Category Archives: Migration

World Happiness Report 2018 – John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey D. Sachs.

The most striking finding is that a ranking of countries according to the happiness of their immigrant populations is almost exactly the same as for the rest of the population.

Happiness can change, and does change, according to the quality of the society in which people live.

The countries with the happiest immigrants are not the richest countries, but instead the countries with a more balanced set of social and institutional supports for better lives.

A higher value for migrant acceptance is linked to greater happiness for both immigrants and the native-born, by almost equal amounts.

Human psychology is complicated, and behavioural economics has now documented hundreds of ways in which people mispredict the impact of decisions upon their happiness. It does not follow that we should over-regulate their lives, which would also cause unhappiness. It does follow that we should protect people after they make their decisions, by ensuring that they can make positive social connections in their new communities (hence avoiding or reducing discrimination), and that they are helped to fulfill the dreams that led them to move in the first place.

The World Happiness Report is a landmark survey of the state of global happiness. The World Happiness Report 2018, ranks 156 countries by their happiness levels, and 117 countries by the happiness of their immigrants.

The main focus of this year’s report, in addition to its usual ranking of the levels and changes in happiness around the world, is on migration within and between countries.

The overall rankings of country happiness are based on the pooled results from Gallup World Poll surveys from 2015-2017, and show both change and stability. There is a new top ranking country, Finland, but the top ten positions are held by the same countries as in the last two years, although with some swapping of places. Four different countries have held top spot in the four most recent reports, Denmark, Switzerland, Norway and now Finland.

All the top countries tend to have high values for all six of the key variables that have been found to support well-being: income, healthy life expectancy, social support, freedom, trust and generosity. Among the top countries, differences are small enough that year-to-year changes in the rankings are to be expected.

The analysis of happiness changes from 2008-2010 to 2015-2015 shows Togo as the biggest gainer, moving up 17 places in the overall rankings from the last place position it held as recently as in the 2015 rankings. The biggest loser is Venezuela, down 2.2 points on the 0 to 10 scale.

Five of the report’s seven chapters deal primarily with migration, as summarized in Chapter 1. For both domestic and international migrants, the report studies not just the happiness of the migrants and their host communities, but also of those left behind, whether in the countryside or in the source country. The results are generally positive.

Perhaps the most striking finding of the whole report is that a ranking of countries according to the happiness of their immigrant populations is almost exactly the same as for the rest of the population. The immigrant happiness rankings are based on the full span of Gallup data from 2005 to 2017, sufficient to have 117 countries with more than 100 immigrant respondents.

The ten happiest countries in the overall rankings also are ten of the top eleven spots in the ranking of immigrant happiness. Finland is at the top of both rankings in this report, with the happiest immigrants, and the happiest population in general.

The closeness of the two rankings shows that the happiness of immigrants depends predominantly on the quality of life where they now live, illustrating a general pattern of convergence. Happiness can change, and does change, according to the quality of the society in which people live. Immigrant happiness, like that of the locally born, depends on a range of features of the social fabric, extending far beyond the higher incomes traditionally thought to inspire and reward migration.

The countries with the happiest immigrants are not the richest countries, but instead the countries with a more balanced set of social and institutional supports for better lives.

While convergence to local happiness levels is quite rapid, it is not complete, as there is a ‘footprint’ effect based on the happiness in each source country. This effect ranges from 10% to 25%. This footprint effect, explains why immigrant happiness is less than that of the locals in the happiest countries, while being greater in the least happy countries.

A very high proportion of the international differences in immigrant happiness (as shown in Chapter 2), and of the happiness gains for individual migrants (as studied in Chapters 3 and 5) are thus explained by local happiness and source country happiness.

The explanation becomes even more complete when account is taken of international differences in a new Gallup index of migrant acceptance, based on local attitudes towards immigrants, as detailed in an Annex to the Report.

A higher value for migrant acceptance is linked to greater happiness for both immigrants and the native-born, by almost equal amounts.

The report studies rural-urban migration as well, principally through the recent Chinese experience, which has been called the greatest mass migration in history. That migration shows some of the same convergence characteristics of the international experience, with the happiness of city-bound migrants moving towards, but still falling below urban averages.

The importance of social factors in the happiness of all populations, whether migrant or not, is emphasized in Chapter 6, where the happiness bulge in Latin America is found to depend on the greater warmth of family and other social relationships there, and to the greater importance that people there attach to these relationships.

The Report ends on a different tack, with a focus on three emerging health problems that threaten happiness: obesity, the opioid crisis, and depression. Although set in a global context, most of the evidence and discussion are focused on the United States, where the prevalence of all three problems has been growing faster and further than in most other countries.

Edited by John F. Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey D. Sachs This publication may be reproduced using the following reference: Helliwell, J., Layard, R., & Sachs, J. (2018). World Happiness Report 2018, New York: Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Chapter 1

Happiness and Migration: An Overview

Increasingly, with globalisation, the people of the world are on the move; and most of these migrants are seeking a happier life. But do they achieve it? That is the central issue considered in this 2018 World Happiness Report. But what if they do? The migrants are not the only people affected by their decision to move. Two other major groups of people are affected by migration: • those left behind in the area of origin, and • those already living in the area of destination.

This chapter assesses the happiness consequences of migration for all three groups. We shall do this separately, first for rural-urban migration within countries, and then for international migration.

Rural-Urban Migration

Rural-urban migration within countries has been far larger than international migration, and remains so, especially in the developing world. There has been, since the Neolithic agricultural revolution, a net movement of people from the countryside to the towns. In bad times this trend gets partially reversed. But in modern times it has hugely accelerated.

The timing has differed in the various parts of the world, with the biggest movements linked to boosts in agricultural productivity combined with opportunities for employment elsewhere, most frequently in an urban setting. It has been a major engine of economic growth, transferring people from lower productivity agriculture to higher productivity activities in towns.

