Risk in context: Decision-making in irregular and mixed migration

The following essay was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2022 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership.

The essay’s author Dr Milena Belloni is a FWO Post-doctoral researcher at the University of Antwerp and Human Rights Centre – University of Gent.

Following the publication of her book, “The Big Gamble: The Migration of Eritreans to Europe” and other work, sociologist Milena Belloni continues her research into migration risk-taking and shares here her latest ideas and findings with these “notes from a field researcher”.


Much scientific literature and policy reports have recently focused on dangerous journeys and the risks related to movement. Dangerous journeys are a puzzle: aren’t migrants aware of the risks? How can these journeys be prevented? Some analysts have highlighted that the focus on danger has implicitly justified restrictive border policies. As it is a public responsibility to protect migrants from danger, proponents of such restrictive policies would argue that risky mobility and those who facilitate it should be stopped at all costs.

In the debates and in many of the reports about the myriad dangers refugees and migrants in mixed migration face around the world, risk is defined in absolute and objective terms. A long tradition of scholars—though less in the field of migration—such as Mary Douglas, have pointed out that the notion of risk is a social construction in a particular historical and cultural context. Costs and benefits related to a risky decision are in fact defined at a personal (psychological), collective, and cultural level. In other words, the question “Is it worth it?” cannot be answered in absolute terms outside the specific biographical, cultural, and historical context.

Moreover, while migrants may be relatively well aware of the dangers, what is difficult to know are the risks, that is to say the probability of falling victim to any of those potential dangers. Uncertainty—a condition where odds are rarely known—is the norm in real life. While there is a plethora of reports in grey literature on all the dangers of mixed migration, the notion of risk—and especially how risk calculations are made at individual and collective levels and how they play a role in migration decision making—remains unexplored and poorly understood, despite the massive investments by destination countries in so-called risk awareness campaigns.

Although we talk about risk in migration, it is clear that migrants are rarely in a position to know in advance how likely they are to fall victim to the objective dangers along the migration journey, or whether their decision will be successful and at what cost. Migrants—like all human beings—make choices under conditions of partial knowledge and in shifting circumstances. Moreover, they often assess probabilities of success and failure in context of distress and among limited alternatives.

The fact that migration debates are dominated by a simplistic notion of risk, thus, seems to mirror the willingness of governments to convert uncertainties into something quantifiable, predictable, preventable, and manageable. This framing, moreover, shifts the focus from border enforcement mechanisms—such as fences, strict visa requirements, border police, etc—that push migrants on dangerous routes and, thus, create some of the dangers, to the risk-taking behaviour of migrants and their role in producing their own misfortunes.

Drawing on studies from all around the world and my own research on Eritrean migration, this essay shows that perception of danger—even extreme such as exploitation and death—has to be understood from the specific perspective of migrants in their living circumstances at home and in exile. Contrary to decision-making models based on individual attitudes to risk or an economic calculation of cost and benefit, this essay illustrates that migration is more often the result of complex power dynamics within nuclear and extended families in a specific cultural context which defines losses and gains. Lack of information about the dangers of the journeys is equally insufficient to explain the determination of migrants to move onward. Instead, this essay introduces the concept of entrapment, drawn from studies on gambling. Rather than irrational actors prone to risk, this concept allows us to understand that migrants in many cases are rational actors, making a choice—to move— that makes most sense.

Collective decisions

Decision-making around migration is usually thought of as a rational process in which individuals balance opportunities and costs (often analysed only in economic terms) to come to the most convenient conclusion. Alternatively, some psychological studies assume that specific personality traits determine why certain individuals are more prone than others to face migration risks. For example, a large-scale individual- level study covering 30 countries found that risk aversion is negatively correlated with willingness to migrate. In other words, individuals who are more risk averse are less likely to want to migrate. Moreover, this effect was found to be less strong in the case of riskier sending countries, meaning that if people come from riskier countries of origin, their risk aversion is less likely to influence their willingness to migrate. Another study, conducted among university students in Germany, looked at the relationship with the “big five” personality traits, social dynamics, and people’s intentions to migrate, and found that extraversion and openness are positively associated with migration intentions, while agreeableness, conscientiousness, and emotional stability negatively relate to migration intentions.

