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.
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"
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).
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.
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.