learning pages / Themes and topics

5.10 : Migration causes.

Migration is typically caused by a variety of factors, both ‘push’ and ‘pull’. People might decide to move because of a range of factors, be it employment, security, opportunities, education, even love, unavailable to them in their home country and ‘pulling’ them elsewhere. On the other hand, there can be compelling drivers of displacement such as conflict, persecution, natural disasters and other immediate threats, that push them to migrate. In this post we focus on the latter – push factors related to forced migration.

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All sorts of factors, from the global to the local, from megatrends to personal challenges, influence the decision of people around the world to migrate. Besides positive motivations such as looking for better jobs or education opportunities, there are also a variety of drivers which relate to the phenomenon of forced migration. In practice, though the latter is often contrasted with ‘voluntary’ migration, people may decide to move for a combination of reasons that may defy simplistic categorization.

A note on internal displacement.

While much international coverage of migration focuses on cross-border movement, particularly from the global south towards Europe or North America, this in only part of the picture. Indeed, for most people who change their place of residence (particularly members of minority or indigenous communities, as well as others belonging to marginalized or impoverished groups), internal displacement is a more common experience than international migration – or, at least, the first step in a much longer process that may ultimately lead to fleeing their country of origin. Some may never leave their home country but remain for years or even decades in a near-permanent state of displacement.

Case study: Kurds displaced in Turkey.

In Turkey, millions of Kurds have been displaced since the outbreak of conflict between the government and the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in 1984. While hosting one of the largest refugee populations in the world, it continues to drive displacement of predominantly Kurdish civilians through its military actions, such as the destruction of the city of Diyarbakir: its operations there and across south-east Turkey between July 2015 and December 2016 are believed to have displaced up to half a million civilians. Since then, former residents have struggled to rebuild their lives.

Minority and Indigenous Trends 2018 (Minority Rights Group, 2018)


Violent conflict is one of the primary forces displacing people in the world at present. A large percentage of current refugees are fleeing the war in Syria, for example. 

The majority of people displaced by conflict remain within the country – they are internally displaced.  But many do flee to other countries, either immediately or after a period of internal displacement.

Conflict, in particular, creates radical and protracted uncertainty for those who experience it. People’s knowledge of the situation they have fled is usually incomplete, and they cannot predict what the future will hold. During their flight and exile, refugees and internally displaced persons have to develop strategies to navigate this uncertainty.

People who have fled conflict to other countries are often particularly likely to engage transnationally with their country of origin. They might:

  • send remittances to support peace or war efforts;
  • vote or create political parties;
  • lobby the authorities in their countries of residence for foreign policy initiatives to tackle the conflict that displaced them.

Even though conflicts usually influence all segments of society (to varying degrees), minorities are usually among those affected most acutely. At the same time, they often face a long process of exclusion and persecution which can actually culminate in violence or conflict, triggering mass displacement.

Perhaps the most extreme form of exclusion is the removal or denial of citizenship rights – often affecting minorities, leading to statelessness. For example, the Rohingya people in Myanmar experienced a steady attrition of their rights as citizens for years. They were then targeted by the country’s security forces and most of them have been uprooted to neighbouring Bangladesh.

Case study: displacement by conflict in Guatemala.

Countries in South and Central America have some of the highest levels of criminal violence and murder in the world, driving many to migrate into the US. The gang-related conflict has an impact on many people, but indigenous communities are disproportionately affected. Decades of conflict and discrimination have left them impoverished and marginalized, with little recourse to protection from police or the judiciary. Indeed, in many cases their situation has been aggravated by official persecution.

Minority and Indigenous Trends 2018 (Minority Rights Group, 2018)


Corruption can be a key driver of migration. In countries where corruption is endemic, people – especially members of minority groups – can find it very difficult to access opportunities and make a decent life for themselves. This often prompts people to move to countries where corruption is less widespread. 

And it is just one side of the coin. Corruption also plays a part throughout the migration experience:

  • When people choose to return – or are returned against their will – corruption in their source countries can make it harder for them to reintegrate.
  • Corruption makes people’s journeys much more dangerous, allowing migration to take place in irregular, unregulated ways, putting people at risk of death and exploitation.
  • It is particularly dangerous for women and children (especially girls), who risk sexual abuse at the hands of smugglers and border guards – an example of intersectional discrimination.
  • But the reality is that many migrants – including refugees – have no choice but to travel  by obtaining documents, or crossing borders, through bribes.

Poverty and marginalization.

People often move to escape poverty and seek a better life. This may be especially the case for members of minorities, indigenous peoples and other discrimination groups, as they are disproportionately likely to face deprivation and exclusion.

When people escape poverty by becoming migrant labourers, they can face additional challenges if they are targeted as a minority in their new country of residence.

Case study: Marshall Islanders uprooted by pollution and climate change.

Many Central Asians have now migrated to work in Russia. For example, around a fifth of Uzbekistan’s working population is now based in Russia.

Migrant workers from Uzbekistan eat in their temporary living quarters on a construction site in Moscow, Russia. Panos / Justin Jin.

