In human geography, step migration is defined as the process of moving from one place to another in a series of stages.
This type of migration is generally used when the migrant can’t migrate to their preferred destination immediately. For example, they may need to first head through refugee camps for processing.
The migrants travel in stages, evaluating their options at each step of the way, or trying to pass through checkpoints to get to their destination.
This type of migration can be costly, both in terms of money and time due to the added layers of complexity.
Step Migration Examples
1. Migration into Cities via Outer Suburbs
The person who coined the term step migration in 1885, Ernst Ravenstein, originally conceptualized it as migration from rural areas through outer suburbs and onto inner cities.
Internal migrants from rural areas are often forced out of the rural areas and into more urban areas in search of job opportunities. But it’s too expensive for them to rent in the city so they move to satellite suburbs.
After they get a job, reach financial stability, and get their bearings in the city, they then choose to move further into the city to be closer to work.
2. Migration Through Refugee Camps
Refugee camps are often a stop for those who are migrating through a series of stages. People fleeing their homes (what we call forced migration) may first go to refugee camps in order to be processed and registered.
From there, they wait to be accepted into a third country where they can move to and set up their new life.
For example, refugees from Syria went to refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey before being relocated to wealthier countries farther west in Europe.
3. Economic Migration
Economic migrants will often be happy to move anywhere in a wealthy country in order to secure the right to live and work in that country.
But the trade-off is often that they have to live in the less desirable cities where the country’s citizens don’t particularly want to live.
They will move to the smaller and less desirable towns for several years until they secure residency in the country and then move on to the more desirable cities which will be their final destinations.
4. Central American Migration Through Mexico to the USA
Central American migrants often use Mexico as a transit country in order to get to the United States.
They will cross the border illegally, often traveling on foot for hundreds of miles through dangerous terrain, in order to make it to their final destination.
However, they won’t choose to stay in Mexico despite the fact refugees are supposed to apply for refugee status at the first safe nation. However, they generally want to get to the United States because it is a wealthier nation.
As a result, Mexico becomes a ‘step’ along the journey. Migrants may stay there for a short period of time, either to travel through or work their way up the country, until they reach the US border.
5. Staying with Friends and Relatives when you Migrate
Migrants who follow family or friends to a new country (called chain migration) will often choose to spend the first few months living with their friends or family.
This allows them to settle in, get their bearings, check out places to rent in person, and find a job.
When people migrate following family or friends, they often cause enclaves where they can live with people who they can rely upon to help them settle in and find work. In other words, they leverage their social capital when moving into the new city.
Thus, you often see areas like Chinatown, Little Korea, and Little Italy in major cities around the world.
6. Migration from Africa to the European Union
Africans have been migrating to the European Union in droves in recent years, seeking a better life.
However, they often can’t just fly to wealthier countries like France or Germany. They often do not have the money for it, or are not able to secure visas.
They therefore try to cross the Mediterranean sea between Tunisia and Italy. If they make it to Italy, they can apply for asylum and be relocated to another area of Europe.
Once someone has been given refugee status in Europe, they have the ability to travel freely throughout the 27 member states.
7. Ukrainian Refugees Passing Through Lviv and Poland
During the war between Russia and Ukraine in 2022, 4 million people fled from eastern and central Ukraine to Lviv in the west and onwards to Europe.
Most refugees passed through Lviv and onto Poland. From Poland, the refugees were processed, with many heading further west to Germany, France, and the UK.
In this situation, the first step was to escape the danger zone in Kiev and the east. Once they escaped immediate danger, they were processed in nearby areas like Lviv and Poland. From there, they moved on to their final destinations.
Step Migration vs Chain Migration
Migration can be thought of in terms of multiple different types. Many human geography students confuse step migration with chain migration.
Step Migration refers to the idea of people migrating in a series of steps. The first place they migrate to is temporary. They know they haven’t reached their final destination, but they have a reason to take the journey in ‘steps’. Often, it’s because they can’t make it to their final destination immediately.
Chain Migration, on the other hand, refers to the idea of migrants migrating to a new country as a result of family or friends already being there. Some countries’ migration policies endorse chain migration. For example, the US has a policy that allows for the admission of refugees who have family in the US.
In short, chain migration is when people migrate following family or friends, while step migration is when people migrate in a series of steps.
Confusion often arises because the two concepts are not mutually exclusive.
Migrants who engage in chain migration often choose to live with their friends or family in the beginning, in order to get a foothold in the new city. They then move to their new homes after that.
These situations are examples of both step and chain migration.
Step migration is a type of migration in which people migrate in a series of steps. Examples include people migrating to a new city and living with family or friends in the beginning, in order to get their bearings, or people passing through refugee processing camps before heading on to their final destination.
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.