Humanity wall in Ghent, Belgium.

A beginner’s guide to immigration

Language around migration can be confusing, and the way it’s used can impact meaning. When is someone an immigrant? When are they a refugee?

Immigration. It’s a topic at the heart of political arguments and family dinner table rows all around the world. It drives tabloid headlines. But it’s an issue that’s poorly understood by many people. What makes someone a refugee, and what’s an economic migrant? Why do people leave their homes? How easy is it to cross a border?

This is your immigration cheat sheet — an introduction to how humankind migrates. It’s the why, how, and where. The emotional toll many have to face, and the opportunities others enjoy. The changing policies that are impacted by the world in which we live.

What is immigration?

Language around migration can be confusing, and the way it’s used can impact meaning. When is someone an immigrant? When are they a refugee? Meanwhile, the word migrant is often used as an umbrella term for everybody moving somewhere new, regardless of the reason — it isn’t specific to refugees. Here’s a breakdown of some key terms.

Immigration vs. emigration

The difference between immigration and emigration is about whether you’re coming or going. People immigrating are moving into a new country to live, where they become immigrants. Whereas emigration relates to those leaving.

People might also talk about net migration. This is a calculation to show whether more people are moving into a country, than out of it, affecting the overall population. If there are more immigrants to a country than people emigrating, it’s known as positive net migration.

Immigration vs. migration

Moving into a new place is known as immigration. Migration, on the other hand, is the actual act of moving. It’s when people (or birds) leave one location and journey towards another. People might cross multiple borders, or they might even stay in the same country and migrate to a different area.

Immigration under duress

Not all migration is through choice. Many people are forced to move away from their countries, leaving behind homes and loved ones. 

  • Refugees

There are 84 million people in the world who have been forcibly displaced, either within their own countries or beyond its borders. People forced to flee their home countries for fear of being persecuted are known as refugees, and they’re often at risk due to their political beliefs, religion, race, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or sexual orientation. They might be facing war or violence in their home countries. Under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, people are guaranteed the right to seek asylum in another country. They’re also protected from refoulement, where states must not return refugees to places where their lives or freedom would be under threat.

  • Asylum seekers

Refugees who have made an application to stay in a new country, but have not yet received a decision, are known as asylum seekers. They can only make that application once they’re in the new country. As of 2021, there are 4.4 million people waiting on asylum applications across the world. Some travel through several nations before making an application — there is no obligation for people to seek asylum in the first country in which they arrive. Asylum procedures can be complicated, involving interviews, lengthy legal processes, and even detention-like accommodation.

  • Trafficked people

Human traffickers take advantage of people’s vulnerabilities. Those escaping risky situations, or deceived into believing strangers can find themselves in disastrous situations. Victims of human trafficking can be forced into sexual exploitation, slavery, marriage, or crime. It happens both across borders and within people’s home countries.

Immigration: a brief history

People have migrated throughout the whole of history, from early human movement out of Africa to periods of colonialism. It’s nothing new. But the ways migrants are treated and the factors that drive movement are ever shifting. Climate change is forcing more people to leave their homes, and technological advances mean those who want to work from anywhere often can. The Coronavirus pandemic forced countries to close their borders, and some governments used it as an excuse to turn away people.

Immigration laws

Here’s a snapshot of how immigration laws have changed in recent history, and the moments that made big impacts:

  • United Kingdom
  • During World War II, the UK took in around 70,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany. British children from cities and towns, known as evacuees, were sent to live in the British countryside, or even in other nations, away from the threat of bombs.
  • After World War II, the country needed help rebuilding cities and staffing the healthcare system, and invited people from the Commonwealth to move to the UK. Those arriving from the Caribbean were known as the Windrush generation. They were automatically British subjects. However, in 2017, it became clear that the Home Office had wrongly deported commonwealth citizens, after destroying documentation which would have proved their right to live and work in the UK.
  • The introduction of the Immigration Act in 1971 put an end to Commonwealth citizens enjoying more rights in the UK than those from other nations.
  • In 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union. On 31 January 2020, Brexit came into force, putting an end to freedom of movement for British citizens in the EU.

  • The European Union and Schengen area
  • In 1951, six European countries joined together with the key aim of preventing further war and furthering economic growth. Through the European Economic Community, workers were eventually given the right of free movement in 1968.
  • In 1992, the European Union (EU) was created. Freedom of movement for all EU nationals was enshrined in law. Two years later, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Sweden were also included in free movement measures.
  • The creation of the Schengen Agreement means that citizens can now travel across 26 European countries (four of which are non-EU) without facing border controls. It is a passport-free zone.