However, these studies only looked at a limited number of countries of origin, focused on a particular target group, and mainly focused on regular migration and/or migration intentions. These theories may be partially valid in contexts of regular migration, but they have hardly been explored in the often more dangerous contexts of irregular mixed-migration journeys across land and sea and, thus, may or may not be found wanting in such contexts. While underexplored and potentially a missing link in understanding the role of risk in the decision- making process of migrants embarking on irregular migration journeys, such psychological perspectives might also overly focus on individuals and model their behaviour as if it were taking place in a social vacuum.

Cost-benefit calculations…

In the mid-1980s, scholars of the “new economics of labour migration” highlighted that costs and benefits were evaluated within families in order to ensure the survival of the family when facing diverse risks. For instance, for households dependent on small-scale agriculture, sending a family member abroad meant being able to boost household income with remittances and to invest in new productive activities. This framework has recently been applied to refugee migration too. In a study on Iraqi refugees in Canada, respondents narrated how their decision to move was negotiated within their families to secure the best collective interests based on migration policies, cost of living in the receiving state, who in the family ran the greatest risks by staying put, and who had the skills to make them employable in a country of emigration.

These findings provide an interesting perspective on why in some cases males make up a large proportion of newly-arriving asylum seekers. The high rate of men coming from certain countries is often used to argue that their asylum claims are unfounded. Those critical of the arrival of so many men among asylum seekers tend to argue along the lines of: “Why are mainly young men coming to apply for asylum while they leave their women and children behind? Who would leave them behind in an unsafe country? This must mean they are not genuine refugees and that their countries are safe”. Studies have shown instead that this is a strategy of risk diversification: young men are the ones coming to Europe because they are the ones who can cope with the physical challenges on the way. With limited possibilities to apply for asylum outside of the desired asylum country or to travel in a safe manner, families decide their men should face the risk of irregular migration alone in order to secure for their wives and children waiting in camps or in the country of origin a safe way to travel through legal family reunification.

…are only part of the story

Friends and family—both abroad and in the country of destination—are the main influences on people’s decision to migrate. As such, family decision-making plays an important role in migration decision-making. But family consultation is rarely a straightforward process. Who decides within families? How do different members of the family accept or contest collective decisions? Is migration always the result of an explicit deliberation process or is it sometimes the consequence of growing up in a context where leaving is perceived as the only available way to access a meaningful future? What purist interpretations of the new economics of labour migration theory neglect is the fact that decisions of families and individuals are embedded in a wider societal and cultural context which shapes the cost-benefit analysis. We could say that each culture, each community, defines what a benefit is and what the acceptable cost to achieve it is. What is clear is that “benefit” cannot be reduced to economic gain.

Migration as a rite of passage

Migration is at times an end in itself, a conduct which is highly esteemed in communities and promoted no matter the economic prospects at home. Scholars have spoken about the concept of a culture of migration to refer to societies—usually those with a long and rich history of emigration—which have identified in migration a necessary step for young men (and to a lesser extent young women) in order to become adults and achieve a recognised social status. Some studies illustrate that this culture of migration continues to motivate young professionals in the Indian city of Hyderabad to move to Gulf states even when labour opportunities abroad are decreasing. Other research from rural Romania similarly found that since the 1980s young people had come to see migration to Western Europe as the only way to transit to adulthood even when possibilities in the local labour market expanded. Other examples can be found from West Africa, the Horn of Africa, North Africa, Mexico, Central America, China, and many other countries and regions of origin.

Similar considerations have been made in the context of asylum migration. One expert, for instance, investigated how due to protracted crises, mobility has become key for the survival of entire Afghan communities and has transformed their value system. Young boys can prove themselves as strong and courageous men by facing the hardships of an irregular journey and can attain success by saving money for relatives left behind in Afghanistan. In this context, the experience of danger may become an important element that defines the migration experience and makes it valuable in itself as a sort of rite of passage.

