In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Immigration and International Relations

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Migration Theory
  • States, Sovereignty, and Citizenship
  • Ethics and Politics of Immigration and Borders
  • Research Methods, Disciplinary Frameworks
  • Security and Securitization
  • Policies of Prevention, Detention, and Return
  • “Illegal” and Irregular Migration
  • Human Smuggling, Human Trafficking
  • Maritime Space
  • Environmentally Induced Migration

Political Science Immigration and International Relations
Heather Johnson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0204


The study of immigration/migration in international relations (IR) is, in many ways, a latecomer to the discipline. This is perhaps no great surprise, as the discipline has traditionally focused on questions of stability and war in the international system. However, there are many ways that international migration intersects directly with IR, even traditionally defined, and this has driven a growing body of scholarship. First, migration is itself a function of the international system of states. Without states, there are no borders to cross and it is the crossing of borders that remains at the heart of the politics of migration: who crosses, how, where, and why, are the operative issues at the heart of policymaking, debate, and practice in migration. This also places the state at the heart of much of the analysis; the ability to control borders is at the core of questions of state sovereignty. It is state action, regulation, and law, therefore, that shape and determine much international migration. As many critical scholars have pointed out, however, migrants themselves also have agency and autonomy; their movements are not simply reactive to state policy and practice, but determine its direction. Here, then, we see a manifestation of one of the foundational debates of world politics: which actors have power, and how that power is understood. Further, international migration by its very definition involves more than one state, calling attention to interstate relations, and to questions of bilateral and multilateral cooperation. The emergence of key international institutions, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), and the International Labour Organisation (ILO), also brings us questions of institutional power (often versus state power), and of the development of international regimes. Migration studies is located at the intersection of several different disciplines and fields of study. Particularly in critical scholarship, work in geography, sociology, anthropology, political and social theory, economics, and cultural studies have all influenced, and been influenced by, work in IR. Within IR, the key issues of analysis that emerge are a focus on international regulatory frameworks and regimes, issues of governance, questions of cooperation, and the intersections between migration and security. Although IR has often been accused of a Euro- or Western-centric scholarship, important alternative voices emerge within migration studies, and they are represented particularly in scholarship that focuses on refugees and asylum issues.

General Overviews

Betts 2009 and Koser 2016 both provide excellent overviews of the field as a whole; Koser 2016 in particular is an excellent starting place for students new to the field. Castles, et al. 2014 is more of a textbook approach to the discussion, and has the broadest focus of the selection. Further, the volume has been updated since its first edition to reflect changes in context. Scholarship in IR tends to marry rich empirical case studies with a strong theoretical and conceptual focus. Throughout the overviews, there is a heavy emphasis on policy developments and their real-world impact, as well on historical reflections of the development of migration patterns and regimes. Spencer 2003, as an edited collection, brings a strong policy focus into the analysis. Finally, Chimni 1998 brings an important dimension to the overview discussion, with a reflection on the global politics of asylum that includes the Global South.

  • Betts, Alexander. Forced Migration and Global Politics. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781444315868

    This monograph directly applies IR theory to the study of forced migration. It then goes on to discuss key issues in IR as they related to refugees and forced migration: sovereignty, security, cooperation, governance, international political economy (IPE), and regionalism. From the discussion of theories, key empirical cases are then used to demonstrate and illustrate conceptual questions.

  • Castles, Stephen, Hein de Haas, and Mark J. Miller. The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World. 5th ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-0-230-36639-8

    This book is a reliable and comprehensive reference for all scholars interested in migration. The fifth edition includes several regional case studies of the Americas, the Asia-Pacific, and Africa and the Middle East, and a dedicated chapter to the question of climate change. It begins with a historical overview of migration and migration policy, and ends with consideration of the integration of migrants in the economic, social, and political dimensions of host societies.

  • Chimni, B. S. “The Geopolitics of Refugee Studies: A View from the South.” Journal of Refugee Studies 11.4 (1998): 350–374.

    This article is important in its revelation of the historical development of the refugee regime, from the perspective of the Global South. Arguing that a “myth of difference” has emerged from the initial conception of the UN Refugee Convention, Chimni’s insights are useful in understanding North–South relations and contemporary politics of migration control.

  • Koser, Khalid. International Migration: A Very Short Introduction. 2d ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    DOI: 10.1093/actrade/9780198753773.001.0001

    This book is part of Oxford’s “Very Short Introduction” series, and is an excellent resource. It deals with both “legal” and “illegal” migration, grappling with both conceptual and practical questions. The central goal of the author is to effectively address the negative myths often perpetrated about migrants, and to reveal careful and wide-reaching analysis. A particular strength is the author’s use of direct experience with the UN Global Commission on International Migration, and the use of interviews with migrants themselves.

  • Spencer, Sarah, ed. The Politics of Migration: Managing Opportunity, Conflict and Change. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003.

    This edited volume has a focus on Europe and North America, and brings together key scholars as well as policy practitioners (such as Jeff Crisp and Claude Moraese) to present a multidisciplinary reflection of the political dynamics of migration—both forced and voluntary.

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