  • United States
  • The United States has long been known as a country of immigrants. In 1892, the country’s first immigration station opened — Ellis Island.
  • The Immigration Act of 1924 brought big changes. Fears of communism were spreading, and many Americans wanted to separate themselves from other nations after the horrors of the First World War. Racism and discrimination increased and the new law limited migration based on nationality. In the same year, the US border patrol was established to stop illegal immigrants crossing into the country.
  • In 1965, the nationality-based quota system finally came to an end with the Immigration and Nationality Act.
  • During the Trump administration, the environment for refugees became more hostile. People were forced to wait in Mexico, and anyone traveling through other countries before arriving in the US was denied the right to claim asylum. Some refugees are sent to Guatemala in a “safe third country” agreement.

  • Japan
  • Japan has a reputation for strict immigration controls. For much of history, the country has been fairly isolated, with little mix of other ethnicities.
  • Between 1905 and 1945, a large number of people from Japanese territories migrated to the mainland – they were Korean, Chinese, and Taiwanese. After World War II, controls tightened.
  • The 1952 Immigration Control and Refugee Act made it difficult for foreigners who wanted to live and work long-term in Japan.
  • By the 1990s the aging population was causing labor shortages, and some unskilled workers were given opportunities to move to Japan. Many other visa controls were tightened. 
  • In 2021, the government shelved a bill which would have allowed asylum seekers to be pushed back to their home countries when their applications were under appeal.

  • Uganda
  • During World War II, Uganda hosted around 7,000 Polish refugees. From this point, the country continued to welcome groups of people in need of refuge.
  • Uganda now has the largest number of refugees across the whole of Africa. It has an open-door policy, and people from neighboring East African countries arrive to seek safety. Refugees are given plots of land on arrival, access to healthcare and education, and the right to work – it’s known as a self-reliance model. This isn’t the whole story, and there are many challenges, but Uganda’s refugee policies are largely considered progressive. Nearly 1.5 million refugees now live in Uganda.

Immigration visas

Variations of passports and visas have existed throughout history, but up until World War I people could move fairly freely — although the opportunities might not have been as numerous. Following the war years and subsequent security fears, passports as we know them now came into being. 

In 1920, the League of Nations set a global standard for the documents. While Western countries were keen for these identity documents, many other countries were against the idea and saw them as restrictive. With the introduction of passports, came entry visas, with the same goal of national security. Just a year after the League of Nations meeting, the US introduced an act that put a quota on the number of immigrants allowed into the country.

How different nations approach immigration visas is constantly in flux. EU citizens don’t require visas to move to other EU states, while nations like New Zealand, Australia, and Canada are pickier in who they welcome into their countries. There’s a large expat population in Singapore, and depending on which country you come from, getting a visa could be fairly straightforward.

World events impact visa restrictions. The coronavirus pandemic means some countries require anyone entering to be vaccinated. Technological advancements and a rise in working from home have created changes too. Estonia, Cape Verde, and Barbados are just some of the countries offering digital nomad passports, allowing people to enjoy residency in a new place, while their career continues from a laptop.

What immigration is like today

  • United Kingdom
  • Immigration laws are in a state of flux in the United Kingdom. Since Brexit, this island nation no longer allows people from the EU to live, study, or work in the country visa-free, as was the case before. In the rest of the EU, citizens can move freely. 
  • Following Brexit, the UK has a points-based immigration system. 
  • The government wants to change the asylum laws and push back people arriving via irregular routes. Many are forced to cross the English Channel on dangerous boats or stowed in lorries, for a lack of a safe alternative.
  • The UK granted British citizenship to 146,483 people in 2021 and gave residence documents to 10,135 people from EEA (European Economic Area) countries. The nation gave protection to ​​13,210 asylum seekers in the same year.

  • United States
  • People who want to call the United States home must first get an immigrant visa. When they land on US soil, they become a Lawful Permanent Resident (LPR), allowing them to apply for jobs and live in the country. After five years, they can apply for US citizenship.
  • There are different rules for immediate family members of US citizens, who have to meet certain eligibility criteria. Skilled workers can also get special visas on a temporary or permanent basis.
  • Refugees can apply to become LPRs one year after arriving or receiving asylum. They go through a complicated system.
  • 707,362 people received permanent residence status in 2020, a figure likely impacted by the pandemic. Previous years have usually exceeded 1 million.  29,916 people arrived in the US as refugees in 2019.

  • Japan
  • Japan is facing a labor shortage and a shrinking population. For a country long-averse to immigration, things might be about to change. The country plans to start welcoming skilled workers to stay in the country indefinitely. Until now, their visas have only been valid for five years and didn’t extend to family members. Many of the workers come from Vietnam and China.
  • The country operates on a points-based system for foreign professionals. Most people need a Certificate of Eligibility, applied for by their sponsor in Japan.
  • People between 18 and 30 can apply for a working holiday visa, which lasts for a year.
  • Japan has a low rate of accepting asylum seekers, compared to other wealthy countries. 
  • Japan welcomed 115,000 immigrants in 2018, which was around 15 percent more than the previous year.

