Migration Pulse

Not migrants and immigration, but mobility and movement

Some of the anxiety around immigration is a result of negative discourse and the misrepresentation of movers and movement argue Prof Ibrahim Sirkeci and Jeffrey H. Cohen.
July 17, 2013
Ibrahim Sirkeci and Jeffrey H. Cohen

Ibrahim Sirkeci is Professor of Transnational Studies at Regent's University London and Director of Regent's Centre for Transnational Studies.

Dr. Jeffrey Cohen's is a professor of Anthropology at the Ohio State University. His research focuses on three areas: migration, development and nutrition.

We have been advocating for a change of terminology regarding migration since about 2005. Of course we were not alone in criticising the worn out language of migration scholarship. This is evident now as we see more and more studies and courses using "mobility" rather than migration. Although it is obvious that for a while, both terms will be used simultaneously to avoid confusion. Nevertheless, a change is critical if we are to better capture and understand what migration means in the contemporary world.

The reason for changing how we talk about movement arises from the fact that "migration" suffers from two critical problems. First it has developed into a pejorative term with a range of negative connotations that tend to associate movement with criminal activity and sees most movers as risky, questionable people. Second, and more importantly, migration does not fully capture the dynamic nature of human mobility.

Lets begin with the latter. Migration literature is full of studies referring to the phenomena as a "process". It is a process and often a continuous one, rooted in short commutes and often with no clear end.  Mobility captures this fluidity. People move between places and many do so time and again throughout their lives, crossing local, state and international boundaries as they go.

Movers balance their expectations and hopes, consider highs and lows in their current circumstances and potentials elsewhere. The needs, wants and desires of individuals, their families, households and communities influence decisions and some will achieve their goals by moving elsewhere. There are forces (cultural, ecological, economic, political and religious) that drive mobility and temper outcomes.

Humans when faced with challenges can move. Conflicts, tensions, restrictions, and disagreements all influence and inspire mobility. However, the move from one place to another is never intended solely to add to someone else’s burden; rather movers are careful as they balance needs, demands and opportunities; otherwise the costs of moving are too high.

Finally, although we are often focused on the migrant and mobility, we must remember the majority of people worldwide never move. Only a tiny fraction, that is 3% of people live in a country other than the one in which they were born. The high costs of moving are one source of this very small population.  This point highlights an important aspect of moving: Only those who are able, capable and resourceful move. Mobility is about ability despite the fact that many people face challenges at home and our debate should focus on how best we can enhance the strengths of movers, potential movers and non-movers rather than demagoguery and fear.

Immigrant has been used as a swear word. This is a direct result of immigration defined as a problem in public discourses in media and politics. This is why we need to change the language of speaking about and studying movers and human mobility. Our decades long research provided enough evidence to show the ways in which movers contribute to and enrich the sending, receiving and transit societies in the long run. Social and financial remittances are just one outcome of human mobility which contributed to human development around the world.

Mobility and movers are what we need to celebrate. These are talented, skillful, and resourceful people who are courageous and stubborn and increasingly persistent at the face of tightening migration rules and toughening borders around the world. There is hardly any burden to us. Immigrants have built countries, nations, and opened new horizons in science, art and politics. Lets enjoy the ride.

Note: The opinions noted here do reflect neither The Ohio State University nor Regent’s University London and any of their employees.


"the majority of people worldwide never move. Only a tiny fraction, that is 3% of people live in a country other than the one in which they were born" So you mean that the majority of people never move (to settle) beyond national borders.
This doesn't mean that people never move. It would be good to know how many people live in the same neighbourhood where they were born. Probably very few people, as becoming an adult normally entails mobility.

I agree with the fact that migrants contribute to socio-economic development of the destination and origin countries. However, it cannot be proven that only 3% of people live outside their country of birth. It is a fact that one out of seven people in the world are migrants

3% is only according to the UN definition - i.e. those who moved for 12 months or more, but surely international human mobility is much larger than this. In 2012, over 1 billion cross border trips were made across the world. Internal mobility is about 3 to 4 times bigger than cross border moves. In the longer run, mobility is more common. If we were able to trace, let say the moves of three consecutive generations in all countries, we would probably end up with majority of populations being international movers.