Root Causes of Migration - Fact Sheet

An Age of Migration: Globalization and the Root Causes of Migration

Globalization Drives Migration

  • Migration is a complex process and has been a feature of human societies for many centuries. There are many reasons why people choose to migrate, including:
    • Poverty
    • Armed conflict
    • Social strife
    • Political turmoil
    • Economic hardships

These and other types of events displace millions of people across the globe every day.

  • Since the mid-twentieth century, however, the nature of migration has also become largely influenced by globalization. Advances in communication and transportation technology have driven globalization forward, allowing us to live in a world where distances between countries and travel time are no longer as significant an obstacle.
  • In this age of migration and globalization, the world's economies have become more integrated. As a result, it is now common for migrants to send remittances to their home country and, not surprisingly, many developing nations depend on these funds. Overall remittances sent in 2004 totaled 226 billion dollars and remittances accounted for approximately 20 percent of GDP in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Haiti, Jordan, Lesotho, the Republic of Moldova, and Tonga.[1]
  • Additionally, disparities between developing and developed nations have accelerated with globalization. In 1900, the ratio of the average income of the five richest countries in the world to the 5-10 poorest countries  was about  9:1. Today that ratio is 100:1.[2] These disparities among countries combined with limited opportunities for employment that provides high enough wages to care for one's family has stimulated increased migration from developing to developed nations.
  • During 2000-2005, the more developed regions of the world gained an estimated 2.6 million migrants annually from the less developed regions. This amounts to about 13.1 million migrants over the whole period. Northern America[3] gained the most from net migration: 1.4 million migrants annually. [4]

Root Causes of Migration

Globalization is not the only factor affecting global migration: U.S. economic and foreign policy decisions-such as the war in Iraq or NAFTA-have fueled migration and immigration. This has created an influx of both economic and political refugees here in the U.S. In many ways, American foreign policy has created migration flows, but American domestic policy has failed to create a system to account for the consequences of its foreign policy.

Free Trade Agreements

  • Free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) have imposed practices on other countries, such as Mexico, that ultimately benefit corporations but devastate local governments and economies and force people to migrate.
  • After NAFTA came into force, more than 1.3 million Mexican farmers were driven out of business. US agribusinesss, subsidized by our tax dollars, sold corn in Mexico at lower prices than farmers in that country could produce. As a result, undocumented immigration from Mexico has risen from 332,000 since 1993 to 530,000 in 2000--a 60 percent increase since the passage of NAFTA.[5]
  • Big corporations in the United States have also gladly taken advantage of cheap labor, sending labor recruiters into economically depressed areas of Mexico, Central America, and elsewhere. This pattern of behavior has existed since this country's formation.

War and Governmental Oppression

Map: Major Countries of Origin of Refugees (End-2008)

Major Source Countries of Refugees



The end of the cold war saw a shift from inter-state conflicts to a dramatic number of intra-state conflicts.

  • From 1990-1995 over 70 states were involved in 93 wars that left 5.5 million people dead.[6] Nearly all of 60 refugee flows studied in the 1990's can be attributed to internal conflicts.
  • The persistence of genocide throughout the 1990's has contributed substantially to the number of refugees and internally displaced persons. The involvement of developed countries through weapons trade have prolonged conflicts and made them deadlier. [7]
  • Government oppression and brutality in countries like China, Iran, El Salvador, Cambodia, Somalia, and other countries that have tortured, detained, and killed its citizens have also contributed to refugee flows. [8]
  • Most recently, the U.S. war on Iraq has created well over two million refugees who have no home.[9]
  • In 2008, there were 15.2 million refugees and 827,000 asylum-seekers (pending cases).[10]
  • Today, approximately 279, 548 refugees and an additional 69,228 asylum seekers reside in the U.S.[11]

Demand for Labor/Need for Jobs

There are a number of "pull" factors that draw people towards countries like the United States to seek a better life.

  • Aging populations and low fertility rates in industrialized countries have resulted in a decline in "replacement workers" entering the workforce, while also creating greater demand for service-sector jobs and low-skill employment.
  • Developed countries like the U.S. have come to rely on immigrant labor to fulfill their labor needs and will need to so even more in the future as the country faces a mass retirement of baby boomers.
  • Also, consider that the average per capita income in Haiti is less than $400 per year-in the United States, an undocumented day laborer could potentially earn that much in just one week.[12]
  • In the absence of a livable wage, access to credit, insurance, or social welfare benefits, the value of migration is greater than its hardship or potential for exploitation. In other words, for most people in desperate situation-as the factors above have illustrated-migration is worth the risk.


[1] United Nations (2006). International Migration 2006, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division

[2] Maryland Catholic Conference. "Root Causes of Migration"

[3] North America includes Bermuda, Canada, Greenland, St. Pierre et Miquelon, and the U.S.

[4] United Nations (2006). International Migration 2006, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division

[5] "Failed Trade Policy & Immigration: Cause and Effect." Public Citizen.

[6] Schmeidl, S. (2001) "Conflict and Forced Migration: A Quantitative Review, 1964-1995" in Aristide Zelberg & Peter Benda, Eds. Global Migrants, Global Refugees: Problems and Solutions. New York: Berghann Books.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Brookings Institute's Iraq Index

[10] UNHCR (2008) Global Trends: Refugees, Asylum Seekers, Returnees, Internally Displaced Persons, and Stateless Persons.

[11] UNHCR Statistical Snapshot. January 2009.

[12] Congressional Budget Summary for Haiti, 2006.


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