Rethinking mixed migration: What about internal migration and displacement?

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2021 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The essay’s author Bram Frouws is director of the Mixed Migration Centre.


Picture a truck travelling on a long desert route carrying refugees and migrants of various nationalities, legal statuses, and reasons for leaving or fleeing their homes. Some are looking for better economic opportunities elsewhere, others are fleeing insecurity, conflict, or increasingly harsh environmental circumstances at home. For many, it’s a combination of all the above that made them decide to move. There are checkpoints along the way, but the smugglers who organised the trip made sure police and military manning them turn a blind eye.

This is a typical—if imaginary—snapshot of mixed migration. It is likely to include people who began their journey in another country as well as those who did not. The latter may or may not be planning to cross a national border, perhaps to reach the same destinations as their fellow passengers. They might share the same experiences and have started their journeys for the same reasons as the foreign refugees and migrants on the truck. But until they cross an international border, they are not considered to be part of the mixed migration phenomenon as it is understood by humanitarian agencies, international organisations, researchers, and policymakers.

Critically reappraising the notion of mixed migration raises a question: have we created another artificial or arbitrary exclusion? One of the defining characteristics of mixed migration as a concept is that it bridges rigid, technical categories, organisational mandates, and siloed approaches to human mobility. Why then continue to restrict its application to cross-border movement, given that many borders are just artificial lines on a map that do not figure in the perceptions or desires of people living either side of those lines? Is it time to broaden the concept to encompass internal migration and displacement?

Conceptual roots

The notion of mixed migration emerged in the early 2000s from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) Global Consultations on International Protection, where UNHCR highlighted the existence of a crisis of international protection, due in part to a perception among Western governments and citizens that asylum systems were being abused by individuals seeking economic opportunities.

There is no single commonly agreed definition or conceptual understanding of mixed migration. Some definitions focus more on mixed motivations for moving, either between people in mixed migration flows or within individuals with multiple reasons for migrating. Others focus more on the mixed composition of migration flows in terms of legal/migration status.  Most definitions or descriptions somehow refer to the complexity of population movements.

In 2018, the Mixed Migration Centre (MMC) adopted the following understanding of mixed migration:

Mixed migration refers to cross-border movements of people including refugees fleeing persecution and conflict, victims of trafficking and people seeking better lives and opportunities. Motivated to move by a multiplicity of factors, people in mixed flows have different legal statuses as well as a variety of vulnerabilities. Although entitled to protection under international human rights law, they are exposed to multiple rights violations along their journey. Those in mixed migration flows travel along similar routes, using similar means of travel—often travelling irregularly and wholly or partially assisted by migrant smugglers.

Despite these variations and regardless of whether the notion of crossing borders appears in a definition, a key point is that the concept of mixed migration is universally applied only to international movements.

Spurious distinctions?

At the MMC, we are convinced that, in order to contribute to a better understanding of mixed migration and evidence-based policies and programmatic responses, we need to focus on the drivers, vulnerabilities, experiences, protection needs, challenges, aspirations, and intentions of all people on the move, whatever their migratory status. We need to recognise that all people on the move ultimately have various, often intertwined reasons for migrating, with the distinctions between forced and voluntary migration better understood as points on a spectrum rather than as a dichotomy. We believe that such a broader mixed migration lens is needed to provide an accurate reflection of the reality of human mobility on the ground, where it is important to go beyond mandates and siloed approaches in our responses to complex population movements as a whole instead of spuriously isolating different groups and categories within migratory movements. Mixed migration is not a legal term; rather we use it as an analytical lens to understand contemporary human mobility, a conceptual framework to respond to the complex characteristics and protection imperatives of modern-day human mobility.

All of the above, making up our rationale for applying the mixed migration lens, could equally be applied to internal migration and displacement. So why do we still exclude the majority of both migrants and displaced people worldwide from our understanding of mixed migration? Why do people first need to cross a border, if the drivers, experiences, needs, and aspirations are often so similar, and mixed? Should we perhaps let go of this somewhat artificial limitation that the concept would only apply to cross-border international migration?

Needs before status

Moreover, in their search for protection, livelihood opportunities, and access to housing, education, healthcare, and other services, IDPs and internal migrants, as well as refugees and migrants returning to their country of origin, often end up in the same destinations—and frequently in the same urban districts—as refugees and international migrants. Both categories often face similar challenges, such as poor housing conditions, unemployment, lack of access to services, and discrimination. Again, if the experiences, needs, and challenges are so much alike, whether in transit or while more settled in a destination, does it make sense, from a policy and programming perspective, to exclude a particular group because it falls outside standard definitions of mixed migration? Or would it be more appropriate—not least to avoid tensions over who has better access to aid—to adopt approaches based on needs, rights, and geography rather than legal status and category? Development actors also often find it impossible to differentiate between the vulnerabilities that internal migrants, refugees and local residents face in urban areas.

Maintaining a strict distinction between internal and cross-border mobility and displacement defeats the purpose of the mixed migration concept, which is to look at drivers, aspirations, needs, risks, and vulnerabilities of people across the mobility spectrum, regardless of their migration status. Including internal mobility under the mixed migration umbrella might help to better understand and address different mobility dynamics along the displacement continuum.  As framed by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), today’s IDPs may become tomorrow’s refugees, just as today’s returning refugees risk becoming tomorrow’s IDPs. More than half of the refugees surveyed by the IDMC in a 2020 study conducted in seven countries were internally displaced—often repeatedly—before leaving their country of origin because they could not find safety there. Those not granted refugee status might be considered to be irregular migrants, and many former IDPs, now refugees, might at some point decide to move onward as international migrants to other destinations which offer better educational, livelihood and employment opportunities.

