Cross-Border Migrations Essay

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The human  species has a long nomadic history. The more recent concept of “cross-border migration” emerged  from  the  formation  of powerful  territorially-based states in Europe. It gained practical importance after developments  in transportation, communication,  and  industrialization  enabled  Europeans to colonize large parts of the rest of the world, and to relocate both within Europe and overseas in large numbers. By the early 20th century, with the general adoption  of passports  and  border  controls,  cross border migration  had become a widespread political concern, and foreign workers a major source of labor used by businesses large and small.

In 2007 about 200 million people, or 3 percent  of the world’s population,  lived outside  the country  of their birth. Likewise, the roughly 100 million migrant workers  globally amounted   to  about  3  percent  of the world’s workforce. In certain  regions, especially Western  Europe and North  America, and in certain occupations,  such as computer  programming,  nursing, restaurants, and crop harvesting, these percentages have been much  higher. International migrant remittances   to  developing  countries  totaled  about $250 billion in 2005.

Most modern cross-border  migration is associated with economic differences between countries. In 1975 per capita gross domestic product was about 40 times greater in high-income countries than in low-income countries; by 2000 this  ratio  had  risen  to  over 60. Other  “pushes” and “pulls” motivating  international migration  are noneconomic,  notably family reunification  and mass flight from disaster. Refugees with a “well-founded fear of persecution” have protected status under international conventions and within many  national  jurisdictions.  In  practice,  however,  “economic migrants” and “political refugees” are overlapping categories. Similarly, although a cross-border migrant  is generally one who moves internationally and stays at least a year in the new “host” country, it is often difficult to distinguish between “temporary” and “permanent” migrants. A more recent concern is the potential for cross-border  refugee flows provoked by natural  disasters, particularly  catastrophic  floods and droughts associated with global climate change.

A  considerable  fraction  of  cross-border   migration moves without documentation and illegally into receiving countries.  This causes practical  problems along migratory routes and political problems for governments of sending countries (whose people want to leave) and of receiving countries (which cannot “control” their borders). Undocumented migrants also face the risk of exploitation by smugglers and difficulties of social integration while working “underground.” How to deal with illegal immigration  has recently been a major political issue in the United States.

Government Policies

Government  policies on cross-border  migration have been inconsistent.  There are far fewer border restrictions on leaving than on entering. Official policies also partly reflect popular ambivalence. Voters in receiving countries are often apprehensive about large numbers of foreigners in their midst, but not opposed to readily available low-cost labor. Migrant workers are usually more productive than they would be at home, but the resulting  net benefits of cross-border  migration are unevenly distributed.  At times, low-skilled workers in richer countries  may suffer wage declines due to migration.  Movements  of migrants,  however, are significantly influenced by economic cycles, not just by public policies or popular attitudes.

A “guest worker” program bringing foreigners temporarily to the United States was a key component of the comprehensive  “compromise” immigration  bill rejected by the U.S. Congress in 2006. Past guest worker programs, such as the “bracero program” of the 1940s and 1950s in North America, and the imports of labor to Western Europe during the 1960s boom, did provide economic benefits. “Temporary” guest workers, however, have often become permanent residents, bringing in relatives through the family network links that have long been central  to self-replicating  migration.  Such networks are also prevalent within the growing migration between developing countries.

Large corporate  employers in developed countries have been particularly interested in hiring more high-skilled foreigners. With  cross-border  flows of goods and finance much less restricted in recent decades than movements  of workers, it has been more cost effective to tap the low-skilled labor of poorer  countries by “outsourcing” production,  assembly, and clerical functions there. Movements of professional workers, especially in science, engineering, and higher education, are a smaller but important form of cross-border migration.  The extent  and incidence of benefits and costs resulting from this “brain drain” are a matter of considerable  interest  to scholars  and policy makers on which no general consensus has yet emerged.


  1. Georg Berkemer  and  Dietmar   Rothermund, Explorations in the History of South Asia: Essays in Honour of Dietmar Rothermund  (Manohar,  2001);
  2. Phillip Martin, Manolo Abella, and Christiane Kuptsch, Managing Labor Migration in the Twenty-first Century (Yale University Press, 2006);
  3. “Senators Back Guest Workers”, Washington Post (March 28, 2006);
  4. Stalker’s Guide to International Migration,   (cited   March 2009);
  5. “A Turning Tide?” The Economist (June 28, 2008).

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