  • South Africa
  • People who want to emigrate to South Africa can first apply for a temporary residence permit, before looking towards permanent residency. 
  • After working in the country for five years, people can apply for permanent residency. Those partnered with or related to a South African citizen can also apply, as well as some other categories.
  • South Africa has the largest number of immigrants in Africa — in total about 2.9 million, just under 5 percent of the population. 255,200 of them are displaced people.
  • Policies have become less welcoming to refugees in recent years, with 96 percent of all asylum cases rejected in 2019.

  • Sweden
  • Sweden is a member of the EU, which means that anyone within the Schengen area is free to live and work in the country. Non-EU/EEA citizens need an offer of work to apply for residency.
  • Different European countries have different refugee policies. Sweden had a welcoming refugee policy until 2016, and offered permanent residency visas to refugees. Since then, the number of applications being granted has declined. In 2021, the new government replaced the offer of permanent visas with temporary ones. However, the country continues to accept 5,000 quota refugees a year, who are people that UNHCR (the UN’s Refugee Agency) select to be housed in safe countries.
  • Sweden welcomed 82,518 migrants in 2020, which has steadily dropped from double that in 2016. The number is likely to have been impacted further by the Coronavirus pandemic. There were 12,991 new asylum seekers in the same year.

  • Saudi Arabia

Why people migrate

Whether choosing to set up home in a new country or forced to make journeys across borders, there are many reasons people migrate. Economic need or opportunity is a huge driver, while war and violence displace millions every year. People move to join family, study abroad, or retire. And throughout history and today, Indigenous communities have been forced from their native lands.

Migrating for economic reasons

Money is a huge driver of migration. Many people are forced to move, because of a complete lack of opportunity to earn a living in their region. Economic migration is often viewed as a choice, but poverty, dangerous working conditions, or food insecurity can mean some people have little choice but to leave their homes. For these people, migration is a case of survival. 

Others choose to migrate because they can earn higher wages in other countries, find more opportunities, or follow particular career paths. Professionals from all over the world take opportunities to make homes in new countries. 

Some migrant workers face economic insecurity in their own nations. For these people, the jobs on offer when they migrate are often the ones that nationals don’t want to take on. These industries can be unregulated and migrant workers are at risk of exploitation.

Demographic changes also impact migration. Aging populations come hand-in-hand with labor shortages, leaving a need for young workers. As of 2018, Japan is facing the greatest skills shortage in the world, followed by Turkey, Greece and India.

According to the World Migration Report 2020, there are 164 million migrant workers. They make up 70 percent of all migrants.

Migrating for safety reasons

There are 26.6 million refugees worldwide, with a further 48 million people displaced within their own countries, according to UNHCR. More than two thirds of these people have traveled from Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Myanmar. In these countries and others, people face war, violence, and persecution. Syrians have witnessed executions in the street and had their towns and villages bombed. Politically-driven violence and food insecurity in Venezuela forces people to leave. The recent fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban has put people in serious danger.

In Ethiopia, the Oromo people face violence and persecution, as do other specific groups of people across the world. LGBTQIA+ people are often forced to leave countries that outlaw homosexuality, or face prison, violence, or even death. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, unrest and fighting between different groups means people are forced to flee. In some nations, citizens face mandatory military service. In Eritrea, that service sometimes becomes indefinite

In North Korea, human rights barely exist. There is no access to media from outside the country, famine is rife, and citizens are conditioned to devote themselves to the ‘Great Leader.’ Defectors have little choice but to put themselves in the hands of smugglers. If they are caught escaping, they face forced labor camps. China does not recognize North Koreans as refugees, and so those who are caught are returned.

Many people who become refugees for safety reasons are forced to choose between leaving family behind in dangerous situations, or putting their loved ones at more risk on perilous journeys. It is an impossible decision. For those making the journey alone, they may have to wait years for an asylum decision before accessing family reunification channels, where some can be reunited with their families.

Migrating for family reasons

Many people cross oceans to be closer to their families. Some refugees aim for specific countries because they already have family connections, which they hope will make integration easier. Others are the partners or children of migrant workers. Then there are people who have been apart from their families, and choose to reconnect with them: they might be caring for elderly parents, seeking comfort after changes of circumstance, or moving in with different family members. Some have new family ties — through marriage, long-term relationships, or adoption.

Depending on which country they’re applying from, some people with refugee status can go through family reunification channels to bring their loved ones into their new home country.

In 2018, around 1.9 million people moved to OECD (Organization for Economic Co-operation) countries for family reasons. Around 40 percent of family migrants live in the US.

