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Professor Michael Collyer is a Reader in Geography at the University of Sussex. He is particularly interested in the movement of people between countries and regions, as well as how best to manage migration geopolitically. In 2014, he and a group of researchers, from the universities of Sussex, Durham and SOAS, were selected by the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) to undertake the Society’s three year Field Research Programme. We spoke to him about this project, titled Migrants on the margins.

Why do we need more research into migration patterns, processes and management?

Data on migration of all types is notoriously poor. This is especially the case with ‘internal’ migration (migration which does not cross an international border). Since information on who moves is so limited, the ways of managing this migration are also particularly uncertain. In the context of rural to urban migration, for example, it is typical for migrants themselves to be blamed for any negative changes, whether connected to migration or not. Research on migration into urban areas typically focuses on only one urban area in detail. We therefore have little systematic, comparative information on how these patterns and management techniques vary from one city to another.

Why is it important to study the marginal areas of urban spaces in particular?

Predictions of the UN Population Division suggest that world population growth will be concentrated in poorer cities and population growth within those cities will come mostly from migration into those cities. Although some migrants are very wealthy, most migrants will come from rural areas which are much poorer than the cities they are travelling to, they will therefore seek out the cheapest parts of these cities in which to live. This means that population growth at a global scale is likely to be concentrated in the poorer parts of the poorest cities. This will bring particular challenges which are still very poorly understood.

Your study will only look at migrants who are forced to move – why is that?

The distinction between people who are forced to move and those who move voluntarily is extremely fluid. Everyone’s behaviour is constrained to some extent. People’s choices may be limited by conflict, poverty, drought, flooding or other environmental factors. Most people will have at least some choice, so migration is not an automatic or inevitable response, but this study is most interested in those people who have few other options and may well be considered to be forced to move.

Why have the four cities of the programme (Dhaka, Colombo, Harare and Hargeisa) been singled out in particular?

These cities have three things in common which contributed to the selection. First, with the exception of Dhaka, these cities are all medium sized cities with a population of between one and two million. Research has typically been concentrated in mega-cities of more than five million, but there is good reason to think that slightly smaller cities will be different, in terms of the management of these movements. Second, all cities are experiencing substantial, ongoing migration from a rural hinterland. Third, all cities are affected by either drought or flooding on a regular basis and this is concentrated in particular (usually poorer parts) of the cities. Once these factors had been considered a final selection was made based on the research experience of the research team and the international contacts that members of the team already had.

Within the research team there are academics from outside the geography discipline – why is this valuable to the methodology of the study?

Although it is very important to have strong foundations in one disciplinary approach, there is a widespread belief that new approaches and ideas are more likely to arise out of confrontations with different ways of doing things. Geography is already a very broad discipline, which is one of the reasons why geographers are very good at working with people from other disciplines. Talking to people in other disciplines can force you to examine the assumptions on which your ideas are based and mixing comparable parts of very different approaches can lead to innovative ways of thinking or doing research.

If migration causes problems (for the migrants themselves and for their host regions) should we be looking to better manage the causes of the movements or their effects?

This is a very useful distinction. Detailed attention to addressing the reasons why people are forced to move began in the 1980s and is usually called the ‘root cause approach’. The difficulty is that these ‘root causes’ tend to be very difficult to deal with; they include very far reaching, long term problems such as war, conflict, political instability or climate change. Policy must obviously tackle these root causes but in most cases real solutions will take decades to have any major impact on things that make some people leave their homes. In the shorter term, policy has turned to the effects of these movements and in some cases this means that the difficulties faced by migrants can be addressed more quickly, though it is obviously no substitute for ongoing attention to the root causes of movement.

Why do you think migrants fleeing crises often become ‘trapped’ in their host region, unable to return home (even once the initial threat there has gone)?

Most research into migration in response to conflict or disasters highlights the fact that since people expect the situation to improve, they often travel short distances and expect to return. Often that movement is intended to provide a place of safety, away from the immediate danger, but also a source of livelihood; a way of making money to support people who have stayed at home and enable ongoing return migrations. This pattern of repeated mobility between a home in a rural area and a job in an urban area is practised all over the world. Problems arise when people’s livelihood in the urban area is cut off too, which means they do not have enough money to make it home. We think this might be happening in some marginalised urban areas but there really is not enough information on this to be sure, so this is one of the main aims of this research project.

What are the best things you hope the Field Research Programme will achieve for migrants?

First, the Field Research Programme will work very closely with migrants living in very poor parts of the selected cities. They usually know more than anyone else about what support these neighbourhoods need but they are often not able to explain those needs effectively. We will work with them to develop skills in cartography to allow them to represent the things they know in ways that will allow them to highlight where the problem areas are with some precision and suggest ways in which city authorities can address them.

Second, we hope to use this research to help convince members of local government in cities that migrants are not the big problem that many of them think they are. In many cities, policy makers are very reluctant to help migrants as they think this will encourage more migrants to come and the final impact on the city will be negative. This research should highlight a much more positive image of rural migrants.

Key Words

Internal Migration
The movement of people within a named country or region.

The movement of people in or out of a region or country.

A migrant who has moved in order to escape real or feared persecution based on their race, religion, nationality or political opinion, or to flee war or the effects of a natural hazard.

A growth in the geographical size of urban areas as a result of increased population.

Lesson Ideas

Students can research one of the four cities that the Field Research Programme team will study. Using population data and information about political and economic change within the country in question, students can try to plot population increases against particular socio-economic circumstances. From this students might like to draw up a ‘recipe for migration’, citing the key factors that push people to migrate to cities in particular.

Ask students to write down (anonymously) on a piece of paper some of the negative views people have of migrants. Picked at random, these views can be used to explore what it may feel like to be a migrant as well as why it is that unkind stereotypes are sometimes used for them. With a link to Citizenship curricula, students may like to explore ways in which they can tackle xenophobia.

Thinking about the idea of a ‘root cause approach’ students can create a mind map showing how push and pull factors for migration are inextricably linked together. On their map they can then try to circle any factor which they see as a ‘root cause’ – something which can lead into a class debate about how difficult it is to single out any one problem and say it alone causes migration.


Michael’s research on Migrants in the EU
Michael’s co-authored research on International Migration and State Power


Michael was interviewed in July 2015