Exceptional People

Examining how migration enriches our world.

Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future. By Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron, and Meera Balarajan. Princeton University Press, 2011. 352 pp.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that more than fifteen hundred people drowned or went missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe in 2011, making it the deadliest year since UNHCR started to record these statistics in 2006. Various steps taken to heighten border controls led to fewer arrivals to Europe in 2009 and 2010, but the uprisings in Tunisia and Libya in early 2011 have created an increase in the number of refugee boats trying to make it across the Mediterranean.

Those making this perilous journey are most likely aware of the grave dangers and potentially grim fates awaiting them. Yet, they go ahead, increasingly, for a combination of reasons, ranging from seeking better employment and lifestyle opportunities (migrants) to escaping political persecution (refugees), not to mention the many possible variations in between. Hence, the emergence of the “mixed-migration” phenomenon, which is not altogether new but has been gaining increasingmomentum and attention in recent years. In Exceptional People, Goldin, Cameron, and Balarajan provide an excellent background against which to understand how and why this phenomenon has become so pervasive and so pertinent to the study of migration and displacement. They also provide a realistic reason explaining why this will continue to be an issue of global concern: “The future will probably be as messy as the past, and all predictions are likely to be wrong, but one thing is clear: there is no return to the neat idea of closed-off nation-states with homogenous national communities.”

We live in an age of dynamic interaction where borders are being challenged on a daily basis by the transfer of knowledge, money, goods, and most importantly, people. Our understanding of migration has also been challenged. I struggled to discover the true impact of globalization while carrying out research on how the nature of state sovereignty was changing, and how this was allowing for a rise in the relevance of and interest in human rights issues. In Exceptional People, the authors focus on the trends toward simultaneous integration and disintegration, where “accelerating cross-border movements of goods, services, ideas, and capital are drawing the world into an interdependent and interconnected community.”

Goldin, Cameron, and Balarajan argue that global economic flows and growing transnationalism, which they define as interaction where people’s identities are not solely related to  national origins, will most likely fuel a long-term movement toward increased integration and cooperation across borders, and migration will be a key result. Social and economic development across the globe is fueling growth in the number of potential migrants, especially those in developing countries where urbanization is taking place on an unprecedented scale and has resulted in, for the first time in history, more than 50 percent of humanity living in cities. This urbanization often occurs without the required creation of jobs, thus leading to pressures to emigrate in search of employment and growth opportunities.

Another factor in contemporary migration is the decline in fertility rates and population sizes in developed countries. Various policy options, including raising taxes and postponing retirement, are often proposed as solutions to offset this demographic shift. The authors point to a report issued by the United Nations Human Development Programme in 2000, which indicated that “only international migration could be instrumental in addressing population decline and population aging in the short and medium term.” Peoples and governments in Europe, Japan, and North America will need to make important choices in this regard. And these decisions will most likely be influenced by other social and political trends, including rising racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia, which have been challenging the trends of global cultural conversion and have created a “securitized” perspective on migration management.

The authors recognize that both globalization and migration are not new occurrences but they escort the reader on a journey through time to understand how migration has been an essential part of human life and development since the earliest days of human consciousness. Even as far back as 20 millennia ago and the first migration movements of the earliest men and women in Africa, when mobility was key to survival in difficult and unpredictable climates. The first era of globalization (1820–1920) was characterized by falling transportation costs, higher wages (allowing people the means to travel), booming international trade, and the development of transnational migration networks. The second era of globalization, which began in the 1920s, had similar characteristics but was marked by one distinct difference—the rising tide of nationalism; the ability of states to better control their borders and the need to distinguish citizens from outsiders. The construction of societies and identities around national borders thus created new barriers to migration, which to date had been only hampered by financial means and physical distance. Thus, the era of “migration management” began. During this era, the world also came to notice the beginning of more prominent patterns of forced migration and the emergence of the modern refugee. The concept of the refugee, as described by the authors, was a product of the European focus on the increasing importance of state borders and sovereignty over national territory. Dramatic increases in the numbers of refugees and asylum-seekers were witnessed after World War II, which displaced some thirty million people. More recently, refugee figures have risen from 2.4 million in 1975 to 15.1 million in 2009, due to the increase in intra-state conflicts in the post Cold War era.

Exceptional People delves into the personal side of migration and focuses on how decisions to migrate are made in the face of the increasing extent, velocity, and impact of global connectedness across the range of human domains. They highlight the fact that the decision to migrate is usually taken within the context of a broad range of overarching considerations while simultaneously being shaped by factors at various levels: at the micro-level (in which choices are generally based on a cost-benefit analysis, based on wage differentials); at the meso-level (where networks and social capital inform decisions); and finally, at the macro-level (where structures of economic, demographic and political conditions both push and pull the decision to migrate). The authors criticize the neoclassical approach—to assess the causes of migration purely on a financial calculation—as too simplistic. They propose (and rightfully so) that this approach does not offer a comprehensive explanation as to why people migrate because it does not give due consideration to various other factors evaluated by would-be migrants, such as subjective well-being, identity, and belonging. The authors thus summarize the desire to move as based on a “dynamic interaction” between individual goals and desires, networks, and the political and economic structures that could either facilitate or hinder movement. Again, globalization is a key influence on how these structures are evolving and impacting decisions to move and forming migration patterns.

Though Exceptional People spans a wide historic range, its conclusions and recommendations make it an extremely pertinent contribution to the future of global interconnectedness. As the authors themselves say:

The movement of people has never been entirely peaceful, and the history of migration is narrated by tragedy and warfare as much as by commerce and education. But migrants­—free, forced, or constrained—have always been a powerful stimulant to innovation and progress. They bring new ways of doing, thinking, and understanding, and their integration into society challenges ingrained racial or parochial attitudes, pushing back cultural frontiers. Migration is not a problem to be solved; it is an intrinsic element of international society and inextricably bound up with globalization itself.



Shaden Khallaf teaches at the Center for Migration and Refugee Studies at the American University in Cairo. She served in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 1998 to 2010, most recently as an advisor on Middle Eastern humanitarian and political affairs.

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