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Confronting the Realities of Forced Migration By Stephen Castles Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford

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Confronting the Realities of Forced Migration

By Stephen Castles
Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford

May 1, 2004

Europeans, North Americans, or Australians who rely on the tabloid press might well believe that their countries were under siege by asylum seekers and illegal immigrants. Sensationalist journalists and right-wing politicians map out dire consequences like rocketing crime rates, fundamentalist terrorism, collapsing welfare systems, and mass unemployment. They call for strict border control, detention of asylum seekers, and deportation of illegals. The public appeal of such polemics is obvious: recent right-wing electoral victories in countries as disparate as Denmark, Austria, and Australia can be attributed to fears of mass influxes from the South and East. Some prominent academics ague that the world is in the throes of a "global migration crisis."

But who are the forced migrants whose efforts to escape personal disaster provoke such debate? And can their flight really be said to constitute a worldwide crisis? An examination of migration history, as well as a careful categorization of forced migrants and their motivations, is key to understanding the reality behind the rhetoric and headlines.

New Migrants, Old Fears

The political potency of fears of immigration—often of waves of refugees in particular—is nothing new. Historians recall campaigns against Jewish immigrants in Britain in the 1880s, and the US Nativist movement of the 1920s, which opposed entry of all people not of British or Western European descent. The White Australia policy, designed to keep out Asians, was supported by the labor movement and all political parties up to the 1960s. With the end of the Cold War, migration again became a key issue, with fears of tens of millions of East-West migrants, as well as countless more from the South. Extreme right-wing parties mobilized public opinion, and racist violence escalated throughout Western Europe. States strengthened border controls and tightened up refugee rules.

But the predicted mass influxes from the East never happened. Most migrants to the West were people returning to ancestral homelands: ethnic Germans to Germany, Albanians of Greek origin to Greece, and so on. Other migrants usually came only if they could link up with existing social networks of previous migrants, who helped them find work and housing. Migration stabilized and declined. Today, the UN estimates that 175 million people live outside their countries of birth. Even allowing for under-counting—especially of undocumented migrants—only about three percent of the world's population are migrants.

Yet by the beginning of the new millennium, migration was again a hot topic. Britain experienced growing entries of asylum seekers and undocumented workers. Germany adopted measures to turn the descendants of the "guest workers" of the 1960s and 1970s into citizens. Southern European countries became aware of a sharp fall in fertility, while inflows across the Mediterranean from North Africa increased. Both Canadians and Americans were divided about the merits of their relatively open immigration policies.

Is this all a re-run of old themes, or is something new happening? Taken as a whole, it appears something new is afoot: population movements are taking on increased significance in the context of current global social transformations. First, forced migration is growing in volume and importance, as a result of endemic violence and human rights violations. Second, policy makers are attempting to implement differentiated policies for various categories of migrants. Specifically, there is global competition to attract highly skilled migrants, but refugees, unskilled migrants, and their families are unwelcome. Third, there is growing understanding that migration—both economic and forced—is an integral part of processes of global and regional economic integration. Fourth, it has become clear that immigrants do not simply assimilate into receiving societies, but rather tend to form communities and retain their own languages, religions, and cultures. Finally, migration has become highly politicized, and is now a pivotal issue in both national and international politics.

Who Are Today's Forced Migrants?

Forced (or involuntary) migration includes a number of legal or political categories. All involve people who have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere. Popular speech tends to call them all "refugees," but this is actually quite a narrow legal category. The majority of forced migrants flee for reasons not recognized by the international refugee regime, and many of them are displaced within their own country of origin.

According to the 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, a refugee is a person residing outside his or her country of nationality, who is unable or unwilling to return because of a "well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." One hundred and forty-five of the 191 UN member states have signed the 1951 Convention or its 1967 Protocol. Member states undertake to protect refugees and to respect the principle of non-refoulement (i.e., not to return them to a country where they may be persecuted). This may require allowing refugees to enter and granting them temporary or permanent residence status. Officially recognized refugees are often better off than other forced migrants, because they have a clear legal status and enjoy the protection of a powerful institution: the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

The global refugee population grew from 2.4 million in 1975 to 10.5 million in 1985 and 14.9 million in 1990. A peak was reached after the end of the Cold War with 18.2 million in 1993. By early 2003, the global refugee population had declined to 10.4 million, according to UNHCR. The broader category of "people of concern to the UNHCR" (which includes refugees, some internally displaced persons, and some returnees) peaked at 27.4 million in 1995, and was down to 20.6 million in 2003. In addition to the people with whom UNHCR is concerned, the establishment of the state of Israel and the displacement of many Palestinian Arabs led to the world's longest-standing refugee situation, with over four million refugees today. This issue is too complicated to be discussed in detail here.

