into society” (ILO, 2009: 11). They can do this through a number of means. They can speak with the migrant about how they are feeling, and address any concerns that they have. Furthermore, they can also help them find domestic employment, or help them with regards to investing their money (ILO, 2009). They should also offer mental health support for any migrants who may be suffering from stress, depression, or many other health issues.


Kandel, W.A., Bruno, A., Meyer, P.J., Seelke, C.R., Taft-Morales, M., & Wasem., R.E. (2014). Unaccompanied Alien Children: Potential Factors Contributing to Recent Immigration. Congressional Research Service. July 3, 2014.

International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent Societies (2012). The Phenomenon of Migration, pages 1-10.

International Labour Organization (2009). Protecting the Rights of Migrant Workers: A Shared Responsibility. Available Online:

International Organization of Migration (IOM, 2011). Key Migration Terms. Available Online:

Koser, K. (2009). Why Migration Matters, Current History, 108, pages 147-153, in D. Stanley Eitzen & Maxine Baca Zinn, 2012. Globalization: The Transformation of Social Worlds, Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage.

OECD (2013). World Migration in Figures, pages 1-6.

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