Globalisation and the drivers of migration

Anna Triandafyllidou, European University Institute, Florence, Italy

Photo: IOM/Muse Mohammed (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Migration is part and parcel of the dynamics of globalisation, one of its most visible faces, key dimensions, and major driving forces. Albeit the era of globalisation is marked by the contradiction between the increasingly unhindered mobility of capital and goods, but also information, ideas and resources, on the one hand, and the increasingly restricted mobility of people. Migration may challenge borders but remains regulated by them. In the words of the Canadian political theorist Catherine Dauvergne

“as nations have seen their powers to control the flows of money or ideas… slip away, they seek to assert themselves as nations through migration controls and policies which … exemplify their sovereign control and capacity”[1].

Nation states remain important however not only for border management but also as main welfare providers. As the labour market becomes more dynamic but also more volatile, people turn to the national welfare state looking for a safety net to support them during their life transition phases (from school to work, from single to family, when changing jobs, when having to retrain and also when retiring). Thus, while globalisation creates global supply chains and unleashes the potential of international trade and mobility, at the same time it also gives the nation state a very important pivotal role as a provider of security. Indeed, the nation remains a main source of existential security as globalisation and international migration make societies increasingly culturally diverse.

It is within this context of increased interdependence and searching for security — but also for opportunity — that international migration happens. Unequal levels of development around the world motivate migration because they give people both material and social resources to search for a better future outside their country of birth, while also making the same people aware of greener pastures abroad.

People do not respond mechanically, however, to conditions at home or at destinations. They use new information technology tools to obtain information, connect with fellow nationals and other intermediaries, and organize their projects. Technology appears to unleash the potential of human agency as information travels fast and people can corroborate what friends and acquaintances say about conditions and opportunities at their desired destination, by checking on the internet and social media. It would not be an exaggeration to speak of the ‘appification’ of migration as Marie McAuliffe, an Australian migration expert, called it.

Beyond increasing numbers, diversifying composition of migration of flows, shifting routes and new pathways, migration in the age of globalisation is motivated by the sense of relative deprivation that this transfer of information can generate. Suddenly the group of reference for each person, including those living in the industrial towns of Asia and in the suburbs of African or Latin American cities, is not their immediate geographical or cultural community, but rather the images that they receive from what happens around the world. As Zygmunt Bauman put it, one’s living standards are always judged by reference to Hollywood or Bollywood stars and thus the achieved consumption and lifestyle patterns are never enough. Relative deprivation kicks in as a powerful mechanism. Those who have the highest potential for moving are the lower middle classes worldwide — people that have some education and some material capital — and not the most deprived. The wish to take part in what is projected as a Western affluent lifestyle, and the hope for achieving this, becomes a motivation so powerful that it makes young men and women underestimate both the costs and dangers of their journeys.


[1] Catherine Dauvergne. 2004. Sovereignty, Migration and the Rule of Law in Global Times. The Modern Law Review. Vol. 67, No.4, p. 59

Anna Triandafyllidou is Professor at the Global Governance Programme of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute, Florence, Italy, where she directs the Research Area on Cultural Pluralism. She is also a Visiting Professor at the College of Europe in Bruges and the Editor in Chief of the Journal of Immigrant and Refugee Studies.

Her main areas of research and teaching are the governance of cultural diversity, migration, and nationalism from a European and international perspective. Her most recent books are What is Europe (co-authored, Palgrave, 2015) and the Routledge Handbook of Immigrant and Refugee Studies (ed. 2016).

This piece is published as an output of the ‘On the Move’ conference held in Oslo, Norway, at the end of October 2016, and was submitted in November 2016.