Migration Magnets, Migration Myths: The Pull Factor Mirage

In the scholarly community, push/pull models of migration have become – by and large – replaced by models seeking to reflect the complexity of migration. And yet, in public debates on migration, pull factors are ever-present. This contribution argues that instead of ‘debunking’ all individual pull factor claims, we need to pay greater attention to the dangerous political work that pull factor talk does.


In a multiple-choice questionnaire on BBC Bitesize, an online support resource for school students in the UK, possible responses to the question “What is a Pull migration factor?” are as follows:

1. When someone chooses to move towards the ‘bright lights of the big city’.

2. When someone is forced to migrate perhaps due to a war, natural disaster or overpopulation.

3. When someone is forced to move due to property prices in an area becoming too steep.

According to the BBC, the correct answer is 1. The big city’s bright lights, it seems, signal opportunity and thereby ‘pull’ people to migrate there.

This answer reflects the predominant use and level of understanding of the pull factor in public debates on migration: Europe’s lights are (too) bright and attract (too many) migrants – and that not only in a figurative sense. In 2017, Germany’s Minister of the Interior Thomas de Maizière criticised NGO rescuers in the Mediterranean for sailing into Libyan waters and allegedly switching on their searchlights to signal their location to smugglers and migrants – the rescuers’ “bright lights” as pull factors for migrant boats.

When such understanding of a pull factor is brought to the table, it is commonly followed by a set of questions: If Europe’s “bright lights” attract all those (wrong) people, how can we dim these lights or even switch them off? How can we darken Europe and make it less attractive, more hostile, so that they don’t come here, and so that those already here do not want to remain?


Part I: Migration Magnets

The push/pull theory of migration goes all the way back to 1885 and the work of geographer Ernest Ravenstein who sought to develop ‘laws of migration’ that would allow to understand and even predict patterns of human migration. According to Ravenstein, migration could be understood through a push-pull dynamic linked to economic factors and motivations, where workers would be ‘pushed’ out of unfavourable conditions and ‘pulled’ to places where they could expect higher wages.

Three quarters of a century later, the sociologist Everett Lee revised Ravenstein’s model and developed ‘a theory of migration’, suggesting “a general schema into which a variety of spatial movements can be placed”. Proposing a plus/minus calculus, according to which the decision to migrate would be taken, he tried “to deduce a number of conclusions with regard to the volume of migration, the development of streams and counter streams, and the characteristics of migrants”. Although Lee himself “expected that many exceptions will be found, since migration is a complex phenomenon”, binary Ravensteinian push/pull ideas have proven resilient – even if more in public discourse than in scholarship.

In the scholarly community, doubts concerning push/pull models have steadily grown. Seeking to identify the many factors, their relevance and relationship, in explaining movements between places, including economic, social, demographic, or environmental factors, turned out to be a daunting task. In 1990, geographer Ronald Skeldon pointed to a lack of clarity and the absence of a framework able to precisely explain how the myriad factors would contribute to migration (and non-migration), and called the push/pull theory “a platitude at best”.

Thirty years later, Hein de Haas, Stephen Castles, and Mark Miller (2020) noted:

“push-pull models are inadequate to explain migration, since they are purely descriptive models enumerating factors which are assumed to play ‘some’ role in migration in a relatively arbitrary manner, without specifying their role and interactions.”

Interestingly, the very reasons for migration scholars to increasingly turn their backs to the push/pull model – its arbitrariness, vagueness, and simplicity – appear to have attracted others to embrace it. The possibility to enumerate a seemingly endless number of (pull) factors, and to arrange them erratically, has proven particularly tempting for politicians who seek to score (cheap) political points and push an anti-migration agenda. In consequence, an already simplistic theory has become further simplified in public debate.

Just this year, we have seen non-stop ‘pull factor talk’ in Europe. According to Germany’s finance minister Christian Lindner, the German welfare state with its high benefits would function “as a magnet” for migrants. Not only attracting those who should not come, this benevolent welfare system has also suffered abuse by those who should not be here, as falsely alleged by the leader of the Christian Democratic Union, Friedrich Merz: rejected asylum seekers were getting their teeth fixed while German citizens would not even be able to get dentist appointments, he complained. In the UK, an exemption of locking children into detention centres after migrating across the Channel could be conceived as a pull factor for others, as absurdly suggested by prime minister Rishi Sunak. Further supposed pull factors to the UK, including the renting of properties and seeking employment, would also need to be addressed.

While the pull factor theory has become increasingly discredited – at best a platitude that prompts raised eyebrows and sighs of annoyance among migration scholars – pull factor talk continues to be very much en vogue in today’s polarised debates on migration.


Part II: Mediterranean Migration Myths

In the context of Mediterranean migration, pull factor talk has been both frantic and consequential. Even before civil society actors started to carry out rescue operations at sea, state-led missions were ended after being blamed for increased boat crossings from northern Africa.

The Italian operation Mare Nostrum fell victim to such talk in 2014. At that time, the UK’s Home Office explained its decision to end support for rescue operations as follows:

“Ministers across Europe have expressed concerns that search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean … [are] encouraging people to make dangerous crossings in the expectation of rescue. This has led to more deaths as traffickers have exploited the situation using boats that are unfit to make the crossing.”

