Determinants of International Migration: Theories (part 1)

Determinants of International Migration: Theories (part 1)

by Juan “Jed” E. Dayang, Jr.


Global international migration is a unique feature of the 21st century. A recent estimate of the United Nations tells us that more than 200 million people live outside their countries of origin for extended duration.

There are many factors that contribute to international migration ranging from economic determinants as well as   political, social and demographic aspects.

According to Susan Martin, director of Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration in Washington D.C., some of the drivers of migration include political, economic, social, demographic and environmental factors.

On the macro-level, migration could be determined by wage differences between  the source and destination countries. However, non-economic considerations such as gradual and sudden climate change and political disturbance may also trigger migration.

The  decision to migrate varies considerably depending on a person’s  age, sex, education, wealth, their attachment to their place of origin, attitudes, preference and marital status.

Therefore, identifying determinants of international migration is complex and its management requires no simple solutions. In order to situate our understanding of the flow of people across borders, familiarity with theories related to how migration is initiated  may help us unpack the complex issue of migration.

Neoclassical Economics Theory

Economic forces such as wage differentials shape international migration.  On a macro-level, the movements of people from labour abundant but capital poor countries to labour scarce and capital rich countries could be explained by this theory.

For instance, the abundant supply of Filipino nurses determines why they migrate to the United States and Canada or in the same manner how a number of Indian engineers work in the U.S. and Australia to fill the demand for skilled workers.

On a micro-level, the individual rational actor migrates in order to maximize differences  not only in wage rates but also to maximize return on education investment. If the difference between the wages of the U.S. is eight times higher than in Mexico, then Mexicans will capitalize on this benefit. However, if the ratio is four to one, then migration becomes costly for Mexicans.  With eight to 10 years of education, Mexicans can capitalize in wage difference in the U.S.  Mexicans with Master’s degrees have more incentives to migrate to the U.S. However, with the Bachelor’s degree holders, the incentive is less. This theory suggests that migration is all about labour markets.

One critique of this theory is the assumption that decisions are made rationally. However, one could assume that most migrants make fairly good decisions based on various information they receive. It is usually the case that migrant workers already know what job and wages they will receive before migrating. Rational decision-making include a cost and benefit analysis of migrating.

New Economics of Migration Theory

An emerging theory of new economics explains that monetary factors are not the only determinants of international migration. For example, nurses in South Africa migrate to the United Kingdom not for economic reasons but for safety reasons.

Household decisions are also made based on the demand for international labour. For instance, the trend to study nursing degrees or train as seafarers in the Philippines is based on the expectation of future work overseas.

A study by Douglas Massey suggests that migration could also  be a strategy by household members to manage risk.  One member of a  family will work abroad  and send remittances to minimize the financial risk to his family back home. Migration of people in a certain community may result in “relative deprivation” felt by those who are left behind when neighbours are becoming better off by going abroad. This feeling of deprivation drives them to work abroad to buy consumer goods.

Dual Labour Market Theory

A migration pull factor could be explained by the inherent demand of modern industrial societies for labour for certain jobs shunned by local nationals. Demographics plays  a role in migration.

The U.S. has a diamond-shaped educational work force (few PhDs and Masters at the top, large college or technical education in the middle, and few under-educated)which compliments developing countries’ hour-glass shaped educated work force (plenty of post-graduate degree holders and a large non-skilled workforce) .

The idea of raising wages from the bottom  is unpopular because the increased wage will also require an increase in the wages of top-level workforce. Thus, with lower wages, there are few locals who would want to take up those jobs. It may even be possible that even with high wages, workers would still shun low-status job.  Migrant workers  keep wages low due to the regular supply of foreign labour willing to receive lower pay.

World Systems Theory

The structure of the world economy impacts on migration. Capitalism has promoted the movements of goods and capital which pushes movements of people. Capitalism also requires the development of transportation and communication links as well as hubs that result in human migration.  Some aspects of the world systems theory  could be ascribed to historical linkages such as in the case of  Latin Americans moving to Spain who was their colonial masters in the past.

In the second part, I will write about what perpetuates international migration.

(to be continued)

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  1. Sam
    November 7, 2010 at 7:51 am

    Awaiting for the next part

  2. June 14, 2014 at 3:03 pm

    Nice post. I was checking continuously this blog and I am impressed!
    Very helpful info particularly the last part 🙂 I care for
    such information much. I was seeking this certain information for
    a long time. Thank you and good luck.

    • December 21, 2016 at 5:02 pm

      Dear Isabel,
      Thanks for your kind words. Unfortunately, I have not updated the blog. Let me know what topics you are interested in.

  3. March 16, 2016 at 5:40 am

    very much informative

  1. March 16, 2011 at 4:10 pm

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