However, xenophobia and an increasingly hostile regulatory environment mean that they are vulnerable to hate crime, harassment and deportations. Many are afraid to approach security services for help, so they are now a highly vulnerable minority within Russia.

Minority and Indigenous Trends 2018 (Minority Rights Group, 2018)

Land rights.

In Africa, Asia and the Americas in particular, governments, businesses and other groups continue to dispossess land from communities – driving mass displacement. 

Following conflict, authorities often fail to restore homes and property to uprooted communities. This is a barrier to lasting peace, and can lay the foundation for further displacement in the future.

We could therefore reduce involuntary migration and displacement by:

  • supporting a more secure and equitable environment for all communities;
  • enforcing minority and indigenous rights.

Expulsions of whole households and communities from land they have subsisted on for centuries, even  millennia (especially in the case of indigenous communities) have increased in the last few decades. There are a variety of reasons for this: climate change, food crises, the biofuels boom (originally supported by the EU, which later changed its mind).

These processes manifest how globalization and its associated challenges pervade sectors which were previously dominated by national economies. It forces local communities to adjust to these developments socially, economically but also culturally – and one of the ways to adjust is their (forced) decision to migrate.

Of course, we can look at the issue from a ‘top down’ macroeconomic perspective. From that viewpoint, it can bring benefits (higher productivity, higher yields, higher economic growth, higher exports) for the country as a whole as well as respective regions within those countries. 

However, whether this apparent developmental gain is experienced by those households and communities who previously depended on the expropriated land is another matter.

Climate change.

Climate change is already displacing many people from their homes, and driving many more to migrate voluntarily in search of a better life. Even other causes of migration often have their roots in climate change, which is one of the leading social and economic stressors of today. 

An increasing number of conflicts are motivated by access to water and other resources. But the links are not always direct or clear, and human agency is still the most important factor. For example, in Syria, poor harvests caused by once-in-a-millennium droughts which displaced people into cities and in the process disrupted their pre-existing social structure have been identified by some analysts as contributing to the outbreak of the civil war – but that conflict is still driven by people.

Case study: Marshall Islanders uprooted by pollution and climate change.

During the Cold War, nuclear testing uprooted large numbers of inhabitants of the Marshall Islands from their homes and livelihoods. Many still face a severe lack of resources, and climate change is now displacing even more. A large proportion of the country has moved to work elsewhere; more than a third of the population now reside in the United States.

Minority and Indigenous Trends 2018 (Minority Rights Group, 2018)

Case study: Senegalese fishermen displaced from their homes.

Thousands of people from fisher communities in Saint Louis, the second largest city in Senegal, West Africa, have recently been displaced from their homes. This is not only due to the effects of climate change (in particular rising sea levels), but also the result of the government’s mismanagement of the issue. Members of this minority have been forced to move further from the coast and in the process completely change their lives and cultures.

Some articles to read about the issue – in English, Hungarian, and Slovak (1, 2) – have been prepared by participants of Media, Minorities and Migration programme after their field trips to Senegal.


It is commonly assumed that indigenous peoples in particular live in rural and remote areas, when in fact they often have a significant urban presence in many countries – and are increasingly being displaced from their ancestral lands into cities as a result of land grabbing or violence. 

Within cities, ‘gentrification’ of urban areas often drives out the existing residents (usually people on lower incomes) or excludes them from the benefits of redevelopment. Though often criticized, it is not usually recognized as an example of racism or discrimination. But minority and indigenous residents often live in precisely the kind of communities which are affected by gentrification – causing further displacement.

Case study: The urbanisation of indigenous people in Canada.

Historically nomadic or in small settlements in remote areas, living sustainably with the land, Canadian First Nations peoples were displaced and forced to undergo assimilation programmes largely designed to ‘westernise’ First Nations peoples.

By 2011 the Canadian census recorded that ‘off-reserve Aboriginal people constitute the fastest growing segment of Canadian society’, with 56 per cent based in urban areas.

The impacts of this process in Canada have been profound. Urban First Nations communities in Canada live in much worse conditions than other urban groups. One study explored worrying evidence that indigenous women are over-represented among new HIV infections and street-based sex workers. Comparing indigenous and non-indigenous sex workers, they found that First Nations indigenous women were three times more likely to have HIV than other sex workers and had a high prevalence of inter-generational sex work.

This finding illustrates the long-term effects of destructive attitudes and policies towards indigenous peoples – with impacts that continue despite changes in policies.

State of the World’s Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2015 (Minority Rights Group, 2015)

Case study: Nubian community is pushed away from Kibera in Nairobi.

In Nairobi, a Nubian community had been living in the area now known as Kibera, one of the largest informal settlements in Africa, since colonial authorities has displaced them there. However, they have now faced pressure to move again to provide space for new real estate development. Those new houses are said to be prepared for them, too, but in reality they are not able to reach them – financially but also socially. And thus they are often forced to move somewhere else, e.g. to other slum.

Podcast to listen about the issue in Polish have been prepared with Małgorzata Juszczak, participants of MRG’s Media, Minorities and Migration programme.