In some industrial countries this process has gone on for two hundred years, and in recent times rural-urban migration within countries has been slowing down. But elsewhere, in poorer countries like China, the recent transformation from rural to urban living has been dramatic enough to be called “the greatest mass migration in human history”. Over the years 1990-2015 the Chinese urban population has grown by 463 million, of whom roughly half are migrants from villages to towns and cities. By contrast, over the same period the increase in the number of international migrants in the entire world has been 90 million, less than half as many as rural to urban migrants in China alone.

Thus internal migration is an order of magnitude larger than international migration. But it has received less attention from students of wellbeing, even though both types of migration raise similar issues for the migrants, for those left behind, and for the populations receiving the migrants.

The shift to the towns is most easily seen by looking at the growth of urban population in developing countries (see Table 1.1). Between 1990 and 2015 the fraction of people in these countries who live in towns rose from 30% to nearly 50%, and the numbers living in towns increased by over 1,500 million people. A part of this came from natural population growth within towns or from villages becoming towns. But at least half of it came from net migration into the towns. In the more developed parts of the world there was also some rural-urban migration, but most of that had already happened before 1990.

International Migration

If rural-urban migration within countries is an age-old phenomenon, large-scale international migration has increased greatly in recent years due to globalisation (see Table 1.2). In 1990 there were in the world 153 million people living outside the country where they were born. By 2015 this number had risen to 244 million, of whom about 10% were refugees. So over the last quarter century international migrants increased by 90 million.

This is a large number, even if dwarfed by the scale of rural-urban migration. In addition, on one estimate there are another 700 million people who would like to move between countries but haven’t yet done so.

Of the increased number of recent migrants over a half comes from migration between continents (see Table 1.3). There were big migrations into North America and Europe, fuelled by emigration from South/Central America, Asia and Africa.

There were also important flows of international migrants within continents (see Table 1.4). In Asia for example there were big flows from the Indian sub-continent to the Gulf States; and in Europe there was the strong westward flow that has followed the end of Communism.

From the point of view of the existing residents an important issue is how many immigrants there are, as a share of the total population. This requires us to look at immigrants as a fraction of the total population. At the world level this has risen by a half in recent years (see Table 1.2).

But in most of the poorer and highly populous countries of the world the proportion of migrants remains quite low. It is in some richer countries that the proportion of immigrants is very high. In Western Europe, most countries have immigrants at between 10 and 15 per cent of the population. The same is true of the USA; while Canada, Australia and New Zealand have between 20 and 30%. The most extreme cases are the UAE and Kuwait, both over 70%.

Figure 1.1 shows the situation worldwide.

The Happiness of International Migrants

As already noted, migration within and between countries has in general shifted people from less to more productive work, and from lower to higher incomes. In many cases the differences have been quite extreme. International migration has also saved many people from extremes of oppression and physical danger, some 10% of all international migrants are refugees, or 25 million people in total.

But what can be said about the happiness of international migrants after they have reached their destination?

Chapter 2 of this report begins with its usual ranking and analysis of the levels and changes in the happiness of all residents, whether locally born or immigrants, based on samples of 1,000 per year, averaged for 2015-2017, for 156 countries surveyed by the Gallup World Poll. The focus is then switched to international migration, separating out immigrants to permit ranking of the average life evaluations of immigrants for the 117 countries having more than 100 foreign-born respondents between 2005 and 2017. (These foreign-born residents may include short-term guest workers, longer term immigrants, and serial migrants who shift their residency more often, at different stages of their upbringing, careers, and later lives).

So what determines the happiness of immigrants living in different countries and coming from different, other countries? Three striking facts emerge:

1. In the typical country, immigrants are about as happy as people born locally. (The difference is under 0.1 point out of 10). This is shown in Figure 1.2. However the figure also shows that in the happiest countries immigrants are significantly less happy than locals, while the reverse is true in the least happy countries. This is because of the second finding.

2. The happiness of each migrant depends not only on the happiness of locals (with a weight of roughly 0.75) but also on the level of happiness in the migrant’s country of origin (with a weight of roughly 0.25). Thus if a migrant goes (like many migrants) from a less happy to a more happy country, the migrant ends up somewhat less happy than the locals. But the reverse is true if a migrant goes from a more to a less happy country.

This explains the pattern shown in Figure 1.2, and is a general (approximate) truth about all bilateral flows. Another way of describing this result is to say that on average a migrant gains in happiness about three-quarters of the difference in average happiness between the country of origin and the destination country.

3. The happiness of immigrants also depends, importantly, on how accepting the locals are towards immigrants. (To measure acceptance local residents were asked whether the following were “good things” or “bad things”: having immigrants in the country, having an immigrant as a neighbour, and having an immigrant marry your close relative).

In a country that was more accepting (by one standard deviation) immigrants were happier by 0.1 points (on a 0 to 10 scale). Thus the analysis in Chapter 2 argues that
migrants gain on average if they move from a less happy to a more happy country (which is the main direction of migration). But that argument was based on a simple comparison of the happiness of migrants with people in the countries they have left.

What if the migrants were different types of people from those left behind? Does this change the conclusion? As Chapter 3 shows, the answer is, No.

In Chapter 3 the happiness of migrants is compared with individuals in their country of origin who are as closely matched to the migrants as possible and are thinking of moving. This again uses the data from the Gallup World Poll. The results from comparing the migrants with their look-a-likes who stayed at home suggests that the average international migrant gained 0.47 points (out of 10) in happiness by migration (as measured by the Cantril ladder). This is a substantial gain. But there is an important caveat: the majority gain, but many lose. For example, in the only controlled experiment that we know of, Tongans applying to migrate to New Zealand were selected on randomised basis. After moving, those who had been selected to move were on average less happy than those who (forcibly) stayed behind.

Migration clearly has its risks. These. include separation from loved ones,. discrimination in the new location, and a feeling of relative deprivation, because you now compare yourselfwith others who are richer than your previous reference group back home.

