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Article Contents

1. introduction, 2. studies of migration studies, 3. methodology, 4. metadata on migration studies, 5. topic clusters in migration studies, 6. trends in topic networks in migration studies, 7. conclusions, acknowledgements.

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Mapping migration studies: An empirical analysis of the coming of age of a research field

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Asya Pisarevskaya, Nathan Levy, Peter Scholten, Joost Jansen, Mapping migration studies: An empirical analysis of the coming of age of a research field, Migration Studies , Volume 8, Issue 3, September 2020, Pages 455–481, https://doi.org/10.1093/migration/mnz031

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Migration studies have developed rapidly as a research field over the past decades. This article provides an empirical analysis not only on the development in volume and the internationalization of the field, but also on the development in terms of topical focus within migration studies over the past three decades. To capture volume, internationalisation, and topic focus, our analysis involves a computer-based topic modelling of the landscape of migration studies. Rather than a linear growth path towards an increasingly diversified and fragmented field, as suggested in the literature, this reveals a more complex path of coming of age of migration studies. Although there seems to be even an accelerated growth for migration studies in terms of volume, its internationalisation proceeds only slowly. Furthermore, our analysis shows that rather than a growth of diversification of topics within migration topic, we see a shift between various topics within the field. Finally, our study shows that there is no consistent trend to more fragmentation in the field; in contrast, it reveals a recent recovery of connectedness between the topics in the field, suggesting an institutionalisation or even theoretical and conceptual coming of age of migration studies.

Migration studies have developed rapidly as a research field in recent decades. It encompasses studies on all types of international and internal migration, migrants, and migration-related diversity ( King, 2002 ; Scholten, 2018 ). Many scholars have observed the increase in the volume of research on migration ( Massey et al., 1998 ; Bommes and Morawska, 2005 ; Scholten et al., 2015 ). Additionally, the field has become increasingly varied in terms of links to broader disciplines ( King, 2012 ; Brettell and Hollifield, 2014 ) and in terms of different methods used ( Vargas-Silva, 2012 ; Zapata-Barrero and Yalaz, 2018 ). It is now a field that has in many senses ‘come of age’: it has internationalised with scholars involved from many countries; it has institutionalised through a growing number of journals; an increasing number of institutes dedicated to migration studies; and more and more students are pursuing migration-related courses. These trends are also visible in the growing presence of international research networks in the field of migration.

Besides looking at the development of migration in studies in terms of size, interdisciplinarity, internationalisation, and institutionalisation, we focus in this article on the development in topical focus of migration studies. We address the question how has the field of migration studies developed in terms of its topical focuses? What topics have been discussed within migration studies? How has the topical composition of the field changed, both in terms of diversity (versus unity) and connectedness (versus fragmentation)? Here, the focus is not on influential publications, authors, or institutes, but rather on what topics scholars have written about in migration studies. The degree of diversity among and connectedness between these topics, especially in the context of quantitative growth, will provide an empirical indication of whether a ‘field’ of migration studies exists, or to what extent it is fragmented.

Consideration of the development of migration studies invokes several theoretical questions. Various scholars have argued that the growth of migration studies has kept pace not only with the growing prominence of migration itself but also with the growing attention of nation–states in particular towards controlling migration. The coproduction of knowledge between research and policy, some argue ( Scholten, 2011 ), has given migration research an inclination towards paradigmatic closure, especially around specific national perspectives on migration. Wimmer and Glick Schiller (2002 ) speak in this regard of ‘methodological nationalism’, and others refer to the prominence of national models that would be reproduced by scholars and policymakers ( Bommes and Morawska, 2005 ; Favell, 2003 ). More generally, this has led, some might argue, to an overconcentration of the field on a narrow number of topics, such as integration and migration control, and a consequent call to ‘de-migranticise’ migration research ( Dahinden, 2016 ; see also Schinkel, 2018 ).

However, recent studies suggest that the growth of migration studies involves a ‘coming of age’ in terms of growing diversity of research within the field. This diversification of migration studies has occurred along the lines of internationalisation ( Scholten et al., 2015 ), disciplinary variation ( Yans-McLaughlin, 1990 ; King, 2012 ; Brettell and Hollifield, 2014 ) and methodological variation ( Vargas-Silva, 2012 ; Zapata-Barrero and Yalaz, 2018 ). The International Organization for Migration ( IOM, 2017 : 95) even concludes that ‘the volume, diversity, and growth of both white and grey literature preclude a [manual] systematic review’ of migration research produced in 2015 and 2016 alone .

Nonetheless, in this article, we attempt to empirically trace the development of migration studies over the past three decades, and seek to find evidence for the claim that the ‘coming of age’ of migration studies indeed involves a broadening of the variety of topics within the field. We pursue an inductive approach to mapping the academic landscape of >30 years of migration studies. This includes a content analysis based on a topic modelling algorithm, applied to publications from migration journals and book series. We trace the changes over time of how the topics are distributed within the corpus and the extent to which they refer to one another. We conclude by giving a first interpretation of the patterns we found in the coming of age of migration studies, which is to set an agenda for further studies of and reflection on the development of this research field. While migration research is certainly not limited to journals and book series that focus specifically on migration, our methods enable us to gain a representative snapshot of what the field looks like, using content from sources that migration researchers regard as relevant.

Migration has always been studied from a variety of disciplines ( Cohen, 1996 ; Brettell and Hollifield, 2014 ), such as economics, sociology, history, and demography ( van Dalen, 2018 ), using a variety of methods ( Vargas-Silva, 2012 ; Zapata-Barrero and Yalaz, 2018 ), and in a number of countries ( Carling, 2015 ), though dominated by Northern Hemisphere scholarship (see, e.g. Piguet et al., 2018 ), especially from North America and Europe ( Bommes and Morawska, 2005 ). Taking stock of various studies on the development of migration studies, we can define several expectations that we will put to an empirical test.

Ravenstein’s (1885) 11 Laws of Migration is widely regarded as the beginning of scholarly thinking on this topic (see Zolberg, 1989 ; Greenwood and Hunt, 2003 ; Castles and Miller, 2014 ; Nestorowicz and Anacka, 2018 ). Thomas and Znaniecki’s (1918) five-volume study of Polish migrants in Europe and America laid is also noted as an early example of migration research. However, according to Greenwood and Hunt (2003 ), migration research ‘took off’ in the 1930s when Thomas (1938) indexed 191 studies of migration across the USA, UK, and Germany. Most ‘early’ migration research was quantitative (see, e.g. Thornthwaite, 1934 ; Thomas, 1938 ). In addition, from the beginning, migration research developed with two empirical traditions: research on internal migration and research on international migration ( King and Skeldon, 2010 ; Nestorowicz and Anacka, 2018 : 2).

In subsequent decades, studies of migration studies describe a burgeoning field. Pedraza-Bailey (1990) refers to a ‘veritable boom’ of knowledge production by the 1980s. A prominent part of these debates focussed around the concept of assimilation ( Gordon, 1964 ) in the 1950s and 1960s (see also Morawska, 1990 ). By the 1970s, in light of the civil rights movements, researchers were increasingly focussed on race and ethnic relations. However, migration research in this period lacked an interdisciplinary ‘synthesis’ and was likely not well-connected ( Kritz et al., 1981 : 10; Pryor, 1981 ; King, 2012 : 9–11). Through the 1980s, European migration scholarship was ‘catching up’ ( Bommes and Morawska, 2005 : 14) with the larger field across the Atlantic. Substantively, research became increasingly mindful of migrant experiences and critical of (national) borders and policies ( Pedraza-Bailey, 1990 : 49). King (2012) also observes this ‘cultural turn’ towards more qualitative anthropological migration research by the beginning of the 1990s, reflective of trends in social sciences more widely ( King, 2012 : 24). In the 1990s, Massey et al. (1993, 1998 ) and Massey (1994) reflected on the state of the academic landscape. Their literature review (1998) notes over 300 articles on immigration in the USA, and over 150 European publications. Despite growth, they note that the field did not develop as coherently in Europe at it had done in North America (1998: 122).

We therefore expect to see a significant growth of the field during the 1980s and 1990s, and more fragmentation, with a prominence of topics related to culture and borders.

At the turn of the millennium, Portes (1997) lists what were, in his view, the five key themes in (international) migration research: 1 transnational communities; 2 the new second generation; 3 households and gender; 4 states and state systems; and 5 cross-national comparisons. This came a year after Cohen’s review of Theories of Migration (1996), which classifies nine key thematic ‘dyads’ in migration studies, such as internal versus international migration; individual versus contextual reasons to migrate; temporary versus permanent migration; and push versus pull factors (see full list in Cohen, 1996 : 12–15). However, despite increasing knowledge production, Portes argues that the problem in these years was the opposite of what Kritz et al. (1981) observe above; scholars had access to and generated increasing amounts of data, but failed to achieve ‘conceptual breakthrough’ ( Portes, 1997 : 801), again suggesting fragmentation in the field.

Thus, in late 1990s and early 2000s scholarship we expect to find a prominence of topics related to these five themes, and a limited number of “new” topics.

In the 21st century, studies of migration studies indicate that there has been a re-orientation away from ‘states and state systems’. This is exemplified by Wimmer and Glick Schiller’s (2002) widely cited commentary on ‘methodological nationalism’, and the alleged naturalisation of nation-state societies in migration research (see Thranhardt and Bommes, 2010 ), leading to an apparent pre-occupation with the integration paradigm since the 1980s according to Favell (2003) and others ( Dahinden, 2016 ; Schinkel, 2018 ). This debate is picked up in Bommes and Morawska’s (2005) edited volume, and Lavenex (2005) . Describing this shift, Geddes (2005) , in the same volume, observes a trend of ‘Europeanised’ knowledge production, stimulated by the research framework programmes of the EU. Meanwhile, on this topic, others highlight a ‘local turn’ in migration and diversity research ( Caponio and Borkert, 2010 ; Zapata-Barrero et al., 2017) .

In this light, we expect to observe a growth in references to European (and other supra-national) level and local-level topics in the 21t century compared to before 2000.

As well as the ‘cultural turn’ mentioned above, King (2012 : 24–25) observes a re-inscription of migration within wider social phenomena—in terms of changes to the constitutive elements of host (and sending) societies—as a key development in recent migration scholarship. Furthermore, transnationalism, in his view, continues to dominate scholarship, though this dominance is disproportionate, he argues, to empirical reality. According to Scholten (2018) , migration research has indeed become more complex as the century has progressed. While the field has continued to grow and institutionalise thanks to networks like International Migration, Integration and Social Cohesion in Europe (IMISCOE) and Network of Migration Research on Africa (NOMRA), this has been in a context of apparently increasing ‘fragmentation’ observed by several scholars for many years (see Massey et al., 1998 : 17; Penninx et al., 2008 : 8; Martiniello, 2013 ; Scholten et al., 2015 : 331–335).

On this basis, we expect a complex picture to emerge for recent scholarship, with thematic references to multiple social phenomena, and a high level of diversity within the topic composition of the field. We furthermore expect increased fragmentation within migration studies in recent years.

The key expectation of this article is, therefore, that the recent topical composition of migration studies displays greater diversity than in previous decades as the field has grown. Following that logic, we hypothesise that with diversification (increasingly varied topical focuses), fragmentation (decreasing connections between topics) has also occurred.

The empirical analysis of the development in volume and topic composition of migration studies is based on the quantitative methods of bibliometrics and topic modelling. Although bibliometric analysis has not been widely used in the field of migration (for some exceptions, see Carling, 2015 ; Nestorowicz and Anacka, 2018 ; Piguet et al., 2018 ; Sweileh et al., 2018 ; van Dalen, 2018 ), this type of research is increasingly popular ( Fortunato et al., 2018 ). A bibliometric analysis can help map what Kajikawa et al. (2007) call an ‘academic landscape’. Our analysis pursues a similar objective for the field of migration studies. However, rather than using citations and authors to guide our analysis, we extract a model of latent topics from the contents of abstracts . In other words, we are focussed on the landscape of content rather than influence.

3.1 Topic modelling

Topic modelling involves a computer-based strategy for identifying topics or topic clusters that figure centrally in a specific textual landscape (e.g. Jiang et al., 2016 ). This is a class of unsupervised machine learning techniques ( Evans and Aceves, 2016 : 22), which are used to inductively explore and discover patterns and regularities within a corpus of texts. Among the most widely used topic models is Latent Dirichlet Allocation (LDA). LDA is a type of Bayesian probabilistic model that builds on the assumption that each document in a corpus discusses multiple topics in differing proportions. Therefore, Document A might primarily be about Topic 1 (60 per cent), but it also refers to terms associated with Topic 2 (30 per cent), and, to a lesser extent, Topic 3 (10 per cent). A topic, then, is defined as a probability distribution over a fixed vocabulary, that is, the totality of words present in the corpus. The advantage of the unsupervised LDA approach that we take is that it does not limit the topic model to our preconceptions of which topics are studied by migration researchers and therefore should be found in the literature. Instead, it allows for an inductive sketching of the field, and consequently an element of surprise ( Halford and Savage, 2017 : 1141–1142). To determine the optimal number of topics, we used the package ldatuning to calculate the statistically optimal number of topics, a number which we then qualitatively validated.

The chosen LDA model produced two main outcomes. First, it yielded a matrix with per-document topic proportions, which allow us to generate an idea of the topics discussed in the abstracts. Secondly, the model returned a matrix with per-topic word probabilities. Essentially, the topics are a collection of words ordered by their probability of (co-)occurrence. Each topic contains all the words from all the abstracts, but some words have a much higher likelihood to belong to the identified topic. The 20–30 most probable words for each topic can be helpful in understanding the content of the topic. The third step we undertook was to look at those most probable words by a group of experts familiar with the field and label them. We did this systematically and individually by first looking at the top 5 words, then the top 30, trying to find an umbrella label that would summarize the topic. The initial labels suggested by each of us were then compared and negotiated in a group discussion. To verify the labels even more, in case of a doubt, we read several selected abstracts marked by the algorithm as exhibiting a topic, and through this were able to further refine the names of the topics.

It is important to remember that this list of topics should not be considered a theoretically driven attempt to categorize the field. It is purely inductive because the algorithm is unable to understand theories, conceptual frames, and approaches; it makes a judgement only on the basis of words. So if words are often mentioned together, the computer regards their probability of belonging to one topic as high.

3.2 Dataset of publications

For the topic modelling, we created a dataset that is representative of publications relevant to migration studies. First, we identified the most relevant sources of literature. Here we chose not only to follow rankings in citation indices, but also to ask migration scholars, in an expert survey, to identify what they considered to be relevant sources. This survey was distributed among a group of senior scholars associated with the IMISCOE Network; 25 scholars anonymously completed the survey. A set of journals and book series was identified from existing indices (such as Google Scholar, Web of Science, and Scopus) which were then validated and added to by respondents. Included in our eventual dataset were all journals and book series that were mentioned at least by two experts in the survey. The dataset includes 40 journals and 4 book series (see Supplementary Data A). Non-English journals were omitted from data collection because the algorithm can only analyse one language. Despite their influence on the field, we also did not consider broader disciplinary journals (for instance, sociological journals or economic journals) for the dataset. Such journals, we acknowledge, have published some of the most important research in the history of migration studies, but even with their omission, it is still possible to achieve our goal of obtaining a representative snapshot of what migration researchers have studied, rather than who or which papers have been most influential. In addition, both because of the language restriction of the algorithm and because of the Global North’s dominance in the field that is mentioned above ( Bommes and Morawska, 2005 ; Piguet et al., 2018 ), there is likely to be an under-representation of scholarship from the Global South in our dataset.

