People often think of migration as a recent phenomenon. However, migration has been a feature of human existence for centuries. Humans have always migrated in groups and as individuals to seek freedom from war and conflict, to escape hunger and poverty, to find new economic opportunities and employment, to flee from religious intolerance or political repression, or even to trade and to travel to new places. The historian Robin Cohen (1995) has identified some distinct migration periods or events that have taken place over the last four centuries.
Migration within Europe took place during the modern period as religious groups like the Jews and the Huguenots sought to escape persecution and for economic reasons as farmers migrated to find work in newly emerging industries. Seasonal or circular migration, which is the term for people who go to another country and then return home every year, was a routine factor in workers’ lives during the 17th and 18th centuries.
Africa also has a rich history of population movement that pre-dates the colonial period (Afani, 2013). This included seasonal or circular migration for hunting, agriculture or pastoralism, migration in search of greater security and subsistence, to escape natural disasters and warfare, for trade and pilgrimage. For example, migration from Nigeria during the 17th-18th century was often linked to pilgrimage to religious places in the Arabian Peninsula.
Trade has always played an important role in the mobility of people in Asia. Arab and Chinese traders travelled across well established sea routes to the Malay peninsula and the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos. There were also well established trade routes between India, the Arabian peninsula and West Africa. Circular migration was a common feature of working life for blacksmiths, and acrobats and singers who travelled in small social groups within South Asia.
Following the European colonisation of North and South America (as well as Australia and New Zealand), there was large scale migration of people from Europe (for example, the Pilgrim Fathers, who left Plymouth in 1620) who settled permanently in these regions. The European colonisation of the Americas began in the 1500s and gathered pace during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Different countries in Europe including Britain, Spain, Portugal, Germany, the Netherlands and France promoted the settlement of their nationals abroad (Tinker, 1995).
This migration helped to establish the dominion of Europe over large parts of the world. European settlers often brought new diseases to indigenous communities in the colonised regions, which decimated indigenous populations. Military campaigns and the growth in settler communities resulted in local communities losing ownership and access to their lands.
Slavery (1550 to the end of the 18th century)
The slave trade was one of the largest mass migrations of labour in human history. The first slave ship sailed from Africa to the West Indies in 1550 to meet the need for intensive field labour in the sugar and tobacco plantations owned by White settlers. It is estimated that over 10 million Africans were forcibly taken from mainly Western Africa to the Americas as slaves, many of whom died during the journey. Large numbers of people also died at the hands of the African traders who organised the raids and the forced march of slaves from their homes to the coast. African slaves were also vulnerable while awaiting sale in buildings known as ‘slave forts’ and on board the slave ships that took them across the Atlantic. Historians estimate that as many people died in Africa as were taken out of the country. Today it is estimated that around 40 million people in the Americas and the Caribbean are descended from slaves.
By the early 18th century, Britain became the world's leading slave trading power. A recent study of slave ownership in Britain estimated that as many as one-fifth of wealthy Victorian Britons derived all or part of their fortunes from the slave economy.
Large scale slave trading in Africa ceased towards the end of the 19th century. Through the 19th century, all forms of slavery were abolished through legislation in different countries in Europe, Americas and the colonies. In 1834, when the British Slavery Abolition Act came into force, abolishing slavery throughout most of the British empire, British slave owners received compensation from the government that amounted to billions of pounds in today’s money.
Indentured labour (1834-1917)
When slavery ended, slaves working on plantations in British colonies were replaced with another form of bonded labour - indentured labour. Indentured labourers came primarily from India and China. From 1834 to the end of the First World War, Britain had transported about 2 million Indian indentured workers to 19 colonies including Fiji, Mauritious, Caribbean islands, parts of South America, Sri Lanka and South East Asia (Tinker, 1993). China was the next biggest source of indentured labourers who were transported to the Americas, Phillipines and the Caribbean islands.
Indentured workers were recruited by agents who received financial incentives for each person they recruited. This led to fraudulent practices such as misrepresentation about the work, wages and most commonly, the distance of the colony the workers were being transported to, and through kidnapping and forcible transportation (especially in China). The harsh conditions on the journey to the colonies and the poor working conditions on the plantations meant that many indentured workers died during the period of bondage. Though the indentured labourers were free men and women bound by a labour contract, in reality, their situation was not unlike that of slaves before them. The conditions at work were poor, wages often lower than promised and the hours were long.
Political opposition to the indentured labour system by the Indian nationalist movement grew from the end of the eighteenth century. Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the Indian independence movement, successfully drew attention to the oppression and exploitation of Indian indentured labourers in South Africa. The British government officially ended the indenture system in their colonies in 1917.
Migration to the New World (1800s-1930)
This phase of international migration is linked to the rise of the United States of America as an industrial power and the industrialisation of Australia and New Zealand. Migrants sought to escape poverty and the politically repressive regimes in their home countries in Europe , and motivated by the prospect of economic opportunity settled in the Americas and the former colonies in the New World.
It is estimated that approximately 48 million people left Europe between 1800 and 1930 (Massey et al., 1998). Of these, around eight million people migrated from the British Isles, including more than a million who left Ireland following the potato famine of 1845-47. The New Zealand and Australian governments continued to offer assisted passages to migrants from Europe until the 1970s.
Post WWII migration (late 1940s to 1960s)
This period of migration took place when labour was needed in the post-war reconstruction efforts in Europe and to service the economic boom in Europe, North America and Australia. Migrants from former colonies in the Caribbean and South Asia came to find work in Britain, migrants from Turkey went to Germany and those from former French colonies in North Africa went to France.
For some categories of migrants, such as those from Britain to Australia, this migration was perceived as a permanent move that was encouraged by the receiving nation - the Australian government paid a grant of £10 to each migrant (hence known as ‘ten pound poms’). Many other groups of migrants, such as migrants from Turkey to Germany were given temporary visas as ‘guest workers’. Many of these labour migrants, including South Asian migrants to the UK, went on to settle in the receiving country.
Post 1970s migration
Since the 1970s, the variety of sending and destination countries has grown phenomenally. In addition to the traditional immigration receiving countries in the Americas, Western Europe and Australia and New Zealand, a range of other countries attract a growing population of migrants. These include countries that have historically been nations of emigration such as Italy, Spain and Portugal. Additionally, the escalation of oil prices and the resulting economic boom in the Gulf region has led to a massive immigration to these countries to meet the demand for labour, though most of this is not permanent migration. There has also been a rise in labour migration to newly industrialised countries in Asia such as Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Singapore from poorer countries in Asia such as Burma and Bangladesh.
This phase of migration has features which differentiate it from earlier periods of migration. According to the UN, the proportion of women migrants has increased over the years. In 2005, nearly half of the world’s migrants were women: there were more female than male migrants in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America, Oceania and the former USSR (Koser, 2007: 6). Whereas women traditionally migrated to join their partners or families or migrated together with their family in the earlier periods, an increasing number of women are migrating independently. These women are labour migrants, often the primary earners for their families .
Another change is that unlike earlier phases when migration was more likely to end in permanent settlement, temporary and circular migration is again becoming more important. People are more likely than in earlier periods to migrate more than once in their lives, to different countries, and to return to their original country.