One obvious question is: Do migrants become happier or less happy the longer they have been in a country? The answer is on average, neither, their happiness remains flat. And in some countries (where this has been studied) there is evidence that second-generation migrants are no happier than their immigrant parents.

One way of explaining these findings (which is developed further in Chapter 4) is in terms of reference groups: When people first move to a happier country their reference group is still largely their country of origin. They experience an immediate gain in happiness. As time passes their objective situation improves (which makes them still happier) but their reference group becomes increasingly the destination country (which makes them less happy). These two effects roughly offset each other. This process continues in the second generation.

The Gallup World Poll excludes many current refugees, since refugee camps are not surveyed. Only in Germany is there sufficient evidence on refugees, and in Germany refugees are 0.4 points less happy than other migrants. But before they moved the refugees were also much less happy than the other migrants were before they moved.

So refugees too are likely to have benefitted from migration. Thus average international migration benefits the majority of migrants, but not all. Does the same finding hold for the vast of the army of people who have moved from the country to the towns within less developed countries?

The Happiness of Rural-Urban Migrants

The fullest evidence on this comes from China and is presented in Chapter 4. That chapter compares the happiness of three groups of people:

• rural dwellers, who remain in the country,

• rural-urban migrants, now living in towns, and

• urban dwellers, who always lived in towns.

Migrants have roughly doubled their work income by moving from the countryside, but they are less happy than the people still living in rural areas. Chapter 4 therefore goes on to consider possible reasons for this.

Could it be that many of the migrants suffer because of the remittances they send home? The evidence says No. Could it be that the people who migrate were intrinsically less happy? The evidence says No. Could it be that urban life is more insecure than life in the countryside, and involves fewer friends and more discrimination? Perhaps.

The biggest factor affecting the happiness of migrants is a change of reference group: the happiness equation for migrants is similar to that of urban dwellers, and different from that of rural dwellers. This could explain why migrants say they are happier as a result of moving, they would no longer appreciate the simple pleasures of rural life.

Human psychology is complicated, and behavioural economics has now documented hundreds of ways in which people mispredict the impact of decisions upon their happiness. It does not follow that we should over-regulate their lives, which would also cause unhappiness. It does follow that we should protect people after they make their decisions, by ensuring that they can make positive social connections in their new communities (hence avoiding or reducing discrimination), and that they are helped to fulfil the dreams that led them to move in the first place.

It is unfortunate that there are not more studies of rural-urban migration in other countries. In Thailand one study finds an increase in happiness among migrants, while in South Africa one study finds a decrease?

The Happiness of Families Left Behind

In any case the migrants are not the only people who matter. What about the happiness of the families left behind? They frequently receive remittances (altogether some $500 billion in 2015), but they lose the company and direct support of the migrant. For international migrants we are able to examine this question In Chapter 3.

This is done by studying people in the country of origin and examining the effect of having a relative who is living abroad. On average this experience increases both life-satisfactlon and positive affect. But there is also a rise in negative affect (sadness, worry, anger), especially if the migrant is abroad on temporary work. Unfortunately there is no comparable analysis of families left behind by rural-urban migrants who move to towns and cities in the same country.

The Happiness of the Original Residents in the Host Country

The final issue is how the arrival of migrants affects the existing residents in the host country or city. This is one of the most difficult issues in all social science.

One approach is simply to explain happiness in different countries by a whole host of variables including the ratio of immigrants to the locally born population (the “immigrant share”). This is done in Chapter 2 and shows no effect of the immigrant share on the average happiness of the locally born. It does however show that the locally born population (like immigrants) are happier, other things equal, if the country is more accepting of immigrants.

Nevertheless, we know that immigration can create tensions, as shown by its high political salience in many immigrant-receiving countries, especially those on migration trails from unhappy source countries to hoped-for havens in the north.

Several factors contribute to explaining whether migration is welcomed by the local populations.

First, scale is important. Moderate levels of immigration cause fewer problems than rapid surges,

Second, the impact of unskilled immigration falls mainly on unskilled people in the host country, though the impact on public services is often exaggerated and the positive contribution of immigrants is often underestimated.

Third, the degree of social distress caused to the existing residents depends importantly on their own frame of mind, a more open-minded attitude is better both for immigrants and for the original residents.

Fourth, the attitude of immigrants is also important if they are to find and accept opportunities to connect with the local populations, this is better for everyone. Even if such integration may initially seem difficult, in the long run it has better results, familiarity eventually breeds acceptance, and inter-marriage more than anything blurs the differences.

The importance of attitudes is documented in the Gallup Annex on migrant acceptance, and in Chapter 2, where the migrant acceptance index is shown to increase the happiness of both sectors of the population, immigrants and the locally born.

Chapter 5 completes the set of migration chapters. It seeks to explain why so many people emigrate from Latin American countries, and also to assess the happiness consequences for those who do migrate. In Latin America, as elsewhere, those who plan to emigrate are on average less happy than others. Similar to themselves in income, gender and age. They are also on average wealthier, in other words they are “frustrated achievers”.

But those who do emigrate from Latin American countries also gain less in happiness than emigrants from some other continents. This is because, as shown in chapters 2 and 6, they come from pretty happy countries. Their choice of destination countries is also a less happy mix. This combination lessens their average gains, because of the convergence of immigrant happiness to the general happiness levels in the countries to which they move, as documented in Chapter 2. If immigrants from Latin America are compared to other migrants to the same countries, they do very well in relation both to other immigrants and to the local population. This is shown in Chapter 2 for immigration to Canada and the United Kingdom, countries with large enough happiness surveys to permit comparison of the happiness levels of immigrants from up to 100 different source countries.

Chapter 6 completes the Latin American special package by seeking to explain the happiness bulge in Latin America. Life satisfaction in Latin America is substantially higher than would be predicted based on income, corruption, and other standard variables, includIng having someone to count on. Even more remarkable are the levels of positive affect, with eight of the world‘s top ten countries being found in Latin America.

