Blog post

The roles of migration infrastructure

Illustration, blurry people. Phto:

Jørgen Carling writes about the importance of ‘migration infrastructure’ as a theoretical concept.

By Jørgen Carling, PRIO

Why do specific people migrate to specific destinations under specific conditions? These remain fundamental theoretical questions in migration research, even as the field has expanded to address a much broader range of issues than these fundamentals. And the past half-century has seen successive new takes on this set of questions, reflecting changing trends in social-science theory as well as shifting empirical realities of global migration.

A recent contribution which, in my opinion, holds particular promise is the concept of migration infrastructure. It is of particular relevance to the focus of the WELLMIG project—international nurse migration—in which many social, regulatory, economic and other influences coalesce.


The phrase ‘migration infrastructure’ has been used in passing with various meanings in the literature, but it’s full development as a theoretical concept came as late as 2014, when anthropologists Xiang Biao and Johan Lindquist published their article ‘Migration infrastructure’ in the 50th anniversary issue of the International Migration Review. The aim of the anniversary issue, which I co-edited, was to compile a set of agenda-setting papers that could become important reference points for future research. Xiang and Lindquist’s paper is certainly doing that.


Migration infrastructure, as Xiang and Lindquist define it, is ‘the systematically interlinked technologies, institutions, and actors that facilitate and condition mobility’. It includes components as diverse as recruitment services, licensing procedures, NGO activities, border control, and migrant networks.

Some components of migration infrastructure are covered by existing concepts such as ‘migration systems’, ‘migration industry’ and ‘culture of migration’. But because migration infrastructure is such a broad concept, it can meaningfully be applied to diverse empirical contexts. Migration is always facilitated, conditioned, or constrained, but in ways that differ widely. For instance, nurse migration from the Philippines is affected by the country’s engrained culture of migration, as well as by the institutional, commercial, and bureaucratic institutions that make training as a nurse a stepping-stone to international migration. The notion of migration infrastructure is equally relevant to nurse migration from Poland or Sweden, but the infrastructural components and their functioning are different.

Examining migration infrastructure invites attention to the contradictions and tensions that shape migration processes. For instance, licensing procedures for healthcare workers clearly shape migration processes and experiences, but this component of migration infrastructure can be constraining and frustrating as well as facilitating. Xiang and Lindquist also point to infrastructure geared towards ‘protection’ of migrant workers is a double-edged sword that can limit individual freedoms.

Dimensions of migration infrastructure

For analytical purposes, Xiang and Lindquist stipulate five dimensions of migration infrastructure: the commercial, the regulatory, the technological, the humanitarian, and the social. Other distinctions might be just as useful, but a breakdown such as this one helps reflect on all the different ways in which migration is mediated.

Migration infrastructure actually plays two separate roles in explaining how migration arises: first, it shapes people’s migration aspirations. For instance, advertisements for migration agencies can instil the idea of migrating in many more people than eventually use the companies’ services. Similarly, having a relative overseas can inspire migration aspirations regardless of whether the relative offers any practical or financial help in migrating. Second, migration infrastructure affects whether and how those who aspire to migrate are able to do so. Commercial agencies and family networks can both be instrumental, depending on the circumstances. And the regimes of training, immigration, licencing, and employment all affect whether migration is possible, and, if so, how it is experienced.