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What is the difference between forced and voluntary migration?

As we have already discussed, people who flee persecution and violence in their own country are considered asylum seekers while people who decide to move to another country in order to seek employment and better life opportunities are considered migrants.

Migrants can of course be legal, moving through relevant legal channels with the appropriate documentation, or they may be irregular, moving across borders without appropriate authorisation or entering, for instance, a country as a tourist or temporary visitor and then engaging in employment and overstaying their visa.

It is generally assumed that asylum seekers are forced to move while migrants chose to do so voluntarily. However, how voluntary is indeed migration? Can we draw a black and white distinction between forced and voluntary migration?

The answer is more complex than what may appear at first sight.

On one hand, migrants are usually people with a strong will who mobilise significant resources in order to prepare their journey and arrival in the country of destination. They save money, they gather information about the trip and the destination and about potential employment there. They speak to friends and family at the destination who will help them upon arrival. They may speak to travel agents, potential employers at destination or middlemen of different sorts. They may try to learn the language of the destination country. In short, migrants clearly make decisions and take up actions in order to prepare for their migration.

However, this does not necessarily mean their migration is voluntary. The reasons for leaving their country of origin may have to do with circumstances that are beyond their control. Migrating is not a decision taken easily, it involves high costs – both material and emotional as well as social – and it is usually undertaken because there exist strong motives that make a person want to go to another country. Thus, people may simply not have work in their country of origin or they may be employed but their income may not be enough for them and their families to survive. They may suffer very harsh living and working conditions. They may also be pressured by their own family to migrate in order to help the other family members (for instance to create a small family business, to help siblings and their families, or to support elderly parents).

In other words, the decision to leave is usually taken under very strong pressure by circumstances beyond the control of the migrant her/himself. Let us now look at three examples in order to discuss the extent to which decisions by migrants are forced or voluntary.

Veronica (all names are fictitious) is a young single mother in Peru. Six months ago her husband has left to go to work in Venezuela but has since not sent back any money. She has two young children aged 2 and 4. She works in a small private company but the money she receives is hardly enough to feed her children. She thus asks help from her mother and siblings to pay for a travel agent that gives her a tourism visa to Spain. Once in Spain she hopes to find work as a live-in maid through the expatriate Peruvian community.

Mehdi is a 40-year-old Albanian. He and his wife have a small shop in a southern Albanian town. However, they hardly are able to make ends meet. They have two children in elementary school and their house is in a very poor condition. They have been longing to change the flooring and improve the insulation and heating. However the money they make from the shop is not enough. Mehdi decides to engage in temporary work in agriculture in Greece. Thus for 4 to 6 months a year he commutes to northern Greece to help with the harvest of different crops. He also occasionally takes up building jobs when these become available. He sends money to his wife and they manage to improve their house and overall living conditions. However, while in Greece Mehdi has to endure very poor conditions: temporary workers sleep in tents or barns, food is insufficient as he tries to save all he can, and sometimes he and his fellow workers are cheated by employers in their daily or weekly pay. He also finds it hard to be away from his family for nearly half of the year. His only consolation is drinking a beer and chatting with fellow nationals on Sundays.

Clara is a young woman in the Philippines. She and her husband had started a small catering business but most of it was destroyed by the latest flood to hit their region. The restaurant was not insured and they have no more savings and hence no money to carry out repair work. They have a young boy aged 4. Her husband has tried to find work in other businesses in the area but the situation is pretty dire for everyone. She went to a government orientation programme. They suggested she migrate to Singapore to work as a domestic worker. She will stay there for two years and with the money that manage to put aside they hope to restart their restaurant. However, it is very hard for her to leave behind her husband and young son as well as the rest of her family and friends. She knows that being a domestic worker in Singapore involves long hours and little rights. She inquires about migrating to the USA but the waiting time is too long and her points are low. She knows another possibility is to go to the Gulf states but she is frightened by the stories she hears about the abuse that domestic workers often suffer there. So she has decided to go to Singapore because she sees this country as relatively familiar and safe.

What do you think: are these cases of voluntary or forced migration?

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This article is from the free online course:

Why Do People Migrate? Facts

European University Institute (EUI)