Global mobility, said to be a recent phenomenon dating from the 1990s, is currently raising fears among many who want state borders closed and jobs protected. Consider an apparently unrelated recent issue in the media, the decline of coffee prices in world markets. Like mobility, coffee growing, prices, and consumption are global. However, analysis cannot proceed in terms of bordered states but rather in terms of globally spread economic regions. The route from producer to consumer includes the requirement for globally mobile transport workers in container shipping, often men from the Philippines, and also for labour to unload air cargos, often migrant men from regions where wages are low and life projects difficult. At the producers’ end of this commodity chain, peasant families or men and women on plantations lose their jobs or their land. They have to migrate when they cannot make ends meet. On the consumers’ side, no migration seems to be involved. Historically, however, consumption had to be introduced to Europe and elsewhere. Coffee, native to Ethiopia and Yemen, was brought by 17th-century migrant entrepreneurs, often Armenians, who established coffee houses and the coffee house culture with it. With increasing demand, the ‘East India Companies’ – multinationals of the time with migrant personnel from the core – established mass production in the global plantation belt and forced migrant labourers to these worksites.

Global migrations, entwined with investments, imposition of power and regionally concentrated resources, have a long history. Migration and trade across the (known) world dates back millennia – in the Indian Ocean 5000 years, between China and other sections of the Asian world several thousand years. The expulsion of parts of the Jewish population and their diaspora formation began in 70 CEthose expelling them were powerful Roman administrator and immigrant soldiers. Often overlooked, women were also part of all such moves.

Modern globalization began with the 15th-century linking of the Eurasian-African world with that of the Americas, both of which are criss-crossed internally (across the continent, in other words) by migration routes. Tiny numbers of heavily armed Europeans colonized the Americas and, after population collapse through unwittingly introduced germs, set in motion vast migrations. This Atlantic-centred view, however, is narrow. Large Chinese fleets connected East Asia with East Africa, and Chinese population growth involved vast settlement migrations. In the Levantine and Anatolian regions – the hinge between Asia and Europe – advancing Muslim Turkish armies, settlers, and whole populations established themselves. Into this ‘new’ global world, English and other ‘merchant adventurers’ penetrated as migrants armed with guns, capital, and an overbearing sense of superiority and whiteness. Mass migrations – local, meso-regional and macro-regional – resulted: regionally to plantations and mines and transoceanically to plantation regimes based on the labour power of enslaved African men and women.

By the 19th century, the small numbers of colonizer migrants across the world, and resulting or resource-induced uneven economic development, set in motion five macro-systems of migration: the forced migration of slaves out of Africa continued with the last two million of 12.5 million men and women; some 50-55 million men and women migrated transatlantically, north and south, from 1815 to the 1930s; another 12-20 million moved from European Russia to the Transcaspian and southern Siberian agricultural belt and to the empire’s far eastern cities; another 48-52 million, often labelled ‘coolies’ in racist parlance, moved from the British and other colonizer powers’ Asian possessions in free and involuntary migrations in the 1830s to 1930s; and 46-51 million moved in the north China-Manchuria-eastern Russian migration system during the 1880s-1930s. The 20th century world wars of European origin and the drawing of ‘nation’ state borders through regions of mixed settlement made Europe the largest refugee-generating region on the globe. From the 1950s, state-formation, often resulting from ‘nationalist’ movements in the formerly colonized world shifted a refugee-generation southward. At the same time capitalist neo-colonialism – often in conjunction with local elites – decreased options for sustainable lives or projects for a better future for children, and thus increased global disparities and the potential for migration.

Thus evolved the 20th-century global migrations. In the 1880s, migrants to the vast plains from North America via southern Russia to Australia, as well as to colonized rice-growing Burma, began to mass-produce grains as world market prices collapsed. Family farming in many regions had to be abandoned and the dislocated men and women with their children migrated to urban industrial jobs whether in Harbin, the Ruhr District, or Cleveland. Such migrant and immigrant industrial labouring families lived residentially segregated near factories. With the present growth of the service sector, and gendered domestic and caregiving labour in particular, migrants work across urban spaces in middle-class neighbourhoods. Ever more come from colonized/neocolonized peoples and, in white societies, are thus doubly visible. Rural and small-town migrants in metropoles like Shanghai or Nairobi are equally discernable because of dialect, dress, and class position.

Globalization is not new. Nor are global migrations suddenly ‘feminized’ – women have always been an integral part of migration. Had migration across the globe not always been gendered, immigrant communities with children would not have emerged in British North America, in Spanish and Portuguese South America, or in China’s many cities. All migrants connected their local place of socialization with a distant local space of life-course options. Migration was and is translocal and, in regional socio-economic contexts, transregional. In transnational or, perhaps better put, transstate migrations, borders merely present an additional obstacle in the glocal movements of people.


Curtin, P. D. (1984) Cross-Cultural Trade in World History, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gabaccia, D. R. (2000) Italy’s Many Diasporas, London: UCL.

Hoerder, D. and Kaur, A. eds. (2013) Proletarian and Gendered Mass Migrations: A Global Perspective on Continuities and Discontinuities from the 19th to the 21st Century, Leiden: Brill.

Hoerder, D. (2002) Cultures in Contact: World Migrations in the Second Millennium, Durham: Duke University Press.

Manning, P. (2005) Migration in World History, New York: Routledge.

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