International migration by reason

Persons migrate for diverse reasons, among them to work, to carry out a business contract, to study, to marry, to accompany a family member who is moving to work or study in another country, to escape persecution, etc. At the same time, destination countries grant, more or less flexibly or freely, visas and permits which permit persons to enter the country to carry out their intended activities. In some cases entry may not be allowed, in which case the migrant may attempt to specify a reason for migration for which entry into the country is more easily obtainable. It is well-known, for example, that in recent decades the asylum route has often been used to enter countries by persons seeking to escape poverty, to find employment or by persons fleeing war zones, reasons which, strictly speaking, do not fall under the definition of persecution specified in the Geneva Convention.  Likewise, persons may enter as tourist or business visitors or temporary workers, and change to another status after arrival or even stay on beyond the duration allowed in their permits or visas.  

Although the reason specified in the visa or permit may not necessarily correspond to the immigrant’s actual intention, it is generally the one for which statistics exist and which is the object of national migration policies that seek to influence the nature and composition of migration.

Statistics collected from destination countries of the Americas sometimes include information on the type of visa or permit issued to international migrants. Figure 4 summaries the distribution of the most common reasons for which permits or visas were issued, for countries for which it was possible to categorize them in the way indicated for a recent year (2013).

Figure 4. International migration by type, permanent and temporary, 2013

The first thing to note is the growing importance of permits granted on the basis of international agreements, in particular Mercosur, in some countries. The absence of such permits in the chart for other countries does not necessarily mean that there were no entries under international agreements, but rather that the data have not been categorized primarily in this way. It is obvious, for example, that there have been movements between Canada, Mexico and the United States under NAFTA, but such movements are showing up as migration for “work” reasons and those of the accompanying family members as migration for “family” reasons rather than as migration in the context of international agreements.. 

Likewise, in some countries having signed trade agreements allowing for the right of free establishment, international students may not show up as having migrated with a “study” permit but rather as having moved subject to an international agreement. Eventually, as migration regimes move more and more towards free circulation or establishment, visas or permits may disappear entirely for persons falling under such regimes, making the statistical task of measuring the scale and type of movements even more challenging. This has happened, for example, in certain countries in the European Union, where there are often no permits or visas required for citizens of member countries[1] in a number of countries in Figure 4, family migration levels appear low, likely because accompanying family migrants are being granted the same type of visa or permit as the principal applicant and are not identified separately. Other countries may not follow this kind of practice; for these, family migration levels appear more significant.

For all of the reasons cited here and undoubtedly others as well, the statistics presented in Figure 4 are difficult to interpret from a comparative perspective.

In Argentina and Bolivia, a majority of international migrants enter under international agreements, most of them certainly for work-related reasons. In Brazil, relatively few Mercosur migrants are granted permits in the formal work permit system, but many appear in the federal police register as Mercosur migrants.  Recall that in many Latin American countries having carried out regularization programs, the large majority of persons regularized come from other countries in the Americas. The creation of formal Mercosur permits is a concrete manifestation of the more liberal migration regimes which are appearing under the wings of Mercosur. At the same time, however, some information is lost, namely that about the reason for the migration, with work, family and study migration often being confounded under the same rubric.

The distribution of migration reasons observed for countries on the right-hand side of the chart, especially for Canada and the United States, provides a useful benchmark of what to expect for countries without free establishment or free circulation regimes. The United States permanent migration regime, as is well known, emphasizes the migration of persons with family in the United States and is the most strongly family-oriented migration regime in the OECD. The Canadian permanent regime is, in certain respects, more “typical” and also, much more significant in scale, admitting  roughly two and one half times more permanent immigrants per person in the population than does the United States. Much of the additional migration in Canada consists of labor migrants and their families. Indeed, it can be said that labor and study migration are the only flexible parts of a migration regime, with immediate family and humanitarian migration being largely non-discretionary as a result of being subject to international treaties and generally recognized human rights.[2]

When both temporary and permanent migration are grouped, the Canadian regime consists of 27% family migration, 19% study migration and 47% labor migration. Migration to Brazil, by contrast, consists of 6% family migration, 30% under international agreements, 9% study and 50% direct labor migration. Relative to the other kinds of migration, the family migration levels in Brazil seem rather low.  However, a higher proportion of the labor migration in Brazil is temporary (97%) compared to Canada 77%) and temporary migrants tend to come less often with their families than permanent migrants.

The situation in Argentina may well reflect what can be expected in more and more Latin American countries with the liberalization of movements in the region, with fully three quarters of all migration, both permanent and temporary, falling under international agreements.

[1] In other countries, free-circulation migrants they may still be identifiable and countable because of a requirement to register or to carry a nominal permit, which is automatically granted to eligible persons. 

[2] The right of permanent immigrants to live with their families and to marry and of adopt whom they wish.