Irregularity and smugglers

Of course, one important characteristic of the mixed migration phenomenon is the irregularity of movement and the use of smugglers of some people in mixed flows. Usually, internal migration cannot be irregular, as it involves the movement of citizens within their own country, and the concept of irregularity generally applies to the way borders are crossed. According to IOM, internal migration refers to movement of people within a state, including internal displacement and rural-urban migration. However, such journeys can be made by both nationals and non-nationals of the country in question, provided they move away from their place of habitual residence, though it would be unlikely these non-nationals are moving irregularly. Nevertheless, in a year in which almost all citizens across the world have experienced some kind of restrictions on movement within their own countries as part of measures to control the spread of Covid-19, the idea of domestic movement being irregular has gained unprecedented plausibility. Moreover, for some groups, such as Myanmar’s Rohingya and internal migrants in China, limits on domestic freedom of movement were a daily reality even before the pandemic.

The use of smugglers by citizens moving within their own country is uncommon too and usually not needed. In fact, smuggling generally refers to the facilitation of irregular entry into a country by someone who is not a national or resident of that country. However, MMC deliberately applies a broader interpretation of “smuggler” and “smuggling”, one which encompasses a range of activities paid for or otherwise compensated by refugees and migrants that facilitate irregular migration. These include irregularly crossing not only international borders but also internal checkpoints, as well as providing documents, transportation, and accommodation. This approach reflects refugees’ and migrants’ perceptions of smuggling as the facilitation of irregular movement.

Many of these smuggling services might be used by those moving internally, especially when they start preparing for subsequent international migration and get in touch with smugglers to organise onward transportation or documentation. Furthermore, when internal mobility is restricted, even citizens with no plans for international travel might have to resort to smugglers (as per this broader definition).

While there are exceptions, it is clear though that these two common characteristics of mixed migration—irregularity and the use of smugglers—are found far less frequently in cases of internal migration and displacement.

Laws and norms

Legally speaking, there is of course an important difference between those who cross a national border and leave their country and those who do not. Most importantly, in the context of mixed migration, the 1951 Refugee Convention (which only applies to cross-border refugees), and principles and norms such as the right to seek asylum, the right to leave one’s own country, and the right not to be returned to a country where one’s life of liberty would be at risk (the prohibition of refoulement, which applies not only to refugees but to all international migrants) have no direct bearing on internal migrants or IDPs. International human rights law, by contrast, applies to all individuals on the move, regardless of their nationality and whether they are transiting through or remaining in states. It applies to all people on the basis of their inherent human dignity. Broadening the concept of mixed migration to incorporate internal mobility might bring it more in line with international human rights law, which is perhaps more applicable to all people within mixed migratory movements than the more narrowly focussed Refugee Convention. Moreover, the Convention does not afford protection to those who cross borders because of the impacts of climate change and related environmental shocks, which are expected to prompt growing numbers of people to leave their homes in the coming years. Most of these movements will be internal or proximate cross-border movements, again pointing to a continuum of mobility.

Finally, both the Global Compact on Refugees and the Global Compact for Migration focus exclusively on international movements—even in the latter 34-page document the word “internal” does not appear at all. A broader application of mixed migration that includes internal mobility might help not only to bridge the gap and ensure more complementarity between the two compacts, but also to focus on the needs- and rights- based aspects of human mobility in all its forms, ensuring more policy and programmatic coherence across the full spectrum of mobility.

None of the above is to suggest we should stop focusing on or differentiating between the distinct profiles, challenges, and needs of those in mixed migration movements, be they IDPs, internal migrants, returnees, refugees, or international migrants. Importantly, neither does it mean that the distinct rights of groups, most notably refugees, should go unrecognized. An even more comprehensive and inclusive conception of mixed migration does not mean we should or will close our eyes to diversity; on the contrary.

Potential pros and cons

But many questions remain. Would including internal mobility undermine the strong and useful policy and programmatic concept of mixed migration, or would it contribute to a more comprehensive focus on and understanding of human mobility in all its forms? Would it foster better protection outcomes and less invisibility for people moving within their own country? Or, by incorporating too many different categories under a single concept, would it lead IDPs to become even more invisible and get lost in the mire of mixed migration, with a less dedicated focus and worse outcomes for all? Would it constitute an example of rash mission creep or of a progressive insight that excluding internal migration from the idea of mixed migration for all these years has been a damaging omission? These are by no means easy questions and this propositional think-piece essay is only designed to provide a starting point for raising and discussing these questions.

At the Mixed Migration Centre, we believe knowledge and insights should always evolve, that we should always challenge received wisdoms and continue to advance our understanding of mixed migration in all its facets. Our recent focus, through new collaborative projects, data collection, research, and policy work on both the nexus between climate change and mobility as well as urban migration, is bringing us much closer to internal migration and displacement than before, not least because urbanisation is primarily driven by internal migration and since most climate-change-influenced mobility manifests itself as internal migration and displacement. While it is too soon to decide whether to amend our definition and understanding of mixed migration here and now, we will in the coming months further explore, consult, and discuss these important questions.