Insights from Eritrea

Eritrea offers an interesting case study that illustrates the roles that dangers and risks, as well as families and broader social contexts, play in migration decision- making. It also exposes the limits of rationalistic economics-oriented modelling of cost-benefit decision- making. For the last 60 years, Eritreans have risked their lives to escape war, persecution, and poverty at home. Today, it is estimated that more than 1.5 million Eritreans live abroad. Within this historical context, Eritreans have come to see emigration as the only possibility for individual development and community survival. Some recent studies estimate that remittances from abroad account for an average 80 percent of household incomes.

Complex decisions

In spite of these economic benefits, individual deliberations around migration are never straightforward. First, leaving one’s own home is not a choice made in complete freedom in Eritrea, as in many other refugee-departing contexts. Migration is a risk taken in response to vulnerability; that is to say, in circumstances where there are few, if any, positive alternatives. Any assessment of the risks of migration needs to consider the risk of staying in the light of the many dangers at home. Many of my respondents in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan were former soldiers escaping indefinite and/or abusive forced national service. They were continuously on the run, trying not to get caught by police. “I cannot sleep at home,” said one father in his 40s who had been escaping the military for more than 15 years. “Soldiers can come anytime and take me to a military training camp, or the prison or directly to the front.” My respondents’ narratives in rural and urban Eritrea described a life juggled between the “ordinary” danger of ending up in prisons notorious for their appalling conditions and the need to provide for their families. For them, the risk of staying was arguably as high as the risk of leaving: they were on the run either within their country or trying to get out of it. But the prospects opened up by migrating were definitely more appealing than those of remaining in Eritrea.

Second, all decisions around migration have to balance its huge human cost. In the last two decades, Eritreans have been the target of traffickers in Sudan, Egypt, and Libya. As they can often count on the economic solidarity of kin living in the US, Israel, Canada, and so forth, they have gained a reputation of being profitable victims for extortionists. This reputation has cost Eritrean communities and diasporas huge ransoms, often extracted under barbaric torture at the hands of their kidnappers.

Third, migration in Eritrea is the result of a specific cultural environment and complex family negotiations. Young people grow up thinking that leaving home is a necessary step to help their families and achieve a well-respected social status. Peer pressure among agemates in classrooms and playgrounds promote the feeling that there is no alternative to migration. Older siblings are often encouraged to leave the country to escape forced conscription and to support the education and the survival of younger siblings. However, given the dangers of the journeys and a residual political loyalty to the government and its national project, many parents are more hesitant to push their children to move.

The decision of young Eritreans to migrate often sounds as if it were taken for the sake of—and despite the lack of approval of—left-behind families, as they would be the beneficiaries of remittances if the migration journey was successful. “I never told my parents that I had the intention to leave. It is better not to worry them. They came to know it from my uncle when I arrived in Ethiopia,” one young man told me in Addis Ababa. His first concern, however, was to be able to earn enough to send money back home.

Rather than stemming from a mere cost-benefit evaluation, therefore, migration is the thorny result of complex dynamics and positions within the nuclear and larger family network. A recent survey conducted in Ethiopian refugee camps showed that Eritrean refugees with good connections are able to move fast and spend less time waiting before moving on. It is thanks to relatives working and living in the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Europe (to mention just some of the key locations of the diaspora) that young refugees can pay the facilitators of irregular migration. However, these transactions are often results of tough negotiations, as family members abroad may be reluctant to pay large sums—which are rarely reimbursed—and are scared to finance journeys which may end up tragically. It is often because of the determination of Eritreans to move ahead in spite of risks that family members have little choice but to collaborate with their migration projects.

What kind of risk? Risk perceptions in context

Although it is often discussed as something objective, several scholars have pointed out that risk perception is influenced by the biographical, social, and cultural contexts in which a person grows up and the conditions he/ she experiences.