Refugees came from countries hit by war, violence, and chaos. According to UNHCR figures for 2002, the 10 main places of origin were Afghanistan (with 2.5 million refugees), Burundi (574,000), Sudan (505,000), Angola (433,000), Somalia (429,000), Democratic Republic of Congo (415,000), Iraq (401,000), Bosnia-Herzogovina (372,000), Vietnam (348,000) and Eritrea (316,000).

Table 1 shows the top ten refugee-hosting countries in 2000 according to three different criteria. The first column shows the total refugee population. Pakistan and Iran had by far the largest refugee populations—mainly from Afghanistan. Africa figures prominently in the table, but the United States is also on the list, together with two European countries: Germany and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY). However, to understand the weight of the "refugee burden," it is more useful to relate the refugee population to the overall population in host countries. This is shown in the second column of Table 1, which consists mainly of very poor countries, with the sole exceptions of Yugoslavia and Sweden. Even more instructive is to relate refugee populations to the wealth of the receiving country (third column). This list does not include a single developed country. Refugees are overwhelmingly concentrated in the poorest countries. This puts in perspective the frequent the claims of countries of the North (loosely defined as the developed countries of Europe, North America, and Oceania) that they are unfairly burdened with refugees from the less-developed countries of the South.

Asylum seekers
These are people who move across international borders in search of protection, but whose claims for refugee status have not yet been decided. Annual asylum applications in industrialized countries (principally Western Europe, Australia, Canada, and the United States) rose from only 90,000 in 1983 to over 300,000 by 1988. UNHCR figures show a sharp surge in asylum applications for 36 industrialized countries at the end of the Cold War, with a peak of 892,000 in 1992, followed by a decline to 540,000 in 1995. Almost all of the decline can be explained by changes in refugee law in Germany (438,200 applications in 1992, but only 127,900 in 1995) and Sweden (84,000 in 1992, 9,000 in 1995). Applications for the 36 countries then crept up to a new peak of 615,000 in 2001, followed by a decline to 463,000 in 2003. The UK had relatively few asylum seekers in the early 1990s, with 32,300 in 1992, but numbers increased from the late 1990s, peaking at 103,000 in 2002—making the UK the largest single asylum destination. Following a series of restrictive measures, combined with the effects of political changes in major source countries like Iraq and Afghanistan, asylum applications fell to 61,000 in 2003.

The media and politicians sometimes claim that asylum seekers are not real victims of persecution, but simply economic migrants in disguise. Yet in many conflict situations it is difficult to distinguish between flight because of persecution and departure caused by the destruction of the economic and social infrastructure needed for survival. Asylum seekers live in a drawn-out limbo situation, since determination procedures and appeals may take many years. In some countries, asylum seekers are not allowed to work, and have to subsist on meagre welfare handouts. Up to 90 percent of asylum applications are rejected—yet the majority of asylum seekers stay on (see related article). In many cases, they cannot be deported because the country of origin will not take them back, or because they have no passports. In fact, asylum seekers are a useful source of labor that fuels Western countries' burgeoning informal economies.

Internally displaced persons (IDPs)
IDPs are generally defined by UNHCR as "persons who, as a result of persecution, armed conflict or violence, have been forced to abandon their homes and leave their usual place of residence, and who remain within the borders of their own country." It is estimated that the number of IDPs worldwide rose from 1.2 million in 1982 to over 20 million by 1997. By 2003, global IDP populations were estimated at 25 million in some 52 countries. Over half—13 million—were in Africa. According to the Geneva-based Global IDP Project:






No of Refugees ('000)


Refugees per 1,000 inhabitants


Refugees per US$ 1 million of GDP















FR Yugoslavia






DR Congo








DR Congo


FR Yugoslavia




Central African Republic






DR Congo








DR Congo












Source: UNHCR (2001) Global Report 2000: Achievements and Impact, UNHCR, Geneva, p28

At the end of 2003, Sudan was the country hosting the largest internally displaced population, some 4 million people. The Democratic Republic of Congo (3 million), Colombia (2.9 million), Uganda (1.2 million), Iraq (1.1 million) and Burma (up to one million) are also among the countries with the highest numbers of internally displaced people.