To explaIn these differences, Chapter 6 convincingly demonstrates the strength of family relationships in Latin America. In a nutshell, the source of the extra Latin American happiness lies in the remarkable warmth and strength of family bonds, coupled with the greater importance that Latin Americans attach to social life in general, and especially to the family. They are more satisfied with their family life and, more than elsewhere, say that one of their main goals is making their parents proud.


In conclusion, there are large gaps in happiness between countries, and these will continue to create major pressures to migrate. Some of those who migrate between countries will benefit and others will lose. In general, those who move to happier countrIes than their own will gain in happiness, while those who move to unhappier countries will tend to lose. Those left behind will not on average lose, although once again there will be gainers and losers. Immigration will continue to pose both opportunities and costs for those who move, for those who remain behind, and for natives of the immigrant-receiving countries.

Where immigrants are welcome and where they integrate well, immigration works best. A more tolerant attitude in the host country will prove best for migrants and for the original residents. But there are clearly limits to the annual flows which can be accommodated without damage to the social fabric that provides the very basis of the country’s attraction to immigrants.

One obvious solution, which has no upper limit, is to raise the happiness of people in the sending countries, perhaps by the traditional means of foreign aid, and better access to rich-country markets, but more importantly by helping them to grow their own levels of trust, and institutions of the sort that make possible better lives in the happier countries.

Download the full report, Pdf

World Happiness Report

The refugee crisis isn’t about refugees. It’s about us – Ai Weiwei.

I was a child refugee, writes the Chinese artist and activist. I know how it feels to live in a camp, robbed of my humanity. Refugees must be seen to be an essential part of our shared humanity.

I was born in 1957, the same year China purged more than 300,000 intellectuals, including writers, teachers, journalists and whoever dared to criticise the newly established communist government. As part of a series of campaigns led by what was known as the anti-rightist movement, these intellectuals were sent to labour camps for “re-education”.

Because my father, Ai Qing, was the most renowned poet in China then, the government made a symbolic example of him. In 1958, my family was forced from our home in Beijing and banished to the most remote area of the country – we had no idea that this was the beginning of a very dark, long journey that would last for two decades.

In the years that followed, my father was sentenced to hard labour cleaning latrines in a work camp in north-west China. He was also forced to criticise himself publicly.

From my youth, I experienced inhumane treatment from society. At the camp we had to live in an underground dugout and were subjected to unexplainable hatred, discrimination, unprovoked insults and assaults, all of which aimed to crush the basic human spirit rooted in my father’s beliefs. As a result, I remember experiencing what felt like endless injustice. In such circumstances, there is no place to hide and there is no way to escape. You feel like your life is up against a wall, or that life itself is a dimming light, on the verge of being completely extinguished. Coping with the humiliation and suffering became the only way to survive.

I share this personal background because it sheds light on my emotional connection to the current global refugee condition, which I documented in the film Human Flow. My experience clarifies why I identify so deeply with all these unfortunate people who are pushed into extreme conditions by outside forces they are powerless to resist.

During two years of filming, we travelled to 23 nations and 40 refugee camps. Some of the camps are relatively new, coping with those who have fled from the war in Syria. Other camps – such as the Ain al-Hilweh camp in Lebanon – have existed for decades and have now sheltered three generations of refugees.

In the months since the film’s release, some of the areas we covered have deteriorated even further. The Rohingya refugee situation in Myanmar, for example, has erupted in a wave of more than half a million newly displaced people, adding to the already existing 65 million refugees worldwide.

Observing and researching recent and historical refugee events makes some conclusions abundantly clear. Not a single refugee we met had willingly left their home, even when home was impoverished and undeveloped. The promise of economic prosperity is not more important than place. People left their homes because they were forced to by violence which caused the deaths of family members, relatives and fellow citizens. Often it is not just a single house that is destroyed, but entire villages vanish under indiscriminate bombing. There is simply no way for them to stay. Fleeing is the only choice they have to preserve their own lives and the lives of those they love.

A common argument is that many of the people who try to reach the west are economic migrants who wish to take unfair advantage of its prosperity. However, this view ignores the contradiction between today’s physical borders and the real political and economic boundaries of our globalised world. Also implicit is a refusal to acknowledge that through globalisation, certain states, institutions and individuals have greatly profited at the direct expense of those in many parts of the world who are vulnerable and increasingly exploited.

At this moment, the west – which has disproportionately benefited from globalisation – simply refuses to bear its responsibilities, even though the condition of many refugees is a direct result of the greed inherent in a global capitalist system. If we map the 70-plus border walls and fences built between nations in the past three decades – increasing from roughly a dozen after the fall of the Berlin Wall – we can see the extent of global economic and political disparities. The people most negatively affected by these walls are the poorest and most desperate of society.

In nature there are two approaches to dealing with flooding. One is to build a dam to stop the flow. The other is to find the right path to allow the flow to continue. Building a dam does not address the source of the flow – it would need to be built higher and higher, eventually holding back a massive volume. If a powerful flood were to occur, it could wipe out everything in its path. The nature of water is to flow. Human nature too seeks freedom and that human desire is stronger than any natural force.

Can physical borders stop refugees?

Instead of building walls, we should look at what is causing people to become refugees and work to solve those conditions to stem the flow at its source. To do so will require the most powerful nations in the world to adjust how they are actively shaping the world, how they are using political and economic ideology – enforced by overwhelming military power – to disrupt entire societies. How do we think the poor, displaced or occupied can exist when their societies are destroyed? Should they simply disappear? Can we recognise that their continued existence is an essential part of our shared humanity? If we fail to recognise this, how can we speak of “civilised” development?

The refugee crisis is not about refugees, rather, it is about us. Our prioritisation of financial gain over people’s struggle for the necessities of life is the primary cause of much of this crisis. The west has all but abandoned its belief in humanity and support for the precious ideals contained in declarations on universal human rights. It has sacrificed these ideals for short-sighted cowardice and greed.

