The Future of Migration (Long Read)

Johannes C. van Nieuwkerk
18 min readDec 17, 2023

(Shortened version to be found here)


With Joe Biden adding to Trump’s wall, with Suella Braverman proposing to narrow the refugee convention’s definition, and with European politicians satisfactory looking back on the fact that their migration pact is shaping, 2023 has clearly been a year of attempting to stem irregular migration.

However, none of the above is addressing the ticking time bomb of the ever growing number of meanwhile almost 110 million forcibly displaced people in the world, up from 50 million a decade ago.

Instead, everyone in the rich western world seems to be concerned with managing the symptoms of a non-functional migration system rather than for example with modernizing and improving the refugee convention itself by starting to focus on the root causes of involuntary displacement.

Furthermore, also for voluntary migrants there are often too many obstacles, resulting in them using irregular instead of regular migration paths.

Yes, there are problems, but there are also sustainable solutions available as alternatives to raising fences and keeping people in need out. My following reflection is about this.

Three main issues


A first issue is that due to the lack of organized resettlements and legal pathways, migrants often have no other choice then to use smugglers. This leads to choosing their destination according to where they think that they will have the highest chance to win the migration lottery; fully overwhelming the few selected locations they arrive to.


A second issue is that the newcomers’ adaptation in their “host country” fails and that instead of finding reinclusion, people end up in parallel societies and that, due to a lack of interaction and cultural understanding, conflicts arise.


A third issue is that most rich countries are in a substantial need of migrants to fill the positions they can, due to their demographical ageing, not internally meet their labor market demand for. However, many of the currently arriving irregular migrants do not match qualifications-wise and will first need to be upskilled to enable their potential contribution.

Three sustainable solutions


For almost two years I have been advocating to change the definition of what a refugee is to “anyone in acute or foreseeable need of refuge” regardless of their location (IDPs, transit countries) or the reason for their displacement.

This definition follows a fundamentally different logic than the one we currently use because it includes people who are not able to cross a border in order to apply for asylum and those who have other reasons to flee than fear of persecution, such as for example people facing undignified living conditions due to climate change.

However, my definition clearly does not cover those migrants who are living a poor but dignified life in their home country, who are seeking for economic improvement elsewhere.

Fortunately, not everyone who is displaced needs refuge or our assistance, many do not, but those who do, must get it. What I therefore left out is the requirement to first cross a border. This enables the international community to become proactive and optimize individual solutions at the source of displacement or as soon as a refugee has reached safety.

Implementing my definition and approach would replace irregular border crossing by regular relocation and reinclusion. It would enable cultural and economic matchmaking and lead to a better international sharing of responsibilities or solidarity. This, in turn, could free-up more worldwide absorption capacity and reduce cost. It would relief refugees from dangerous journeys and would get human smugglers out of work. Finally it would also stop voluntary migrants from using the irregular paths of the involuntary migrants, since they would no longer have any chance to apply for asylum.


The basic problem with the newcomers’ adaptation is that most host countries do not or insufficiently differentiate between people’s backgrounds and consider everyone to be just a “migrant”, applying a single cultural immigration approach to all. However, the reality is that there are two clearly distinct categories with different requirements to culturally fit in, namely, people with a “voluntary” migration background, such as labor migrants and people with an “involuntary” migration background, such as refugees. Mostly, the “voluntary migration cultural adaptation logic” is also applied to this second involuntary category; causing friction.

To explain the above into more detail I will use my cultural communication models for reasoning. However, there is a disclaimer to be made because these models stereotype and are rather food for thought than directly applicable on an individual case level.

Seen from a macro point of view, the models describe the relationships between six factors being Governance or Spiritual Identity (SI), Regard or Spiritual Unity (SU), Belonging or Emotional Identity (EI), Engagement or Emotional Unity (EU), Independence or Individual Identity (II), and finally Interdependence or Individual Unity (IU). In this migration context we will zoom in on the social relationship potential between an individual (II or IU) and the general society (EU). Other aspects such as group identity (EI), leadership (SI), and religion (SU) are, although relevant, beyond the scope of this essay.

