Migration Dilemmas — by Robyn Iredale

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There are more migrants now than at any other time since the end of World War Two. Professor Robyn Iredale discusses the dilemmas that arise from this

The eternal questions

Whether to stay or go, return home or move elsewhere, are questions that have been wrestled with by countless millions. Weighing up the pros and cons is one situation but being forced to flee in order to survive introduces another element. Even then, the ones who go, are most often the ones who have the financial and personal resources to do so.

Age of migration?

 Currently, the world is faced with highly unstable situations in some Middle Eastern countries and a potential 60 million people may opt to leave these countries. At the same time, Africa is the source of many migrants wishing to find a better life for themselves or who want to be able to support their families at home. Global warming and sea level rise are leading to crises in Pacific Island states and the need to find new homes for some of these people.

Flows from poorer to richer countries have been ongoing for decades and mass exodus in Europe occurred after the end of World War 11. But Yaghmaian (2005) argues that because of globalisation, people have a better awareness of life in other parts of the world – so they move. This helps explain the large crowds that are now moving, with the aid of smugglers and smartphones, from the Middle East, Asia and Africa to Europe, from Latin America to North America and elsewhere.

China’s tidal wave of ‘floating population’

In this context, the mass migration of peasants within China since the 1980s has also been like a tidal wave. When 200 million migrants in China are defined as being ‘the floating population’ it is akin to the floating population currently making their way to Europe. They too hear about the possibility of a better life and more opportunities outside of their rural villages. But China’s hukou system has created a two-tier system of citizens where, if people move in the hope of a better life, they are treated as second-class citizens in the place of destination.

The continuation of this system, in spite of strong criticism from many Chinese scholars remains an anachronism. The policy has kept migrants’ wages low and has fostered a range of social issues: problems with education, housing, identity and well-being. The ‘floodgates’ argument that is usually posited by countries not wanting to accept international migrants seems to still apply within China. The question as to why this situation continues to prevail remains unanswered.

International migration and China: past and present

China has a long history of emigration: the search for better incomes and even survival led them to become traders, ship farers, gold miners, railway workers, etc overseas. Since 1978 and the opening up of China, the situation has totally changed and Chinese now make up a sizeable part of the flow of international migrants. In recent decades, the Chinese government has realised the value of migration: especially, technology/skills transfer and investment in favour of China and overseas businesses developed by emigrants that provide outlets for Chinese goods. Consequently they have encouraged out-migration, mostly of well-educated and well-resourced individuals. There is also now strong pressure for migrants to retain their allegiance with China to foster links and networks. As the country undergoes a phase of renewed nationalism overseas Chinese are being encouraged to participate in helping to build a stronger China. State-sponsored migration and national building now go hand in hand.

9781783476633Migrants, whether they are voluntary/involuntary or temporary/permanent, are a ‘select group’ as they are, on average, younger and more adventurous than their stay-behind compatriots. Evidence shows that 52% of startup companies in Silicon Valley in the decade up to 2005 had at least one immigrant founder. Many countries have increasingly been happy to accept Chinese immigrants in the face of their own problems of declining economic growth and aging populations. The ‘floodgates’ argument does not seem to prevail in relation to Chinese migration in countries that have a history of immigration but still seems prevalent where Asian immigration is relatively new.


Migration has always been a very contested arena. On the one hand, some argue that migrants take the jobs of locals, cost too much, don’t integrate leading to social problems, bring anti-social attitudes, disease and strange customs to the destinations, drain their home countries of much needed skills and have no right to seeks asylum. On the other hand, others maintain that migrants bring in skills and capital that contribute to economic growth, they increase diversity that in turn promotes innovation and creativity, they reduce the problems associated with ageing societies and they assist development in both the source and destination.

The Syrian crisis and the floods of people streaming into Europe are being met at the moment with this dichotomous set of reactions. Some politicians, such as Angela Merkel, are demonstrating a level of humanity and understanding that is not evident in many others who are erecting fences and turning people in boats back. This is a time for leaders to lead and to accept that migration is an integral part of the human story and the development of appropriate attitudes and policies towards migrants, in all contexts, will make the journey much less difficult.

Professor Robyn Iredale, is Adjunct Associate Professor at the Australian Demographic and Social Research Institute, Australian National University, Canberra. Robyn is the editor of the newly published Handbook of Chinese Migration.

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