The EU border agency also contributed to such turn away from proactive state- or EU-led rescue operations, with Frontex director Fabrice Leggeri warning in 2015: “traffickers use this opportunity to […] say to potential irregular migrants: ‘You will be sure to reach the European coast. It’s very easy, European boats are patrolling not far from the Libyan coast, so let’s jump into the sea and you’ll see European boats very soon.’”

As a consequence of the gradual withdrawal of EU rescue assets, the rescue gap in the Mediterranean Sea has widened, with forms of non-assistance and the abandonment of migrant boats becoming systematic, and the death toll rising.

Once rescue NGOs came onto the scene from the mid-2010s on, not least in response to the absence of EU forces, pull factor talk became increasingly shrill. The idea that the presence of civil rescuers would prompt people to undertake these dangerous journeys, and in effect increase the number of fatalities at sea, took flight – relentlessly pushed by Frontex, certain EU member states, as well as right-wing groups and trolls on social media.

The charge that NGOs at sea would act as a “beam for the migrants”, as claimed by Frontex, was investigated in a number of studies, which found “no relationship between the presence of NGOs at sea and the number of migrants leaving Libyan shores.” Examining migration patterns over different time periods in the central Mediterranean, they sought to ‘debunk’ the “pull factor hypothesis”, making the case that “irregular migration is far better explained by worsening economic conditions, environmental degradation, conflicts or violence, and political persecution.” And yet, pull factor myths continue to circulate.


Part III: Pull factor talk as a mirage

A mirage is “an image, produced by very hot air”, something that while considered true or real, “does not really exist”. Pull factor talk produces, indeed, nothing but very hot air that conjures up ideas of migration which do not correspond to reality. For those engaging in such talk, this distance to reality seems irrelevant. More than that, the allure of the pull factor appears to be precisely that it is an empty signifier – so unspecific and unspecifiable that it can be loaded with all and any meaning and used for divisive political projects.

Accepting the premise of pull factor talk, even if to debunk it, thus risks engaging with mirages as if they might indeed exist. Isolating individual factors, as in the NGOs-as-pull-factor-hypothesis, requires an a priori de-complexification of migration processes, an erasure of the myriad factors and reasons for some to move and others not to. This is not to say that projects of ‘debunking’ pull factor narratives and exposing their falseness are irrelevant. The mentioned studies provide the seemingly needed scientific evidence for some to make calls to abandon “[u]nproven ‘pull factor’ rhetoric” and defend forms of solidarity at sea.

And yet, ultimately, engaging with pull factor claims leads to a trap, as Glenda Garelli and Martina Tazzioli have argued. One remains stuck in a perspective that “is deeply inadequate to explain migration dynamics and, in particular, to account for migrants’ desires and subjective drives” and risks reproducing reductionist conceptions of migration.

Once in this trap, we struggle to get out again. If we investigate NGOs as potential pull factors, what would be next? An examination of the role of cargo ships that have also rescued people in distress? What about ferries, private yachts, or fishing vessels? Or assets of coastguards and navies? And what role do other supposed pull factors play in the calculus of those risking their lives at sea? How do labour opportunities on the tomato fields of Italy factor in? What about the chance to, one day, get one’s teeth fixed in Germany? Or to work or rent a room somewhere in the UK?

Instead of remaining trapped and instead of endlessly countering individual pull factor myths that are conjured up on a weekly basis, more attention should be paid to the political work that pull factor talk does. Commonly, such talk calls for two things: First, ramping up border control and further restricting possibilities to move for those already ‘on the road’ and for others who contemplate migration projects. Second, worsening the conditions for migrant communities already ‘here’ by producing a climate of hostility, unwantedness, and fear.


Conclusion: Turning Europe dark

That pull factors are a mirage does not mean that they are not dangerous. If anything can be turned into a pull factor – any welfare provision, any humanitarian gesture, any form of support – then anyone providing welfare, humanitarian assistance or engaging in solidarity work can be turned into a pull factor that needs to be done away with.

Though emptied of any and all meaning, pull factors continue to be en vogue because they fulfil a particular political task: justifying ever-more hostile migration policies and violent border enforcement practices. As we have seen in the case of sea rescue, pull factor talk has been key in ending life-saving rescue efforts by the EU and member states, in criminalising and obstructing civil rescue operations, and in hardening external borders.

While Germany’s finance minister emphasised that reducing supposed pull factors should not lead to a “competition in shabbiness” (Schäbigkeitswettbewerb), it is precisely that: a race to the bottom. A competition in who can be the shabbiest and cruellest, who can curtail rights (to have rights) the most, who can offer the worst welfare provisions, the least protection.

For those engaging in pull factor talk, one thing is clear: Europe’s supposed bright lights need to be dimmed. Europe needs to be turned so dark for particular people that they do not come, that they do not feel safe once ‘here’, and that they might even leave.

Still, despite it all, there is a certain futility that pull factor talk exudes. Despite a decade of such talk in the Mediterranean, despite the end of EU rescue operations and the attack on rescue NGOs, despite the loss of thousands of lives each year, despite the inhumane conditions faced by survivors in carceral spaces, despite threats of deportation, and despite the constant hostile messaging ‘you will not make Europe home’, migration continues. In the central Mediterranean, boat crossings have increased every year since 2019. With the arrival of 150,000 people in Italy so far this year, we are already close to the record year of 2016, when about 180,000 people arrived.

Despite the desperate attempt to eliminate mythical pull factors, migration stubbornly continues. Those who engage in pull factor talk will never (want to) understand why.

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