We will now look deeper into the social engagement (EU) of a voluntary migrant in the society, which is (using my new refugee definition) largely based on a migrant’s independence (II) or freedom to decide (individual mindset of the rich). This will be compared with the social engagement (EU) of an involuntary migrant in the society, which is, due to previous exclusion and a search for (re)inclusion, mostly founded in a migrant’s (inter)dependence (IU) or interactive “trial and error” based search for opportunities (individual mindset of the poor).

Diagram 1: Non-Polarized Cultural Elements

In practice, the above six cultural elements are polarized, either driven by an outward (-) or an inward (+) orientation. Outward means to compare oneself with others and to focus on differences, mostly leading to fear and divergence, resulting in a growing apart. Inward means that people search within themselves for the meaning of cultural elements, exploring commonalities, leading to trust and convergence, resulting in a growing together.

Independence becomes this way polarized either in individuality (living by comparison = outward orientation = divergence) or in personal integrity (self-reliance = inward orientation = convergence). Outward orientation means here to consider everything as an (to be protected/defended) exclusive private possession and to build one’s individuality or personality on comparison with the outside world. Inward orientation means to be self-reliant and to take the interests of others into account as part of one’s personal responsibility or integrity.

Interdependence becomes split in resilience (outward orientation = divergence) and reciprocity (inward orientation = convergent). Resilience in this context is struggle or fear-driven and is represented by a conflict-of-interest-driven survival attitude in which “the winner takes it all”. Reciprocity, at the other pole, is representing a trust-based “live and let live” approach, in which people peacefully interact with or experience each other and rationally exchange what can be commonly used.

Engagement becomes split in patriotism (outward orientation = divergent) and solidarity (inward orientation = convergent). Patriotism implies the (fear-driven) separation of the cultural identity of a society, thus limiting unrestricted socialization beyond it. General (unlimited) solidarity, at the other pole, takes all forms of such partition away and fully allows entirely free collaboration, bolstering trust.

Before going into detail and describe the four social engagement processes, there are two aspects to be mentioned that determine them. First, cultures are dynamic, changing continuously. However, they cannot be growing apart and growing together simultaneously. Therefore, although both forces are present in a kind of balance, only one dominates at a certain point in time. Second, a cultural process is either assertive or adaptive in nature. Assertive means that individual people are in principle able to achieve the cultural change regardless of their environment, adaptive means that the environment must allow them to do so.

A final note, for this reflection, only the personal cultural transition between interdependence and independence is relevant. It means a change from forced interactivity (out of poverty or dispossession) to free interaction (one is rich enough to choose with whom to communicate).

There is a fundamental difference between the segments of migrants here. Whereas refugees have generally become excluded and lost their ability to select with whom to interact, thus becoming (inter)dependent of others and trying to win back or regain this freedom; labor migrants usually possess much more autonomy to decide where to go, or to leave when they are dissatisfied.

As a result of the above factors, there are four cultural roads to society engagement to be found, two divergent and two convergent ones.

The first, divergent, Chauvinism path leads from Individuality (-II) to Patriotism (-EU). In its first (rational) stage, people start paying an “almsgiving” or tax contribution to society; this is the “price” for their individual freedom in relation to the culture they are living in. In the following, second, (emotional or social dominant) stage, people feel forced to comply with the social rules or norms of a society. If people do not observe these rules, they are at risk of becoming excluded, something people fear and are willing to compromise for. This process is adaptive.

The second, convergent, Sharing path is leading from Integrity (+II) to Solidarity (+EU). Independent (individual) people start to (adaptively and rationally) share their “wealth” in exchange for sympathy and togetherness (emotional). There is trust in each other.

The third, divergent, Intifada path leads from Resilience (-IU) to Patriotism (-EU). This process is resilience or struggle-based. Excluded people actively start to (actively, rationally) condemn their status and to be (emotionally) angry about their deprivation and try to conquer or become entitled to a renewed or improved position in the society at large. Their primary demand is full membership (including the membership rights) of the nation (-EU).

The last, fourth, convergent, Acclimation path is leading from Reciprocity (+IU) to Solidarity (+EU). Poor, dispossessed or excluded people want to (actively) become part of the, in principle, open society (+EU). Individuals are thus seeking for (emotional) appreciation for their (active, rational) agreed or expected voluntary contribution to the society, in the hope to integrate this way.