Secondly, we gathered metadata on publications from the selected journals and book series using the Scopus and Web of Science electronic catalogues, and manually collecting from those sources available on neither Scopus nor Web of Science. The metadata included authors, years, titles, and abstracts. We collected all available data up to the end of 2017. In total, 94 per cent of our metadata originated from Scopus, ∼1 per cent from Web of Science, and 5 per cent was gathered manually. One limitation of our dataset lies in the fact that the electronic catalogue of Scopus, unfortunately, does not list all articles and abstracts ever published by all the journals (their policy is to collect articles and abstracts ‘where available’ ( Elsevier, 2017 )). There was no technical possibility of assessing Scopus or WoS’ proportional coverage of all articles actually published. The only way to improve the dataset in this regard would be to manually collect and count abstracts from journal websites. This is also why many relevant books were not included in our dataset; they are not indexed in such repositories.

In the earliest years of available data, only a few journals were publishing (with limited coverage of this on Scopus) specifically on migration. However, Fig. 1 below demonstrates that the numbers constantly grew between 1959 and 2018. As Fig. 1 shows, in the first 30 years (1959–88), the number of migration journals increased by 15, while in the following three decades (1989–2018), this growth intensified as the number of journals tripled to 45 in the survey (see Supplementary Data A for abbreviations).

Number of journals focussed on migration and migration-related diversity (1959–2018) Source: Own calculations.

Number of journals focussed on migration and migration-related diversity (1959–2018) Source: Own calculations.

Within all 40 journals in the dataset, we were able to access and extract for our analysis 29,844 articles, of which 22,140 contained abstracts. Furthermore, we collected 901 available abstracts of chapters in the 4 book series: 2 series were downloaded from the Scopus index (Immigration and Asylum Law in Europe; Handbook of the Economics of International Migration), and the abstracts of the other 2 series, selected from our expert survey (the IMISCOE Research Series Migration Diasporas and Citizenship), were collected manually. Given the necessity of manually collecting the metadata for 896 abstracts of the chapters in these series, it was both practical and logical to set these two series as the cut-off point. Ultimately, we get a better picture of the academic landscape as a whole with some expert-approved book series than with none .

Despite the limitations of access, we can still have an approximate idea on how the volume of publications changed overtime. The chart ( Fig. 2 ) below shows that both the number of published articles and the number of abstracts of these articles follow the same trend—a rapid growth after the turn of the century. In 2017, there were three times more articles published per year than in 2000.

Publications and abstracts in the dataset (1959–2018).

Publications and abstracts in the dataset (1959–2018).

The cumulative graph ( Fig. 3 ) below shows the total numbers of publications and the available abstracts. For the creation of our inductively driven topic model, we used all available abstracts in the entire timeframe. However, to evaluate the dynamics of topics over time, we decided to limit the timeframe of our chronological analyses to 1986–2017, because as of 1986, there were more than 10 active journals and more articles had abstracts. This analysis therefore covers the topical evolution of migration studies in the past three decades.

Cumulative total of publications and abstracts (1959–2017).

Cumulative total of publications and abstracts (1959–2017).

Migration studies has only internationalised very slowly in support of what others have previously argued ( Bommes and Morawska, 2005 ; Piguet et al., 2018 ). Figure 4 gives a snapshot of the geographic dispersion of the articles (including those without abstracts) that we collected from Scopus. Where available, we extracted the country of authors’ university affiliations. The colour shades represent the per capita publication volume. English-language migration scholarship has been dominated by researchers based, unsurprisingly, in Anglophone and Northern European countries.

Migration research output per capita (based on available affiliation data within dataset).

Migration research output per capita (based on available affiliation data within dataset).

The topic modelling (following the LDA model) led us, as discussed in methods, to the definition of 60 as the optimal number of topics for mapping migration studies. Each topic is a string of words that, according to the LDA algorithm, belong together. We reviewed the top 30 words for each word string and assigned labels that encapsulated their meaning. Two of the 60 word strings were too generic and did not describe anything related to migration studies; therefore, we excluded them. Subsequently, the remaining 58 topics were organised into a number of clusters. In the Table 1 below, you can see all the topic labels, the topic clusters they are grouped into and the first 5 (out of 30) most probable words defining those topics.

Topics in migration studies

After presenting all the observed topics in the corpus of our publication data, we examined which topics and topic clusters are most frequent in general (between 1964 and 2017), and how their prominence has been changing over the years. On the basis of the matrix of per-item topic proportions generated by LDA analysis, we calculated the shares of each topic in the whole corpus. On the level of individual topics, around 25 per cent of all abstract texts is about the top 10 most prominent topics, which you can see in Fig. 5 below. Among those, #56 identity narratives (migration-related diversity), #39 migration theory, and #29 migration flows are the three most frequently detected topics.

Top 10 topics in the whole corpus of abstracts.

Top 10 topics in the whole corpus of abstracts.

On the level of topic clusters, Fig. 6 (left) shows that migration-related diversity (26 per cent) and migration processes (19 per cent) clearly comprise the two largest clusters in terms of volume, also because they have the largest number topics belonging to them. However, due to our methodology of labelling these topics and grouping them into clusters, it is complicated to make comparisons between topic clusters in terms of relative size, because some clusters simply contain more topics. Calculating average proportions of topics within each cluster allows us to control for the number of topics per cluster, and with this measure, we can better compare the relative prominence of clusters. Figure 6 (right) shows that migration research and statistics have the highest average of topic proportions, followed by the cluster of migration processes and immigrant incorporation.

Topic proportions per cluster.

Topic proportions per cluster.

An analysis on the level of topic clusters in the project’s time frame (1986–2017) reveals several significant trends. First, when discussing shifts in topics over time, we can see that different topics have received more focus in different time frames. Figure 7 shows the ‘age’ of topics, calculated as average years weighted by proportions of publications within a topic per year. The average year of the articles on the same topic is a proxy for the age of the topic. This gives us an understanding of which topics were studied more often compared with others in the past and which topics are emerging. Thus, an average year can be understood as the ‘high-point’ of a topic’s relative prominence in the field. For instance, the oldest topics in our dataset are #22 ‘Migrant demographics’, followed by #45 ‘Governance of migration’ and #46 ‘Migration statistics and survey research’. The newest topics include #14 ‘Mobilities’ and #48 ‘Intra-EU mobility’.

Average topic age, weighted by proportions of publications (publications of 1986–2017). Note: Numbers near dots indicate the numeric id of topics (see Table 1 for the names).

Average topic age, weighted by proportions of publications (publications of 1986–2017). Note: Numbers near dots indicate the numeric id of topics (see Table 1 for the names).

When looking at the weighted ‘age’ of the clusters, it becomes clear that the focus on migration research and statistics is the ‘oldest’, which echoes what Greenwood and Hunt (2003 ) observe. This resonates with the idea that migration studies has roots in more demographic studies of migration and diversity (cf. Thornthwaite, 1934 ; Thomas, 1938 ), which somewhat contrasts with what van Dalen (2018) has found. Geographies of migration (studies related to specific migration flows, origins, and destinations) were also more prominent in the 1990s than now, and immigrant incorporation peaked at the turn of the century. However, gender and family, diversity, and health are more recent themes, as was mentioned above (see Fig. 8 ). This somewhat indicates a possible post-methodological nationalism, post-integration paradigm era in migration research going hand-in-hand with research that, as King (2012) argues, situates migration within wider social and political domains (cf. Scholten, 2018 ).

Diversity of topics and topic clusters (1985–2017).

Diversity of topics and topic clusters (1985–2017).

Then, we analysed the diversification of publications over the various clusters. Based on the literature review, we expected the diversification to have increased over the years, signalling a move beyond paradigmatic closure. Figure 9 (below) shows that we can hardly speak of a significant increase of diversity in migration studies publications. Over the years, only a marginal increase in the diversity of topics is observed. The Gini-Simpson index of diversity in 1985 was around 0.95 and increased to 0.98 from 1997 onwards. Similarly, there is little difference between the sizes of topic clusters over the years. Both ways of calculating the Gini-Simpson index of diversity by clusters resulted in a rather stable picture showing some fluctuations between 0.82 and 0.86. This indicates that there has never been a clear hegemony of any cluster at any time. In other words, over the past three decades, the diversity of topics and topic clusters was quite stable: there have always been a great variety of topics discussed in the literature of migration studies, with no topic or cluster holding a clear monopoly.

Average age of topic clusters, weighted by proportions (publications of 1986–2017).

Average age of topic clusters, weighted by proportions (publications of 1986–2017).

Subsequently, we focussed on trends in topic networks. As our goal is to describe the general development of migration studies as a field, we decided to analyse topic networks in three equal periods of 10 years (Period 1 (1988–97); Period 2 (1998–2007); Period 3 (2008–17)). On the basis of the LDA-generated matrix with per-abstract topic proportions (The LDA algorithm determines the proportions of all topics observed within each abstract. Therefore, each abstract can contain several topics with a substantial prominence), we calculated the topic-by-topic Spearman correlation coefficients in each of the time frames. From the received distribution of the correlation coefficients, we chose to focus on the top 25 per cent strongest correlations period. In order to highlight difference in strength of connections, we assigned different weights to the correlations between the topics. Coefficient values above the 75th percentile (0.438) but ≤0.5 were weighted 1; correlations above 0.5 but ≤0.6 were weighted 2; and correlations >0.6 were weighted 3. We visualised these topic networks using the software Gephi.

To compare networks of topics in each period, we used three common statistics of network analysis: 1 average degree of connections; 2 average weighted degree of connections; and 3 network density. The average degree of connections shows how many connections to other topics each topic in the network has on average. This measure can vary from 0 to N − 1, where N is the total number of topics in the network. Some correlations of topics are stronger and were assigned the Weight 2 or 3. These are included in the statistics of average weighted degree of connections, which shows us the variations in strength of existing connections between the topics. Network density is a proportion of existing links over the number of all potentially possible links between the topics. This measure varies from 0 = entirely disconnected topics to 1 = extremely dense network, where every topic is connected to every topic.

Table 2 shows that all network measures vary across the three periods. In Period 1, each topic had on average 21 links with other topics, while in Period 2, that number was much lower (11.5 links). In Period 3, the average degree of connections grew again, but not to the level of Period 1. The same trend is observed in the strength of these links—in Period 1, the correlations between the topics were stronger than in Period 3, while they were the weakest in Period 2. The density of the topic networks was highest in Period 1 (0.4), then in Period 2, the topic network became sparser before densifying again in Period 3 (but not to the extent of Period 1’s density).

Topic network statistics

These fluctuations on network statistics indicate that in the years 1988–97, topics within the analysed field of migration studies were mentioned in the same articles and book chapters more often, while at the turn of the 21st century, these topic co-occurrences became less frequent; publications therefore became more specialised and topics were more isolated from each other. In the past 10 years, migration studies once again became more connected, the dialogues between the topics emerged more frequently. These are important observations about topical development in the field of migration studies. The reasons behind these changes require further, possibly more qualitative explanation.

To get a more in-depth view of the content of these topic networks, we made an overview of the changes in the topic clusters across the three periods. As we can see in Fig. 10 , some changes emerge in terms of the prominence of various clusters. The two largest clusters (also by the number of topics within them) are migration-related diversity and migration processes. The cluster of migration-related diversity increased in its share of each period’s publications by around 20 per cent. This reflects our above remarks on the literature surrounding the integration debate, and the ‘cultural turn’ King mentions (2012). And the topic cluster migration processes also increased moderately its share.

Prominence and change in topic clusters 1988–2017.

Prominence and change in topic clusters 1988–2017.

Compared with the first period, the topic cluster of gender and family studies grew the fastest, with the largest growth observed in the turn of the century (relative to its original size). This suggests a growing awareness of gender and family-related aspects of migration although as a percentage of the total corpus it remains one the smallest clusters. Therefore, Massey et al.’s (1998) argument that households and gender represented a quantitatively significant pillar of migration research could be considered an overestimation. The cluster of health studies in migration research also grew significantly in the Period 2 although in Period 3, the percentage of publications in this cluster diminished. This suggests a rising awareness of health in relation to migration and diversity (see Sweileh et al., 2018 ) although this too remains one of the smallest clusters.

The cluster on Immigrant incorporation lost prominence the most over the past 30 years. This seems to resonate with the argument that ‘integrationism’ or the ‘integration paradigm’ was rather in the late 1990s (see Favell, 2003 ; Dahinden, 2016 ) and is losing its prominence. A somewhat slower but steady loss was also observed in the cluster of Geographies of migration and Migration research and statistics. This also suggests not only a decreasing emphasis on demographics within migration studies, but also a decreasing reflexivity in the development of the field and the focus on theory-building.

We will now go into more detail and show the most connected topics and top 10 most prominent topics in each period. Figures 11–13 show the network maps of topics in each period. The size of circles reflects the number and strength of links per each topic: the bigger the size, the more connected this topic is to the others; the biggest circles indicate the most connected topics. While the prominence of a topic is measured by the number of publications on that topic, it is important to note that the connectedness the topic has nothing necessarily to do with the amount of publications on that topic; in theory, a topic could appear in many articles without any reference to other topics (which would mean that it is prominent but isolated).

Topic network in 1988–97. Note: Numbers indicate topics' numerical ids, see Table 1 for topics' names.

Topic network in 1988–97. Note: Numbers indicate topics' numerical ids, see Table 1 for topics' names.

Topic network in 1998–2007. Note: Numbers indicate topics' numerical ids, see Table 1 for topics' names.

Topic network in 1998–2007. Note: Numbers indicate topics' numerical ids, see Table 1 for topics' names.

Topic network in 2008–2017. Note: Numbers indicate topics' numerical ids, see Table 1 for topics' names.

Topic network in 2008–2017. Note: Numbers indicate topics' numerical ids, see Table 1 for topics' names.

Thus, in the section below, we describe the most connected and most prominent topics in migration research per period. The degree of connectedness is a useful indicator of the extent to which we can speak of a ‘field’ of migration research. If topics are well-connected, especially in a context of increased knowledge production and changes in prominence among topics, then this would suggest that a shared conceptual and theoretical language exists.

6.1 Period 1: 1988–97

The five central topics with the highest degree of connectedness (the weighted degree of connectedness of these topics was above 60) were ‘black studies’, ‘mobilities’, ‘ICT, media and migration’, ‘migration in/from Israel and Palestine’, and ‘intra-EU mobility’. These topics are related to geopolitical regions, ethnicity, and race. The high degree of connectedness of these topics shows that ‘they often occurred together with other topics in the analysed abstracts from this period’. This is expected because research on migration and diversity inevitably discusses its subject within a certain geographical, political, or ethnic scope. Geographies usually appear in abstracts as countries of migrants’ origin or destination. The prominence of ‘black studies’ reflects the dominance of American research on diversity, which was most pronounced in this period ( Fig. 11 ).

The high degree of connectedness of the topics on ICT and ‘media’ is indicative of wider societal trends in the 1990s. As with any new phenomenon, it clearly attracted the attention of researchers who wanted to understand its relationship with migration issues.

