Understanding Migration: Definitions, Debates and Common Mistakes

Migration is a profound aspect of the world’s history and it influences virtually all societies, individuals, and cultures on a daily basis. In the modern day the debate of migration has become increasingly controversial and has led to the resurgence of fundamentally extremist and nationalist views. There are a multitude of examples such as Donald Trump banning the immigration of refugees. What I aim to achieve in the following post is to provide an informed outline of migration to address some of the basic concepts to prepare anyone who is interested with the ability to engage with the debate. Furthermore, I plan to write more posts on migration over the course of the year so I hope that this acts as a brief guide to help anyone who may not know some of the terminology and debates.


Firstly, it is essential to define the three most basic and fundamental concepts as they can be somewhat unclear amongst the legerdemain of alternative media and ill-informed incumbents: emigration, migration and immigration. It is important to know the differences between these words because they are often confused in both the media and by politicians (although I recommend using a political source to better understand these concepts, the oxford dictionary provides a satisfactory summary).

Emigration – when an individual, or group of people, leave a country to settle elsewhere.

Migration – the movement of people (migration is the physical process of movement).

Immigration – when an individual, or group of people, settle in a country (the reverse of emigration).

Common mistakes:

These three different words are commonly used incorrectly, not just by people, but by numerous institutions such as the press. A prime example of this mistake can be seen in the workings of the Daily Express (please click here to see article).  In the article I have provided the author, Rebecca Perring, wrote:

“the Conservative Party pledged to cut net migration to “tens of thousands” when it came to power in 2010. “

To be fair to the author she could be directly quoting the conservatives but this is still bad journalistic, and indeed institutional, practice (see bibliography for ‘churnalism’). It would be an impossibility to cut ‘net migration’ to tens of thousands because, if we consider our previous definitions, that would mean that nobody would ever move. I’ll provide an example, someone who is from Manchester may commute to London for a conference. This would be a migration as s/he is moving from one geographical location to another. I do not believe that the conservatives want to stop the net migration of Britain as that would mean no production whatsoever. Instead, from the context of the article, it appears they are referring to immigration into Britain. This then raises questions such as: why don’t institutions such as the government and press understand the differences between these concepts? Additionally, why should we understand the concepts? This is what brings us to our next definitions as they are intrinsically linked to why these mistakes are made:

Ethnicity: A group of people’s cultural identity, such as language and history.

Race: The visible markers of a phenotype – largely based on the colour of a person’s skin. A term purely based on appearance, not biology, as biologically we are more similar to someone of a different race than someone of a different gender (see bibliography, the age of migration, pages 59-61).

Origin States: The state where an immigrant emigrated from.

Receiving states: The state where the emigrant migrated to and settled.

Ethnic communities: A group of people, often immigrants, who have been largely accepted by society and form communities based on their cultural association.

Ethnic minorities: A group of people, mostly immigrants, who have not been accepted or integrated into society due to the process of racism and othering which makes them become a minority group within the receiving state.


Within all of these definitions there is an obvious, and somewhat troubling, common denominator – racism. Now before you get angry at me allow me to explain. You see, these definitions of states, race and ethnicity only exist because of the way the world is structured. This creates formal racism whereby people from particular geographical locations do not have the same rights as others. An example could be: a refugee from Syria trying to claim citizenship in America over a student in America trying to get temporary citizenship in the UK. The difference between these, and why this formal racism exists, is because the American student is an economic migrant whereas the refugee is a forced migrant. On the one hand the student has the luxury to migrate, on the other the refugee has no choice. The reason the economic migrant is favoured over the forced is because s/he comes from a geographical position of privilege and can fuel the receiving states economy whereas the refugee requires state help. Furthermore, the phenotype of the American student (in this case) is white whereas the refugee is not. These factors are what lead to ignorance on migration.Therefore, it is important to understand them so that we can appreciate the perspective of others and avoid ignorance.

People are often shocked when they hear the following phrase: “there’s no such thing as an illegal immigrant.” In theoretical terms they are known as ‘irregular migrants’ and almost all are forced migrants (a forced migrant can be an asylum seeker, refugee or family reunion migrant depending on the context). In a nutshell, they are people who are denied the right to settle by a receiving state. That’s it, that is as far as the domestic legality goes, theoretically and internationally they are simply a vulnerable group of people. They have been refused entry into a state because as forced migrants they are seen as a drain of the receiving state’s resources. This is why we see political figures such as Trump banning asylum and protection for forced migrants in America – this does not mean that their existence is illegal, it means that Trump has condemned the world’s most vulnerable. I urge all who read this to investigate these terms further by doing your own research and investigating my own so that, instead of adding to the pool of ignorance, we can fight it.


There are many debates on migration as to what model of migration is the most effective/ineffective. I will, for the purpose of clarity, focus on two specific approaches.

The Republican model – views the state as a political community and is often constitution based. Accepting of migrants (the amount and type depends on the specific state) as long as they integrate and follow the principles, culture and laws of their state – the immigrant must, to a certain extent, leave the practices and values of their origin state behind.

The Multicultural model – also a political community though people may preserve their distinctive cultures and form ethnic communities providing they conform to national laws (Sweden and the Netherlands are two examples of states who utilise this model).

The differing perspectives on the pros and cons of each model are elaborate and rather emotive so for now I will avoid going into too much detail. I just wanted to present them  simply to encourage further reading on both subjects. Do remember that there are more approaches though most are outdated and no longer in use.

Further considerations

There is only so much I can tell you in a single post but I hope I have covered some new concepts and encouraged further consideration around migration. It is at times simple but, somehow, easily misunderstood. If we are to have an opinion on it then it is our duty to know about it so please avoid making judgements based on alternative media and politics. Try and find reliably sourced books, journals and even websites who properly reference and have some form of legitimacy. Avoid at all costs solely opinion pieces that aren’t referenced as that is where ignorance lies.



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