Diagram 2: Polarized Cultural Relationships between Individuals and their Society

With exception of dominantly hierarchy or class-based societies, many rich capitalist host countries use the first, divergent, Chauvinism model to arrange the relationship between their citizens and the society. This makes it hard for newcomers to integrate. Depending on its social norms, a society can refuse, tolerate or accept migrants as becoming part of their patriotic collectivity, and newcomers have no other option than to subscribe to this situation.

The problem is that if a society is not open to migrants, people cannot adapt or be compliant to it. Only if a host country culturally starts to emphasize the second, convergent, Sharing component and opens up, there is real adaptive integration possible and nobody will be excluded. However, this situation works out very differently for voluntary labor migrants than for forcibly displaced refugees.

Although the first category of labor migrants may not become integrated in a Chauvinism-based society, there is a reasonable chance that, in case of labor shortage, people are tolerated on the basis of their economic or financial contribution. Also, labor migration is often circular and people return to their country of origin in the end. Finally, for the very skilled category of migrants there is actually fierce competition between potential host countries, giving qualified migrants the choice to go there where they find the best societal fit in their opinion.

To conclude: labor migrants are (using my new refugee definition) in principle enjoying a dignified life at home and are thus independent. This means that their fit to a host society is entirely regulated by labor market demand and supply. Integration-wise they depend on the openness of the host society; meaning that (in case of a non-fit) frequently labor migrants are forced to preserve their cultural identity as a minority group in the welcoming country; unable or disallowed to become “patriotic” enough to be fully absorbed and included by the society.

Refugees, on the contrary, in principle mostly lost everything and became thus (inter)dependent on others to enable a restart. Since in most cases people’s displacement is not temporary and the possibility to return is rather the exception than the rule, refugees are seeking for permanent reinclusion at a new location after being excluded or displaced from home. This implies a requirement for a possibility to blend in, enabling such reinclusion. From the (inter)dependent refugees’ point of view, there are basically four different behavioral scenarios available for attempting to achieve this.

-1- The path of economic contribution and social compliance

The first scenario (from Resilience or Reciprocity to Individuality and Patriotism (IU => -II => -EU)) is one of adaptive matching of the refugees’ potential contribution with the economic demands of the host country; it is the same mechanism as used for voluntary labor migrants. However, since the refugees’ arrival is not driven by any labor demand, very often there is no direct fit with the labor market demands and newcomers need ample time to culturally adjust and to, for instance, learn a new language.

For example, the time to connect to the labor market is/was on average 5 years or longer for the Syrian refugees who came to Germany in 2015. A related issue of this approach is that the focus of the host country is mostly to see people contributing to their economy as fast as possible instead of optimizing the use of their skills potential. This frequently leads to a continued deprivation compared with the native population and can hinder a refugee’s integration; it may cause segregation instead of reinclusion.

A variant of this first scenario is to stimulate the entrepreneurship of refugees. The logic is that refugees possess a high degree of resilience because of their survival, and that this can be used as a skill. To some extent there is some truth in it, but one also has to reflect on an individuals’ perspective whether people psychologically aim to end their struggle and want to find a safe haven or that people want to actively and positively continue struggling. Entrepreneurship may more rapidly facilitate people’s independence; however, it does not principally address their social reinclusion.

What is needed for this (labor-contribution and money-based) first scenario to be successful is an openness of the host society to fully absorb newcomers and to properly invest in their potential in order to avoid that refugees remain segregated or deprived citizens. It further means that the often strict ethnical or religious criteria for social compliance must be widened in order to allow more people to subscribe to them and to become patriotic; socially fully joining and reintegrating on the basis of their economic contribution.

The big difference with voluntary migration is that for refugees there is mostly no way back home. People must thus achieve reinclusion or will remain outsider forever. Still, this first path is a divergent one because economically non- or insufficiently contributing migrants (and others) will in principle remain excluded from or deprived in society, there is fundamental inequality.

-2- The path of open social participation and sharing

The second reinclusion scenario (from Resilience or Reciprocity to Integrity and Solidarity (IU => +II => +EU)) is to encounter a convergent host society which is based on open partaking, sharing and solidarity instead of on individual (tax) contribution, compliance and patriotism. This scenario represents a society model where everyone is equally included regardless of their type of background and/or their economic contribution. It allows integrated multiculturalism without any separation.

