1.10.2008 | Von:
Tim Elrick

Migrant networks

Migration is always a highly interactive social process. Starting from considerations as to whether one really wants to move one's place of residence permanently or temporarily, to the actual decision concerning the manner of migration, the destination and the route to take, right through to opportunities to become integrated in all sorts of areas at the destination; other people's knowledge and the possibilities they offer for making contacts always play a large part.
Van Luong aus Laos lebt seit 26 Jahren in Deutschland.Shop keeper Van Luong is originally from Laos and has lived in Germany for 26 years. (© Susanne Tessa Müller)

Would-be migrants try to use their existing and newly-formed contacts with other people who have knowledge and material resources relevant to migration to further their own plans for migration. Altogether, all of a migrant's social connections with migration-relevant knowledge is then called the migrant's social network or migrant network. This not only encompasses family members and friends, but also acquaintances, persons in organisations or useful strangers. Helping people to migrate has meanwhile given rise to a complete "migration industry" [1] incorporating offers of services in the place of origin for finding a job (e.g. employment agencies), travel offers (from bus companies to illegal people smugglers) through to businesses and services at the destination (e.g. food stores offering goods "from home").

The nature of migration networks

In order to analyse how networks work in the context of migration in their own right, it is necessary to step aside from the individual level of the migrants themselves and sum up their migrant networks. On this aggregated level it then becomes possible to speak of migration networks – in general or with emphasis on certain groups (e.g. from a place of origin, a region or an ethnic group). [2] Migration networks of particular groups build on the reciprocal cohesion of the group members who are then able to utilise the social capital accumulated within the network. Social capital is the available material and non-material resources of the network members to which other members have access through their connections in the network. Access becomes possible via various mechanisms [3]: there may be altruistic values prevailing in the group that morally oblige each group member to provide the other members with resources; there may be group-bounded solidarity in operation that demands that each help the other; reciprocity considerations, or in other words, the exchange of resources in expectation of a service in return, may exist within the group; or there may even be sanction mechanisms in groups that punish the withholding of resources. With the exception of this last point, all mechanisms ensure that group members receive access to network resources. The more contacts a person can incorporate in their network and the more resources such contacts have, the stronger the person's network becomes. This also applies in exactly the same way to the migration network as a whole. The longer it exists, in other words the longer the relevant group's experience of migration, the stronger a migration network will be. Thus, for example, the inhabitants of a village in which there is a high degree of solidarity can obtain information from members of their community who have already migrated abroad about which places in the destination country have a particularly large number of jobs available. They can probably also draw on the knowledge of previous migrants as to which is the cheapest travel option and where to find accommodation at the place of destination, assuming other migrants do not offer them interim accommodation.

How migration networks work

Scientific studies on how social networks work in the migration process have primarily determined forces promoting migration, but also some that hinder it. [4] The facilitating hypothesis states that the social network contacts at the target destination help the (potential) migrant in many ways, e.g. with local knowledge about jobs, interim funding or helpful contacts. The encouraging hypothesis points to the fact that network members invite the (potential) migrant to migrate in the short or long term in order to achieve specific goals, for example as a strategy to secure the household income. According to the affinity hypothesis, finally, networks prevent migration because they, or the social ties resulting from them at the place of origin, for example to friends and kin, are so strong that potential migrants refrain from moving. In this respect it is said that migration networks reduce the costs (whether economic or social costs) and risks inherent in the migration process; this cannot be said, as indicated in the affinity hypothesis, of social networks per se. It can generally be determined that people who have connections with others with current or previous experience of migration are themselves more likely to migrate. [5] People with migration experience who have returned to their country of origin are also significantly more likely to move (again) than people without migration experience, since the former have already built up a migration network. And finally, scientific studies have ascertained that the more political, institutional and economic obstacles there are to oppose plans to migrate, the more important migration networks become. Thus network contacts facilitate a more or less flexible life in more than one national context. This has meanwhile come to be termed a transnational lifestyle.

Migration networks have their greatest quantitative effect where the international migration of poorly-qualified and unskilled workers is concerned, since there has always been high demand for labour in the relevant economic segments that could frequently not be satisfied through the internal labour market. In particular, economic incentives in the form of income differentials between the country of origin and destination contribute to the triggering of chain migration assisted by these networks, thereby perpetuating migration flows.

So what influence do migration networks have on migration policy? Migration policy in this case is understood to mean the policies of individual states or confederations of states (such as the EU) to control immigration and emigration. These measures comprise the control of actual immigration and emigration as well as the regulation of residence in the destination country. Networks can have various impacts on newly-introduced migration policies: they can support, neutralise or thwart the policy goals. A policy that promotes migration, such as when there is a shortage of cheap workers in an economic sector, is supported by migration networks if an established network already exists between certain regions of origin and the destination country. In this case network contacts can additionally facilitate migration, leading to increased migration activity, sometimes greater than the policy decision-makers had intended. However, if strong migration networks already exist between a region of origin and destination country A, and destination country B decides to introduce a policy encouraging immigration, then it is possible that, despite economic and political-institutional incentives, immigration flows will not be diverted from A to B. The advantages of contacts in the existing migration network are greater, thereby partially neutralising the migration policy of destination country B. And finally, the existence of strong migration networks can even run directly counter to the policy goals. If the income differentials between the place of origin and destination are big enough, migrants will utilise their networks to circumvent any obstacles opposing them. The fact that in so doing migrants circumvent not only policies, but also regulations and laws, may be regarded on the one hand as an expression of their (above all, economic) need. It can, however, also be deemed a sign that some of the main countries of origin of unskilled migrant workers are regarded by their citizens as being inefficient and corrupt. As a consequence, inhabitants of these states have fundamentally fewer scruples about circumventing any state directives and laws that come between them and achieving their goals. [6]


Salt 2001; Hernández-León 2005
cf. Elrick, Ciobanu 2007
Portes 1998
cf. for example, Haug 2000
Massey et al. 1993
Castles 2004b; Doomernik et al. February 2005.



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