The four biggest misconceptions about migration

The truth behind the scaremongering headlines

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The Independent Online

Hardly anyone in the world chooses to migrate

As of 2013, a mere 3.2 percent of the world’s citizens lived outside their country of birth. Interestingly, even in those regions where a group of states have decided to reciprocally grant free movement rights to their citizens and to opt for open borders, such as is the case in the European Union, the number of people moving remains at that same 3 percent of the total population. Hence, contrary to popular belief, most people (around 97 percent of the world’s population) do not move, even if they are legally allowed to do it, thus confirming migration as a very narrow exception rather than a rule.


Global migration hasn’t gone up, even as transport between countries has become easier

The issue of numbers is fertile ground for misconceptions. Usually, the general population vastly overestimates the figures. For example, in 2013, respondents to a survey in the UK guessed the percentage of migrants living in Britain to be 31% when it was in fact 13%. Despite the fact that moving between states is certainly easier in the modern era, the figures of global migration have remained roughly the same during the last 50 years when taken as a percentage of the world’s entire population.


People don’t move to the countries you think they do

The direction of travel undertaken by those that do move is another common area of misunderstanding. The stories that are told would seem to indicate a mass invasion from global south to global north. However, almost half of international migration is from global south to global south. A significant number also move from global north to global north. It cannot be forgotten that any country in the world has its share of emigrants, including around five million Brits or 7 million Americans. Meanwhile, countries like Spain or Portugal, which were until recently large net recipients of migrants, have suffered net negative migration since 2010 – meaning more people are now leaving than coming in, and their nationals are making their way not only to other EU Countries but also to places like Brazil or Angola. Migration is cyclical, and goes in various directions – it is nowhere near as simple as it may seem on the surface.


Migrants are hardly ever poor and destitute

Similarly, in opposition to certain perceptions, it is not the poorest of the poor who migrate but rather those with access to some form of capital to facilitate the trip, be it financial, social, or cultural. Their stimulus to migrate are varied and much more complex than the desire for a higher income. Migrants are not isolated actors that take decisions in a social vacuum but rather strategic ones acting to improve their lives.

Of course, when a person flees persecution at home as a refugee - such as in the case of Syrians, Eritreans or others arriving now in Europe - the motivations are completely different. The fact that in these cases some government representatives continue to insist on obscure motivations for the movement of these people in need of protection is a clear example of how poisonous debates based on myths may lead to illiberal practices in societies which consider themselves as liberal and based on the rule of law.


Diego Acosta is a Senior Lecturer in European and Migration Law at the University of Bristol. He has recently co-edited a 28 chapters three volumes book entitled Global Migration: Old Assumptions, New Dynamics (Praeger, Santa Barbara, 2015, 791 pp).