This differs from the first scenario, where there is compliance to a single set of social norms required. However, also in this first divergent model, individual cultural differences can be present. In that case, a melting pot type, common denominator based set of social norms can and will be used.

The remaining third and fourth scenarios have in common that refugees are refused by the society and thus not upfront reincluded via their participation, therefore people do not regain their independence and remain in a state of temporary or permanent (inter)dependency in the host country. Refugees end up in a parallel society this way. There are again two options here, a divergent and a convergent one.

-3- The path of (violent) resistance against apartheid

The third (from Resilience to Patriotism (-IU => -EU)) scenario is divergent and active; refugees either lack the will or necessary interaction to adapt/reinclude, or people end up in ghettos not being allowed to reinclude in their host society. People thus become socially forced to build up a parallel society and since they mostly arrived being poor, their society is considered to be a, deprived, second class one, which may lead to a form of apartheid.

Because this situation is not a temporary state, over time, people likely will start to condemn their living conditions (divergently comparing them with the living conditions of others) and develop anger; this frequently results in social tension and violent struggle. Disadvantaged people protest in order to claim their human right to be accepted as equals.

Unfortunately this process occurs very frequently when a host society is not open enough to fully accept and offer the interaction necessarily required to properly integrate newcomers, and thus not only if refugees are “unwilling to adapt”.

-4- The path of non-violent coexistence in parallel societies

The last, fourth (from Reciprocity to Solidarity (+IU => +EU)) convergent and assertive, scenario is that refugees who are not yet accepted or are refused, show their willingness to be reincluded by voluntary contributing to a society or parallel society. People first develop a kind of (reciprocal) agreement on what is expected from them to adapt, this is then followed by a process of contribution in exchange for appreciation. However, this process is taking place from the position of dependency and people’s willingness must thus be replied to in order for their reinclusion to be successful. People’s contribution can also not solely be measured in labor market participation as I explain this in my Universal Basic Employment concept.

The sustainable solution to reinclusion and diminishing friction is to have a closer look at the two-sidedness of the integration process. Most friction comes, in my opinion, from exclusion and not primarily from cultural differences as such. This means a required change in cultural attitude from both sides, something that can only be accomplished by mutual understanding through interaction. Key is a change in the balance between cultural divergence and convergence components. Less divergence and more convergence will result in people ultimately growing together.

For the social absorption of any type of migrants it is important for a society to change and widen the definition of what patriotism is in order to be able to not only economically but also socially fully accept and include newcomers. This is done by increasing the (convergent) sharing or solidarity component in a society.

For refugees there is another factor present on top of this, which relates to the attitude of the refugees themselves. In the beginning refugees will often be resilience- or survival-driven. However, there is a need for change here, which can only be achieved if people start looking at and agree on a voluntary (convergent) contribution they can and will have to make to their host society in order to adapt to it.

Notwithstanding, there also is another side to this above process, namely, the appreciation from the host required to accept this offer. Otherwise, newcomers will remain separated in and will contribute to a parallel society instead. A parallel society, which most likely will be closer positioned to the cultural values migrants brought from home, and which may be in conflict with the values of the host society.


As said earlier, a third issue is that most rich countries are in a big need of migrants to fill the positions their labor market demand cannot internally meet due to their demographical ageing. However, many of the currently arriving irregular migrants do not match qualifications-wise and will first need to be upskilled to enable their potential contribution.

The main question is whether a technologically rapidly developing society can keep relying on voluntary labor migrants and whether, over time, the required increased education levels and the aspect of brain-drain of the migrants’ home country are sufficiently being taken into account. However, this issue is dominantly market-mechanism-driven and also depends on the globalization of economies.

Still, it may be needed to invest in building a pool of educated people abroad, which, if required, can contribute at home as well as elsewhere. Since this topic is more impacting regular than irregular migration (which is currently mostly consisting of less educated labor), it is beyond the scope of this essay.

Using my changed refugee definition and assuming the international community becoming proactive in offering reinclusion possibilities to forcibly displaced people at the source of their displacement, there are actually three types of matching found.

