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Understanding Migration: Why “Push Factors” and “Pull Factors” Do Not Explain Very Much

By USCRI July 27, 2020

Five years ago, Michael Clemens and Justin Sandefur, in an interesting essay for Foreign Affairs, wrote that “in many crises, assistance in the original country of origin largely cannot deter departure” of migrants. Elsewhere they wrote, “What each rich country can do is alter what pulls people to that country specifically, once they have decided to flee their own land.” Clemens’ and Sandefur’s larger point was to critique the international governance of migration in its present system, in which underdeveloped countries receive development assistance to deter migration and rich countries compete to be unappealing to migrants. To make their critique, they invoked a common idea: that of “push factors” and “pull factors.” While there is often a divide between experts who are respected in academia and experts who are respected among policymakers, Clemens is the rare expert who enjoys influence in both worlds. The article’s knowing use “push” and “pull”—employed four and five times—was a risky choice for him. Although common in public debate and among policymakers, academics avoid the use of push-pull. For academic researchers, push factors and pull factors are useful as far as they help students and the general public to understand that migrants have reasons for leaving and reasons for where they choose to arrive. But push-pull is heuristic, and not an explanation. This brief discusses the use and limitations of the push-pull model, as a whole and disaggregated as push factors and pull factors.

Read the full report 7.27.20 Policy Brief


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