Risks, even major ones, may become acceptable if they potentially offer high gains. These high gains may appear even more attractive as the alternative of not migrating can lead to a certainty that is even more frightening. People escaping conflicts and persecution, for instance, may consider a very risky journey as a better alternative than sure death. In other words: not migrating can be a riskier choice than migrating, regardless of how dangerous the migration journey would be. Migrating and not migrating can thus be seen as competing risks. In fact, at every stage of a migration journey there are decisions to be taken that are influenced by individual factors, personality traits, and contextual factors. And every time, migrating or staying can be considered as competing risks between which a decision has to be made in the absence of certainty or full information about the likelihood of actually experiencing those risks. However, fear of death is not the only factor pushing people to take risky pathways. In Eritrea, it is the structural restriction of freedom, the extremely limited possibility to earn enough money to secure one’s own independence and family survival produced by the system of national service that motivates youths to leave no matter the cost.

When death en route is a risk worth taking

The point is that life circumstances may be so gloomy that, even when people do not experience an impellent death threat, they may consider the risk of dying on the way as acceptable. For instance, Senegalese men preparing to board dinghies to reach the Canary Islands—along one of the world’s most deadly migration routes—have said that by staying put in their country of origin they would end up as “living dead”. Economic stagnation, the limited possibility to contribute to one’s own community, and the risk of living as a “failed” man were among the motivations for young Senegalese men to leave. I found similar expressions among Eritrean refugees I met in camps. They also compared the risk of leaving and facing the dangers of the desert and the sea with the certainty of living in a camp, referring to the miniscule prospect of resettlement. Without a job, without a place in their community, they would have been considered failures. “What is the difference between dying slowly here in camps or dying while crossing the sea? If we die, it is better we do so by trying to reach Europe rather than waiting, wasting time here far away from our homes and without the possibility to construct a future!” said a 27-year-old engineer I met in Ethiopia’s Adi Harush camp. This is the mindset that often leads Eritreans, both those who have already migrated and those still considering doing so, to leave their country.

Risk analysts moreover found that exposure to hazard—for example through high-risk professions, environmentally-challenging living conditions, and violence—can induce a normalisation process. That is to say, people who live their lives in danger may develop a higher tolerance to risk. Coming back to the earlier notion of risk aversion in migration intentions, it is likely that prolonged exposure to risks at home creates a much lower degree of risk aversion and thus a higher preparedness to accept the risks of irregular migration. This could definitely be applied to the context of Eritrean migration, where many of my respondents were former soldiers with experience of hardships and battles.

Ill-informed kamikazes?

It is often assumed that high-risk migration emerges from lack of information about the dangers of the journey. In other words, it is because of a mistaken calculation of costs that migrants embark on dangerous journeys. This is one of the reasons why information and risk-awareness-raising campaigns among potential migrants are widely implemented. Although findings from different areas greatly vary, my research and other studies show that this assumption is not sufficient to explain why people embark on risky journeys.

“My friends have died while trying to cross the Mediterranean last year, but I am ready to try myself. We have no alternatives here,” an Eritrean refugee who had spent the previous six months in an Ethiopian refugee camp told me. “I will move ahead at the end of the month”, said another refugee who had been tortured by traffickers in the Sinai while trying to cross to Israel the year before. A 2019 survey of irregular migrants in Europe by UNDP revealed similar sentiments.27 Based on surveys of 30,000 refugees and migrants around the world, MMC’s 4Mi project found that only 25 percent of respondents would not have started their journey had they known in advance how dangerous it would be.

These findings should not be seen as proof that migrants are irrational kamikazes, or that they show specific personality traits which make them prone to risk. Their strong determination to migrate can be understood by taking into account their difficult contexts of departure (the dangers at home), their constrained living circumstances in exile, and their high hopes of finding better opportunities in their destination. Moreover, it is important to consider that migrants who embark on dangerous journeys have limited choices and, importantly, that this possibility to choose may decrease as they proceed along their journeys as their circumstances funnel them into ever-narrower choice options.


One point that is often overlooked in academic and public discussion of risk in migration is its cumulative aspect during migration journeys. Migrants and refugees, especially those who move in irregular ways, are constantly strategising to limit dangers in their everyday life. “In what neighbourhood of the city shall I stay not to be caught by local police? When is the best moment to leave the camp to reach the closest city? What smuggler can I contact?” These are some of the many questions migrants ask themselves. This means that they do not have to take a decision about the risk of moving vs the risk of staying only once. In theory, every time they decide to move locations from one city to another or cross a border—be it local, regional, or international— especially if they have to face danger while doing it, migrants have to evaluate costs and benefits of doing so. However, my research with Eritreans migrating to Europe illustrates that the possibility to freely evaluate risks and opportunities decreases the further migrants proceed along their journeys, not least as they consider the “sunk costs” (see below) in terms of the effort taken, money spent, and hardship endured to get to where they are in their journey. At some point, they may feel they have already invested and suffered so much that there is no turning back anymore, and they have to continue the journey to reach the end goal.