Establishing the understanding that we all belong to one humanity is the most essential step for how we might continue to coexist on this sphere we call Earth. I know what it feels like to be a refugee and to experience the dehumanisation that comes with displacement from home and country. There are many borders to dismantle, but the most important are the ones within our own hearts and minds – these are the borders that are dividing humanity from itself.

• Ai Weiwei is a contemporary artist, activist and advocate of political reform in China

The Guardian

Migration can benefit the world. This is how we at the UN plan to help – António Guterres. 

The global compact on migration aims to change a source of abuse and conflict into a driver of prosperity. Now what’s needed is the support of governments.

Managing migration is one of the most profound challenges for international cooperation in our time. Migration powers economic growth, reduces inequalities and connects diverse societies. Yet it is also a source of political tension and human tragedies. The majority of migrants live and work legally. But a desperate minority are putting their lives at risk to enter countries where they face suspicion and abuse.
Demographic pressures and the impact of climate change on vulnerable societies are likely to drive further migration in the years ahead. As a global community, we face a choice. Do we want migration to be a source of prosperity and international solidarity, or a byword for inhumanity and social friction?

This year, governments will negotiate a global compact on migration through the United Nations. This will be the first overarching international agreement of its kind. 

It will not be a formal treaty. Nor will it place any binding obligations on states. Instead, it is an unprecedented opportunity for leaders to counter the pernicious myths surrounding migrants, and lay out a common vision of how to make migration work for all our nations.

This is an urgent task. We have seen what happens when large-scale migration takes place without effective mechanisms to manage it. The world was shocked by recent video of migrants being sold as slaves.

Grim as these images were, the real scandal is that thousands of migrants suffer the same fate each year, unrecorded. Many more are trapped in demeaning, precarious jobs that border on slavery anyway. There are nearly six million migrants trapped in forced labour today, often in developed economies.

How can we end these injustices and prevent them recurring in future? 

In setting a clear political direction about the future of migration, I believe that three fundamental considerations should guide discussions of the compact.

The first is to recognise and reinforce the benefits of migration, so often lost in public debate. Migrants make huge contributions to both their host countries and countries of origin.

They take jobs that local workforces cannot fill, boosting economic activity. Many are innovators and entrepreneurs. Nearly half of all migrants are women, looking for better lives and work opportunities.

Migrants also make a major contribution to international development by sending remittances to their home countries. Remittances added up to nearly $600bn ($445bn) last year, three times all development aid. 

The fundamental challenge is to maximise the benefits of this orderly, productive form of migration while stamping out the abuses and prejudice that make life hell for a minority of migrants.

Second, states need to strengthen the rule of law underpinning how they manage and protect migrants – for the benefit of their economies, their societies and the migrants themselves. Authorities that erect major obstacles to migration – or place severe restrictions on migrants’ work opportunities – inflict needless economic self-harm, as they impose barriers to having their labour needs met in an orderly, legal fashion.

Worse still, they unintentionally encourage illegal migration. Aspiring migrants, denied legal pathways to travel, inevitably fall back on irregular methods. This not only puts them in vulnerable positions, but also undermines governments’ authority. The best way to end the stigma of illegality and abuse around migrants is, in fact, for governments to put in place more legal pathways for migration, removing the incentives for individuals to break the rules, while better meeting the needs of their labour markets for foreign labour.

States also need to work together more closely to share the benefits of migration, for example through partnering to identify significant skills gaps in one country that migrants from another are qualified to fill.

Third and finally, we need greater international cooperation to protect vulnerable migrants, as well as refugees, and we must reestablish the integrity of the refugee protection regime in line with international law. 

The fate of the thousands who die in doomed efforts to cross seas and deserts is not just a human tragedy. It also represents the most acute policy failure: unregulated, mass movements in desperate circumstances fuel a sense that borders are under threat and governments not in control. In turn this leads to draconian border controls that undermine our collective values and help perpetuate the tragedies we have too often seen unfold in recent years.

We must fulfil our basic obligations to safeguard the lives and human rights of those migrants that the existing system has failed. We must take urgent action to assist those now trapped in transit camps, or at risk of slavery, or facing situations of acute violence, whether in North Africa or Central America. We have to envisage ambitious international action to resettle those with nowhere to go.

We should also take steps – through development aid, climate mitigation efforts and conflict prevention – to avoid such unregulated large movements of people in future. Migration should not mean suffering.

We must aim for a world in which we can celebrate migration’s contributions to prosperity, development and international unity. It is in our collective power to achieve this goal. This year’s global compact can be a milestone on the road to making migration truly work for all.


António Guterres is secretary general of the United Nations. 

The Guardian 

A Short History of Migration – Massimo Livi-Bacci.

Waves of Progress and Gradual Migration

Territorial movement is a human prerogative and an integral part of human capital; it is one of many ways that the human species has sought to improve its living conditions.

It is an innate quality that has assured the survival of hunter-gatherers, the expansion of the species across the continents, the spread of agriculture, the settlement of open spaces, world integration, and the first globalization of the nineteenth century.

We can also describe this prerogative as a form of adaptability or fitness. This fitness – an intertwining of biological, psychological, and cultural characteristics – has not been constant over historical epochs or even during specific migrations.

For example, the settlement of open spaces required individuals inclined to form solid families tied to traditional values, individuals who would have many children and work hard, providing the fuel for further expansion.

The migration of the last two centuries has instead been different: often directed to urban areas and engaged in trade and industrial work, it has favored single and culturally flexible individuals who instead created relatively small families.

The birth of political nations or states and the drawing up of national borders converted migrations into international movements and so spawned migration policies, namely, the intervention by governments (or powerful lords or other institutions) to direct, plan, and encourage migrations.

