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How people migrate

Colonial paths

Emigrants can in principle go to any country that will admit them. But in practice they tend to follow well-trodden paths, established both by historical flows and by migrant networks.

International migrants have predictable destinations. Mozambicans go to South Africa; Bolivians to Argentina; New Zealanders to Australia; Algerians to France. Some simply cross to the nearest country and if the distances are short they may even commute. Many emigrate without even being aware of it: nomadic herders in the Sahel region of West Africa drift back and forth between Niger, Mali and Chad, paying scant regard to frontiers.

But for longer distance migration one of the most important influences on the choice of destination is colonial history. France and the United Kingdom initiated many migrant flows by recruiting workers from their former colonies.

The United States, on the other hand, had few formal colonies but nevertheless exerted military and economic influence over a number of developing countries, particularly near neighbours such as Mexico. In the early 1900s Mexicans had little wish to live in the United States. So US farmers and railroad companies had to send recruiters deep into Mexico. Later, in the 1940s, farm owners made similar efforts to find Mexican workers through the bracero temporary workers scheme — a programme that continued up to 1964.

Germany too lacked extensive colonial links to use to draw in migrant labour. But it made up for this disadvantage during the 1960s with an extensive gastarbeiter (guest-worker) recruitment programme in Turkey and Yugoslavia. In this way the industrialized countries deliberately initiated almost all the major international flows of migrants of the past century.

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Cartoon of John Bull

A contemporary cartoon of the British 'John Bull' extending his colonial tentacles.