Climate migration

The climate crisis is a growing concern. So too is climate migration. As our planet heats up, geography and weather patterns are disrupted. Island nations like Tuvalu are witnessing rising sea levels before their very eyes and people are reluctantly making migration plans. Storms, droughts, and floods are battering communities across the world, forcing people to relocate. To adapt to climate change, people are moving. Most people are displaced within their own countries, others are crossing borders.

Papua New Guinea is one nation under threat from climate change. Between 2008 and 2013, 151,000 people were displaced in the country, and two thirds of those were due to environmental hazards.

In Peru, people’s livelihoods are impacted by climate change. Glacial melting and temperature extremes mean fishers and farmers are facing new challenges — as are the people relying on these food sources. People are forced from rural areas into cities. Many face floods, landslides, cold, and drought.

Australia was hit by bush fires in both 2019 and 2020, forcing thousands of people from their homes and causing huge destruction to the environment.

In 2020, 30.7 million people around the world had to migrate because of disasters. 98 percent of those disasters were caused by weather and climate.

Barriers to immigration

Immigration isn’t easy. Once geographical and emotional barriers have been navigated, there are those conditions imposed by governments. And when people are accepted into countries, they might face new challenges  — language and cultural barriers, racism, and finding work. The coronavirus pandemic has put another barrier in the way, causing backlogs and closing borders.

Government paperwork

For people who’ve been forcibly displaced, one of the first barriers to immigration can be a lack of passport. People who’ve fled their homes with nothing have difficulty proving their identity or crossing borders safely. When it comes to accessing jobs and education, it can be hard to prove education levels without physical certificates. Once people have applied for asylum, complicated processes, technicalities, or a lack of support can leave people with rejected claims or facing deportation.

Migrants who have relocated willingly are still at the hands of bureaucracy. Lengthy forms or restrictive visas can dissuade people from migrating, or they might be rejected for visas. For people on temporary visas in certain countries, accessing permanent residency can be a stressful process that takes years. I could mean staying in unpleasant jobs just to hold on to a sponsor, or paying out vast sums of money.

There are other pieces in the paperwork puzzle. Criminal record checks, medical reports, and vaccination certificates, to begin with. Couples and families might need to prove that they’re in genuine relationships.


People applying for citizenship in some countries have to prove their knowledge of language and culture.

Asylum seekers can be acutely affected by language barriers. A lack of suitable translators leads to some claims being misinterpreted. People can be, and are, returned to unsafe countries due to being misunderstood or not being given enough opportunity to represent themselves. Accessing services and assimilating into wider society can also prove tough when people are learning a new language from scratch, all whilst dealing with the impact of trauma.

Financial requirements

Immigration can come with a huge price tag. Aside from the usual costs of moving home (along with flights and international haulage), there might be expensive visa fees.

Beyond this, some countries impose further financial requirements, like the salary that migrant workers need to earn. Those applying for family visas in countries like the UK and Canada might have to prove that they can financially support the people they want to bring over. In Australia, those applying for student visas need to prove that they can financially support themselves. In South Africa, anyone who wants a retired person’s visa needs to prove that they earn at least R37,000 (nearly $2,500 US) per month.

Restrictions on migrants

Migrants don’t always have the same rights as nationals. Asylum seekers in many countries are prohibited from working or studying while their applications are being assessed, which can make supporting themselves difficult, as well as impacting their wellbeing. Even though many have been through traumatic experiences, some asylum seekers are held in detention centers. They can be unsanitary and crowded.

In some countries, immigrants are required to pass a language test, undergo medical tests for things like Tuberculosis, or pay extra to access healthcare systems.

People arriving on some visas might be advised not to leave the country again — for example fiancé(e)s arriving on a family visa before the wedding takes place — or risk having to reapply. 

The future of immigration

The climate crisis, a health pandemic, and political tensions are all playing into how migration is changing. People stayed put as borders closed to stop the spread of a virus, while others were forced to flee their homes regardless. Technological advances offer greater opportunities for global citizens, while far right politics threaten freedom of movement. How countries respond to refugees is in constant flux, and there are at the same time both positive and worrying trends.

According to Move by founder of FutureMap, Parag Khanna, throughout history we humans have been driven to migrate by five forces: climate change, demographics, politics, economics, and technology. Climate change, now more so than in recent centuries, is going to have a huge impact on migration. It is already happening.

As the US moves further away from the Trump administration, which was famously hostile towards migrants, the UK closes its borders to many. The effects of Brexit are coming into being. Tension in Russia casts a shadow over Europe and beyond. And people left at risk in Afghanistan are still awaiting the refuge that so many countries have promised. 

Whether the world chooses to build more bridges, or more walls, is yet to be seen.