Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future

July 21, 2011

We live in an increasingly globalised and integrated world in which people are able to travel and migrate with greater ease than ever before. Whether fleeing political conflict, seeking higher wages and better lives or responding to the economic and demographic framework of a region or country, the number of international migrants continues to rise.

It is within this context that Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron and Meera Balarajan situate their findings and arguments. This ambitious, comprehensive study tells the story of migration since humans left Africa some 50,000 years ago right up through the economic, social and refugee migration witnessed at the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries. By situating the migration debate within a wider historical context, this study seeks to provide a more global interpretation of migration and challenge the common view that a rise in the number of international migrants is unwelcome.

The book's initial focus on the past offers insights into the roles migrants have played in enriching the societies in which they have settled and in promoting world development more broadly. It charts major migratory movements, such as the settlement of Australia and the migration from Northern Eurasia to the Americas during the prehistoric period; imperialism and the network of trade and migration that followed Columbus' 1492 voyage across the Atlantic; and post-Second World War labour migration to Europe. This section also provides a pertinent assessment of managed migration in the 20th century, outlining the manner in which migrants have been increasingly constrained by border controls, citizenship laws and a growing emphasis on national identity.

The second section covers the period from the early 1970s to the present, exploring the push-and-pull factors that lead to migration, the manner in which governments seek to control migrants and protect their borders, and the impact that migration has on the sending and receiving countries and the migrants themselves. International migration has never been more complex: migrants originate from a vast array of countries, endure fewer risks and costs, and have more incentives to migrate than ever before, yet simultaneously are subject to greater, more restrictive controls.

The authors' recommendations for the future are the book's most important contribution to the field of migration studies. Goldin, Cameron and Balarajan put forward a convincing case for the long-term advantages of migration, and argue that governments should do more to reap the benefits of such shifts rather than seeking only to control their borders. Migration should not be seen as a problem, they contend, but rather an inherent characteristic of globalisation. In future, they propose, states and international organisations should extend transnational rights, encourage migrants' social and economic progression, promote and extend the legal migration framework, fight xenophobia, discrimination and abuse, and enhance the process of data collection.

Their calls for open borders, the freer movement of people and the creation of a global institution to manage migration are not without controversy. But in a work that is an essential read for anyone with an interest in the subject, their arguments are buttressed by a deep understanding of the past, a comprehensive engagement with the present and a clear vision of the future.

Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future

By Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron and Meera Balarajan. Princeton University Press. 352pp, £24.95. ISBN 9780691145723. Published 1 June 2011

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