These policies reduced to a greater or lesser extent the free choice of migrants. They were based on the presumption that under current circumstances higher powers could judge the fitness of migrants better than the migrants themselves. In some cases, attempts were made to increase that fitness, supplying resources, knowledge, or other advantages. Results varied and might be successful or catastrophic.

In the modern era, even before the Industrial Revolution, movement became easier – resources increased, technology improved, infrastructures were consolidated – as internal and international migration systems developed. Navigation of the oceans tied together Eurasia, Africa, and the Americas.

Starting in 1500, Europe became a net exporter of human capital, following millennia during which it had been a target for immigration and invasion. Meanwhile, the ability and inclination of states to interfere in individual choices regarding migration increased.

Migration accelerated, reaching truly massive proportions in the nineteenth century. The slow pace of agricultural migration gave way to faster and more intense migration flows that had profound effects on both the sending and receiving countries.

The past century, instead, from World War I to the present day, has been characterized by irregular progress, contradictory policies, the shock of two world wars, the temporary separation of Eastern and Western Europe, the inversion of the migration cycle – Europe has once again become an importer of human capital – and the profound impact of the so-called demographic transition (declining mortality and fertility). In recent decades, immigration policies have grown progressively more restrictive and more selective as immigration pressure has increased, a function of both demographic and economic differences between North and South.

The prerogative of migrants has been weakened. Migration is seen as a price to be paid for demographic decline, as a remedy for labor-market bottlenecks, as an emergency in need of resolution, as a looming threat. Migrants are more and more viewed simply as labor rather than as an integral part of the societies they join.

Never before has the conflict of interests between sending countries, receiving countries, and the migrants themselves been more evident. Much has been done to increase and regulate economic trade; nothing has been done to govern migration. When it comes to migration, states hold tenaciously to the concept of national sovereignty, refusing to cede even a bit of authority to super-national bodies.

And yet some sort of global governance and cooperation is sorely needed if those competing interests are to be reconciled, and if we want to restore to migration that positive role it has always played in human development.

Migration is a human prerogative and so a normal constitutive element of any society.


Waves of Progress and Gradual Migration

Man has spread widely over the face of the earth, and must have been exposed, during his incessant migration, to the most diversified conditions. The inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, the Cape of Good Hope, and Tasmania in the one hemisphere, and of the arctic regions in the other, must have passed through many climates, and changed their habits many times, before they reached their present homes. – Charles Darwin

Humanity originated in equatorial Africa; and its methods of survival, ways of life, and habits had to continually evolve in order to make settlement possible in those more extreme corners of the two hemispheres.

Darwin’s passage, two centuries after his birth, reminds us of the role migration has played – from the origins of humanity up to the present day – in the geographic distribution of the human race, the growth of population, and the ever-changing circumstances of life.

Migration has been a key element of social and biological evolution. Nonetheless, in the twenty-first century, the great migrations are frequently viewed not as a primary driving force of social change, but instead as an anarchic social force, a mismatched tile that cannot find its place in the larger mosaic, interference that disturbs the regular course of everyday life.

Two complementary forces contributed to the gradual occupation of the earth by humans: the ability to reproduce and grow demographically, and the ability to move, that is, to migrate. We do not fully understand how these forces operated: whether smoothly over time or in periodic jumps; when they sped up and when they slowed down. We do know that they contributed to the ability of humans to adapt to changing environmental circumstances, both in nature and climate.

Moreover, they were accompanied by complex selection mechanisms so that the characteristics of those who moved on were not identical to those of the others who stayed behind. Rather than become embroiled in a field outside our own expertise, however – and one in which scientific controversy continues to rage – we shall limit ourselves to the fairly straightforward conclusion that migration is an innately human characteristic, and that it has promoted the diffusion, consolidation, and growth of the human species.

Modern human beings spread across the globe from Africa into Western Asia and Europe and then into Eastern Asia, finally reaching the Americas and Australia in the final stages of expansion. That expansion was achieved by moving into areas previously uninhabited, or else occupied by humans with less developed abilities (such as the Neanderthals in Europe).

The first Siberian hunters to venture towards the East and traverse the land bridge which emerged between Asia and America during the last Ice Age, some 20,000 or more years ago, were the forerunners of a long and slow march from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. According to some scholars, occupation of the entire American continent, from the far-flung Northern regions to the most distant Southern lands, occurred in a relatively short span of time, perhaps in just a few thousand years.

We can speak with more assurance about the Neolithic Revolution and the emergence of agriculture in the Near East and Europe. It was a process that began 9,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent and continued until about 5,000 years ago, when farming reached the British Isles.

There are two theories that seek to explain this process, though neither is mutually exclusive and a synthesis of the two is certainly possible.

The first theory attributes the spread of agriculture to a process of cultural diffusion. In this case, ideas, practices, and techniques spread across territory.

The other theory, that of “demic diffusion,” holds that it was not the ideas and practices that spread but the farmers and cultivators themselves, migrants sustained by robust demographic growth.

The combination of demographic growth and migration would have set in motion a slow but continuous “wave of progress.”

Archaeological dating of European sites where populations developed a sedentary, grain-based system of agriculture is consistent with this theory.

The populating of the European continent appears to have occurred along a South–East to North–West axis – from the Eastern Mediterranean to the British isles – which brought with it the cultivation of new lands and the settlement of new villages. It was a slow wave of progress fueled by demographic growth and the availability of unsettled lands; it advanced at a rate of roughly 1 kilometer per year.

This expansion resembled that of the Bantu people who, in migrating from their point of origin along the border of Cameroon and Nigeria, gradually occupied central and southern Africa over the course of three millennia and cultivated a swath of land running from north to south for a distance of 5,000 kilometers.

These prehistoric migrations – both the more rapid movement of hunter-gatherers and the slower spread of agriculture – occurred in unoccupied or very sparsely populated areas. The migrants rarely if ever came in contact with other human inhabitants and were not forced to compete for resources.

