Push factors are social, cultural, environmental, and political factors that cause people to migrate away from their homeland.
In human geography, we generally contrast push factors with pull factors. Whereas push factors are the factors that cause someone to leave, pull factors are the factors that attract someone to a new destination.
When push factors reach a tipping point, they can lead to mass migration and cause refugee crises. In other cases, push factors can also be a matter of personal choice, such as when someone chooses to leave their home country in search of better economic opportunities.
Examples of Push Factors
1. Civil war
Civil wars can cause people to flee their homes in search of safety and a better life.
Civil war can lead to economic hardship, as infrastructure and social institutions are destroyed. This can make it difficult for people to access basic needs like food, water, and healthcare, and force them to leave their homes.
In some cases, civil war can also lead to gender-based violence and human rights abuses that cause people to flee.
In many cases, civil war displacement can last for years, with people living in refugee camps or other temporary settlements.
An example of a civil war that led to forced migration was the Syrian civil war that began in 2011 and has led over 13.5 million people to flee their homes.
Many migrants are forced to leave their homes due to invasions of their countries by hostile foreign powers.
War destroys homes, schools, and hospitals which makes a place inhospitable. Civilians are also often caught in the crossfire between battling militaries.
For example, the Russian invasion of Ukraine led 4 million people to flee in just the first month of the war. Most of these displaced people were women and children because men were forced to stay in the country in case they were needed to fight.
3. Gang Violence
Gang violence can also be a push factor for migration.
Gangs can be very violent, and often target specific ethnic or religious groups. This can lead to people fleeing their homes in search of safety.
For example, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang is a group that was formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s. It is now a transnational gang that operates in Central America, the United States, and Canada. MS-13 is known for its brutal violence.
This gang forcibly recruits young men in El Salvador and acts as its own sovereign power in many areas. Many young men have to flee in order to avoid being forced into a life in the gangs.
Flooding can destroy homes, contaminate water supplies, and spread disease. This can lead people to flee their homes in search of safety.
A quintessential example of flooding that caused forced displacement was the evacuation of Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana. The island is home to a community of Native Americans who have lived there for generations.
However, the island has been gradually eroding away, and the effects of climate change have made the flooding worse. As a result, the community has had to relocate to higher ground.
While the move has been difficult, it has also been necessary in order to protect the residents from further harm.
Drought can also lead to displacement as it causes food shortages, destroys agricultural land, and forces people to leave their homes in search of water.
The Dust Bowl exodus is the quintessential example of drought as a pish factor. This was a mass migration of people from the Great Plains region of the United States during the 1930s.
The “dust bowl” was a term used to describe the drought-stricken area, which stretched from North Dakota to Texas. During this time, the lack of rain and high winds led to dust storms that swept across the plains, darkening the sky and making it difficult to breathe.
The conditions were so bad that some people referred to it as a “Dust Bowl.” In an attempt to escape the dust and dirt, many people decided to pack up and leave their homes in search of a better life. Most headed west to California, while others went north to Canada.
Hurricanes destroy homes, contaminate water supplies, and spread disease.
For example, the category 5 Hurricane Katrina caused widespread damage when it made landfall in Louisiana in 2005. The hurricane caused over 1.5 million people to flee their homes.
Many of these people were stranded on highways and in shelters for days without food or water. The hurricane also caused a massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
About 40 percent of those who fled were never able to return to their homes in New Orleans.
Earthquakes can cause buildings to collapse, contaminate water supplies, and spread disease. This can lead people to flee their homes in search of safety.
For example, the earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010 caused over 220,000 deaths. In addition, the earthquake led to the displacement of 1.5 million people.
Most Haitians relocated to other parts of Haiti, but many also headed to the United States, Canada, and Brazil. Over 1.5 million people also ended up in temporary refugee camps.
Volcanoes can cause mass evacuations as they release ash and toxic gases into the air.
For example, the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 caused more than 200,000 people to flee their homes.
