This module is a resource for lecturers


Mixed migration flows


'Mixed migration' is a term that has developed in the policy landscape. It encompasses the following vectors:

  • Migrants have different motivations (including economic, educational, discrimination issues and fear of persecution or violence). Often, the factors driving migrants to leave their respective home countries are multifaceted (for example, where civil war or political upheaval exists, finding safe employment is likely to become an arduous endeavour, pushing individuals to seek opportunities abroad).
  • Persons with different migratory motivations and to whom different legal frameworks apply might converge on the same routes (and even use the same mode of transportation), aiming to reach the same destination country. Moreover, different legal frameworks might apply to the same individuals at different stages of their journey. For example, a smuggled migrant might become a victim of trafficking, or an irregular migrant might become a refugeedue to a change of circumstances in his or her country of origin.

Migration flows are often composed of people moving for a variety of reasons. There are several important concepts that are used, and often confused, in the context of mixed flows (see for example IOM and OHCHR).

Table 1

Irregular migrant

A person who enters, transits or stays in a country - of which he or she is neither a national nor a permanent resident - without fulfilling relevant legal requirements.

Smuggled migrant

An individual who resorts to the services of another person (a smuggler), whereby the latter procures or enables the illegal entry, transit or stay of the former in a country of which he or she is not a national or permanent resident. Smugglers act for the purpose of obtaining a financial or other material benefit.

Right of asylum

The right of a person being persecuted in his or her own country to be protected by another State.


A person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his or her nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to avail him or herself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his or her former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, unwilling to return to it.


An individual who left the respective country of origin and formally applied for asylum in another State but whose application has not yet been ultimately decided.

Economic migrant / Labour migrant

A person who leaves the respective country of origin purely for economic reasons - that are not related to the refugee definition (see above) - to seek improvement in his or her livelihood.

Environmental migrant

An individual who is forced to leave the respective home country due to sudden or long-term changes to the local environment which compromise his or her well-being or livelihood. For example, droughts, desertification, sea level rise and disruption of seasonal weather patterns such as monsoons.

Family reunification

An entry channel enabling those in a foreign State to be joined by their family members. States often enjoy enhanced discretion in determining the conditions of family reunification.




'Irregular' v 'illegal' migrants

Although the term 'illegal migrant' is often used, international and regional bodies recommend use of the term 'irregular'. Other reasons generally put forward are that the former terminology is legally inaccurate, misleading, neglects international legal obligations, infringes upon due process, inadequately represents the reality of individuals reaching territorial borders and stigmatizes migrants. Notably:

  • The term 'illegal' indicates the migrant has done something criminal, while many irregular migrants are not criminals;
  • Classifying persons as 'illegal' might equate to objectifying them, thus denying their humanity;
  • Considering asylum-seekers that find themselves in an irregular situation as 'illegal' may further jeopardize their asylum claim (Koser, 2005).


Rights and protections afforded to refugees are established under international law, including the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Additional Protocol. A fundamental principle is the prohibition of refoulement: that a State is forbidden to return migrants to a country in which they would likely be in danger of persecution based on their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Box 4

Principle of non-refoulement

No Contracting State shall expel or return ("refouler") a refugee in any manner whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened because of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.

Article 33(1) United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees

In several jurisdictions, a person is officially a refugee only when their claim for asylum is granted by the government. It should be noted that the refugee definition generally does not apply to those who flee natural disasters or climate change. Other forms of protection may apply to them. These individuals are sometimes referred to as ' climate refugees'.

It should further be emphasized that, in some instances, smugglers are the only available avenue for refugees and asylum-seekers to realize their rights. The inability of refugees to cross borders regularly has been addressed in the Refugee Convention:

Box 5

Article 31 of the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees

1. The Contracting States shall not impose penalties, on account of their illegal entry or presence, on refugees who, coming directly from a territory where their life or freedom was threatened in the sense of article 1, enter or are present in their territory without authorization, provided they present themselves without delay to the authorities and show good cause for their illegal entry or presence.

2. The Contracting States shall not apply to the movements of such refugees restrictions other than those which are necessary and such restrictions shall only be applied until their status in the country is regularized or they obtain admission into another country. The Contracting States shall allow such refugees a reasonable period and all the necessary facilities to obtain admission into another country.


Responses to mixed migration

Effective management of mixed migration requires consideration of the different motivations of people concerned. In doing so, and by improving different systems to address different types of migratory motivations and drivers, reception systems for migrants can be developed and improved holistically. Ideally, mixed migration calls for a multidisciplinary and holistic approach, with the involvement of multiple governmental stakeholders (for example, interior ministries, ministries of social development, immigration ministries and competent authorities for international development) as well as international partners (see Module 12).

Of interest is UNHCR's so-called Three Durable Solutions regarding the refugee regime, which posits three responses to refugees: (i) local integration (in the first safe country of arrival), (ii) return after the cessation of the reasons that prompted international protection, and (iii) resettlement in a third country. A fourth avenue--that is, transnational mobility--has been advocated to address mixed migration more specifically. According to this proposal, migrants (including non-refugees) maintain connections with their country of origin (e.g. through sending of remittances and cultural practices) while contributing to the development of their countries of residence (see the video statement from Dr Nicholas Van Hear under ' Additional teaching tools').

A main challenge for responses to mixed migration flows is that governmental and institutional policies to address migration have mostly been based on inaccurate understandings of migratory motivations. Consequently, responses to address migration are not always the most appropriate and effective. One particular challenge is that, in many cases, the only avenue open to irregular migrants entering a country is to apply for asylum, even where they are not asylum seekers. As a result, actual asylum seekers may be perceived, inaccurately, as economic migrants in disguise. Effective approaches should offer multiple pathways to migrants, with, for example, regular labour migration pathways open to economic migrants and asylum pathways open to asylum seekers. Following this approach could result, in time, in both systems mutually strengthening each other, with migrants processed through appropriate legal avenues. This reasoning is applicable, with necessary adaptations, to mixed migration flows that combine additional components and motivations (such as education opportunities).

Next: The social politics of migrant smuggling
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