Among the top 10 topics with the most publications in this period (see Supplementary Data B) were those describing the characteristics of migration flows (first) and migration populations (third). It goes in line with the trends of the most connected topics described above. Interest in questions of migrants’ socio-economic position (fourth) in the receiving societies and discussion on ‘labour migration’ (ninth) were also prevalent. Jointly, these topics confirm that in the earlier years, migration was ‘studied often from the perspectives of economics and demographics’ ( van Dalen, 2018 ).

Topics, such as ‘education and language training’ (second), community development’ (sixth), and ‘intercultural communication’ (eighth), point at scholarly interest in the issues of social cohesion and socio-cultural integration of migrants. This lends strong support to Favell’s ‘integration paradigm’ argument about this period and suggests that the coproduction of knowledge between research and policy was indeed very strong ( Scholten, 2011 ). This is further supported by the prominence of the topic ‘governance of migration’ (seventh), reflecting the evolution of migration and integration policymaking in the late 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, exemplified by the development of the Schengen area and the EU more widely; governance of refugee flows from the Balkan region (also somewhat represented in the topic ‘southern-European migration’, which was the 10th most prominent); and governance of post-Soviet migration. Interestingly, this is the only period in which ‘migration histories’ is among the top 10 topics, despite the later establishment of a journal dedicated to the very discipline of history. Together these topics account for 42 per cent of all migration studies publications in that period of time.

6.2 Period 2: 1998–2007

In the second period, as the general degree of connectedness in the topic networks decreased, the following five topics maintained a large number of connections in comparison to others, as their average weighted degree of connections ranged between 36 and 57 ties. The five topics were ‘migration in/from Israel and Palestine’, ‘black studies’, ‘Asian migration’, ‘religious diversity’, and ‘migration, sexuality, and health’ ( Fig. 12 ).

Here we can observe the same geographical focus of the most connected topics, as well as the new trends in the migration research. ‘Asian migration’ became one of the most connected topics, meaning that migration from/to and within that region provoked more interest of migration scholars than in the previous decade. This development appears to be in relation to high-skill migration, in one sense, because of its strong connections with the topics ‘Asian expat migration’ and ‘ICT, media, and migration’; and, in another sense, in relation to the growing Muslim population in Europe thanks to its strong connection to ‘religious diversity’. The high connectedness of the topic ‘migration sexuality and health’ can be explained by the dramatic rise of the volume of publications within the clusters ‘gender and family’ studies and ‘health’ in this time-frame as shown in the charts on page 13, and already argued by Portes (1997) .

In this period, ‘identity narratives’ became the most prominent topic (see Supplementary Data B), which suggests increased scholarly attention on the subjective experiences of migrants. Meanwhile ‘migrant flows’ and ‘migrant demographics’ decreased in prominence from the top 3 to the sixth and eighth position, respectively. The issues of education and socio-economic position remained prominent. The emergence of topics ‘migration and diversity in (higher) education’ (fifth) and ‘cultural diversity’ (seventh) in the top 10 of this period seem to reflect a shift from integrationism to studies of diversity. The simultaneous rise of ‘migration theory’ (to fourth) possibly illustrates the debates on methodological nationalism which emerged in the early 2000s. The combination of theoretical maturity and the intensified growth in the number of migration journals at the turn of the century suggests that the field was becoming institutionalised.

Overall, the changes in the top 10 most prominent topics seem to show a shifting attention from ‘who’ and ‘what’ questions to ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions. Moreover, the top 10 topics now account only for 26 per cent of all migration studies (a 15 per cent decrease compared with the period before). This means that there were many more topics which were nearly as prominent as those in the top 10. Such change again supports our claim that in this period, there were more intensive ‘sub-field’ developments in migration studies than in the previous period.

6.3 Period 3: 2008–17

In the last decade, the most connected topics have continued to be: ‘migration in/from Israel and Palestine’, ‘Asian migration’, and ‘black studies’. The hypothetical reasons for their central position in the network of topics are the same as in the previous period. The new most-connected topics—‘Conflicts, violence, and migration’, together with the topic ‘Religious diversity’—might indicate to a certain extent the widespread interest in the ‘refugee crisis’ of recent years ( Fig. 13 ).

The publications on the top 10 most prominent topics constituted a third of all migration literature of this period analysed in our study. A closer look at them reveals the following trends (see Supplementary Data B for details). ‘Mobilities’ is the topic of the highest prominence in this period. Together with ‘diasporas and transnationalism’ (fourth), this reflects the rise of critical thinking on methodological nationalism ( Wimmer and Glick Schiller, 2002 ) and the continued prominence of transnationalism in the post-‘mobility turn’ era ( Urry (2007) , cited in King, 2012 ).

The interest in subjective experiences of migration and diversity has continued, as ‘identity narratives’ continues to be prominent, with the second highest proportion of publications, and as ‘Discrimination and socio-psychological issues’ have become the eighth most prominent topic. This also echoes an increasing interest in the intersection of (mental) health and migration (cf. Sweileh et al., 2018 ).

The prominence of the topics ‘human rights law and protection’ (10th) and ‘governance of migration and diversity’ (9th), together with ‘conflicts, violence, and migration’ being one of the most connected topics, could be seen as a reflection of the academic interest in forced migration and asylum. Finally, in this period, the topics ‘race and racism’ (fifth) and ‘black studies’ (seventh) made it into the top 10. Since ‘black studies’ is also one of the most connected topics, such developments may reflect the growing attention to structural and inter-personal racism not only in the USA, perhaps reflecting the #blacklivesmatter movement, as well as in Europe, where the idea of ‘white Europeanness’ has featured in much public discourse.

6.4 Some hypotheses for further research

Why does the connectedness of topics change across three periods? In an attempt to explain these changes, we took a closer look at the geographical distribution of publications in each period. One of the trends that may at least partially explain the loss of connectedness between the topics in Period 2 could be related to the growing internationalisation of English language academic literature linked to a sharp increase in migration-focussed publications during the 1990s.

Internationalisation can be observed in two ways. First, the geographies of English language journal publications have become more diverse over the years. In the period 1988–97, the authors’ institutional affiliations spanned 57 countries. This increased to 72 in 1998–2007, and then to 100 in 2007–18 (we counted only those countries which contained at least 2 publications in our dataset). Alongside this, even though developed Anglophone countries (the USA, Canada, Australia, the UK, Ireland, and New Zealand) account for the majority of publications of our overall dataset, the share of publications originating from non-Anglophone countries has increased over time. In 1988–97, the number of publications from non-Anglophone European (EU+EEA) countries was around 13 per cent. By 2008–17, this had significantly increased to 28 per cent. Additionally, in the rest of the world, we observe a slight proportional increase from 9.5 per cent in the first period to 10.6 per cent in the last decade. Developed Anglophone countries witness a 16 per cent decrease in their share of all articles on migration. The trends of internationalisation illustrated above, combined with the loss of connectedness at the turn of the 21st century, seem to indicate that English became the lingua-franca for academic research on migration in a rather organic manner.

It is possible that a new inflow of ideas came from the increased number of countries publishing on migration whose native language is not English. This rise in ‘competition’ might also have catalysed innovation in the schools that had longer established centres for migration studies. Evidence for this lies in the rise in prominence of the topic ‘migration theory’ during this period. It is also possible that the expansion of the European Union and its research framework programmes, as well as the Erasmus Programmes and Erasmus Mundus, have perhaps brought novel, comparative, perspectives in the field. All this together might have created fruitful soil for developing unique themes and approaches, since such approaches in theory lead to more success and, crucially, more funds for research institutions.

This, however, cannot fully explain why in Period 3 the field became more connected again, other than that the framework programmes—in particular framework programme 8, Horizon 2020—encourage the building of scientific bridges, so to speak. Our hypothesis is thus that after the burst of publications and ideas in Period 2, scholars began trying to connect these new themes and topics to each other through emergent international networks and projects. Perhaps even the creation and work of the IMISCOE (2004-) and NOMRA (1998-) networks contributed to this process of institutionalisation. This, however, requires much further thought and exploration, but for now, we know that the relationship between the growth, the diversification, and the connectedness in this emergent research field is less straightforward than we might previously have suggested. This begs for further investigation perhaps within a sociology of science framework.

This article offers an inductive mapping of the topical focus of migration studies over a period of more than 30 years of development of the research field. Based on the literature, we expected to observe increasing diversity of topics within the field and increasing fragmentation between the topics, also in relation to the rapid growth in volume and internationalisation of publications in migration studies. However, rather than growth and increased diversity leading to increased fragmentation, our analysis reveals a complex picture of a rapidly growing field where the diversity of topics has remained relatively stable. Also, even as the field has internationalised, it has retained its overall connectedness, albeit with a slight and temporary fragmentation at the turn of the century. In this sense, we can argue that migration studies have indeed come of age as a distinct research field.

In terms of the volume of the field of migration studies, our study reveals an exponential growth trajectory, especially since the mid-1990s. This involves both the number of outlets and the number of publications therein. There also seems to be a consistent path to internationalisation of the field, with scholars from an increasing number of countries publishing on migration, and a somewhat shrinking share of publications from Anglo-American countries. However, our analysis shows that this has not provoked an increased diversity of topics in the field. Instead, the data showed that there have been several important shifts in terms of which topics have been most prominent in migration studies. The field has moved from focusing on issues of demographics, statistics, and governance, to an increasing focus on mobilities, migration-related diversity, gender, and health. Also, interest in specific geographies of migration seems to have decreased.

These shifts partially resonated with the expectations derived from the literature. In the 1980s and 1990s, we observed the expected widespread interest in culture, seen in publications dealing primarily with ‘education and language training’, ‘community development’, and ‘intercultural communication’. This continued to be the case at the turn of the century, where ‘identity narratives’ and ‘cultural diversity’ became prominent. The expected focus on borders in the periods ( Pedraza-Bailey, 1990 ) was represented by the high proportion of research on the ‘governance of migration’, ‘migration flows’, and in the highly connected topic ‘intra-EU mobility’. Following Portes (1997) , we expected ‘transnational communities’, ‘states and state systems’, and the ‘new second generation’ to be key themes for the ‘new century’. Transnationalism shifts attention away from geographies of migration and nation–states, and indeed, our study shows that ‘geographies of migration’ gave way to ‘mobilities’, the most prominent topic in the last decade. This trend is supported by the focus on ‘diasporas and transnationalism’ and ‘identity narratives’ since the 2000s, including literature on migrants’ and their descendants’ dual identities. These developments indicate a paradigmatic shift in migration studies, possibly caused by criticism of methodological nationalism. Moreover, our data show that themes of families and gender have been discussed more in the 21st century, which is in line with Portes’ predictions.

The transition from geographies to mobilities and from the governance of migration to the governance of migration-related diversity, race and racism, discrimination, and social–psychological issues indicates a shifting attention in migration studies from questions of ‘who’ and ‘what’ towards ‘how’ and ‘why’. In other words, a more nuanced understanding of the complexity of migration processes and consequences emerges, with greater consideration of both the global and the individual levels of analysis.

However, this complexification has not led to thematic fragmentation in the long run. We did not find a linear trend towards more fragmentation, meaning that migration studies have continued to be a field. After an initial period of high connectedness of research mainly coming from America and the UK, there was a period with significantly fewer connections within migration studies (1998–2007), followed by a recovery of connectedness since then, while internationalisation has continued. What does this tell us?

We may hypothesise that the young age of the field and the tendency towards methodological nationalism may have contributed to more connectedness in the early days of migration studies. The accelerated growth and internationalisation of the field since the late 1990s may have come with an initial phase of slight fragmentation. The increased share of publications from outside the USA may have caused this, as according to Massey et al. (1998) , European migration research was then more conceptually dispersed than across the Atlantic. The recent recovery of connectedness could then be hypothesised as an indicator of the field’s institutionalisation, especially at the European level, and growing conceptual and theoretical development. As ‘wisdom comes with age’, this may be an indication of the ‘coming of age’ of migration studies as a field with a shared conceptual and theoretical foundation.

The authors would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback, as well as dr. J.F. Alvarado for his advice in the early stages of work on this article.

This research is associated with the CrossMigration project, funded by the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the grant agreement Ares(2017) 5627812-770121.

Conflict of interest statement . None declared.

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  • Published: 27 May 2024

The social stratification of internal migration and daily mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic

  • Erick Elejalde 1   na1 ,
  • Leo Ferres 2 , 3 , 4   na1 ,
  • Victor Navarro 2 , 3 ,
  • Loreto Bravo 2 , 3 &
  • Emilio Zagheni 5  

Scientific Reports volume  14 , Article number:  12140 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

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  • Computational science
  • Epidemiology
  • Population dynamics
  • Viral infection

This study leverages mobile data for 5.4 million users to unveil the complex dynamics of daily mobility and longer-term relocations in and from Santiago, Chile, during the COVID-19 pandemic, focusing on socioeconomic differentials. We estimated a relative increase in daily mobility, in 2020, for lower-income compared to higher-income regions. In contrast, longer-term relocation rose primarily among higher-income groups. These shifts indicate nuanced responses to the pandemic across socioeconomic classes. Compared to 2017, economic factors in 2020 had a stronger influence on the decision to relocate and the selection of destinations, suggesting transformations in mobility behaviors. Contrary to previously held beliefs, there was no evidence supporting a preference for rural over urban destinations, despite the surge in emigration from Santiago during the pandemic. This study enhances our understanding of how varying socioeconomic conditions interact with mobility decisions during crises and provides insights for policymakers aiming to enact fair and evidence-based measures in rapidly changing circumstances.

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Human migration is driven by a number of complex factors such as the quest for better living conditions, life-course transitions, the urgency to flee conflict, environmental hazards, as well as pandemics 1 , 2 , 3 . The selection of destination can also be influenced by aspects such as the active population of the host community, which can reflect socioeconomic attraction 4 . International migration involves relocating across national boundaries and could be motivated by circumstances like economic opportunities, political unrest, and environmental conditions. In contrast, internal migration occurs within a single country, usually defined by administrative political divisions like states, provinces, or districts 5 . Additionally, daily mobility represents the routine, short-range movement primarily confined within smaller spatial areas like cities or districts 6 . Both long-term internal migrations and daily mobility patterns are integral to understanding the spatio-temporal transformations in social systems and human settlements 7 , particularly during periods of rapid change such as pandemics 8 , 9 .

Internal migration overwhelmingly dominates global movements, accounting for the large majority of relocations 10 . It is thus imperative to understand its multifaceted dynamics, including the spatio-temporal transformations it brings to social systems and human settlements through mechanisms like population concentration and deconcentration 8 . Alongside long-term migrations, daily mobility patterns also exert a transformative influence, especially during crises such as pandemics 9 . Importantly, these mobility behaviors are not universally experienced; they vary across different societal groups and are significantly influenced by policies and other factors 11 , 12 . Consequently, advancing methods to monitor both long-term and daily internal migrations is pivotal for policymakers to enact equitable and timely interventions, particularly when confronting rapidly evolving situations 10 .

Destination choice behavior in human mobility has been studied through various models that attempt to predict movement patterns between locations. The Opportunity Priority Selection (OPS) model, as discussed by 13 , posits that the probability of choosing a destination is influenced by the number of opportunities at the destination and inversely proportional to the number of intervening opportunities. This model considers both the opportunities at the destination and those en route. Similarly, the Universal Opportunity (UO) model 14 incorporates two behavioral tendencies (i.e., exploratory and cautious) that influence destination choice. These and other mobility models help explain how individuals weigh the benefits of the origin, destination, and intervening opportunities, providing a comprehensive framework that covers various spatiotemporal scales of human mobility. However, they mainly describe “normal/stable” conditions with no significant mobility restrictions (e.g., lockdowns) and where individuals have enough information to evaluate intervening opportunities.

