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Why people migrate: 11 surprising reasons

NPS Photo by Michael Quinn

Here in the US, there’s been a lot of talk recently on immigration. The debate is raging over President Obama’s new series of executive actions that will grant up to 5 million undocumented immigrants protection from deportation. Naturally, this kind of boldness has created quite the ruckus, as his opponents insist he has gone too far. And outside of Washington DC, discussions over immigration are just as heated.

Freedom of speech is one of the most important aspects of our constitution, and lively discourse is the only way to arrive at a thoughtful conclusion. But, how can we talk about these types of issues if we don’t have the facts? For this reason, let’s take a look at some of the reasons why different groups of people choose to immigrate.

1. To escape past or future persecution based on race, religion, nationality, and/or membership in a particular social group or political opinion

Za'atari refugee camp, Jordan | UNHCR/ Brian Sokol

In most countries, and in the United States, families and individuals who meet this criteria may obtain refugee status or asylum. Now, here’s the difference: refugees must secure their status prior to entering the country of choice, where as asylum seekers seek status upon arrival. A complex differentiation that causes a lot of confusion in the process to get people to safety.

2. To escape conflict or violence

In many countries, but not the United States, families and individuals who immigrate to escape conflicts like war and violence can be considered for refugee status or asylum.

3. To find refuge after being displaced due to environmental factors

Natural disasters, erosion, and other environmental factors caused by climate change are real threats that disproportionately affect people living in poverty. In fact, Christian Aid reports that 1 billion people could be displaced in the next 50 years as the effects of climate change worsen.

People who fit this description are dubbed climate “refugees,” but the name does not necessarily imply they have, or can receive, refugee status. As this is a newer phenomenon, many countries are still trying to determine how to respond to this growing issue.

4. To seek superior healthcare

Imagine living in a country with limited access to healthcare when you’re suffering from serious health problems. Not fun.

5. To escape poverty

Agriculture worker in Argentina picking strawberries | Nahuel Berger/ World Bank

Perhaps the most commonly assumed reason for immigration.  

6. To offer more opportunities to children

Parents sometimes make the difficult decision to migrate so their children can benefit from things like superior education, and plentiful job opportunities.

7. Family reunification

Self explanatory, I think? Mom and Dad, I miss you!!

8. For educational purposes

Students from Merrimack College studying abroad in China | Merrimack College

Shout out to all of the adventurous students. Some study abroad  to seek out better educational opportunities than are available in their own countries, while others simply want the thrill of living in an exciting, new place.

9. For jobs and business opportunities

In some cases, people migrate with the knowledge or hope that more opportunities will be available to them in their particular field than at home. Others migrate after employment has already been offered to them.

10. Marriage

In today’s globalized world, long-distance dating is all the rage. But, for couples ready to take the next step down the aisle, migrating to be together is the obvious choice (and a lot easier on the wallet.)

11. Just ‘cus

At Global Citizen, our office is full of Aussies and people from far more interesting places than the US (it’s just my opinion.) Why they would abandon gorgeous beaches and cute little kangaroos is beyond me, but I’m sure they have their reasons.


As we think about immigration, and how best to approach it, let’s try and remember that we’re talking about real people. People who made a major decision to uproot their lives and start from scratch in a scary, new place. After all, isn’t making that human connection what being a Global Citizen is all about?

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Christina Nuñez