Written by Chris Whitehead,
Professor of Museology, Newcastle University

What is migration?

Definitions of migration are varied, not least because in museums we may be interested not just in human migrations but in the ways that species, objects, ideas, and cultural practices travel. This nutshell introduces human migration. Elsewhere on Thinking Through Migration you can find out more about migration in natural history, and what people take with them as they migrate.

Human migration commonly signifies the movement of people from one place to another, particularly over national borders, in order to take up permanent or semi-permanent residence. There are a number of types of migration, such as internal migration (e.g. within a country), external or ‘international’ migration, economic and labour migration, family migration (moving to join family members), forced, impelled and reluctant migration, retirement migration and many others. Some of the terms people use can overlap; sometimes different words are used for the same concept; and new terms are frequently coined by scholars, policy makers, official agencies, politicians, media and others. Also, migrants’ journeys can be hard to classify when they are the result of combinations of different motivations.

Motivation is a key issue for two reasons. Firstly, one common idea is that migration can be understood through ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors that impel people to move. Secondly, some definitions make important distinctions based on people’s ability to choose whether, where, how and when to move from a place of origin.

The UN Refugee Agency distinguishes between refugees and migrants. This is important to ensure legal protection and refugee status for people fleeing from often intolerable and deadly conditions in their countries of origin. But a refugee may become a permanent resident in a new country, so there can be confusion between categories over time. In some cases problems arise because the terms can be used almost interchangeably, including in the media and in political debate. This can lead to stigmatisation and social tension.

The University of Oxford Migration Observatory briefing states that the use of the term ‘migrant’ in public debate is ‘extremely loose and often conflates issues of immigration, race/ethnicity, and asylum’. Also:

there is no consensus on a single definition of a ‘migrant’. Migrants might be defined by foreign birth, by foreign citizenship, or by their movement into a new country to stay temporarily (sometimes for as little as a year) or to settle for the long-term.

To add to the confusion, some definitions, surveys and media outlets talk about the children and grandchildren of migrants as second- and third-generation migrants, even if they never migrated themselves. Of course, most, if not all, of us are where we are because of migration in our own lives or those of our ancestors.

So are we all migrants? Yes and no: it depends upon people’s experiences and viewpoints. We, and our societies, are the product of millennia of human movement. But over the lifecourse some people do not move far from their place of origin and family networks. Some think of themselves as ‘born and bred here’, or ‘native to here’. People’s views about themselves and senses of place identity take on critical importance. The words we use to describe ourselves and to describe others also take on critical importance.

Stephen Castles and Mark J. Miller propose that we are now in the ‘Age of Migration’, not because migration in itself is something new, but because of the scale of the challenge that international migration poses to the sovereignty of nation states:

While movements of people across borders have shaped states and societies since time immemorial, what is distinctive in recent years is their global scope, their centrality to domestic and international politics and their enormous economic and social consequences (The Age of Migration 2009: 3).

The increased visibility of migration and its often drastic global and local consequences that mean that our time is seen as different from the past. For museum work, another feature of the ‘age of migration’ is the significance of identity politics. People may want to celebrate multicultural society and welcome diversity. Others may feel that they belong rightfully in their ‘home country’ and that ‘immigrants’ do not, leading to social tensions and ‘us-them’ oppositions.

Can your museum help to break these differences and foster reflection and awareness?