The utilization of mobile phone data has generated a seismic shift in the study of human mobility, adding dimensions to traditional methods that primarily relied on population censuses and suffered from a lack of high-frequency, detailed data 10 . This innovative data source provides unprecedented, real-time insights into both long-term internal migration and daily mobility patterns, thereby heralding a transformative era in our understanding of human movement 8 . The granular nature of mobile phone data allows for enhanced temporal and spatial resolution, facilitating the tracking, analysis, and visualization of migration flows like never before. This not only enables the observation of mobility in “near real-time” but also aids in capturing sudden shifts triggered by factors such as political upheaval or pandemics. As a result, mobile phone data not only fills the gaps left by traditional sources but also offers the potential to standardize cross-national comparisons by homogenizing the types of data collected, measurement intervals, and spatial frameworks 5 , 15 .

Research on human mobility during the COVID-19 pandemic has mostly centered on daily movements, such as the effectiveness of lockdown measures 6 or the relationship between mobility and pandemic progression 9 , 16 . This paper expands the scope of the existing literature to encompass long-term internal migration during the pandemic. In particular, we explore the role of socioeconomic factors in both daily and long-term internal migration, using the “comunas” (i.e., the smallest administrative subdivision) of Santiago de Chile as a case study. We examine the transformation in mobility dynamics across different economic strata from 2017 to 2020, showcasing that daily mobility has significantly shifted, especially among lower-income brackets. This highlights the need for a more nuanced understanding of mobility patterns during crises, informed by both long-term migration and daily movement metrics 5 , 8 .

More specifically, our investigation extends to the changing relationship between socioeconomic levels and migration patterns, capturing the shift in correlation between the average socioeconomic level and the percentage of the population migrating from and to each comuna of Santiago de Chile in 2017, 2020, and 2022. In the context of Chile, where a comuna represents the smallest administrative unit (similar to a “municipality” in other countries), we concentrate on migration behaviors in high-income comunas, which have seen a notable uptick in emigration, coupled with low variability in destination selection. Concurrently, we assess individual preferences regarding the population density of chosen destinations, with a keen focus on tendencies towards rural locales. Our study, thus, aims to offer a nuanced understanding of the interplay between socioeconomic and environmental factors in influencing both long-term and daily mobility during global crises, leveraging the granular capabilities of mobile phone data.

In 2020, reductions in daily mobility were higher in areas with higher income levels

In this study of mobility patterns across different economic deciles, our findings underscore a dynamic shift between the years 2017 and 2020. For the year 2017, the Pearson correlation coefficient between mobility (measured as percentage points of mean movement reduction—where “movement” is any transition between two antennas 17 ) and economic decile (with higher values indicating greater affluence) was a marginal − 0.023, with a coefficient of determination ( \(R^2\) ) of only 0.0005 (Fig. 1 e). This suggests that the linear relationship between mobility and economic decile was notably weak, with economic decile explaining less than 0.1% of the variability in mobility. However, the landscape dramatically changed by 2020. The Pearson correlation deepened to − 0.69, revealing a more pronounced inverse relationship: the higher the income, the lower the levels of daily mobility. Furthermore, the \(R^2\) value surged to 0.48, indicating that the economic decile accounted for approximately 48% of the variance in mobility (Fig. 1 f). This stark contrast between the two years highlights the size of the rapid change in the association between economic conditions and mobility patterns. In a comparative analysis of mobility patterns between the richest and poorest economic segments, we employed independent two-sample t-tests to discern any significant differences in mobility reduction. For 2017, the results yielded no statistically significant difference in mobility behaviors between the 20% richest deciles and the 80% poorest deciles. In stark contrast, in 2020, the p-value sharply declined ( \(p=0.001\) ), indicating a prominent and statistically significant divergence in mobility patterns between these economic segments, where more affluent comunas moved much less than less affluent ones. The analyses, together with a more fine-grained study of mobility, both internal (within the areas of interest) and external (between areas of interest), can be found in Appendix A (Figure A1 ). Day travel (for business or tourism) between cities is also another common type of mobility, even in less developed countries 18 . Although we do not cover this type of mobility in our analysis, it is reasonable to expect that daily inter-city mobility was also affected by the pandemic in 2020 and most likely influenced by socioeconomic factors. We can see some indication in this direction in our daily external mobility change (i.e., movements between comunas in SCL). These measures of external mobility, although at a smaller scale, also capture day travel over relatively long distances (see Appendix A (c) and (g)). As expected, we observe a pattern similar to the one depicted in Fig. 1 e and f.

figure 1

(Origin): Analysis of the emigration from the Metropolitan Region (SCL) before, during, and after the COVID-19 pandemic. ( a – c ) Net migration rate SCL 2017, 2020, and 2022. ( d ) Net migration rate per year. Comunas from SCL in the X axis are sorted (from left to right) by ascending comunas’ average household income decile. ( e – f ) Daily Mobility Index change in SCL 2017 and 2020. ( g – i ) Percentage of emigration from SCL vs. average home income decile for 2017, 2020, and 2022.

In 2020, the relationship between the average income of the smallest administrative units and longer-term out-migration was positive and stronger than in 2017 and 2022

In our examination of migration patterns in Santiago de Chile (SCL) over the period from 2017 to 2022, we noted clear variations. In 2017, SCL saw an estimated net migration increase, with roughly 130K individuals arriving compared to about 95K departing. By 2020, this trend appeared to reverse, with the city estimated to experience a net outflow of around 35K people as emigration rose to nearly 160K, overshadowing the approximately 125K arrivals. Note that the number of people entering Santiago in 2020 is close to 2017. It is the emigration that exploded in 2020, thus causing the negative net migration. Intriguingly, by 2022, the dynamics seemed to revert to a net migration gain, with an estimated 150K individuals entering SCL, surpassing the expected 130K emigrants. In this case, although emigration remains relatively high compared to 2017, it is the significant jump in immigration that is driving the reversal in net migration. This shift hints at a renewed allure or other potential factors drawing people post-pandemic and some returning.

In general, we see a consistent change in the migration flow pattern from most comunas in Santiago in 2020 compared to 2017. The net migration rate for the individual comunas in SCL shows that there was an exodus from the city during COVID-19, with many comunas getting into negative values (see Fig. 1 b). Furthermore, by using 2017 as the baseline (Fig. 1 a), we see that, even in comunas with a positive net migration, the values were still below those from 2017.

Furthermore, in Fig. 1 d, we show the net migration rate with comunas of SCL sorted from left to right by an increasing income average decile. Results show that the exodus from Santiago during 2020 was most significant for richer comunas like Las Condes and Providencia, which significantly increased their population contribution to multiple other regions. Similar analyses for 2022 show that the net migration rate has since reverted and is somewhat coming back to pre-pandemic values in 2022 (Fig. 1 c and d).

The emigration trend (people leaving Santiago) was particularly pronounced in comunas with higher average household incomes, where the percentage of people leaving almost doubled in 2020 compared to 2017. Interestingly, the average socioeconomic level for 2017 showed only a weak correlation with the percentage of the population migrating from each comuna (Fig. 1 g). However, in 2020, the average household income decile of the comuna alone explains 57% of the variance (see Fig. 1 h), hinting at a strong economic effect. This aligns with our regression analysis, which showed a higher \(R^2\) value and coefficient for 2020 compared to 2017. In 2022, we observed a slight recovery after the pandemic, with income still being a much stronger predictor than it was in 2017 (Fig. 1 i). This is consistent with our regression analysis for 2022, which showed a significant relationship between the dependent variable and home income decile, although slightly weaker than in 2020. Notably, emigration from low-income comunas tended to increase in 2022 compared to both previous periods.

Overall, our findings suggest that income played a significant role in migration patterns in Santiago between 2017 and 2022. The relationship between income and migration strengthened significantly in 2020, likely due to the economic impact of the pandemic, and remained strong in 2022, even as the situation began to recover.

Compared to 2017, in 2020, economic aspects appear to have had a stronger influence not only on the decision to emigrate but also on the selection of the destinations

We analyzed the difference in the percentage of migration at the comuna-comuna level comparing the years 2017 and 2020 for people leaving Santiago (see Fig. 2 a). The origin-destination matrix, sorted from bottom to top by ascending average income decile of the destination, and left to right by average income decile of the origin, shows the effect of the economic dimension on the availability of destinations for long-term relocation. People emigrating from lower-income comunas in Santiago seem to have been distributed over a reduced number of destinations and tended to avoid the more expensive comunas. This is shown in the graph by a predominance of blue cells as we move to the top-left corner of the matrix (which signifies that fewer people moved between these comunas in 2020 compared to 2017). As we move to the higher-income origins (right in the matrix), we see a relative upsurge in migration over an increasing range of destinations (signaled by a predominance of red tones for the entire columns).

Utilizing the Index of Quality of Life in Urban Areas (ICVU) 19 , we evaluated the willingness among high-income migrants to cede urban amenities (as measured by the ICVU) when leaving Santiago. Given that Santiago de Chile (SCL) ranks among Chile’s most urbanized areas, it is noteworthy that most destination comunas registered lower ICVU scores in comparison to affluent comunas in SCL. Our analysis revealed heterogeneity in amenity trade-offs. For instance, Providencia (ranked second in ICVU) exhibited a statistically significant deviation from the expected amenity trade-offs with an average ICVU difference greater than predicted. Meanwhile, Vitacura (top-ranked) displayed less variation and stayed below the expected difference (i.e., migrants conceded less in quality of life).

Further quantification of these tendencies can be observed in the origin-destination matrices, segmented by average income decile (Fig.  2 d). Similar to the patterns observed in 2017, migration predominantly occurred towards comunas with elevated socioeconomic indices. However, in 2020, the data indicated an increased variation in amenity trade-offs across income deciles. For example, in 2020, origins with lower income deciles had a greater percentage of people moving to destinations with a closer average economic level.

To further measure the changes in the selection of destinations compared to pre-pandemic patterns, we calculate the 1-Wasserstein divergence 20 for each column in the origin-destination matrices of 2020 and 2022 against 2017 (see Fig. 2 b). We see that the divergence from 2017 is larger for comunas with lower income. Despite having the most significant increase in emigration, high-income comunas had the lowest variation in their selection of destinations. As observed before, 2022 shows again a move back to pre-pandemic patterns.

At the regional level, preferred destinations as per the hosted proportion of migrants from SCL stayed relatively stable, except for Valparaíso (a neighboring region and a popular vacation destination), which saw a statistically significant increase in immigration (see Fig. 2 c). This pattern coincides with findings in other cities (e.g., New York City), suggesting that many urban residents moved to neighboring areas, second residences, and holiday destinations 21 . Moreover, in Fig. 2 c, we sorted the regions using the Gravity Model (i.e., the population at the destination over distance to SCL) 22 . The graph shows that higher values from the Gravity Model correlate to higher percentages of migration to the corresponding region. This indicates that, besides economic aspects, distance and population density may have been still meaningful determinants in the selection of the destination in 2020 23 .

figure 2

(Destination): Analysis of the destination for emigration from the Metropolitan Region (SCL) during the COVID-19 pandemic (2020). ( a ) Difference in Emigration from SCL in 2020 compared to 2017. Rows in the heatmap are sorted (from bottom to top) by ascending comunas’ average household income decile. We are only including rows for which there is at least one \(zscore > 1.96\) . ( b ) Divergence in the destination preferences compared to 2017. For (a) and ( b ), comunas from SCL in the X axis are sorted (from left to right) by ascending comunas’ average household income decile. ( c ) Percentage of the population in the origin that represents the emigration from SCL. Difference compared to 2017. ( d ) Average income decile for comunas of origin and destination. Values normalized by columns.

Despite the increase in emigration from Santiago during the pandemic, there is no evidence of preference for rural over urban destinations

The COVID-19 pandemic spurred distinctive migration trends globally. While some large metropolitan areas saw a surge in residents relocating to rural settings 24 , 25 , anecdotal evidence also highlighted urban relocations 26 . In Santiago de Chile (SCL), our analysis suggests that, contrary to some postulated trends, people predominantly favored urban comunas over rural ones.

To quantify this preference, we analyzed the origin-destination migration matrices from 2020 and 2017, focusing on the difference in migration percentages at the comuna level. Sorting the rows (destinations) by increasing rurality percentages (Fig. 3 a) and columns by average income decile of SCL comunas, the visualization reveals a pronounced decrease in 2020 migrations to high urbanization comunas compared to 2017. However, there wasn’t a marked inclination for rural destinations. Notably, the wealthier comunas (as seen in the rightmost columns) showed increased migrations, irrespective of the destination’s rurality.

To gain additional quantitative insight into the change in preference for rural destinations, we calculated the difference against 2017 in average rurality of migration destinations for each SCL comuna \(\Delta R_x\) , weighted by the percentage of emigrants (see more details in the Methodology Section).

The rurality preferences across Santiago de Chile (SCL) comunas are quantitatively depicted in Fig. 3 b. Notably, high-income comunas such as Vitacura exhibit a positive change in average destination rurality \(\Delta R_x > 0\) , contrasting with over half of the comunas that either retained a similar preference \(\Delta R_x \approx 0\) or skewed towards more urbanized destinations \(\Delta R_x < 0\) . These findings were observed while sorting the SCL comunas by ascending average income decile. Despite this binary urban-rural classification, no statistically significant correlation was evident between the socioeconomic status of the origin comuna and the shift in average destination rurality.

To refine this analysis, we transitioned from a binary rurality measure to a continuous metric based on population density. Figure 3 d delineates the relationship between the poverty rate in SCL comunas and the average population density of destination comunas. A stronger trend emerged in 2020, indicating migration from wealthier comunas to more densely populated areas, substantiated by an increase in the coefficient of determination \(R^2\) from 0.17 in 2017 to 0.32 in 2020. Intriguingly, 2022 data revealed a further intensification of this pattern, as evidenced by an \(R^2\) value of 0.41, deviating from other metrics that reverted to pre-pandemic levels.

Finally, at the regional level, we analyzed the potential impact for the hosting regions of this increased emigration from SCL compared to 2017. We quantified the difference in the percentage of population change for each destination region and sorted them using the Gravity Model (Fig. 3 c). We see that for neighboring regions such as Valparaiso and O’Higgins, despite already having relatively large populations, the emigration from SCL in 2020 still represents an increase of around 1.5% of their normal inflow of 1.5–2.0% seen in 2017. In other words, these regions saw an almost two-fold increase in their population growth compared to previous years. Most notably, the region of Aysén, in the south of Chile, witnessed the biggest increase with respect to its population, going from a new 1.3% population formed by migrants from SCL in 2017 to 3.2% in 2020.

figure 3

(Rurality): Difference in estimated emigration from the Metropolitan Region at the comuna-comuna level compared to 2017 according to the Internal Migration Mobile Model. ( a ) Difference in Emigration from SCL in 2020 compared to 2017. Rows in the heatmap are sorted (from bottom to top) by ascending comunas’ percentage of the rural population. We are only including rows for which there is at least one \(zscore > 1.96\) . ( b ) Difference in percentage of rurality of destination compared to 2017. The percentage of rurality is weighted by the percentage of emigration to each destination. For ( a ) and ( b ), comunas from SCL in the X axis are sorted (from left to right) by ascending comunas’ average household income decile. ( c ) Percentage of the population in the destination region that represents the emigration from SCL. Difference compared to 2017. Regions from Chile in the X axis are sorted (from left to right) by ascending ’gravity’ according to the Gravity Model. ( d ) Relation between emigration from SCL and the weighted average population density in the comunas of destination.