The eruption released a large amount of ash and sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere. This led to widespread health problems, including respiratory issues and eye irritation. As a result, many people were forced to leave their homes in order to seek medical treatment.
9. Hunger or famine
Hunger and famine can lead to displacement as people flee in search of food.
One of the worst famines in living memory was the Ethiopian famine of 1984. The famine killed an estimated 1.2 million people.
It was caused by a combination of factors, including drought, civil war, and government policies. The drought was the main immediate cause of the famine, but the civil war prevented food from being distributed to those who needed it most.
Government policies also played a role, as the Ethiopian government forced farmers to grow cash crops instead of food crops, and it nationalized all farmland.
In the end, over 1.5 million people were forcibly displaced by the famine.
10. Climate change
Climate change is going to be one of the biggest push factors of the 21st Century. It is expected that there will be up to 200 million climate refugees by 2050.
Climate change can cause people to leave their homelands due to the drought, floods, and extreme weather events that it causes and exacerbates.
All of these factors can push people to leave their homes in search of a better life.
People can also be forced to flee their homes as a result of being exiled by the government.
One famous example of someone who was exiled from their homeland was the Dali Lama. The Dali Lama was forced to flee from Tibet to India in 1959 after the Chinese army invaded the country.
The Dali Lama has been living in exile ever since. He is not allowed to return to his homeland, and his movements are heavily restricted by the Chinese government.
12. Political repression
Political repression can also lead people to flee their homes. For example, the Myanmar government has a history of oppressing its political opponents, including famously Aung San Suu Kyi.
This has led many people to flee the country, often seeking asylum in neighboring countries.
Similarly, political opponents of Vladimir Putin and even independent journalists are forced to flee Russia regularly. Following the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, over 150 journalists critical of the invasion had to flee the country.
13. Gender Discrimination
Gender discrimination causes many women to flee to more liberal countries where they can be treated with more respect.
Perhaps most famously, Malala Yousafzai fled Pakistan after she was shot in the head by the Taliban for speaking out about the importance of girls’ education.
Malala was able to receive medical treatment in the United Kingdom, and she has since become a vocal advocate for girls’ education all over the world.
Similarly, many women flee their countries after being subjected to gender-based violence. For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo is home to one of the world’s highest rates of violence against women. This has led many women to flee their homes in search of safety.
14. Religious persecution
Religious persecution is also a push factor. This is most commonly seen in cases of religious extremism, where people are persecuted for their religious beliefs.
For example, the Yazidis have been persecuted in Iraq for their religious beliefs. As a result, many Yazidis have fled to Europe and other countries in order to seek asylum.
Similarly, religious persecution was cited as the central reason for the pilgrims to travel from England to America where they set up their new colonies.
Homophobia is also a push factor for many people. This is most commonly seen in cases of gay and lesbian people who are fleeing their countries because of the discrimination and violence that they face.
For example, many gay and lesbians people have fled Russia since the introduction of anti-gay laws in 2013. These laws make it illegal to discuss homosexuality in public, and they have led to an increase in homophobic violence.
As a result, many gay and lesbians people have fled Russia in order to seek safety elsewhere.
Racism may also encourage someone to leave their country or migrate within their country (called interregional migration). For example, the great migration of African Americans from the rural south to the urban north in the United States during the early 20th century was largely a result of racism.
African Americans were not able to find good jobs or housing in the south, and they were often subject to violence and discrimination. As a result, many of them moved to northern cities in search of a better life.
17. Ethnic cleansing
Ethnic cleansing is another form of racism that can cause people to flee their homes. This is when a government or other group tries to remove all members of a certain ethnic group from a specific area.
For example, the Bosnian genocide was an attempt by the Serb government to remove all Bosnian Muslims and Croats from Bosnia-Herzegovina. This led to the displacement of over 2 million people and the death of over 100,000.
As a result, many Bosnians fled their homes in order to seek safety elsewhere.
18. Forced conversion
Forced conversion is a form of religious persecution that can cause people to flee their homes. This is when a person is forced to convert to a certain religion against their will.
