Migration: A complex phenomena which defies simplification

Climate change, poverty and the nexus of socio-environmental drivers that drive or influence migration has emerged as a challenging issue to a wide group of researchers, policy makers and practitioners. Recognised in Paris and the Sustainable Development Goals alike (SDG 10, which sets out a target for “facilitating orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration and mobility of people including through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies) the issue has made it in where it had not in the MDGs 15 years earlier. However, when we drill deeper into these phenomena it becomes clear that unlike say poverty, social injustice or the disease burden, migration describes a social phenomenon to which it is disputed as to whether it poses a threat or an opportunity to society, or as seems more likely, sits as some complex connective tissue between the two.

What is responsible migration and who is the beneficiary? Within the experience of the DECCMA project, the universal tacit response has been that Migration is generally a bad thing, a port of last call, a sign of decline. However, discussions with communities and local policy makers nuance this picture and mark the requirement for a far more subtle understanding of this multi-stranded process. Whilst It is clear this is a complex process with many different sub-phenomena occurring we perhaps need to ask ourselves whether it might be helpful to explicitly differentiate between types of migration in our common lexicon (as is common in the literature). Could we use the word commute for shorter periods of activity with migration reserved for more extensive periods only? Or introduce a typology of migration with type 1, 2 and 3 where type 1 represents weekly migration and type 3 permanent. The reason this might be suggested is that migration is sometimes handled, particularly by decision makers, as a single phenomenon requiring a single policy response.

Perhaps even more pressing is the need to recognise that there really is no consensus on, if and when different types of migration might be a benefit and to whom. It seems reasonable to say that as a component of livelihood diversification it provides input to the overall resilience of a society, allowing communities to respond to shocks and stresses by offering an alternative income (the classic example being the temporary rickshaw puller dispatched by a family to supplement income), but what of more permanent migratory behaviour? On the one hand this can pick at the fabric of a community with the generation of women headed households where the burden of work and family care falls to women alone and migrators being isolated from family and community. However, it is also apparent that such migratory behaviour underpins elements of developing and emerging economies. Indeed, we might ask ourselves where the West would be if migration to industrial centres had not occurred?

In a development context we often conflate economic growth with a decline in poverty (although the relationship is in fact more complex) but are we then, de facto, really saying cheap labour from the rural areas is often the fuel of competitive industry. A thought inducing example of this that has been recognised in the ESPA Deltas project (www.espadeltas.net) is that salinity ingress to the delta is associated with shrimp production. Plausibly this might be seen as a reasonable adaptation to a climate related phenomena, however the process induces large-scale loss of livelihood which can be associated with migration. This in turn generates cheap labour forces with supressed wages in urban environments. In both cases, GDP will be benefited but the distribution of that wealth is of grave concern. Further to this, it is possible to see that policy perspectives in this area can also be rather simplistic with economic investments designed to retain people in their region of origin potentially mobilising people to move. It is perfectly plausible to see investment in agriculture providing better incomes, which in turn allow for migration, which is a costly business in itself. These subtleties became substantial phenomena when considered across the populations for which migration is a potential option. As such we need to work towards an understanding of this phenomena, before establishing policy strategies.

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