The increase is due to new types of wars that deliberately target civilian populations. Indeed, mass displacement of the population may be a deliberate instrument of warfare, as in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Rwanda, or Myanmar. In countries like Sri Lanka, Angola, and Sudan some people have lived as IDPs—often in great insecurity and poverty—for over 20 years.

IDPs are more numerous than refugees, yet are often without any effective protection or assistance. There is no international legal instrument specifically designed to protect them, although they are covered by general human rights conventions (see related article). Nor is there any international agency like the UNHCR with responsibility for IDPs. The key problem is sovereignty: under international law, IDPs are the responsibility of their own government, since they have not crossed international borders, yet it is often this very government that has persecuted and displaced them.

Development displacees
These are people compelled to move by large-scale development projects, such as dams, airports, roads, and urban housing. The World Bank—which funds many such projects—estimates that they displace an average of 10 million people per year. Growing awareness of the problem in the 1980s led the World Bank to impose conditions on its loans designed to ensure compensation and appropriate resettlement. Millions of development displacees experience permanent impoverishment, and end up in a situation of social and political marginalization. One reason for this is that dams are often built in remote areas inhabited by indigenous people or ethnic minorities. Such groups often practice extensive forms of agriculture, and have deep bonds with their ancestral land. Displacement means losing these ties and being forced to adopt a completely new way of life.

Development displacees constitute another group larger than official refugee populations, for whom there is no protective regime. Many of them end up drifting into urban slums, or becoming part of floating populations, which may spill over into international migration.

Environmental and disaster displacees
This category includes people displaced by environmental change (e.g., desertification, deforestation, land degradation, water pollution, or inundation), by natural disasters (e.g., floods, volcanoes, landslides, or earthquakes), and by man-made disasters (e.g., industrial accidents or radioactivity). A report by environmentalist Norman Myers in 1995 claimed that there were at least 25 million environmental refugees, that the number could double by 2010, and that as many as 200 million people could eventually be at risk of displacement. Refugee experts reject such apocalyptic visions and argue that their main purpose is to shock Western governments into taking action to protect the environment. A study by geographer Richard Black argues that there are no environmental refugees as such. While environmental factors do play a part in forced migration, displacement due to environmental factors is always closely linked to social and ethnic conflict, weak states, and abuse of human rights (see related article). The emphasis on environmental factors is a distraction from central issues of development, inequality, and conflict resolution.

Similarly, it is impossible to distinguish clearly between natural and man-made disasters. A mudslide that buries a Brazilian shantytown may be labeled by the media as a natural disaster, but on closer examination it may be seen to be a result of land speculation, unplanned urban growth, and a lack of government accountability. Thus we cannot clearly define who is an environmental or disaster displacee, nor quantify this category in any meaningful way.

People-trafficking and smuggling
A final form of forced migration is the trafficking of people across international boundaries (see related article). It is important to distinguish between people-trafficking and people-smuggling. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights lawyer Ann Gallagher notes that "Smuggled migrants are moved illegally for profit; they are partners, however unequal, in a commercial transaction ... By contrast, the movement of trafficked persons is based on deception and coercion and is for the purpose of exploitation." Gallagher points out that trafficking profits come not from the movement but from the sale of a trafficked person's sexual services or labor in the destination country; while most smuggled migrants are men, most trafficked persons are women and children.

The trafficking of women and children for the sex industry occurs all over the world. Thai and Japanese gangsters collaborate to entice women into prostitution in Japan by claiming that they will get jobs as waitresses or entertainers. Victims of civil war and forced displacement in former Yugoslavia, Georgia, or Azerbaijan are sold to brothels in Western Europe. Women in war zones are forced into sex-slavery by combatant forces, or sold to international gangs.

It is impossible to quantify the number of people affected by trafficking and smuggling, but both are widespread practices. They are a product of the increasingly restrictive immigration policies of rich countries. The high demand for labor in the North, combined with pressure to emigrate from the South, and strong barriers to mobility, have created business opportunities for a new "migration industry." This includes legal participants, such as travel agents, shipping companies, and banks, as well as illegal operators.

