Migration today features a bewildering variety of forms and types of movement. The term ‘migrant’ can encompass highly diverse types of people on the move, both within and between countries: permanent emigrants and settlers; temporary contract workers; labour, professional, business and trader migrants; students; refugees and asylum seekers; people who move from rural settings to cities, or from smaller towns to larger ones; people moving for marriage and family reasons; and people who seek safety from conflict within their own countries. Moreover, people often shift between these categories: they may enter a country as students, tourists or visitors, for example, but then overstay, work, ask for asylum, or seek permanent settlement, and eventually become naturalised as citizens. Likewise, internal migrants driven by conflict or in search of opportunity may in time cross state borders and become international migrants. How is this great diversity of migratory trajectories to be made sense of?

In the analysis of migration, a basic distinction is often made between those who chose to move and those who are compelled to – that is, between ‘voluntary’ and ‘forced’ migrants. The distinction is particularly salient in the policy world, where governance of international migration is shaped by the conceptual distinction between ‘voluntary’ and ‘forced’ migration as mutually exclusive categories; this is reflected not least in the different institutional architecture for refugees and other kinds of migrant. In reality, of course, the distinction is far from clear-cut: scholars have long pointed to a continuum between ‘forced’ and ‘voluntary’ migration (Richmond, 1994; Van Hear, 1998). For those who are conventionally classed as ‘voluntary’, especially towards the lower levels of the socio-economic scale, there may be only limited mobility choices – as is often the case for labour migrants from lower income backgrounds with little option but to migrate to make a living. Conversely, those classed as refugees or asylum seekers – ‘forced migrants’ – may look to expand their life opportunities, especially once they have reached a place of relative safety. In a way they may transmute from refugees to economic or betterment migrants once a measure of security has been found.

Over the last 20 years there has been increasing recognition that much mobility has mixed motivations of these kinds, and that many migration streams include both people who move to escape conflict or distress and those that are seeking better lives (Van Hear, 2009). This is partly because poverty, inequality and conflict often coexist: those who flee a country where conflict, persecution, discrimination and human rights abuse are rife, for example, may also be trying to escape dire economic circumstances – which may themselves feed into such conflict, persecution, discrimination and human rights abuse. People may then move to escape life or death circumstances; they may move to escape intolerable living conditions; they may move to better themselves; or they may move for a combination of these and other reasons. Migration can be mixed in several senses, which to some degree relate to stages of the migratory process: motivations may be mixed at the point of making the decision to move; different kinds of migrants may make use of the same agents and brokers; they may travel with others in mixed migratory flows; motivations may change en route and after arrival; and people may find themselves in mixed communities during their journeys or at their destination.

Increasing recognition of these complex migration dynamics, and the challenges they pose for migration policy, has led to growing purchase in policy circles of the notion of ‘mixed migration’. Managing such diverse migratory populations presents obvious policy challenges. Who should be admitted, and on what grounds? What rights and entitlements should different types of migrants have once admitted? The problem remains that policy regimes still tend to classify migrants by discrete categories based on a single motivation for migration – labour, highly-skilled, refugee, family, student, and so one – and organise entry and entitlements accordingly. As has been suggested here, in reality migration may be driven by a combination of these kinds of motivations – the search for livelihood, for safety, to rejoin family members, for study and so on – which points to the need for a correspondingly variegated policy approach to address them.


Richmond, A. (1994) Global Apartheid: Refugees, Racism and the New World Order, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Van Hear, N. (1998) New Diasporas: The Mass Exodus, Dispersal and Regrouping of Migrant Communities, London: Routledge/UCL Press.

Van Hear, N. (2009) ‘Managing Mobility for Human Development: The Growing Salience of Mixed Migration’ (with R. Brubaker and T. Bessa), UNDP Human Development Research Paper 2009/20, New York, http://hdr.undp.org/en/reports/global/hdr2009/papers/

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