A photo of the referendum ballot for the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union. Photo by Lazyllama / Shutterstock.com
Popular discussions about modern-day migration often focus on issues of undocumented migration, but the fact is that human migration has been going on for millennia, while the idea that official documentation is required is at most a few hundred years old. And yet, while national borders are a comparatively recent invention, border policies are real and have real effects on the lives of migrants, as well as the lives of citizens on either side of the border.
People who work on migration policy use global perspectives to count the number of people moving from one place to another and their reasons for moving. For example, the International Organization for Migration, an agency of the United Nations, publishes its World Migration Report every two years; the 2022 World Migration Report, for example, has a lengthy section on disruptions to transnational migration caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Other UN agencies study international migration as well, such as the UN Development Programme, and the UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report looks at people who move within a country to obtain an education.
These global perspectives are useful, but anthropologists understand that it is important to also learn how not to think like a state, telling instead the personal stories of people who live near or move across the border and the effects of border policy on their lives. Anthropology News has featured stories of migrants who learn Spanish to communicate among themselves and develop networks to help one another navigate the labor market, and communities in Sicily that have come together to advocate for migrants crossing the Mediterranean. Anthropologists have identified double standards in immigration policy by comparing the experience of Ukrainian war refugees to those from the Middle East and Africa, and they have studied objects found in the Sonoran Desert to understand the violent effects of US border policy. Stories like these tell the human side of government actions.