Our findings illuminate distinct patterns in human mobility during the pandemic, characterized by a significant divergence between daily and long-term mobility behavior, especially within different socioeconomic statuses. The dynamics underlying these patterns warrant further investigation, particularly to understand how these changes influence social, economic, and health-related outcomes in communities.

Interestingly, the relationship between socioeconomic level and migration showed a substantial shift from 2017 to 2020. While the average socioeconomic level for 2017 had only a weak correlation with the percentage of the population migrating from each comuna, in 2020, the average household income decile of the comuna alone accounted for 57% of the variance. This shift points to a potential change in the factors influencing migration decisions and suggests that the economic impact of the pandemic could play a role. Future research should further examine the drivers of this change and their implications for migration policy and practice.

Despite witnessing the most substantial increase in emigration, high-income comunas exhibited the least variation in their selection of destinations. This finding implies a lower impact on their choice capacity due to the pandemic. Low-income comunas might have been more restricted in their selection, also hinting at a potential shift in the motivation to migrate. The factors contributing to the divergence in destination selection among this group could include economic opportunities, social networks, or amenities present in certain locations.

Lastly, our analysis revealed that, during the pandemic, people generally avoided densely populated areas. However, they did not show a marked preference for rural areas. The avoidance of densely populated areas might reflect concerns about virus transmission risks. In contrast, the lack of preference for rural areas might be linked to factors such as access to amenities, services, or job opportunities. Future studies could explore this balance between health concerns and economic or lifestyle considerations in destination choice.

Insights from our analyses highlight significant implications for urban planning and policy-making. Models already help predict intracity and intercity travel patterns 13 , 14 . However, our results show that during periods of crisis, new facets affect individuals’ mobility. These can serve as input to further enhance mobility models’ predictive accuracy and applicability in understanding destination choice behavior. Establishing a model to replicate patterns in internal migration during crises can advance our understanding of migration dynamics. Such a model would need to reweigh factors influencing destination choice. For example, by predicting how individuals value opportunity density and accessibility versus security, when selecting a new location, models can improve our understanding of migration decisions under different constraints. Moreover, a parameterized model design may help reflect different tendencies in migration behavior and can capture a range of scenarios, from spontaneous relocations to carefully planned moves. This approach is crucial in simulating the interplay of socio-economic factors, environmental conditions, and individual preferences that drive internal migration, as well as in testing possible counterfactuals. Identifying regions that attract migrants due to high opportunity density can aid resource allocation and infrastructure planning to accommodate population shifts.

In the future, it will be crucial to continue monitoring these trends as unforeseen circumstances like wars, natural disasters, and similar crises happen, and to conduct further research on the socioeconomic and policy implications of these mobility shifts. In particular, understanding the drivers of these migration patterns can inform interventions to address the needs of different communities and mitigate the potential adverse effects of such population movements. Additionally, these findings underscore the value of mobile phone data in studying human mobility, suggesting that such data could be leveraged in future research to gain further insights into migration trends and their impacts on society.

Chile is widely acknowledged as a heavily centralized country from various perspectives. A 2013 study revealed that, in proportion to its size, population, and economic development, Chile was the most centralized country in Latin America 27 . Data obtained from the National Institute of Statistics (INE) indicates a total estimated population of 19.4 million for the entire country in 2020, with 8.1 million (41%) concentrated in the Metropolitan Region, where the capital, Santiago (SCL), is located 28 . Notably, this region is among the smallest of the 16 regions in Chile, resulting in a densely populated area.

This makes Santiago comparable, in raw numbers, to places like Hong Kong, Baghdad, or even New York City. With 32 comunas (the smallest political division in Chile) and a diverse range of socioeconomic conditions, SCL presents an interesting case study for internal migration dynamics during a crisis period. SCL has over 95% of its area urbanized and contributed over half of the confirmed COVID-19 cases and over 60% of the deaths in the first six months of the pandemic 16 .

As COVID-19 swept across the globe in the early months of 2020, there were emerging reports of an ‘urban exodus’ phenomenon trending not only in Chile 29 but also in several other big cities 30 , 31 . During the first waves of infections, when there was still not much information about the virus, densely interconnected cities bore the brunt of their impact. Some newspaper headlines questioned the future of urban areas, even beyond the end of the pandemic 32 . We set to investigate the dynamics of intracity daily mobility, and long-term long-distance relocation for a large metropolitan area during COVID-19. Our approach is to use a comparative analysis to identify changes in mobility in 2020 compared to 2017 for a “during pandemic” period and the same in 2022 for the “recovery period”. We study the mobility metrics in relation to socioeconomic status indicators for the comunas of origin and destination.

Long-term relocation

Previous analyses on long-term relocation during COVID-19 are based on social media data 33 or official records from authorities 34 , 35 , 36 . This represents a limitation for its applicability to regions with lower social media penetration or slow/expensive cost of polling official values. We propose a model for long-term relocation based on the analysis of anonymized eXtended Detail Records (XDRs).

Our dataset encompasses the entirety of Chile, with 6.5 million unique devices. On a daily basis, an average of 3.5 million active unique devices generate approximately one XD record every 30 minutes, resulting in a daily production of between 150-170 million records. This varies, of course, because of how mobile phone networks work and the consolidation of network events for billing purposes, but it is relatively stable. Depending on the year, the telco providing the data has around 21-25% of the market share of mobile phones in Chile 37 . When comparing to the census, there is a 97% Pearson correlation between the telco subscribers and the census population at the level of comunas (the area of interest in this paper) 9 , 11 , which provides some evidence for good representativity of the sample. We have described this same dataset in detail in 17 . In Chile, the penetration of mobile Internet (3G, 4G, 5G) reached 112.6 accesses per 100 inhabitants by December 2022, with mobile accesses (3G, 4G, 5G) totaling 22.4 million, marking a slight decrease of 0.9% in 2022. The advent of 5G connections accounted for 2,040,071 of these connections. Moreover, mobile telephony achieved a penetration rate of 132.8 subscribers per 100 inhabitants in December 2022, with contract subscribers comprising 69.8% of the total subscriber base, significantly outnumbering prepaid users. Our dataset includes contract and pay-as-you-go subscribers. This widespread penetration suggests a comprehensive representation within the target population.

The data included in our studies has been used and validated in various other contexts. Based on this and the evidence presented above, we expect the biases to be small. Nevertheless, some social groups may still be over-represented or under-represented. Given the relative novelty of this type of data, many of its challenges and limitations remain open questions that should be further investigated in future works.

For each studied year (2017, 2020, and 2022), we collected eight months of XDRs for approximately 1.3 million devices per year in the Metropolitan Region. This data captures interactions, such as packet requests, between devices and antennas. A data entry in our dataset can be represented as a tuple \(<d,t,a>\) , denoting a packet request from device d to antenna a at time t . We estimate the location of device d based on the fixed latitude and longitude of the antenna it connects to.

We used the second week of March as the baseline for the initial location because this is the week before the return to school in Chile. So, most people should be back from vacation at their primary residence. We then estimate the home location for each device using the home detection algorithm proposed in a previous work 38 . This algorithm looks for each device’s most used cell tower during night-time on weekdays. We assign antennas to correspondent comunas according to their position. Finally, for each device, we calculated its home comuna per week from Mar \(1^{st}\) until Nov \(30^{th}\) of each year. If the statistical mode of home in the four weeks of November was in a different region than their March home, we assumed that the device had migrated. To gauge the level of migration activity, we count individuals relocating to and from each comuna. Also, to assess the geographical impact of migration, we quantified the net migration rate, representing the overall balance between incoming and outgoing migration flows while accounting for population size 39 .

Given our main interest in urban mobility dynamics, we restrict our analysis to the capital city Santiago (SCL), formed of 32 comunas 95% urbanized and with a population of around 6 million people 28 . For SCL, our dataset has 979.1K, 989.6K, and 955.8K devices for the years 2017, 2020, and 2022 respectively. For the immigration analysis, we collect data on over 2 million devices each year originally located outside the Metropolitan Region. In order to protect the privacy of device owners, we exclusively examine and present results that are both anonymized and aggregated. Moreover, we did not utilize or have access to any additional user information, such as gender or age.

We further validate that our definition can be used to approximate the movement from SCL to other regions in Chile. For this, we compared our measurements for 2017 against the migration information from the National Census 2017. Table  1 summarizes the correlation between internal migration values from the census and the Internal Migration Mobile Model at various granularity levels. At the regional level (i.e., in- and out-flow between other regions and Santiago de Chile (SCL)—Regions \(\leftrightarrows \) SCL), we get a very high correlation (.93 and .96). We also analyzed the flow between other comunas and SCL as a whole (comunas \(\leftrightarrows \) SCL), and between the comunas in the MR and the rest of the country as a whole (Country \(\leftrightarrows \) SCL-comunas). Even for the finest granularity offered by the Census (comunas \(\leftrightarrows \) SCL-comunas), our model shows relatively high correlations (.63 and .48). Additional details can be found in Appendix B (Figure B2 ).

Daily mobility

Alongside long-term migrations, daily mobility patterns also exert a strong social influence, especially during crises such as pandemics. For this short-term mobility analysis, we use a dataset of XDRs collected for the same population (i.e., comunas in SCL) in the period 2020-2022 17 .

From the XDRs, the authors produce three epidemiologically relevant metrics: the Index of Internal Mobility, which quantifies the amount of mobility within each comuna of the country; the Index of External Mobility, quantifying the mobility between comunas; and the Index of Mobility (IM), which considers any movement, both within and between comunas. The data used to calculate the daily mobility index, as well as the active quarantine periods, are available for download from the general repository of the Ministry of Science of Chile 40 , 41 .

Similar to long-term relocation, we are interested in studying the changes in the mobility dynamics during a period of crisis. We analyze the reduction in mobility for all three indices during the year (March to November) compared to the same baseline, i.e., the second week of March. Additionally, we repeat the analyses considering only periods of quarantine implemented at the comuna level and only periods of no-quarantine.

Socioeconomic aspects

Our primary source for the socioeconomic metrics is the Socioeconomic Characterization Survey (CASEN) 42 —the main household survey in Chile. The CASEN survey is designed to be representative at the national level, by urban and rural geographic areas, and also at the regional level. However, it is worth noting that CEPAL (United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean) is tasked with making corrections for non-responses, addressing missing income data, and rectifying potential underreporting or overreporting of various income categories prior to making the databases officially accessible to the public 43 . They use statistical techniques and probabilistic models to produce disaggregations for groups of interest, known as small area estimation (SAE) techniques 44 . For the synthetic model of the SAE estimates carried out by the Ministry of Social Development and Family, besides the results from the survey, there is information from administrative records collected by the public sector at the commune level and information from the Population Census 45 . From the CASEN, we obtain estimates for the average income decile and the percentage of poverty per comuna 46 .

For people who decided to migrate between urban areas, we are interested in the differences in quality of life between origin and destination. Following the hypothesis of socioeconomic components influencing the migration dynamics during the pandemic, we expect the migrant to try to move laterally in terms of urban amenities to maintain a similar quality of life. Here, we use the Index of Quality of Life in Urban Areas (ICVU) 19 . ICVU is a synthetic index employed to assess and compare the relative quality of urban life in Chilean comunas and cities. This index relies on a collection of variables that pertain to six dimensions, reflecting the status of public and private goods and services provided to the resident population, as well as their socio-territorial consequences. This evaluation spans from larger cities to intermediate urban centers (more than 50K inhabitants) and encompasses the metropolitan scale. Given that the index is limited to urban areas, it only covers 99 comunas in Chile (including the 32 comunas in SCL).

For each pair of origin-destination included in the ICVU, we calculate the score difference. Following, we compute for average ICVU difference for each comuna of origin weighted by the percentage of migrants that moved between each pair of comunas. Finally, we regress these average ICVU differences to analyze how different origins deviate from the trend, especially in connection to their economic status indicators.

Urban-rural mobility

Although the trend of deurbanization in major cities did not start with the COVID-19 pandemic, health concerns and stricter mobility restrictions in 2020 reportedly accelerated the process 47 .

For a more quantitative insight, we calculated the average rurality of migration destinations for each SCL comuna, weighted by the percentage of emigrants. Specifically, the difference, \(\Delta R_x\) , between 2017 and the years 2020 and 2022 is computed as:

D : Set of destination comunas.

\(M_T(x)\) : Total migration from comuna x to D in year T .

\(m^T(x,y)\) : Migration from comuna x to y in year T .

r ( y ): Rurality percentage of comuna y .

Years T include 2020 and 2022, with \(T_0\) being 2017.

To estimate the percentage of rurality for each comuna ( r ( y )), we use the data from the CASEN 42 . Although it is not designed to be representative at the comuna level, it gives us a good approximation of the rural composition of these areas 48 . Here, we use the percentage of households annotated as rural for each comuna.

Nevertheless, rurality is a changing concept and can be operationalized in different ways, which may bias comparisons across countries 49 . Thus, for a finer-grain analysis of destination preference in terms of urbanization, we further investigate the emigration from each comuna in SCL in relation to the average of their destinations’ population density 28 , 48 . For the average population density, we again weigh each destination by the percentage of the emigration from the corresponding comuna of origin. The analysis in terms of population density complements the rurality index above as it might give us some nuances inside each class (i.e., urban and rural). For example, one of the main destinations for emigration from Santiago is the region of Valparaiso, which is also highly urbanized. In this case, using the population density to compare multiple urban destinations can uncover additional insights into destination preferences or affordability.

Furthermore, rural and distant regions might be deficient in the necessary infrastructure and amenities required to accommodate arrivals from urban areas 50 . For a preliminary analysis of the potential impact of the increased emigration from Santiago, we calculate the percentage that the estimated emigration represents for the hosting populations. A sudden increase of several percentage points in the population of a rural community may represent a challenge, more so during a period of crisis 51 .

Ethical approval

The research described in this study does not include humans for data collection. All the data from mobile devices is anonymized and aggregated before its analysis.

Data availability

The datasets supporting the conclusions of this article are available in a Github repository at https://github.com/eelejalde/Internal_Migration_COVID-19

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EE received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 101021866 (CRiTERIA). LF and LB thank the funding and support of Telefónica R &D Chile and CISCO Chile. This research was supported by FONDECYT Grant No. 1130902 to LB and FONDECYT Grant No. 1221315 to LF. LF also acknowledges financial support from the Lagrange Project of the Institute for Scientific Interchange Foundation (ISI Foundation), funded by Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Torino (Fondazione CRT).

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L3S Research Center, Leibniz University Hannover, Hannover, Germany

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Institute of Data Science, Universidad del Desarrollo, Santiago, Chile

Leo Ferres, Victor Navarro & Loreto Bravo

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Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, Rostock, Germany

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E.E., L.F., L.B., and E.Z. conceived and designed the research. E.E., V.N. and L.F. performed research and analyzed the data. E.E. and L.F. wrote the first draft of the manuscript. All authors subsequently read, edited, and approved the manuscript.