The first type is that of displaced people who are already economically matching from the beginning or require minimal adaptation to become matching. This group of “low hanging fruit” is welcome almost anywhere because the people it consists of financially positively contribute to their host society almost from the beginning. However, if one takes an organized approach, there are still important questions to be answered and decisions to be made because the relocation of people should not be primarily driven by optimizing their individual financial interests. It implies that educated people should be relocated to places where their contribution primarily has the highest added value to the host society, and/or where their integration chances are optimal.

It should be avoided that all educated people are relocated to a few prosperous destinations. Two reasons are -1- that this group should not become privileged over educated labor migrants and -2- that if the situation at home changes for the better, they most likely will be required to contribute to their home country (which also previously invested in and educated them). Individual prosperity can hinder such return and should therefore not be the primary optimization target in relocation.

The second type is that of illiterate or poorly educated refugees. In this case, there is a substantial risk that people will face problems to be reincluded in a society which does not have matching labor opportunities available. This implies that people will become permanently dependent, which is not any issue if they are disabled or too old because relocating displaced people is primarily solidarity driven. However, in case of a non-match to labor and integration opportunities, it may be better to relocate people to destinations that are culturally as close as possible to their originating culture in order to optimize people’s adaptation.

The third type is that of people who possess a gap between their educational or vocational background and the requirements at the locations people are relocated to. In this case, the host society must be willing to offer chances for people’s reinclusion. This does not stop with offering the first job available at any level, but it implies investing in a match between the refugee’s potential and the society’s demand for labor skills. It further requires a maximization of cultural interaction with the population of the host country, something that is often hard to accomplish in urban areas where newcomers tend to cluster with compatriots. Therefore Refival proposes to relocate refugees to smaller rural communities for their adaptation.

Many aspects, such as learning a new language, receiving the education needed for upskilling in order to optimize people’s potential, and even working remotely, can be offered at such rural locations. The advantage is synergy, because smaller communities are mostly disproportionally hit by ageing and in great demand for newcomers in order to survive. The cost of reinclusion is also generally much lower in rural than in urban areas.

Finally, being a small community, there usually is a higher degree of daily interaction between its members and mostly people are not excluded. Once being reincluded and culturally adapted, there will be a pool of matching labor migrants created that can be employed anywhere, which, in case people decide to leave for urban destinations, can in turn lead to their replacement by fresh, forcibly displaced, newcomers. Still, such a rotation system is creating the desperately needed diversified economic activity in the rural areas participating and will sustainably revitalize them.


2023 has been a year of international political attempts to stem irregular migration. However, there is a ticking time bomb of an ever growing number of meanwhile almost 110 million forcibly displaced people in the world, up from 50 million a decade ago.

It means that humanity urgently needs to find structural answers to reduce the above number by relocation instead of the current measures of raising fences in order to keep people in need out.

My essay is addressing three major issues here, being: irregularity, adaptation and matching. It tries to propose sustainable solutions to improve the current difficult issues at their source.

Firstly, in respect to irregularity, it proposes to change the definition of a refugee to “anyone in acute or foreseeable need of refuge” regardless of their location or the reason for their displacement. This would allow mankind to address forced displacement at the root and handle proactively by regularly relocating people to destinations where their chances for a successful restart are optimal.

Secondly, in respect to adaptation, it proposes to apply more convergence and less divergence at both sides of the equation. This means to widen the norms of social acceptance of a host society and to remove ethnical or other discriminatory components. At the same time it means defining cultural interaction and adaptation criteria where newcomers are able and obliged to adapt to in order to become fully socially integrated.

Thirdly, in respect to matching, it proposes to invest in the upskilling of newcomers in order to exploit their potential and to avoid a short-term optimization in which the first available job automatically is a displaced person’s entry point. Further, it proposes to implement such upskilling in small communities with a high level of cultural interaction instead of in big urban clusters; this will lead to an improvement of mutual understanding and acceptation of each other. Finally, such implementation in rural settlements will be synergetic and address the need for newcomers in smaller communities in order for them to survive.

In my opinion, these three measures can lead to a far more structural and regular migration approach, where forced mobility is addressed in a much more humanitarian way, meaning with more empathy and solidarity and more respect for each other.