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Migrants desperate to reach Europe are typically smuggled via unseaworthy boats that frequently sink. The most recent large-scale tragedy occurred on February 26, 2023, when a boat of at least 200 migrants that departed from Izmir, Türkiye, sank off the coast of Calabria, Italy, leaving over 60 people dead. (Photo: Abandoned migrant boat, 2021. Christopher Eden via Unsplash, 2021.)

Forced migration: Q&A with expert Roger Waldinger

The UCLA distinguished professor of sociology answers questions about the current state of global migration and international refugee policies.

UCLA International Institute, April 3, 2023 — Over the past decade, millions of people in the developing world have been driven from their countries by violence, armed conflict, failing states and economic collapse. Most of these forced migrants are currently being hosted by neighboring countries in the Middle East, Latin America, South Asia and Eastern Europe.

The UCLA Center for the Study of International Migration, or CSIM, will convene a free two-day “International Conference on Forced Migration” on April 14–15, 2023 (in-person and/or online registration required). Migration specialists from across the U.S. and the world (including Denmark, Ecuador, Poland, Canada and Mexico) will discuss the latest research on global migration and the need for constructive policy responses.

Roger Waldinger Roger Waldinger, CSIM director and UCLA distinguished professor of sociology, recently sat down for an interview about forced migration and the policy choices being made — and avoided — by countries of the Global North. Author and/or editor of eight books, including “A Century of Transnationalism: Immigrants and their Home Connections” (Illinois, 2016; with Nancy L. Green), Waldinger is known for research that addresses both immigrants and the countries and people they leave behind.

Can you define the term “forced migration” and why it has come into use?

Forced migration distinguishes between people for whom migration is totally optional and people for whom it’s completely compelled. For example, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were living in the UK but could go anywhere in the world.

At the other end of the continuum is someone who finds a gun pointed at his or her temple and is told “You need to leave now, or else you’re going to killed” or “If you don’t leave tomorrow, the security forces are going to come to your house.” Alternatively, it could be someone whose house has been destroyed or finds him- or herself in the midst of violence, with no nearby refuge.

Many, many people fall between these two poles, but the sharp contrast illuminates the difference between discretionary and forced migration.

In part, forced migration emerged as a term because the concept of refugee is so closely linked to the 1951 Refugee Convention (and the 1967 Protocol) of the United Nations, and the international legal definition that it enshrines.* That concept provides a compelling, but very limited definition, of people who qualify for asylum protection. The term “forced migration” expands the population that is actually at risk.

Why is it necessary to differentiate between migrants and refugees?

Refugees have exceptional legal status. Signatory states to the Refugee Convention are obligated to accept refugees who reach their borders and make a credible claim to asylum, allowing them to live legally in the country with access to social services while their claims are investigated. Most importantly, signatories are obligated to not push asylum seekers back across the border.

So states have a lot of reasons to prevent people from ever reaching their borders, which some call a “no arrival” policy. If we ask why the European Union is cooperating with the Libyan coast guard to keep people from reaching Italy, or with Turkey to keep refugees from crossing into Greece — or why the U.S. is working with Mexico to keep Central American refugees from reaching the U.S. border — it’s because once people reach Europe or the U.S., they can make a claim. The only way to stop this phenomenon is to keep them far away.

Syrian refugee camp in the outskirts of Athens.(Photo: Julie Ricard via Unsplash, 2020.)


Where are most forced migrants living today?

The majority of the world’s refugees are living either in refugee camps in the developing world or in cities in the developing world and that’s where they will stay.

People typically run to the nearest source of safety, which is a nearby country. Syrians mostly went to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt [although roughly one million reached Europe in 2015]. Afghans have for decades gone to Iran. People from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are fleeing gang violence and criminal activities and trying to reach the U.S., but ending up in Mexico. Venezuelans have fled a collapsing state and economy and gone to Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile and even Brazil.

More recently, some five to six million Ukrainians have fled the war Ukraine in the past year and are now living mostly in Poland, Germany, France and Spain. They are able to work legally, send their children to school, etc., but have no path to citizenship. No one yet knows what their long-term future will be.

What policy responses could help alleviate the growing number of asylum seekers?

A very limited number of countries are engaged in refugee resettlement. Essentially, it’s Canada, the U.S., Australia, Norway and Sweden. The UK has a virtually nonexistent resettlement program and makes family reunifications very difficult, which is why you have seen the small boat phenomenon (migrants trying to arrive on UK shores) for the past 10 years.

Even before the Trump presidency, the U.S. actually admitted very few refugees relative to its population and the numbers have also been plummeting. On average, during the last two decades of the 20th century, almost 100,000 refugees were resettled every year; during the 21st century, that number has fallen to just over 50,000 a year. And for the past two years, the total has been pathetically low: not even 12,000 a year and that at a time when the need is greater than ever before.

Higher levels of resettlement, together with more generous levels of support for refugees, would go a long way toward demonstrating that the West takes the problem of forced migration seriously.

In 1980, the U.S. accepted 200,000 refugees from Indochina, when the U.S. population was 226 million. If we could resettle 200,000 refugees in 1980, we could surely resettle 300,000 in 2023, when our population has reached 334 million. That’s a lot of people to resettle, but it’s small relative to the need. I’m not suggesting that 300,000 is a politically viable number, but I believe migration scholars and migration advocates need to start using that number to build awareness of what is possible.

Migrants crossing the border between Guatemala and Mexico. (Photo: VOA via WikiCommons, 2018.) Public domain.


Refugee and immigration policies are running into populist resistance and growing authoritarian movements throughout the world. In Europe and the U.S., anti-immigration sentiment is preventing debate on realistic, pragmatic policy responses to migration.

At the same time, advanced industrial nations in the West (e.g., Italy), as well as several in East Asia (e.g., Japan, Korea, China) have or will soon have rapidly aging populations and/or need migrant workers to help sustain specific economic sectors. Not to mention that catastrophic climate change is expected to drive future waves of mass migration. Is there any long-term thinking, particularly in the U.S., on policy responses that could improve immigration policies and prepare for future contingencies?

In the U.S., there is a hopeless policy stalemate. I can’t imagine a route to immigration reform until we can resolve at least the straightforward issue of putting the so-called “Dreamers” on a path to citizenship. But here we are, it’s 2023, and there is no likelihood that a such a modest measure could be passed by Congress and approved by the president — a measure that is supported by a majority of the U.S. population.

Sophisticated policy thinking on immigration exists in the U.S., it’s just very far from the halls of power. In 2013, the Senate passed a version of comprehensive immigration reform [the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act] that reflected the best expert ideas on how to update immigration policy in a way appropriate for America today. The House of Representatives refused to take up the bill and it died. So the issue is not lack of ideas, it’s lack of receptivity and political will (or ability) to push legislation through Congress successfully.

*The 1951 Convention “defines a refugee as a person who is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion; and is unable or unwilling to avail him- or herself of the protection of that country, or to return there, for fear of persecution.” UNCHR, 2021, “The 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.”

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Published: Monday, April 3, 2023

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