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A systematic review of climate migration research: gaps in existing literature

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Climatic disasters are displacing millions of people every year across the world. Growing academic attention in recent decades has addressed different dimensions of the nexus between climatic events and human migration. Based on a systematic review approach, this study investigates how climate-induced migration studies are framed in the published literature and identifies key gaps in existing studies. 161 journal articles were systematically selected and reviewed (published between 1990 and 2019). Result shows diverse academic discourses on policies, climate vulnerabilities, adaptation, resilience, conflict, security, and environmental issues across a range of disciplines. It identifies Asia as the most studied area followed by Oceania, illustrating that the greatest focus of research to date has been tropical and subtropical climatic regions. Moreover, this study identifies the impact of climate-induced migration on livelihoods, socio-economic conditions, culture, security, and health of climate-induced migrants. Specifically, this review demonstrates that very little is known about the livelihood outcomes of climate migrants in their international destination and their impacts on host communities. The study offers a research agenda to guide academic endeavors toward addressing current gaps in knowledge, including a pressing need for global and national policies to address climate migration as a significant global challenge.

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Population displacement can be driven by climatic hazards such as floods, droughts (hydrologic), and storms (atmospheric), and geophysical hazards such as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunami (Smith and Smith 2013 ). The interactions between natural hazard events, and social, political, and human factors, frequently act to intensify the negative effects of climatic and geophysical hazards, leading to political and social unrest, increased social vulnerability, and human suffering. As a consequence of these adverse effects, people migrate from their native land, causing stress, uncertainty, and loss of lives and properties. However, such migration can also have positive impacts on migrants’ lives. For example, migrants may be able to diversify their livelihood and have greater access to education or healthcare.

In 2020, 30.7 million people from 149 countries and territories were displaced due to different natural disasters. Among them, climatic disasters were solely responsible for displacing 30 million people within their own country, with the highest recorded displacement occurring in 2010 when 38.3 million people were displaced (IDMC 2021a ; IOM 2021 ). It is difficult to estimate the actual number of people that moved due to the impacts of climate change (Mcleman 2019 ), because peoples’ migration decisions are triggered by a range of contextual factors (de Haas 2021 ). Nevertheless, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) states that approximately 283.4 million people were displaced internally between the years 2008 and 2020 because of climatic disasters across the globe (Table 1 ). This number represents almost 89% of the total disaster-induced displacement that occurred during this timeframe (IDMC 2021a ).

People who move from their homes due to climate-driven hazards are described in a range of ways, including climate migrants, environmental migrants, climate refugees, environmental refugees, and so on (Perkiss and Moerman 2018 ). The process of migration related to climate-driven hazards is variously described as environmental migration, environmental displacement, climate-induced migration or climigration (Bronen 2008 ).

In this research, we focus on climate-induced migration more specifically induced by slow-onset climatic disasters (sea-level rise, drought, salinity etc.), rapid onset extreme climatic events (storms, floods etc.), or both (precipitation, erosion etc.). This study investigates how climate change-induced migration studies are framed in the existing literature and identifies key gaps in the published literature.

There is a significant ongoing debate about the links between climate change and human migration in the academic literature. Some researchers strongly believe that climate change directly causes people to move, whereas the others argue that climate change is just one of the contextual factors in peoples’ migration decisions (Laczko and Aghazarm 2009 ). Although there are scholarly opinions that call into question climate change as a primary cause of migration (Black 2001 ; Black et al. 2011 ; McLeman 2014 ), there is also evidence that climate change causes severe environmental effects and exacerbates the vulnerabilities of people that force them to leave their place of living (Bronen and Chapin 2013 ; Laczko and Aghazarm 2009 ; McLeman 2014 ).

Moreover, the relationship between the adverse effects of climate change and different types of human mobility (migration, displacement, or planned relocation) has become increasingly recognized in recent years (Kälin and Cantor 2017 ). It is assumed in general that the number of climate displaced people is likely to increase in future (Mcleman 2019 ; Wilkinson et al. 2016 ), and climate change could permanently displace an estimated 150 million to nearly 1 billion people as a critical driver by 2050 (Held 2016 ; Perkiss and Moerman 2018 ). As the number of climate migrants increases rapidly in some areas of the world (IDMC 2017 ), it is now confirmed as a significant global challenge (Apap 2019 ) and recognized as a considerable threat to human populations (Ionesco et al. 2017 ).

Climate migration has multifaceted impacts on peoples’ livelihoods. Being displaced from their home, people migrate within their own country, described as internal migration, or across borders to other countries known as international migration. Internal movements of climate migrants occur mostly to nearby major cities or large urban centers (Poncelet et al. 2010 ). Climate migrants who try to move internationally are significantly challenged by two different security problems. Firstly, they cannot live in their own homeland because of worsening climatic impacts and are forced to leave their ancestral land. Secondly, they cannot move to other countries quickly to find a safer place because, according to international law, climate migrants are not refugees and they are not supported by the UN Refugee Convention or any international formal protection policies (Apap 2019 ; Mcleman 2019 ). In this situation, they live with significant livelihood uncertainty. The United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (SFDRR) recognize them as a key group that is highly exposed and vulnerable because of their circumstances (Ionesco et al. 2017 ). Hence, policy development to address complex climate migration issues has become an emerging priority around the globe (Apap 2019 ).

In order to address this global challenge, there has been growing academic and policy attention focused on regional (Kampala Convention-2009 by African Union), national (Nansen Initiative—2012 by Norway and Switzerland), and international (Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration- 2018 by United Nations) levels of climate-induced migration in recent years. Myers’s ( 2002 ) seminal article signposted environmentally driven migration as one of the most significant challenges of the twenty-first century, and later, similar assumptions were made by Christian Aid (Baird et al. 2007 ), IOM (Brown 2008 ), and Care International (Warner et al. 2009 ). Such predictions led to a proliferation of the academic discourse on migration, focused on national and international security, policy frameworks, and human rights (Boncour and Burson 2009 ). Other studies have focused on vulnerability assessment, risk reduction, adaptation, resettlement, relocation, sustainability, and resilience, considering pre-, during and post-disaster circumstances of climate migration (Bronen 2011 ; Bronen and Chapin 2013 ; IDMC 2019 ; IOM 2021 ; King et al. 2014 ).

This research contributes to the discourse by identifying the gaps in the published literature regarding climate migration. A systematic literature review was undertaken to shed light on the current extent of academic literature, including gaps in knowledge to develop a climate migration research agenda. Two notable review papers provided a solid foundation for this endeavor. First, Piguet et al. ( 2018 ) developed a comprehensive review of publications on environment-induced migration from a global perspective based on a bibliographic database—CliMig. Their detailed mapping of environmentally induced migration research focused on five categories of climatic hazards (droughts, floods, hurricanes, sea-level rise, and rainfall); however, it did not include salinity and erosion which are also climate-driven and has direct effects on internal and international migration (Chen and Mueller 2018 ; Mallick and Sultana 2017 ; Rahman and Gain 2020 ).

The second key review paper was by Obokata et al. ( 2014 ), which provided an evidence-based explanation of the environmental factors leading to migration, and the non-environmental factors that influence the migration behaviors of people. Their scope of analysis was limited to international migration and excluded other types of migration, such as internal climate-induced migration.

Although migration, or more specifically environmental migration, was occurring over many decades of the twentieth century, the IPCC First Assessment report was released in 1990, which presented the first indications of the risks of climate change-induced human movement (IPCC 1990 ). This milestone report then stimulated the academic discourse, and consequently, a rapid increase in climate migration publication resulted. For this reason, the current study undertook a systematic review of literature across three decades beginning in 1990 and ending in 2019. This study aims to understand how the published literature has framed the climate-induced migration discourse. This paper identifies the key gaps in existing scholarship in this field and proposes a research agenda for future consideration on current and emerging climate migration issues.

In the following section, we outline the systematic review method and identify how journal articles were searched, selected, reviewed, and analyzed. In the next section, we present the results of this study. Results are organized into four subsections that illustrate the reviewed literature in the following ways—spatial and temporal trends, disciplinary foci, triggering forces of migration, and other key issues. Finally, we conclude by identifying research gaps, addressing the limitations of this study, and presenting a research agenda.


We have adopted a systematic review methodology for this study because it provides an …overall picture of the evidence in a topic area which is needed to direct future research efforts (Petticrew and Robert 2006 ). Systematic reviews reduce the bias of a traditional narrative review, although it is challenging to eliminate researcher bias while interpreting and synthesizing results (Doyle et al. 2019 ). It also limits systematic bias by identifying, evaluating, and synthesizing all relevant studies to answer specific questions or sets of questions, and produces a scientific summary of the evidence in any research area (Petticrew and Robert 2006 ). Moreover, systematic reviews effectively address the research question and identify knowledge gaps and future research priorities (Mallett et al. 2012 ). We have adopted this approach following the methodology developed by Berrang-Ford et al. ( 2011 ) which was tested in the field of environmental and climate change studies, with measurable outcomes. We have conducted the review following these four steps—article search, selection, review, and analysis (Fig.  1 ).

figure 1

Systematic review flowchart

Article search

We conducted a comprehensive literature search to identify the published academic literature on climate-induced migration to develop a clear understanding of this field of study. We identified sixteen commonly used keywords to search for articles that are predominantly used in the literature. ProQuest central database was selected and used in consultation with a skilled subject librarian to search for the relevant articles for this study. We conducted this literature search in July 2019 using the key thesaurus terms, presented in Table 2 . All keywords were then searched individually in the publication’s title and abstract. We only considered English language peer-reviewed articles for this study, published between the years 1990 and 2019 (up to June).

Article selection

The main purpose of this process was to ensure the selection of appropriate literatures for further analysis. We approached the Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta Analyses (PRISMA), a systematic evaluation tool, which was also used by Huq et al. ( 2021 ). In stage one of the selection process, 277 articles were counted based on our search criteria. In stage two, we excluded 25 duplicates, and 252 articles remained for further assessment. In the third and final stage of the detailed assessment of each paper, we identified a further 91 publications that were not relevant to our study but appeared in our searched list because search terms were briefly mentioned in their title and/or abstract without being described in further detail. As these articles did not fit with the aim and content of this research, we excluded those 91 and selected a final 161 articles for this study.

Article review

All the selected articles were then considered for detailed review in order to achieve the purpose of the study. A questionnaire (Online Attachment—A) was developed partially following Berrang-Ford et al. ( 2011 ); Obokata et al. ( 2014 ) and Piguet et al. ( 2018 ) to investigate how climate migration studies are framed in the published literature. Then each article was reviewed in detail in response to the individual parameters of the questionnaire such as general information ( article title, authors name, publication year, journal, discipline, content ), methodological approach ( qualitative, quantitative, mixed ), focused study areas ( country, climatic zones ), source of migrants ( rural, urban ), migration types ( internal, international ), impacts of climate migration ( social, economic, political, health, cultural, environmental, security ), causes of migration ( climatic: flood, sea-level rise, drought etc ., other: socio-economic, political, cultural ), target communities ( displaced community, receiving community ), and livelihoods ( housing, income, employment, etc . ) of climate migrants described in the publications.

Article analysis

All the data were recorded in Microsoft Office Excel spreadsheets. Relevant data for each parameter were filtered, analyzed, and summarized using the necessary Excel tools. Referencing was compiled through Mendeley Desktop.

Spatial and temporal trend

General information.

In this section, the publication date of the reviewed articles was used in order to identify the development of the academic discourse in climate migration studies over the last three decades (1990–2019). Results show the increasing focus of academic attention on this area of research over that timeframe. The study found only four publications between the years 1990 and 1999. During 2000–2009, an additional 16 articles were published, which was followed by an almost 90 percent (141 publications) increase in reviewed articles over the period of 2010–2019 (Table 3 ).

Reviewed study areas

In 84 reviewed articles, the study reported research focused on a particular location, and in some cases, they considered two or more areas for their research. Therefore, multiple counting for each study has been considered, which represents all the continents except Antarctica. The analysis shows that Asia (38%) is the continent with the greatest number of climate migration studies, followed by Oceania (20%), North America (17%), and Africa (14%). In contrast, Europe and South America have received less attention, with 7% and 5%, respectively. Table 4 presents the distribution of study areas by continent focused on the reviewed papers.

Climatic zones of the reviewed studies

This study identified the climatic zones of the study areas in order to find out which zones are most commonly studied among the reviewed studies. We adopted the climatic zones of the world from Peel et al. ( 2007 ), which is the updated version of Koppen’s climate classification, and categorizes the world climate into five major zones, i.e., (i) tropical, (ii) arid, (iii) temperate, (iv) cold, and (v) polar. This review shows that 86 publications mentioned their study areas, equating to 54% of the total reviewed papers. Among them, 81% referred to a specific region as their study area. The study areas were then classified into the above-mentioned climatic zones with one reference offered randomly for each country as an example of the range of research that has been conducted.

This study reveals that 49% of this group (among 81%) focused on tropical climatic areas such as Bangladesh (Islam et al. 2014 ), Cambodia (Jacobson et al. 2019 ), Kiribati (Bedford et al. 2016 ), Papua New Guinea (Connell and Lutkehaus 2017 ), Philippines (Tanyag 2018 ), Tuvalu (Locke 2009 ), and Vanuatu (Perumal 2018 ) among others, and 16% focused on arid climatic zones such as African Sahel (McLeman and Hunter 2010 ), Israel (Weinthal et al. 2015 ), Peru (Scheffran 2008 ), and Senegal (Nawrotzki et al. 2016a , b ). In addition to these, 13% of authors focused on temperate regions, i.e., Mexico (Nawrotzki et al. 2016a , b ), Nepal (Chapagain and Gentle 2015 ), Taiwan (Kang 2013 ), UK (Abel et al. 2013 ), and the USA (Rice et al. 2015 ) for their study and 3% focused on cold climatic areas, i.e., Alaska: USA (Marino and Lazrus 2015 ), Canada (Omeziri and Gore 2014 ), and northern parts of China (Ye et al. 2012 ). No studies were found based on polar regions (Fig.  2 ). Some studies did not specify a region or country of study but instead focused on broader regions such as Africa (White 2012 ), Asia–Pacific (Mayer 2013 ), Europe (Werz and Hoffman 2016 ), Latin America (Wiegel 2017 ), and Pacific (Hingley 2017 ).

figure 2

Climatic zones of the reviewed study areas-adopted from Peel (2007)

Migration types and sources of climate migrants

Migration types here refer to whether migration was internal (within a country or region) or international (across borders), and sources of climate migrants refer to people from rural or urban source regions. Most authors (73%) mentioned nothing regarding migration types, but a quarter (27%) explicitly discussed internal or international migration. Among them, 11% described climate migration within countries and 10% investigated cross-border migration. Some authors (6%) were concerned with both internal and international climate migration. Source regions for climate migrants were not often considered, with only 19 publications mentioning the origin of migrants. Among these, 11 articles stated that migration occurred from rural areas, and two publications discussed migration from urban areas. Also, six articles described climate migration from both rural and urban areas.

Disciplinary foci

Research discipline.

This study reveals that climate migration studies are becoming more focal issues in different research disciplines that include more than 40 subject areas. Hence, we developed a typology for the reviewed articles based on the relevant research themes. The typology consists of six research disciplines, each of which includes different subjects, as follows.