Over the past 2,000 years, instances of this sort of unopposed expansion have become rarer and rarer. As areas became more densely settled, migrants had to interact and coexist with local populations, possibly imposing their own lifestyle or else adopting the one they encountered as a function of force and circumstance.

The process of migration can generate conflicts, confrontations, intermingling, and amalgamation – of a cultural, social, and bio-demographic nature. Naturally, all this occurs over a very drawn-out period of time. At the beginning of the Common Era (0 CE), geographic Europe – the land that lies between the Atlantic and the Urals, the North Sea and the Mediterranean – counted perhaps 30 or 40 million inhabitants, with roughly one-twentieth of its current density and many empty or sparsely populated regions, regions that by the eve of the Industrial Revolution were far less extensive.

Many of the migratory movements that characterized Europe in the first millennium of the modern era were movements of invasion and settlement, like the spread of the Germanic peoples following the fall of the Roman Empire. These were intrusions by groups that were small relative to native populations and driven by ambitions of conquest. Overall, they would have comprised only a few percentage points of the native populations.

Over this past millennium, European migratory currents have continued to be active: for example, the intense migration towards the East that not even the demographic depression caused by the pandemic of the fourteenth century could stop completely, and that indeed continued until the nineteenth century. It was a process of gradual settlement by the Germanic peoples in lands that had been occupied by Slavs over the previous millennium.

In addition to this major migration, there were also many other minor movements: that from north to south following the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula, or the northward movements of the Scandinavian people, or the southward path taken by Russian migrants in search of a more stable frontier.

In the Reconquista, the new territories were large while the population of the conquering Christian kingdoms was small, and their settlement in those regions was not a function of land hunger but instead responded to military and political considerations.

New settlements were not always stable and were often established at the expense of older communities. It was a case of too much land for too few people, who moreover were often poorly equipped and organized.

At the other end of the continent, instead, the Scandinavian people not only expanded inward toward the heart of the European continent, but also toward areas that were less hospitable and climatically challenging. In the ninth century, the Norwegians, united under Harald Fairhair, occupied Iceland: an extraordinary document, the Landnámabók, dated at around 930, describes a settlement of 30–50,000 people. They also settled in the Shetland and Orkney Islands and later established an unstable colony in Greenland.

In addition to these courageous episodes, the establishment of agriculture is documented in the Baltic Islands, in Scania, and in the central lowlands of Sweden. The great Germanic eastward migration that began in the ninth century and ended due to the crisis of the fourteenth century is a telling case. We pause to consider the events and movements of this period because they provide a model rendered impossible in our crowded modern world. Put simply, the process developed in three directions: southward, following the natural course of the Danube toward the plains of Hungary; laterally, into the open lands of the Low Countries, Thuringia, Saxony, and Silesia, north of the central Bohemian uplands; and northward, skirting the marshlands and German forests that rendered settlement and migration difficult, and so following the Baltic coast and leading to the gradual foundation of cities such as Rostock and Konigsberg.

The Slavic settlements then were pushed to the east and heavily encroached upon from the Germanic lands of Austria in the south, Silesia in the center, and Pomerania and Prussia in the north. Beyond these relatively compact areas (which still maintained, to varying degrees, an ethnically Slavic presence), migratory penetration did not come to a halt, but instead became fragmented, branching into the Baltic provinces, Volhynia, the Ukraine, Transylvania, Hungary, and points further east.

Though this process of settlement was, as we shall see, similar to the spontaneous wave of migration that had populated the European continent a few thousand years before, it had one key difference. It was, in fact, a deliberate and intentional process led and organized by a true migration policy.

The colonization process was led by princes, like the Margrave of Meissen, bishops, and, later, the Knights of the Teutonic Order, all of whom invested significant resources. The eleventh and twelfth centuries saw the establishment of colonies beyond the border marked by the Elbe and Saale Rivers, eastern frontier of the Carolingian Empire and so the boundary of Germanic settlement.

The twelfth century saw the colonization of Holstein, Mecklenburg, and Brandenburg, and, in the thirteenth, migration spread to Eastern Brandenburg, Pomerania, Silesia, and northern Moravia, beyond the Oder line. The settling of Prussia beyond the Vistula reached its apex in the fourteenth century.

Though the Germanic expansion did not penetrate Bohemia, inner Pomerania, or Lusatia, the process of eastward expansion continued, despite the setbacks caused by the long demographic crisis of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The pace of colonization can be measured by the growth of new cities and peaked around 1300. The great eastward migration, the Drang nach Osten, was the major wave of medieval migration, but not the only one.

Under the influence of constant movement, the European continent took on a fairly stable structure, one that survived the rapid depopulation caused by plague cycles which left many abandoned villages in their wake. A stable and reliable network of houses, villages, castles, and cities came to occupy much of the European continent.

The medieval migration described here raises a number of questions relevant to our discussion. The first concerns the dimensions of this migratory phenomenon, though most of the evidence is conjectural. Study of the available documentary evidence – censuses, registers, town charters, etc. – suggests that the great twelfth-century migration from the German territories into the land between the Elbe and the Oder Rivers consisted of around 200,000 people.

The following century saw a migration of similar dimensions, leading to the colonization of lands reaching as far as Pomerania and Silesia. Documentary evidence indicates that between the years 1200 and 1360, around 1,200 villages were founded in Silesia and another 1,400 in Eastern Prussia, for a grand total of 60,000 farms and potentially around 300,000 people.

These numbers are relatively small, though they need to be compared to a German population of origin of modest dimensions, just a few million people (around 6 million in the thirteenth century). Even supposing that these estimates are low and that the population flow might have been two or three times greater, we still arrive at very modest rates of migration, no more than one per thousand per annum.

Nonetheless, this relatively modest flow had an important “foundation” effect – a few progenitors with many descendants – if we consider that the number of Germanic people living east of the Elbe–Saale line at the end of the nineteenth century was almost 30 million.

