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Are unequal societies more migratory? The position of this paper is: not necessarily, it depends on the type of inequality. By proposing horizontal and vertical inequality between and within ethnic groups as separate drivers of migration, we hypothesize that heightened emigration is a consequence of vertical inequality and feelings of individual relative deprivation, whereas people facing horizontal inequality feel rather strongly about collective relative deprivation, making non-migration more likely. Consequently, inequality and relative deprivation can work in both directions, i.e. either as a driver or a barrier of migration, depending on whether social comparisons are made within or between ethnic groups. Analysis of emigrant stocks for a large set of developed and developing countries show that countries with higher levels of horizontal inequality across ethnic groups show a lower emigration propensity whereas vertical within-group inequality seems rather a reason for people moving abroad. The analysis also shows that the relative size of these behavioural responses depends on people’s educational levels which largely reflect their exit opportunities.

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Journal article


Comparative Migration Studies

Publication Date



1 (1)


97 - 122

Total pages



inequality; international migration; relative deprivation