Social sciences: Social sciences, Sociology, Political Science, International Relations, Comprehensive Works, Population Studies, Anthropology, Social Services and Welfare, History, Philosophy, Ethnic Interests, Civil Rights, Women's Studies

Geography and environment: Meteorology, Environmental Studies, Energy, Conservation, Earth Sciences, Geography, Agriculture, Geology, Biology, Archaeology, Pollution

Business studies and development: Management, Business and Economics, International Commerce, International Development and Assistance, Economics, Insurance, Investments, Accounting

Law, policy, and planning: Law, Military, Civil Defense, Criminology and Security, Environmental policy

Health and medical science: Public Health, Psychology, Medical Sciences, Physical Fitness, and Hygiene

Other: Literature, Library and Information Sciences, Physics, Technology

Among the reviewed publications, some articles were discussed from the perspective of one particular discipline, while others came from two or more disciplines. Therefore, multiple counting for each discipline was considered during the analysis. The study reveals that Social Science covers the highest percentage of publications (41%), followed by Geography and Environment (30%), Business Studies and development (10%), Law, policy and planning (9%), and Health and medical science (7%). Only 2% of publications are not covered by any of these disciplines.

Primary research themes

The authors discussed a diverse range of themes in the reviewed articles. Key themes have been classified into eight categories based on their topics and focusing subjects. Some of the publications focused on multiple themes, which were counted separately under each theme. Most of the authors (27%) focused on Politics and policy issues, and almost a fifth (18%) of total articles focused on the themes of population, health, and development issues. Human rights, conflicts, and security issues were discussed in 16% of papers, and climate, vulnerability, adaptation, and resilience topics were the focus of 12% of publications. In 11% of publications, the authors focused on identity and cultural issues, and socio-economic topics comprised a further 9% of the total. Environmental issues were discussed by 4% of reviewed articles and 3% of publications did not fit into any of the above categories and are described as Other.

Methodological approaches

This review identified that researchers applied both qualitative and quantitative methods in climate migration research. A total of 82% of the reviewed articles used qualitative methodologies, and 9% quantitative. In addition to these, 9% of articles used mixed methods in climate migration research. Of those who used qualitative studies, most were review-based (86%), comprising systematic review, empirical evidence-based review, critical synthesis review, critical discourse review, and policy review. Only 14% of qualitative studies used interview methods (7%), case studies (6%), and focus group discussion (1%). Data sources reported in the reviewed literature for the quantitative research included secondary data (73%), historical data (13%), remote sensing data (7%), and survey data (7%).

Triggering forces of migration

Climatic causes of migration.

The reviewed publications outlined a range of different causes of climate migration. This study reveals nineteen climate-related causes of migration. We merged these causes into eight categories, defined as (i) climate change (climate change, global warming, temperature, environmental change, climate-induced natural disaster, meteorological events, extreme weather, heatwave), (ii) flood, (iii) sea-level rise (sea-level rise, melting glacier), (iv) drought (drought, desertification), (v) storm (storm, cyclone, hurricane, typhoon), (vi) salinity (salinity, tidal surge), (vii) precipitation-induced landslide, and (viii) erosion (coastal erosion, river erosion). “Climate change” is defined as a separate category because some publications named climate change as an overarching driver of migration, rather than specifying any particular hazard. In 70 publications, authors mentioned particular climatic events that were solely responsible for human migration, and 53 of these articles predominantly identified climate change as the main driver of migration, followed by sea-level rise (6), drought (4), flood (3), storm (2), and precipitation-induced landslide (2). In the remaining articles, scholars identified two or more climatic events that were collectively responsible for human displacement. Based on these articles, multiple counting for each climatic event was considered and the results show that climate change was the most commonly cited cause in 126 articles, along with other climatic causes. The authors also identified sea-level rise, drought, flood, and storms as the significant drivers of peoples’ migration along with other climatic drivers, which were mentioned in 51, 46, 44, and 43 articles, respectively. Precipitation-induced landslide and erosion were recognized in 17 and 12 articles, respectively, as the causes of human displacement, whereas eight articles identified salinity as the main reason.

Influencing causes of migration

Although this review was focused on identifying the climatic causes of human displacement, some other causes emerged during the analysis that also influence migration. In 68 publications, economic, social, environmental, political, cultural, and psychological causes were stated as drivers of migration, in addition to the climatic causes. Among these, economic causes (32%) have been identified as the most common driver, followed by social (25%) and environmental (22%) causes. Some articles described political causes (16%), and the remainder mentioned cultural (3%) and psychological (1%) drivers of migration.

Other key issues

  • Impacts of climate migration

One of the key findings of this review concerns the impacts of climate migration. In 48 publications, authors described a range of different impacts caused by climate migration, such as social, economic, political, health, cultural, environmental, and security. All the impacts were identified based on the location of climate migrants which are classified into the following three categories: (i) impacts on the place of origin, (ii) impacts on the place of destination, and (iii) impacts on both origin and destination. The review demonstrates that the impacts of climate migration were more frequently identified for the place of origin rather than for the destination. In the place of origin, authors discussed the economic, social, and cultural impacts, compared to political, security, health, and environmental impacts. In contrast, in the destination, scholars were more focused on security and cultural impacts. Overall, security, cultural and economic impacts were the most frequently discussed themes by the authors of reviewed literature in comparison with other impacts (Table 5 ).

Discussed communities

More than half of the reviewed articles ( N  = 81) described climate migrants and/or their receiving communities. In most of the discussions, authors talked about both displaced and host communities together (57%). In more than two-fifths of articles, they considered only displaced communities (42%). In contrast, none of the authors of the reviewed literature discussed host communities in detail in their publications, except Dorent ( 2011 ). Only a few authors briefly mentioned host communities during the discussion of climate migration impacts.

Livelihoods of climate migrants

This review demonstrates that the overall livelihood of climate migrants has not been a key focus in any of the reviewed literature. However, a few separate parameters of livelihoods, including housing, income and employment, health, access to resources, and education were mentioned in 23 articles. The analysis shows that the livelihoods of migrants in their place of origin (71%) were more likely to be considered compared to their destination (11%). In some articles (18%), authors addressed the livelihoods of climate migrants considering both their place of origin and destination. In total, all the articles which considered livelihoods had a specific focus on internal migration, and none mentioned the livelihoods of climate migrants in terms of international migration.

Discussion and research gaps

Climate change-induced migration is neither new (Nagra 2017 ), nor a future hypothetical phenomenon—it is a current reality (Coughlin 2018 ). This review provides a comprehensive analysis of how this field of study is framed in the existing literature. The academic discourse on human migration due to climate change is suggestive of a long-standing causal connection, which is hard to dissociate (Milán-García et al. 2021 ; Parrish et al. 2020 ; Piguet et al. 2011 ).

The review of spatial and temporal trends of climate-induced migration studies illustrates the growth in the field since the release of 1st IPCC report in 1990. In addition, this review has explored some basic questions that are useful to guide future research in this field of study, for instance, which study areas have received greater or lesser focus? Where are these study areas located in relation to global climatic zones? How are people migrating, i.e., internally, or internationally? What are the spatial sources of climate-induced migrants, i.e., rural, or urban environments?

This review also demonstrates that the expansion of climate migration research increased rapidly after 2000, although the studies in this field began before 2000 (Table 3 ). It denotes that the global academia and policymakers have emphasized their focus on this topic in recent decades (Milán-García et al. 2021 ; Piguet et al. 2011 ). Moreover, this review identifies the Asia–Pacific region as the global ‘hotspot’ of climate migration research (Table 4 ). This reflects the IDMC ( 2019 ) report that states more than 80% of the total displacement between 2008 and 2018 occurred within this region. Moreover, a significant proportion of global environmental displacement will continue to occur in the Asia–Pacific region (Mayer, 2013 ). Therefore, this region could be considered as a critical ‘living laboratory’ for future climate migration research.

Climate migration is mostly occurring internally (IDMC 2021a ; Laczko and Aghazarm 2009 ), and in recent years, it has been widely acknowledged in the policy areas (Fussell et al. 2014 ; The World Bank 2018 ). Nevertheless, this study reveals that only a quarter of the reviewed studies for example, Chapagain and Gentle ( 2015 ), Islam et al. ( 2014 ), and Prasain ( 2018 ) have considered the migration types (internal or international) and sources (rural or urban) of climate migrants in their research. Thus, this review identifies the gap and need for contributions to the academic discourse that investigate migration types, the origin of migrants, and their patterns of migration.

The review of the disciplinary foci of climate-induced migration literature reveals that a broader range of disciplines are now focusing on this research topic, which suggests that greater interdisciplinarity is developing in the discourse. IDMC ( 2021b ) data presented in Table 1 show that climate-induced disasters are displacing millions of people every year, but surprisingly none of the reviewed publications appeared under the subject category of disaster management in the database. This reflects the emergent nature of the academic discourse on climate migration and disaster management, which includes recent studies by Ye et al. ( 2012 ), Tanyag ( 2018 ), and Hamza et al. ( 2017 ). In addition, politics and policy issues regarding climate migration were discussed by scholars; however, no country-specific policies were found during the review that considered both the origin and host communities of climate migrants.

Campbell ( 2014 ) argues that there is insufficient empirical evidence within climate migration research. However, this review reveals that research in this area has been undertaken using a range of methodologies, from qualitative (review, case study, interview, focus group discussion etc.) to quantitative (based on survey data, secondary data, historical data, and remote sensing data), which has produced a strong foundation of work to guide future pathways for interdisciplinary climate migration research. A significant proportion of the research to date has been review-based. Also, there is a lack of empirical studies in this research field that consider the application of geographic information system and remote sensing.

It is clear from reviewing the triggering forces of climate-induced migration literature that climatic events are dominantly responsible for climate migration, which is supported by Rahman and Gain ( 2020 ), Connell and Lutkehaus ( 2017 ), Gemenne ( 2015 ), and Kniveton et al. ( 2012 ). Despite this, there are some other influencing push and/or pull factors such as socio-economic, political, cultural, etc., which are likely to compound (or be compounded by) climate impacts, to trigger the migration process (Black et al. 2011 ; de Haas 2011 , 2021 ; Fussell et al. 2014 ). While there remains ample anecdotal evidence of the relationship between climate change impacts and migration, the specific reasons for people to decide to migrate are interwoven with indirect pressures, such as livelihood disruption, poverty, war, or disaster (Werz and Hoffman 2016 ). Moreover, why people choose to stay at their places is also essential in the context of creeping environmental and climate-induced migration (Mallick and Schanze 2020 ).

One of the other key issues reviewed in this study is that the literature to date fails to build an understanding of the impacts of climate migration on both the origin (source regions) and destination of the climate migrants. There are very few studies such as Comstock and Cook ( 2018 ), Maurel and Tuccio ( 2016 ), Pryce and Chen ( 2011 ), Rahaman et al. ( 2018 ), Rice et al. ( 2015 ), and Schwan and Yu ( 2017 ) that investigate different aspects of socio-economic impacts (housing, health, social, economic, etc.) of climate migration in the destination region, and this presents a clear gap in knowledge that requires further study. Also, no current research has been identified during the review that focused on the environmental impacts of climate migration.

In addition, this review identifies that there was less attention paid to the impacts of climate migration on host communities compared to displaced populations in their new locations. Given that migration will continue to increase globally, there is likely to be a growing need to understand the range of potential impacts on host communities. Although some countries and regions are developing policies to manage internal migration, there are no formal protection policies for cross-border climate migration (Nishimura 2015 ; OHCHR 2018 ; Olsson 2015 ; Zaman 2021 ). Therefore, policy arrangements for managing the needs of climate displaced people in their new communities need to be developed to account for issues related to impacts, livelihoods, community cohesion, and cultural diversity and values. Future research should address the significant gap in understanding the livelihoods of climate migrants in their cross border or international destination. More specifically, in developed countries where the employment sector is more formalized, there is less room for informal economic practices that are common in developing contexts. More formal employment arrangements make it challenging for migrants to establish new livelihoods, alongside other challenges such as language barriers, and other financial, social, cultural and well-being issues.

Limitations and future research scope

Limitations of this study.

There are some limitations to this systematic review; firstly, this review used ProQuest as the sole database for the analysis, and future work could extend the scope to include other major databases. Secondly, this study only considered English language literature, and there are likely to be significant publications in other languages relating to climate migration that were not included in this analysis. Thirdly, looking at pre-1990 or post-2019 literature could add more exciting findings to the search list, which would provide more informative literature. Finally, the outputs of this review are limited to the nature of the search terms, and thus, if other words or texts such as climate-induced relocation or mobility were used, it might extend the range of the review.

Toward a research agenda for climate migration

This review has highlighted several exciting future research opportunities that will build on the strong foundation of work over the past decades in the field of climate migration studies. These include the following research themes; (i) a richer understanding of the full range of impacts (such as social, economic, environmental, and cultural) of climate migration on host communities; (ii) in-depth analysis of the livelihoods of climate-induced migrants in their new destination; (iii) evidence-based research on internal and international climate migration with their sources; (iv) long-term migration policy development at national, regional, or international levels considering both climate migrants and host communities; (v) scope and application of geographic information systems and remote sensing in this area of research, and (vi) developing sustainable livelihood frameworks for climate migrants. The authors believe that academic contributions to these research themes will drive climate migration challenges toward long-term solutions, particularly in those countries that are going to be hosting increasing numbers of climate migrants in future.

This study aimed to understand the past three decades of academic endeavor on climate migration and to identify the gaps in the existing literature in order to inform a research agenda for future research. Climate change, climate-induced migration, and climate migrants are now considered significant global challenges. Climate migrants are identified as a vulnerable group, and a consideration of issues for this group is essential in addressing the goals of the SDGs and SFDRRR. There is a growing body of knowledge that reflects the global relevance of climate migration as a major current and future challenge (Boncour and Burson 2009 ). Addressing the issues and challenges of this form of migration will improve the survival and certain resettlement rights of climate migrants (Miller 2017 ). Therefore, this review contributes a research agenda for future climate migration studies. This study has revealed a critical need to establish a universally agreed definition of ‘climate-induced migrants’ and ‘climate-induced migration,’ which remains unclear to date. Lack of clarity only acts to reduce the visibility of issues related to climate-induced migration. In addition, there is a crucial need to improve the evidence base for climate-induced migration by improving current global datasets, to inform local, regional, and global policy development. Policies need to be future-looking in preparation for a rapid and significant increase in climate-related migration across the globe, within and across national borders. For instance, it is important for receiving countries to anticipate an upsurge in migration by developing appropriate policies to support new migrants, particularly regarding visa and immigration arrangements. Addressing current gaps in knowledge will lead to improved pathways to manage this global migration challenge, which is now a critical need if we are to achieve a sustainable future in a climate-challenged world.

Data availability

Data are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.

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The authors would like to thank Dr Douglas Hill, Dr Ashraful Alam and Dr Bishawjit Mallick for their feedback on the initial draft of this article.

This research has been supported by a University of Otago Doctoral Scholarship. Open Access funding is enabled and organized by CAUL and its Member Institutions.

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110 Immigration Research Paper Topics

choose Immigration Research Paper Topics

Immigration is the process of people moving to a country and can be either voluntary or involuntary. Immigration is a very interesting aspect of education, and you may be asked at one point or another to come up with a research paper in the immigration niche.

Immigration is a broad topic, and it can be difficult to choose immigration research paper topics. Here are some broad categories of immigration.

  • Voluntary migration : This refers to people who move to another country on their own accord and are not forced by the government. It could be for health reasons, lifestyle change, economic reasons, educational reasons, tax evasion, etc.
  • Involuntary migration : This refers to people who are forced to move to another country because there is no other option for them. Examples include migration during a crisis, migration due to fear of persecution, etc.
  • Emigration : This refers to people who decide on their own not to stay in a particular country and return home.
  • Internal migration : This refers to people who move within a country for work or school purposes or simply for personal reasons, such as living closer to family members or friends.