Eritreans have to first cross borders within their own country to be able to reach the international border with Ethiopia. Then, from Ethiopia to arrive in their favoured destination somewhere in northern Europe they have to cross at least two more borders in Africa (Sudan, Libya), cross the Mediterranean, and then cross more borders in Europe if they decide to move on. At each stage, they have to decide whether and when to continue, what route to take, which smugglers to engage, and must assess the risk of every decision. However, they rarely feel free to choose. “We do not have another choice but moving onwards,” many Eritreans told me in Sudan and Ethiopia.

Although contemporary refugee and migrant journeys imply a degree of choice and agency—and it is important to always acknowledge people’s agency—their journeys reflect a process of progressive entrapment. This concept is drawn from gambling studies to describe the predicament of someone who has invested so much money in a game of chance that their only options are to quit (with certain losses) or to keep betting. Migrants I met also felt that they had gone too far (in distance from home, time spent, stress, and money) to give up their dream to reach a destination where they would not only be physically safe but also find the opportunity to earn enough money to secure a safe future for themselves and their families left behind. Interestingly, only a slight probability of success is enough to keep going and trying.

Sunk costs

In economics, scholars write about the sunk cost fallacy. This happens when individuals continue a behavior as a result of previously invested resources. This behavior is defined as irrational by economists, but philosophers working on gambling have argued—using the term entrapment—that to keep investing can be considered the only rational choice if individuals do not want to lose what they have already invested. This shows how difficult—and maybe even pointless—it is to interpret human conduct—in this case on migration—as either rational or irrational.

This theory has important implications for policy-making. It explains why restrictive border enforcement often fails to deter migrants on their way to their chosen destination. This applies for movements to Europe and secondary mobility within Europe. Having invested so much energy and resources to arrive in Europe, migrants in border areas, such as Ventimiglia (on the France-Italy border) and Calais (a French gateway to the UK) are even more determined to move on and able to tolerate high risks even when the chances of gaining legal residence are very slim—because they are almost there. Additionally, while in media and public debates it is often said how “desperate and hopeless” people must be to take such enormous risks by, for example, crossing the open sea, determination and hope are key ingredients of these migrants’ journeys. Surely these, too, are accompanying drivers compelling migrants onward, which if family reunification and/or family and individual survival are involved become a potent mix of forces where failure becomes an unacceptable alternative.

Conclusion: recentring on migrants’ point of view

When discussing migration decision-making, scholars and policymakers mostly explore costs and benefits, and the availability or lack of information as if migrants’ choices could be equated to the conduct of an investor. As a result, if migrants do not behave as well-informed and balanced investors, their choices are implicitly considered to be irrational. Here migrants become kamikazes, risk-takers who can then also be “blamed” for their own misfortunes and poor calculations.

Drawing from a variety of studies across the globe and my own ethnographic work with Eritrean refugees, this essay has shown the importance of interpreting risk and its meaning given the specific living circumstances of potential migrants and migrants on the way. Going beyond models of individual rational decision-making, the essay highlighted the role of family, extended kin, and culture in how migrants perceive and face risk among different migrants. It also looked at the under-explored understanding of psychological factors in mixed migration decision-making, even though these, too, cannot be isolated but need to be understood in a broader family and societal context. Further, it stressed the need to consider competing risks between migrating and not migrating (when still in country of origin) and between moving on, returning, or staying at every subsequent stage of the journey. Moreover, by refocusing the analysis on migrants’ perceptions, this essay has attempted to illustrate that the possibility of freely choosing—which can, in the context of some countries, like Eritrea, be extremely constrained already at departure—progressively shrinks as migrants invest money, energy and time to move away from home.