How Immigration Has Shaped the Modern World

If migrants around the world were to create their own nation-state, it would be the fifth most populated country in the world. One out of every 35 people in the world is a migrant; it’s not a new phenomenon, but rather a common and important reality of globalization. It’s been a driving factor of human existence ever since humans left Africa 60,000 years ago. The curiosity for the undiscovered drove our ancestors to travel and inhabit every corner of planet Earth, creating and evolving into societies we live in now. Migration to the New World is how the United States was founded, but what exactly is migration? International Organization for Migration (IOM) generally defines it as a movement of persons either across an international border or within a State; however, the definition above does not highlight the complexity of the phenomenon. In this article, the goal is to unpack the definitions behind migration and face the facts: whether we like it or not, the evident international borders did not stop human migration in the past, they aren’t stopping it now, and they won’t 50 years from now.

Industrialization in the 19th century created worldwide economic growth that established transnational labor migration flows. Fast and inexpensive ocean travel created new trading routes and demand for labor at great distances. Cost-effectiveness and appeal for economic opportunities created mobility like the world has never seen before. Between 1850 and mid-1870s, North America doubled the number of European migrants entering its borders from 300,000 a year to 600,000. At its peak in the 20th century, 3 million people per year immigrated to the Americas!

Other parts of the world experienced similar patterns with migration liberalization: between 1846 and 1940, Southern Asia accepted about 50 million migrants from India and South China. High mobility and frequency of migrant workers all over the world brought changing attitudes, challenges, and opposition to the new world order of the 20th century. Specifically, in the United States, concerns over mass migration influenced writing and ratification of the Immigration Act of 1917, which required immigration services to administer literacy tests and medical examinations. Cultural and economic challenges created the migration policies we are familiar with now: those immigrants who have the resources and skill can have the opportunity to enjoy economic mobility in a country of their destination.

Of course, there are less fortunate people that do not have the capabilities to apply for a legal status in a country. The desire to escape economic hardships and geopolitical crises drives individuals to choose dangerous or illegal ways to attain a better future for themselves. This results in a number of unregistered workers participating in the economies of countries. According to Pew Research Center, in 2015 there were 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the United States, which is 3.4% of the total U.S. population. In the national workforce, 8 million people are considered unauthorized immigrants out of more than 150 million people in the workforce.

As much as we would like to grasp control over migration flows— specifically unauthorized migration— there is no stopping it. With greater economic mobility, comes an increased mobility of people and services. It’s a natural phenomenon; building walls and closing borders are temporary fixes to deeper rooted inequalities and hardships of life. To effectively address migration flows in a globalized world we live in today, a more innovative and cooperative approach to migration policy is needed. Migration is about regulation, not termination.

After World War II ended, there were nearly 11 million displaced people in countries affected by the conflict. Prisoners of war, slave laborers, and survivors of concentration camps had to find a new place to settle. The United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was created with a mission to help European nations deal with the consequences of war. It was an effort to institutionalize norms and processes of migration. In 1947, the International Refugee Organization (IRO), or what we know as International Organization for Migration (IOM), took over to further assist with the crisis. Just like labor migration, migrant crises around the world drive people to travel great distances and sometimes with much greater risks involved.

In the 21st Century, the world witnessed the biggest migrant crisis since WWII, exposing harsh realities of irregular migration. Irregular migration is defined by IOM as “movement that takes place outside the regulatory norms of sending, transit and receiving countries.” The Civil war in the Syrian Arab Republic created an estimated 13.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance; this includes 6.5 million internally displaced people and 5 million people in hard to reach areas. International actors consider hard to reach areas those that are too dangerous for their staff and equipment to safely assist people in need.

In just four years of conflict, complex economic, social and political factors created waves of irregular migration that require high levels of cooperation and assistance. Syrian civil war is just one instance out of many that are creating mixed migration flows. According to the IOM, Yemen and five other countries account for 84% of newly displaced people worldwide in 2015. Five other countries are Iraq, Ukraine, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo and Afghanistan. Colombia has 6.9 million internally displaced people in the country.

When discussing irregular migration flows, experts often talk about forced displacement of individuals through smuggling or trafficking networks. According to the UN Refugee Agency, in 2015 there were 65.3 million people forcibly displaced worldwide. Smuggling, contrary to trafficking, is a “voluntary” procurement of persons who want to leave their country of origin. Often times, migrants come in contact with the smuggler who is looking for a quick profit from a dangerous smuggling transaction. Human trafficking often involves an element of force or other forms of coercion, such as abduction, fraud, deception of vulnerable people.

Within the mixed migration flows, there’s a deeper distinction between an asylum seeker and a refugee that many people are unfamiliar with. Both have things in common, such as threatening conditions in their country of origin. An asylum seeker is a person who wants protection under a refugee status but has not gone through legal means to attain the status. A refugee could’ve once been an asylum seeker, but as a refugee with a legal status, they are entitled to international protection and assistance. In 2015, out of 65.3 million forcibly displaced people, 21.3 million persons were refugees and 3.2 million people were asylum-seekers.

In the globalized world we live in now, our capabilities to address crises have become more advanced and so have our classifications of different types of migration. International organizations play a critical informational role, serving as primary references for migration information and research for policy decisions regarding migration. Based on data gathered around the world, international organizations can influence decision makers more than ever before in history. For example, the Missing Migrant Project tracks fatalities along mixed migration flows in the world. Artists and photographers capture unique images they share to increase awareness to the migrant crisis. The film 4.1 Miles, directed by Daphne Matziaraki, is an award-winning documentary that shares a story of a captain on the Greek island of Lesbos who saves thousands of migrants who are crossing just 4.1 miles of the Aegean Sea. Social media platforms have the power to capture the attention of individuals serving the web in their daily lives; just remember the image of Alan Kurdi, a drowned Syrian boy that washed up on the coast of Turkey.

The reality is that migration impacts us all in one way or another. Borders and oceans cannot stop it from happening and providing orderly and human migration to people around the world is a priority. It’s about effective regulation of migration through greater cooperation and policy choices that address the underlying factors of migration.

Work Cited

Adamson, Fiona B. "Crossing Borders: International Migration and National Security." The MIT Press, vol. 31, no. 1, Summer 2006, pp. 165-99. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Mar. 2017.

“IOM Appeals for US$ 254 Million for 2016 Syria Operations." Targeted News Services, 8 Dec. 2015. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Accessed 30 Apr. 2017.

"5 Facts about Illegal Immigration in the U.S." Pew Research Center, 27 Apr. 2017,

Global Migration Trends Factsheet 2015. 2016,

"Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2015." The UN Refugee Agency,

"Human Migration." New World Encyclopedia,

Inkpen, Christopher. "7 Facts about World Migration." Pew Research Center, 2 Sept. 2014,

"Key Migration Terms." International Organization for Migration,

"Mass Immigration and WWI." U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services,

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