Migration: A Global and Historical View

Written by: Christopher Desira


In this piece, Seraphus director Christopher Desira takes a broad look at the concept of migration- how it relates to human nature, what drives it, and how it fits into an increasingly complex world. Christopher also highlights the problem with restrictive and reactionary policies that fail to prioritise humanity and safety above ideology. Overall, he asks us to consider the inevitability of migration, and with it, the need to take responsibility and to properly accommodate for the dignity and safeguarding of individuals who are on their migration journey. Christopher will explore this topic further in the coming weeks.

Migration and Borders

Immigration controls have become the norm, with migration presented as a problem. But migration itself is not problematic, it is a part of human nature.  Throughout history it is used for people to seek a better life, a better standard of living, and also to avoid death from starvation, persecution, or war. Historically, too, we are all migrants – our ancestors came from somewhere else.

Borders, in contrast, can be seen as thoroughly ideological- they are filters, sorting people into desirable and non-desirable, skilled and unskilled, genuine and bogus, us and the other. They are seen as mounds, creating certain types of subjects and subjectivities, placing people in power relationship with others and the State, creating deep divisions and inequalities.

Today’s world is much more complex than the early days of humanity. The factors that drive individuals to undertake the act of migration are plentiful, though we often think of them on a much larger scale.

Contemporary factors of migration

Capitalism’s ubiquitous influence, for example, is a clear cause of migration. Global capitalism leads to the existence of immigration workers, which can be classified as forced migration. Global capitalism often exerts a structural impact over whole populations and makes it impossible for them to survive in their homeland.  For example, under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) the Mexican government was forced to eliminate subsidies to corn while corn produced in the United States remained subsidised, thus making US corn cheaper to buy inside Mexico then Mexican corn. As a result over 15 million Mexicans were forced into poverty, and 1.5 million farmers who lost their farms migrated to the United States to work.

Furthermore, capitalism destroys land-based subsistence cultures and concentrates wealth and property into the hands of a select few. So, as capitalism reshapes established cultures in order to optimise the available capital for production, the inhabitants of those cultural spaces look elsewhere for a sense of belonging.

Capitalism requires labour flexibility (or exploitation), creating a pool of precarious workers, characterised by poor wages, insecurity in the continuity of work, and lack of labour protection, and causal/zero-hour contracts. The effects of capitalism has created political economies that comply people to move, and the States that benefit most from capitalism not only deny culpability and accountability for migration, they seal themselves off from the migrants.

The impact of climate change is also real and present, and can be clearly seen in migration trends. In 2022, 84 per cent of refugees and asylum seekers fled from highly climate-vulnerable countries, an increase from 61 per cent in 2010.  Climate change correlates directly with carbon and greenhouse gas emissions, with the industrialised, consumption-based economics of most of the world.  For example, Tuvalu, a Pacific Island, continues to be threatened with total submersion due to climate change. Over one-fifth of Tuvaluans have already been forced to flee their country. Despite having one of the world’s highest emissions per capita of carbon dioxide per person, its neighbour, Australia, only recently decided to accept Tuvaluans as climate refugees.

The problem with restrictive immigration policies

The increase in international migration has been countered by tighter border control and increasingly restrictive immigration policies on the part of more secure or more developed countries.

Ever restrictive border controls results in the rise in irregular and clandestine migration journeys along more dangerous sea and land routes. As borders have been closed, even fortified, the activities of traffickers and smugglers have prospered, and rights abuses against migrants have increased.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants reported tightened migration control had ‘unintended side effects’ in the form of diversification of migration to more dangerous sea routes, leading to increased violations of migrants’ rights. 

While migration across the ‘fault lines’ (the border between Mexico and the United States, the maritime border between North Africa and Southern Europe, and between the Horn of Africa and the Southern Arabian peninsula) are not a new phenomenon, it has changed fundamentally in the last one or two decades. Numbers have increased, destination countries have tightened and extended – even externalised – their border controls, and migration regulation has been subsumed in policies to address terrorism, national security and international crime.

The increased efforts to curb the number of migrants trying to reach Europe have not led to a net decrease in numbers, but instead displaced migration from safer to more dangerous routes, and led to an increasing number of fatalities at the EU’s external borders.  Similar linked increases were found in the Mexico and US border, with a doubling of fatalities in 2005. 

Violations of the right to life, and the infliction of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, appear to be endemic on some of these journeys.  Medecins Sans Frontieres found that the causes of death in one-third of all boards included beatings by smugglers, lack of food and water, suffocation because too many people were confined in too small a space, suicide by passengers who jumped into the sea, smugglers throwing passengers, including children, overboard.

NGO and media reports have recorded violations of migrants’ fundamental rights including violations of the right to life, prohibitions on refoulement and on inhuman and degrading treatment, violations on the right to food and to clean drinking water, the right to emergency health care and the right of access to legal remedies.

Migrants know of the violations, and accept that they must face-off against them during transit. There are reports of migrants during the Mediterranean crossings of leaving word behind with trusted friends add different points in the journey in case they do not make it to their destination, this givens them comfort knowing that should they not make it, their families will at least know of their demise.

Looking inwardly at the UK, the dangerous effects of a hostile immigration policy ring all too familiar. A country that has built its wealth on the expansion of capitalist empire, only to close its doors to those who are still feeling the destabilising impact of that legacy. Meanwhile, the current administration has pushed immigration control into every part of life in the UK it can, actively aiming to create a hostile environment for undocumented migrants. This only leaves them at higher risk of danger of exploitation, a fate they may have just narrowly escaped from the tragic incidents on small boat crossings to the predatory presence of human traffickers.

It would seem logical that the migrants should, not only be protected from violations of human rights, but be provided with an ability to migrate safely, to move from violations of human rights to live in a new space protected from future violations. 

What next?

In the coming weeks, I will continue to write here, exploring the dynamic between migration, the protections offered to migrants, and the role of the international community in protecting these rights. I will argue that common sense and humanity will have to lead the way, as the incompleteness of the current international legal system will become apparent and posit that existing rights should be reframed to benefit today’s migrants.