Forced, Reluctant, and Voluntary Migration

satellite view of Hurricane Katrina
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused about 10% of the entire state of Louisiana's population to migrate to other states. NOAA

Human migration is the permanent or semi-permanent relocation of people from one location to another. This movement may occur domestically or internationally and can affect economic structures, population densities, culture, and politics. People either are made to move involuntarily (forced), are put in situations that encourage relocation (reluctant), or choose to migrate (voluntary).

Forced Migration

Forced migration is a negative form of migration, often the result of persecution, development, or exploitation. The largest and most devastating forced migration in human history was the African slave trade, which carried 12 to 30 million Africans from their homes and transported them to various parts of North America, Latin America, and the Middle East. Those Africans were taken against their will and forced to relocate.

The Trail of Tears is another pernicious example of forced migration. Following the Indian Removal Act of 1830, tens of thousands of Indigenous Americans living in the Southeast were forced to migrate to parts of contemporary Oklahoma ("Land of the Red People" in Choctaw). They traversed up to nine states on foot, with many dying along the way.

Forced migration is not always violent. One of the largest involuntary migrations in history was caused by development. The construction of China's Three Gorges Dam displaced nearly 1.5 million people and put 13 cities, 140 towns, and 1,350 villages underwater. Although new housing was provided for those forced to move, many people were not compensated fairly. Some of the newly designated areas were also less ideal geographically, not foundationally secure, or lacked agriculturally productive soil.

Reluctant Migration

Reluctant migration is a form of migration in which individuals are not forced to move, but do so because of an unfavorable situation at their current location. The large wave of Cubans who legally and illegally immigrated to the United States following the 1959 Cuban revolution is considered a form of reluctant migration. Fearing a communist government and leader Fidel Castro, many Cubans sought asylum overseas. With the exception of Castro's political opponents, most of the Cuban exiles were not forced to leave but decided it was in their best interest to do so. As of the 2010 census, over 1.7 million Cubans resided in the United States, with the majority living in Florida and New Jersey.

Another form of reluctant migration involved the internal relocation of many Louisiana residents following Hurricane Katrina. After the calamity caused by the hurricane, many people decided to either move farther from the coast or out of state. With their homes destroyed, the state's economy in ruin, and sea levels continuing to rise, they reluctantly left.

At the local level, a change in ethnic or socioeconomic conditions usually brought on by invasion-succession or gentrification can also cause individuals to reluctantly relocate. A white neighborhood that has turned predominately Black or a poor neighborhood turned gentrified can have a personal, social, and economic impact on longtime residents.

Voluntary Migration

Voluntary migration is migration based on one's free will and initiative. People move for a variety of reasons, and it involves weighing options and choices. Individuals who are interested in moving often analyze the push and pull factors of two locations before making their decision.

The strongest factors influencing people to voluntarily move are the desire to live in a better home and employment opportunities. Other factors contributing to voluntary migration include:

  • Change in life's course (getting married, empty-nest, retirement)
  • Politics (from a conservative state to one that recognizes gay marriage, for example)
  • Individual personality (suburban life to city life)

Americans on the Move

With their intricate transportation infrastructure and high per-capita income, Americans have become some of the most mobile people on earth. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2010 37.5 million people (or 12.5% of the population) changed residences. Of those, 69.3% stayed within the same county, 16.7% moved to a different county in the same state, and 11.5% moved to a different state.

Unlike many underdeveloped countries where a family might live in the same home their entire lives, it is not uncommon for Americans to move multiple times within their life. Parents might choose to relocate to a better school district or neighborhood following the birth of a child. Many teenagers choose to leave for college in another area. Recent graduates go where their career is. Marriage might lead to the purchase of a new home, and retirement may take the couple elsewhere, yet again.

When it comes to mobility by region, people in the Northeast were the least likely to move, with a move rate of just 8.3% in 2010. The Midwest had a move rate of 11.8%, the South—13.6%, and the West —14.7 %. Principal cities within metropolitan areas experienced a population drop of 2.3 million people, while the suburbs experienced a net increase of 2.5 million.

Young adults in their 20s are the most likely age group to move, while African Americans are the most likely race to move in America.

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Zhou, Ping. "Forced, Reluctant, and Voluntary Migration." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Zhou, Ping. (2023, April 5). Forced, Reluctant, and Voluntary Migration. Retrieved from Zhou, Ping. "Forced, Reluctant, and Voluntary Migration." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).