Case study: Aboriginal communities in Australian cities as victim of gentrification

In Australia, Aboriginal populations were displaced from their ancestral lands decades ago, and relocated to urban areas like Brisbane. Rising property values are now driving them out of city centres to the suburbs, breaking up fragile networks of community and connection.

Intersectional discrimination in migration.

As we have seen many times, people from minority and indigenous groups are especially sensitive to push factors related to migration. At the same time they often face discrimination only from one perspective, but multiple discrimination because of other aspects of their identity. 

And this continues through every aspect of the migration experience. For example:

  • Women and children are especially likely to be internally displaced by conflict.
  • LGBTQ+ people are often affected by the kind of persecution and attrition of rights that eventually turns into conflict and causes displacement.
  • Urbanization can marginalize minority women and children particularly strongly, by isolating them from their social networks and communities.

Case study: Refugees of minority origin faces further discrimination during their migration experience in Europe and its borders.

Article to read about Afghans in refugee camp at Lesbos, Greece (in Polish) prepared by Jakub Mejer, participant of the Media, Minorities and Migration programme. Another story in Slovak prepared by Veronika Rajničová covers similar issue of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa facing discrimination in Morocco.

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5.1 : Migration as a global phenomenon.

Migration is not a new phenomenon: people have been on the move since the dawn of humankind. Indeed, the history of humanity is a history of migration – some have even argued that movement is our natural state. Migration has always been an essential part of our adaptation to environmental stress, social upheaval and other challenges. The same is true today, even though it has now become global in scale.

5.2 : What is migration?

Simply put, migration is human movement from one place to another. It may involve a single individual or an entire community, internal resettlement within a country or a journey spanning multiple continents, forced flight from the threat of violence or a voluntary search for opportunities elsewhere. Indeed, in many cases it can involve a mixture of patterns and motivations: for instance, migrants may have to flee very real dangers to themselves and their families, while at the same time actively plan for a better life elsewhere. Migration has a variety of facets and there are plenty of reasons – some even seemingly contradictory – why people decide to leave or stay.

5.3 : Terminology matters: From ‘economic migrants’ to refugees.

'Migrant' is an overarching term for anyone (with the exception of tourists) who moves from one country to another for a significant period of time. A refugee is a person who flees from conflict, persecution of a natural disaster and seeks sanctuary in another country. (In many situations of insecurity, many or even most of those forced to move may in fact remain within their country: these internally displaced people, also called IDPs, rarely receive the same amount of attention in international media, despite often facing considerable challenges). An economic migrant is a person who moves in search of education, employment and other opportunities outside his or her country. Asylum-seekers are people who have applied for asylum in another country. Finally, stateless people are those who have either been deprived of or were born without citizenship.

5.4 : Transnationals.

Technologies have not only enabled people to move across the world far more easily than before, but also to keep in close contact with families back home. In particular, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have facilitated the development of complex social connections, crossing national borders and spanning the globe. As a result, a growing number of migrants are now ‘transnational’.

5.5 : Migration and development.

Migration is often closely linked to processes related to development. There is no single definition of development, but in broad terms it can be understood as the potential for individuals and communities within a society to access services, employment and other opportunities on an equitable basis. If people do not have a chance to develop their potential, if they are excluded from participating in development, they might decide to move.

5.6 : Migration and minorities.

A minority may be a group numerically inferior to the rest of the population but also in some cases larger in number, but in a non-dominant position. Minorities usually possess certain ethnic, religious, linguistic and other characteristics differing from those of the rest of the population. Due to their marginalized position within society, they are vulnerable to discrimination, and are unable to secure an equal share of development opportunities. This all makes these communities more exposed to various challenges that they may attempt to resolve by deciding to move.

5.7 : Smuggling.

According to the UN definition smuggling "is a crime involving the procurement for financial or other material benefit of illegal entry of a person into a State of which that person is not a national or resident." In principle, it implies a level of consent among those being smuggled – as opposed to those subjected to human trafficking, who are effectively captive to their traffickers. Once a migrant is smuggled through a border to their agreed destination, the relationship is usually over, while human trafficking generally involves the continued coercion of victims, often over a period of many years.

5.8 : Fortress Europe.

Since the EU was established, the borders between its member states have been dissolving. Yet at the same time, its external borders have hardened – an approach widely known as ‘Fortress Europe’. Even for those fleeing persecution, entering the EU has become increasingly impossible for most refugees. As a result, many have been forced to take more dangerous routes, with a corresponding rise in the number of dead or missing people as desperation leads them to seek out smugglers and puts them at risk of human trafficking. Fortress Europe does not stop at its actual borders, but goes deep into neighbouring countries or even further in some cases in an attempt to create a buffer zone through a web of agreements, funding, detention centres and naval patrols.

5.9 : Misinterpreted facts on migration.

Migration is an important issue in public debate and policy-making – across Europe and worldwide. And the media are part of it. Sometimes they build their narratives around migration on pure myths or speculation. At other times, however, they may reply on more subtle distortions and misconceptions: these may be, strictly speaking, factually correct but presented or interpreted out of context or misleadingly.

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