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An introduction to ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors

This article looks at the most elementary approach to explaining international migration: push and pull factors
© European University Institute

The most elementary way of explaining international migration is by identifying ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors.

According to this basic framework, international migration is the result of a combination of reasons that incite or force a person to leave a country of origin (push factors) and reasons that draw a person to a particular destination country (pull factors)

Push factors can include armed conflict, natural disasters, the lack of job opportunities, the possession of economic and cultural capital, a family break up or dissatisfaction with one’s own life and surroundings

Pull factors can often be the polar opposites of the push factors, i.e. greater security, better job opportunities or the prospect of a more exciting life. But some pull factors have no immediate correlation with push factors, for example geographic proximity or the presence of family or community members in the destination country.

Of course, everything would be too easy if migration were simply a question of being pushed and pulled! Migration is far more complex, and so are the social, economic and historical contexts in which this process takes place.

First of all, push and pull factors are never the same for everyone. These can change depending on social class, gender, ethnicity, age, physical ability and so on. The reasons why they change need to be explained as well.

One should also distinguish between the individual and the structural level. At an individual level, push factors include the immediate reasons that compel a person to migrate, such as the loss of a livelihood through redundancy or drought or, contrarily, the possession of capital required to embark on a migration project. Individual push factors may even include subjective aspects of a person’s character; for example, the fact that one has the courage to leave their country of origin.

In contrast, at a structural level, push and pull factors regard, for example, differences in national labour markets, institutional reforms, urban development, and so on. In week 2 we will look more closely at the differences between individual and structural reasons.

Push and pull factors between two countries or regions also change considerably over time. The changes that occur are dependent on other factors. Thinking hypothetically, the reasons for a person being attracted to a destination country in 2017 are different to the reasons in 2000 as result of the strengthening of co-national networks that were previously not present and due to a change in government policy that has facilitated migration through employment schemes. In fact, the importance of networks and the role of institutions will be something else that we look at in week 2.

© European University Institute
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