For example, Christians in some parts of Pakistan are often forced to convert to Islam. If they refuse to convert, they may be subject to violence or discrimination.
As a result, many Christians in Pakistan flee their homes in order to seek safety elsewhere.
19. Forced marriage
Forced marriage is another form of human rights abuse that can cause people to flee their homes. This is when a person is forced to marry someone they do not want to marry, often against their will.
For example, in some parts of the world, women are often forced to marry men they do not know or who are much older than them. This can lead to a life of abuse and violence and prevents women from being educated because they’re forced to stay home and tend to their illegitimate husband.
As a result, many women flee their homes in order to seek safety elsewhere.
20. High taxes
Some wealthy people leave a country due to high taxation rates. These people, often libertarians, feel as if they don’t have an obligation to their fellow citizens to contribute a proportionate amount of money to social services.
For example, Andrew Henderson, an American expat, teaches people how to emigrate from the developed world to emerging economies that offer tax incentives to people to move there.
In some parts of the world, people live in poverty because they cannot find any work. As a result, they are unable to afford basic needs like food and shelter.
In these cases, people will move to places where there is more opportunity for work.
For example, many people have fled the Central African Republic because of the ongoing civil war which has destroyed the economy. As a result, many people have moved to neighboring countries like Chad and Cameroon in search of jobs.
22. Lack of educational institutions
Many people change countries in order to obtain a quality education.
For example, many people move to the United States in order to obtain a higher education. The United States has some of the best universities in the world, and students often flock to these schools in order to get a quality education.
International students are a large industry, particularly in places like the USA, Canada, and Australia, which attract wealthy Chinese students. For example, the Australian education export industry generates $38 billion per year.
23. Lack of healthcare
Countries with poor healthcare infrastructure can force people to leave in search of better quality care.
While most people who travel for healthcare only travel for short periods of time (called medical tourism), quality and accessibility of a medical system can be one of multiple determinants on a pros and cons list when people are contemplating whether to migrate to another country.
24. Lack of democracy
Most average citizens would prefer to live in a democratic society. When a country or jurisdiction slides into autocracy, you will often see many people moving to a new country.
For example, as Hong Kong has slid into Chinese autocracy, many have fled. The Hong Kong diaspora can be found in countries like Canada (particularly Vancouver), the UK, and Australia.
See Also: Diaspora Examples
25. Lack of access to drinking water
In some cases, people flee their homes because they do not have access to clean drinking water.
For example, the residents of Flint, Michigan in the United States were unable to drink the water from their taps because the water was contaminated with lead. As a result, many people had to leave Flint in order to find safe drinking water.
In some countries, people are forced to pay bribes regularly in order to live or do business.
For example, a recent study found that Nigerians had to pay an average of $185 in bribes each year in order to access government services. This makes it very difficult for people who are not wealthy to live in the country. As a result, people may flee to other countries where they don’t have to pay bribes in order to survive.
27. Police corruption
In some countries, the police are corrupt and will arrest people without any due process. This can lead to people fleeing their homes in order to avoid being arrested.
For example, in India, the police are often paid off by criminals and will not investigate crimes. This is a downvote for people when considering whether to remain in the country and acts as an additional ‘push’ to encourage people to go to a country where they will not have to put up with corruption.
Categories of Push Factors
2. Cultural Factors: War, persecution, or discrimination.
3. Environmental Factors: Lack of resources, poor environmental conditions (e.g. air and water pollution, deforestation, desertification), climate change.
4. Political Factors: Civil war, political persecution, human rights abuses.
People flee their homes for a variety of reasons. While some people flee because they are persecuted, others flee because they do not have access to resources or because they do not have access to quality healthcare or education. In many cases, people flee their homes because they do not feel safe or because they do not want to live in a corrupt society. All these reasons are summed up as ‘push factors’ because each factor acts as a ‘push’, encouraging people to emigrate to a more desirable country.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.