Forced Migration and the Actual "Global Crisis"

Regardless of how the issue of migration is approached, it is misleading to speak of a "crisis" in isolation. Rather, international migration must be viewed as an integral part of relationships between societies. There is currently a crisis in relations between the North and the South, and migration is one facet of this crisis.

Migration as a whole does not present an economic or social crisis for the North. According to UN international migration statistics from 2002, there were 175 million international migrants. Of this 175 million, 32 percent (56 million) live in Europe; 23.4 percent (41 million) in Northern America; and 28.5 percent (50 million) in Asia. On average one in 10 people who live in developed countries is a migrant. One in 70 people who live in developing countries is a migrant. Such numbers are significant, but far lower than many people think, and certainly do not justify media headlines on "mass influxes."

The main reason for the presence of economic migrants is that they are needed to fill jobs in industry and services. Undocumented entry of unskilled workers is seen as a problem, but is actually a result of Northern economic structures and immigration policies. Since there is a high demand for such workers in construction, manufacturing, and services, the result is a burgeoning of undocumented work and the informal sector. Today, there is a growing realization that both demographic and economic factors make immigrant labor a necessity for countries of the North. Recent political initiatives, particularly in Germany and the UK, are opening up a debate on such topics.

In this context, forced migrants do not present major economic and social problems for Northern countries. As pointed out above, the numbers are relatively small. Although entries fluctuate, they are currently lower than in the early 1990s. Most refugees stay in the South, and those that do come cannot be seen as a serious strain for rich Northern countries. Indeed, most refugees enter the labor market, and often provide valuable skills.

Despite these facts, migration is seen as a crisis because it is symbolic of the erosion of nation-state sovereignty in the era of globalization. It is becoming increasingly difficult for states to control their borders, since flows of investment, trade, and intellectual property are inextricably linked with movements of people. Elites generally benefit from transborder flows. It is the groups who feel threatened in their security by economic restructuring and social service cuts that generally oppose migration most vocally. The visible presence of migrants in Northern cities symbolizes wider changes in economy, culture, and society.

Polemics about the "migration crisis" thus seem to have two sources. One is the manipulation of widespread popular fears about globalization to build right-wing parties and movements. This can be seen as a conservative-nationalist form of anti-migration mobilization. The other source is the trend to "securitization" of migration issues, which has gained new momentum in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in the United States. This can be seen as a neo-liberal form of anti-migration mobilization, linked to US polemics against "rogue states" and fundamentalism.

As for the crisis in the South, it has two main aspects. One is the massive increase in forced migration, due to the "new wars" and the widespread abuse of human rights. Even at the height of the so-called "asylum crisis" in the early 1990s, refugee populations in the North were tiny compared with those in some Southern countries. For instance, the ratio of refugees to host populations in 1992 was 1:10 in Malawi, compared with 1:869 in Germany, and 1:3,860 in the UK. In short, the crisis of caring for refugees falls overwhelmingly on the poorer countries of Asia and Africa.

The other aspect of the "crisis," from the Southern perspective, is the blocking of free mobility to the North, which forces would-be migrants to rely on informal networks or people-smugglers in their search for a better life. The highly developed countries of the North have established a "non-entrée regime" based on border policing, visa requirements, carrier sanctions (forcing airlines to bear the costs of returning migrants refused entry), "safe third country" rules, and deterrent measures like detention and denial of the right to work. This regime is designed to keep out migrants from the South, but the experience of the last 10 years has shown that border restrictions alone are not sufficient. Just as Europeans were willing to endure danger and hardship to seek a better future in the New World a century ago, today's poor and oppressed are prepared to take enormous risks to reach the North.

Freedom of migration already virtually exists for middle-class citizens of Northern countries. It can be seen as a normal part of the relationships between societies with similar economic, social, and legal levels. The so-called migration crisis arises because of the vast imbalances between North and South with regard to economic conditions, social well-being, and human rights. Border restrictions, however draconian, will do nothing to eliminate unwanted migration flows, as long as these fundamental disparities persist. And, as they have in the past, forced migrants of every category will form part of those flows.

This article has been adapted from "The International Politics of Forced Migration," published in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (eds) Fighting Identities: Race, Religion and Ethno-Nationalism.The Socialist Register 2002, London: Merlin Press. We thank Merlin Press and the editors for permission to republish the article here. In addition, the author would like to thank Matthew Gibney of the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, and Leo Panich for comments and suggestions on an earlier draft of this essay.


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