At this point we should address some important questions. First: were these eastward movements caused, as is often postulated, by land hunger resulting from the increased density of cultivated areas in the zones of departure, and so from rapid demographic growth?

There are various reasons to question this traditional interpretation: population density was indeed low in the zone of departure, especially at the beginning of the migration; the wave of emigration was relatively small as compared to the vigorous natural growth of the period; and there remained sparsely occupied areas close to home. Instead, this wave of migration seems to have owed more to the high level of technology and organization of the emigrating population and the correspondingly less developed state of the native Slavic population (the Wends) in the zone of immigration. Moreover, the settled lands presented extremely favorable conditions to farmers and the distances were fairly short.

The German immigrants had plows, axes, and tools that allowed them to deforest and cultivate difficult land. The Slavs hunted and fished and practiced an itinerant agriculture that entailed the abandonment of fields once their fertility was exhausted.

The circumstances and characteristics of the migration, organized and planned by the clergy and nobility, by the chivalric Orders (Templar and Teutonic knights), and by the great religious orders (Cistercians, Premonstratensians) are as follows.

First, the leaders were able to pick and choose specific lands – uncultivated ones in this case – to measure, divide, and monitor the availability of water and risk of flooding. They also had capital to invest, necessary to sustain the emigrants on their journey, keep them fed until the harvest, and provide them with seeds, tools, and fundamental resources. The organization of the migration required middlemen to administer relations between the founding lords and the peasants, and so there emerged the figure of the migration agent who displayed all the characteristics of an entrepreneur.

This capacity to organize and distribute resources entailed assignment to the average family of a farm (hufe) of roughly 20 hectares (either the small 17 hectare Flemish farm or the larger 24 hectare Frankish one) and the establishment of villages of 200–300 people (isolated houses were the exception). Moreover, the land was free from feudal bonds far into the future and could be bequeathed, sold, or abandoned.

These favorable conditions, and the need to actively recruit participants, suggests that the supply of available land exceeded the demand: The great extension of the movement is only explained by the fact that colonists bred colonists; for all over the world new settlers have big families.

Migration from Old Germany in many cases slackened early. Conditions of tenure in the colonized areas also encouraged this colonization by colonists’ families. Law or custom favoured the undivided inheritance of peasant holdings; so there were many younger sons without land.

If we follow this theory, the idea of a population driven to leave its homeland solely because of the pressure of strong demographic growth (growth that did indeed exist) begins to lose ground. Rather, this process of migration appears to be self-generating, encouraged by the abundance of available land and the technological and organizational superiority of the colonists, as compared to the sparsely settled, agriculturally less developed native population.

The opportunity to exchange a small farm in one’s native land for a couple of dozen hectares must have been attractive. The favorable conditions encountered by the first migrants in turn provoked strong demographic growth, and so triggered successive waves of migration.

In this way, the process of colonization did not require large-scale movements across long distances, but instead depended on a steady, continuous march led by generations of the offspring of colonists. We can then describe the Drang nach Osten as a slow wave of progress – almost 1,000 kilometers West to East in three centuries – conceptually analogous to the spread of agriculture from the Middle East to the British Isles several millennia before.

However, the latter migration differed in the way it was planned and organized, and also in that the territories that were occupied in the process of migration were not deserted, but populated by semi-nomadic Slavs.

Finally, the economy, technology, culture, and society were profoundly different. We can find characteristics similar to this wave of progress even during the peak of the Industrial Revolution: for example, in the gradual colonization of the American continent that progressed during the nineteenth century across the Mississippi River and westward to the Pacific Ocean.

The shift of the “frontier” toward the west occurred for numerous reasons: political (the acquisition of new territories such as Louisiana, Texas, and California), legislative (the Homestead Act of 1862 which bestowed free land on colonists willing to improve it), technological (the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad), and the chance of personal gain (placer deposits of gold were discovered in California in 1849).

It was a migration begun by fur trappers, miners, and ranchers, but whose driving force was made up of pioneering farmers. They were sustained by forces similar to those that sustained waves of migration in the past: the occupation of unoccupied or sparsely occupied territories by groups of prolific, agrarian families who, in turn, contributed to subsequent migrations.

One well-received theory attributes the ample dimension and high rates of childbirth among the families of farmers and landowners in the nineteenth century to the greater availability of land and the low cost of providing for their children. The frontier did not grow thanks to an influx of new migrants from the east – the costs of travel, acquiring and preparing land, buying tools and materials, and building a home were too high for the common worker – but thanks to the reproductive capacity of the already settled families.

This world, however, was a very different one from those we have considered above, and the wave of settlement was fed by migration from Europe and by industrialization, forces that rapidly destroyed the pre-existing economic order.

At just about the same time, the settling of Asiatic Russia was under way, led by a wave of peasant families crossing the Urals and consisting of 4.5 million people, more than 1 million of whom were political prisoners. It took place between the liberation of the serfs in 1861 and World War I.

In this case, too, we can detect traces of a wave of progress that pushed the frontier eastward, crossing the Urals, occupying Siberia and the steppes, and moving onward to the most distant eastern shores of Asia. It was pushed along by the availability of land and a high level of natural increase.

We refer, though, only to “traces,” as Czarist policies that sought to control and organize population movement heavily influenced the migration that was also responding to natural forces. Similarly, the wave paradigm appears to fit the populating of Manchuria following the Manchu dynasty’s conquest of China. Chinese immigration into these vast open territories, initially forbidden and then permitted, greatly intensified during the nineteenth century and counteracted the increasing pressure of Russian migration into the regions of the Usuri and Amur Rivers. The population, estimated at little more than a million in 1787, tripled by 1850 and increased sixfold between 1850 and 1904 as a result of immigration pressure from densely populated and impoverished northern China.

The majority of these immigrants were peasants who produced wheat, millet, corn, and soybeans. They fed a flow of migration that reached flood stage in the 1920s with completion of the Peking–Mukden railroad.


A short history of migration.

by Massimo Livi-Bacci

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