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Migration theory

The individual and the family

Each migrant has different circumstances and motivations. Poverty, adventure, calculation, desperation. People uproot themselves to work in foreign lands with all kinds of hopes and plans

But there are also common features and patterns, and governments in both countries of origin and destination are keen to understand them. The simplest explanation is that people move to places where they hope to be better off. But this leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Why do the very poorest not migrate? Why do certain nationalities head for certain countries? Attempts to answer such questions have generally taken one of two broad approaches: the individual or the structural.

The individual approach considers each migrant as a rational human being who assesses the available destinations and chooses the optimum combination - of wage rates, job security, and cost of travel. This is called the 'human capital' approach since each person can be considered as the product of a series of investments - in their education, for example, or their skills, or their health - who is looking for the best place to use them.

An extension of the individual view is to consider migration as a group or family choice, as a means of spreading risk. In this co-insurance system the head of the family will pay the emigrant's travel expenses and living costs while he or she looks for work. The migrant correspondingly promises to send money home, especially if the family suffers a difficulty such as a crop failure. This household theory of migration is sometimes called the 'New Economics of Migration', though by now it is not particularly new.

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Primary school in Burma

Where next? Education builds 'human capital' in Burma. Over one million Burmese, fleeing poverty and oppression at home, have migrated to Thailand.
Photo: Peter Stalker