Why Do You Need Help Choosing Immigration Research Paper Topics?  

You’re ready to write your immigration research paper, but you’re scared. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re looking for research paper topics. Why? Because there are so many things that you can write about, it can be hard to know where to start.

You’ve put a lot of thought into the topic, but you’re not sure how to start. Maybe you have a great idea but don’t know where to start writing. Or maybe you’ve already written the outline, but it’s not working out. You feel stuck.

Whatever the case may be, it’s normal to get stressed out when writing a research paper on an important topic like immigration. When you’re in this situation, it can be really helpful to have someone who can point out what works and what doesn’t work with your outline or subject matter. And that’s where we come in.

There are many benefits to getting help with your immigration paper research topics.

  • Immigration research paper topics are hard to come by.

Immigration has been a hot topic for quite some time now. Since the government has been putting a heavy focus on it, there are a lot of different angles to research. This can make it difficult to find a topic that is interesting and relevant to your own life experience.

  • Immigration research paper topics are often controversial.

Immigration is a very touchy subject, which means that it can be hard to find something that accurately reflects your views on the issue without being too extreme or inflammatory.

  • You’ll save time.

If your research paper is due soon, you might not have enough time to do the necessary research and choose topics yourself. Seeking help out there makes your work easier and saves you from stress!

  • It will be well detailed.

Other than just looking at things from your point of view, seeking help from other sources can help you get detailed in-depth approaches.

Immigration Research Paper Topics

As a result of the Covid-19 Pandemic and other global military wars, the difficulties associated with immigration are now more widely recognized in the world. Are you looking for good topics to write about for your immigration research paper? If so, the list below includes some of the top options:

  • How did the Covid-19 pandemic affect immigration into the UK and the United States?
  • How does immigration affect the global economy?
  • What are the benefits and disadvantages of immigration?
  • What are the top five benefits of being an immigrant?
  • What is the relationship between immigration and crime?
  • How does the cost of immigration compare with other factors that influence business?
  • How do illegal immigrants affect our economy and society, and how can they be made legal?
  • What are the most common reasons people apply for a U.S. visa?
  • What are some of the benefits of having an immigration visa program in the U.S.?
  • How many countries have a visa waiver program with the U.S. and how does it work?

Simple Immigration Essay Topics

Selecting a simple topic for an immigration essay is not always an easy thing to do. At times, it requires you to spend a lot of time doing research here and there. To save you from this stress, we have compiled the top ten simple immigration essay topics for you!

  • How has immigration impacted your life?
  • What are your thoughts on illegal immigration?
  • How would you improve the process for naturalized citizens?
  • What are some of the challenges associated with immigration?  
  • Give some examples of how immigration benefits the U.S.  
  • What is the motivation for immigration?
  • Discuss the attitude of nativism towards immigrants.
  • How has being an immigrant changed the way you think about yourself?  
  • What is the greatest barrier to becoming a citizen?
  • What would you say to people who believe that immigrants should not be allowed into the U.S.?

International Immigration Essay Topics

We have compiled 10 international immigration essay topics for your essay because when it comes to choosing topics about immigration internationally, you need to make sure it covers the entire world of immigration. This can often be a difficult process.

  • How have international immigration policies changed over time?
  • How can we increase our understanding of the diversity of the world’s cultures?
  • What are some of the benefits of allowing more immigration?
  • Describe the UK’s current immigration system.
  • Discuss Canada’s 20th-century immigration policies.
  • Talk about the EU’s current immigration problems and how they affect the terrorism rate.
  • Examine the connection between immigration and Australian national identity.
  • Describe Switzerland’s newest immigration law.
  • Examine the effects of Muslim immigration on Britain.
  • Examine the importance of gender in Irish immigration.

Best Immigration Research Topics

Do you want to come up with the best topic for your essay in your class? We also want you to be the best, so we’ve put together a list of some of the best topics on immigration that you could pick from.

  • The impact of immigration on wages and employment levels
  • The impact of immigration on public health and other social outcomes
  • The impact of immigration on local governments and their budgets
  • How immigrants help contribute to economic growth
  • What are the best ways to attract immigrants to your country?
  • The impact of immigration on education and health care
  • What is the relationship between immigration and terrorism?
  • Does immigration increase or decrease social cohesion?
  • What effect immigration has on things like forests, water sources, and wildlife habitats.
  • What are the best ways to encourage new immigrants to stay in their new home country?

Immigration Argumentative Essay Topics

Because you would need to compare and view the issue from all sides, choosing an argumentative immigration topics to write about could be challenging. To make your job easier, we have compiled a list of 10 argumentative immigration essay ideas for you below.

  • Immigrants are taking jobs away from American citizens who deserve them.
  • Should an immigrant be given a path to citizenship?
  • Do you think that it is important for countries to take in refugees who are fleeing war-torn countries?
  • Immigrants contribute to the growth of our economy, our culture, and our society.
  • Should immigrants pay taxes?
  • Should immigration from certain countries be limited based on their economic impact on the country?
  • Should incentives be given to people who want to immigrate legally instead of illegally?
  • Should businesses be permitted to hire foreign workers over Americans if they can’t find any eligible Americans?
  • Should immigrants be allowed to stay in the country indefinitely?
  • Should people be treated differently based on their immigration status?  

Controversial Immigration Topics

When we discuss contentious topics, we typically engage in debate or discussion of divergent viewpoints. Finding a topic on this can be difficult at times, but don’t worry; to relieve some of your tension, we’ve selected 10 contentious immigration topics for research paper that you can choose from or use as a reference:  

  • Should gay couples be allowed to marry?
  • Race and Immigration
  • Ethnicity and Immigration
  • Should non-citizens be able to vote?
  • Is it okay for parents to get deported because they refuse to pay child support?
  • Undocumented immigrants and identity theft.
  • Deportation rates for undocumented immigrants
  • Immigration: Illegals vs. Legal Immigrants
  • The wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

Immigration Thesis Topics

Choosing a thesis topic on immigration requires extensive research because the paper needs to be outstanding and well written. Do you need a thesis for an academic degree? Here are 10 thesis immigration topics for essays that could help you.

  • The historical impact of immigration on America
  • The impact of immigration on the economy
  • The impact of immigration on our culture and society
  • Why should immigrants be allowed into the United States?
  • How can we make sure that immigrants are treated fairly and humanely in America?
  • Immigration is a major issue that affects Americans in many ways.
  • Immigrants are less likely to commit crimes
  • Immigrants do not make any significant difference in the unemployment rate of native-born Americans
  • Immigrants create more jobs than they take
  • Immigrants need government assistance to survive

Global Politics Immigration Paper Topics

Global politics is a large topic. So, finding suitable global political immigration topics may be a bit tiresome. Here are 10 global research topics on immigration that you can choose from!

  • Immigration policies in the U.S., Canada, and Australia.
  • International trade and immigration policies.
  • The diversity of immigrants: A look at America’s immigrant population.
  • The social structure of immigrants in the Netherlands.
  • Globalization and migration patterns: A case study of Australia.
  • Global recessions, financial crises, and the labor market.
  • Immigration policy and human rights violations
  • Migration patterns around the world
  • The history of immigration in the U.S.
  • Political and economic implications of immigration in Europe

Illegal Immigration Research Paper Topics

Illegal immigration is a big problem for law enforcement and the national security of many countries. It also often leads to violations of the human rights of the most vulnerable people.

Would you like to investigate this for a research paper? Here are some illegal immigration topics to research that can help.

  • The effects of illegal immigration on businesses
  • Illegal immigration and public safety
  • Illegal immigration and workplace discrimination
  • The impact of illegal immigration on the American workforce
  • How does illegal immigration affect the U.S?
  • Should illegal immigration be legalized?
  • What are some of the consequences of legalizing illegal immigrants?
  • What are some benefits of legalizing illegal immigrants?
  • How many people illegally immigrate to the U.S. every year?
  • How are illegal immigrants treated by society?

Research Paper Topics on Immigration in America

Are you seeking a topic to write about for a research paper about immigration in America? Here are 10 excellent American immigration research paper topics for you.  

  • Why America’s immigration policies are unfair and unproductive, and why we need to change them.
  • Why the Mexican border is a good immigration channel
  • Border security and border policy in the U.S.
  • How does immigrant crime compare to native crime?
  • Immigrants are more likely to have good grades than native-born Americans
  • Which groups of immigrants have been most affected by the rise in deportations and why?
  • Are immigrants more likely to start businesses than native-born Americans?
  • Immigrants have made incredible contributions to the U.S., like Levi Strauss and Albert Einstein
  • Should undocumented immigrants have health insurance coverage in the U.S.?
  • The Effect of Immigration on Social Security in the U.S.

Persuasive Speech Topics About Immigration

You need to make sure the topics you choose for your persuasive speeches are compelling enough to win over your audience. Finding a topic like this could be difficult, but we have nonetheless put together a list of the top 10 persuasive immigration topics for essay from which you can choose.

  • Should immigration be a human right?
  • Can immigrants help economies grow and make countries better
  • Why immigration is not a threat to our culture but a benefit
  • We need more immigrants in this country because it’s not sustainable otherwise!
  • Immigrants are an asset to any country, not a burden.
  • Are most immigrants hard-working, honest, and law-abiding citizens?
  • Illegal immigration is not a problem—it’s a solution to problems—like unemployment and poverty
  • The U.S. needs immigrants to keep growing and stay strong in the world economy
  • Are immigrants good for business and do they make great contributions to society?
  • Immigrants bring in new ideas and experiences that enrich culture and nation growth.

How to Choose a Topic on Immigration

Choosing a topic for your immigration research paper is a big decision. You have to consider your audience, the content of the paper, and how much time you have to write it. Here are some tips for choosing the best immigration research paper topics.

  • Know your audience.

You can’t write an immigration research paper if you don’t know who you’re writing it for! Before you start writing, sit down with the person in charge of your assignment (usually the professor) and get their feedback on what they need from you. This will help you narrow down topics that they’ll find interesting and relevant, which will make them more excited about reading your work!

  • Look at what’s already out there.

You may want to try writing something new, but don’t forget about other people’s work! Go online and check out any papers written by professors on similar topics in your field. Have them give their opinions about whether or not those papers are good examples of quality work done well. If they love something else, maybe those details can help inspire yours!

  • Do your research.

Do some research on current events. This is where most of the immigration news comes from, so it’s a great way to find out what’s happening in your community.

Read blogs and articles from reliable sources like newspapers or websites that focus on profiling immigrants and people who are looking for asylum.

Immigration research paper topics could be challenging to find. Sometimes they are complex and require an in-depth understanding. Here are 110 immigration research paper topics you can choose from. Sometimes, you might need help in writing your research paper. You can always outsource your research paper to a trusted writing company to help you!

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MIT physicists and colleagues have created a five-lane superhighway for electrons that could allow ultra-efficient electronics and more. 

The work, reported in the May 10 issue of Science , is one of several important discoveries by the same team over the past year involving a material that is a unique form of graphene .

“This discovery has direct implications for low-power electronic devices because no energy is lost during the propagation of electrons, which is not the case in regular materials where the electrons are scattered,” says Long Ju, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and corresponding author of the Science paper.

The phenomenon is akin to cars traveling down an open turnpike as opposed to those moving through neighborhoods. The neighborhood cars can be stopped or slowed by other drivers making abrupt stops or U-turns that disrupt an otherwise smooth commute.

A new material

The material behind this work, known as rhombohedral pentalayer graphene, was discovered two years ago by physicists led by Ju. “We found a goldmine, and every scoop is revealing something new,” says Ju, who is also affiliated with MIT’s Materials Research Laboratory.

In a Nature Nanotechnology paper last October, Ju and colleagues reported the discovery of three important properties arising from rhombohedral graphene. For example, they showed that it could be topological, or allow the unimpeded movement of electrons around the edge of the material but not through the middle. That resulted in a superhighway, but required the application of a large magnetic field some tens of thousands times stronger than the Earth’s magnetic field.

In the current work, the team reports creating the superhighway without any magnetic field.

Tonghang Han, an MIT graduate student in physics, is a co-first author of the paper. “We are not the first to discover this general phenomenon, but we did so in a very different system. And compared to previous systems, ours is simpler and also supports more electron channels.” Explains Ju, “other materials can only support one lane of traffic on the edge of the material. We suddenly bumped it up to five.”

Additional co-first authors of the paper who contributed equally to the work are Zhengguang Lu and Yuxuan Yao. Lu is a postdoc in the Materials Research Laboratory. Yao conducted the work as a visiting undergraduate student from Tsinghua University. Other authors are MIT professor of physics Liang Fu; Jixiang Yang and Junseok Seo, both MIT graduate students in physics; Chiho Yoon and Fan Zhang of the University of Texas at Dallas; and Kenji Watanabe and Takashi Taniguchi of the National Institute for Materials Science in Japan.

How it works

Graphite, the primary component of pencil lead, is composed of many layers of graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms arranged in hexagons resembling a honeycomb structure. Rhombohedral graphene is composed of five layers of graphene stacked in a specific overlapping order.

Ju and colleagues isolated rhombohedral graphene thanks to a novel microscope Ju built at MIT in 2021 that can quickly and relatively inexpensively determine a variety of important characteristics of a material at the nanoscale. Pentalayer rhombohedral stacked graphene is only a few billionths of a meter thick.

In the current work, the team tinkered with the original system, adding a layer of tungsten disulfide (WS 2 ). “The interaction between the WS 2  and the pentalayer rhombohedral graphene resulted in this five-lane superhighway that operates at zero magnetic field,” says Ju.

Comparison to superconductivity

The phenomenon that the Ju group discovered in rhombohedral graphene that allows electrons to travel with no resistance at zero magnetic field is known as the quantum anomalous Hall effect. Most people are more familiar with superconductivity, a completely different phenomenon that does the same thing but happens in very different materials.

Ju notes that although superconductors were discovered in the 1910s, it took some 100 years of research to coax the system to work at the higher temperatures necessary for applications. “And the world record is still well below room temperature,” he notes.

Similarly, the rhombohedral graphene superhighway currently operates at about 2 kelvins, or -456 degrees Fahrenheit. “It will take a lot of effort to elevate the temperature, but as physicists, our job is to provide the insight; a different way for realizing this [phenomenon],” Ju says.

Very exciting

The discoveries involving rhombohedral graphene came as a result of painstaking research that wasn’t guaranteed to work. “We tried many recipes over many months,” says Han, “so it was very exciting when we cooled the system to a very low temperature and [a five-lane superhighway operating at zero magnetic field] just popped out.”

Says Ju, “it’s very exciting to be the first to discover a phenomenon in a new system, especially in a material that we uncovered.”

This work was supported by a Sloan Fellowship; the U.S. National Science Foundation; the U.S. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering; the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science KAKENHI; and the World Premier International Research Initiative of Japan.

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Press mentions, quanta magazine.

For the first time ever, researchers at MIT have observed electrons form “fractional quasiparticles without enabling the influence of a magnetic field,” reports Daniel Garisto for Quanta Magazine.  This discovery “may carry the seeds of long-sought quasiparticles with stable memories that could underpin a new and powerful approach to quantum computing.” 

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My external activities are disclosed on my website at:


Funding for the survey is currently provided by the International Center for Finance at the Yale School of Management


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