Recent concerns about the European migration crisis have masked a remarkable – but little noticed –degree of unanimity over the supposed ‘undesirability’ of migration as an economic phenomenon. Amidst outcries against ‘economic migrants at European doorsteps’, and their allegedly questionable intentions, the term itself has come to assume negative connotations on a scale hitherto unknown.
Statements like ‘we need to distinguish between real refugees and economic migrants’ are used with apparent ease fuelled by the urgent need to address the human tragedy that has been unfolding in our backyard.
Whilst a distinction between ‘voluntary’ and ‘forced’ migration can be helpful both conceptually and in aiding us to understand the historical significance of migratory flows in particular contexts, its uncritical and dismissive – if not diminutive – usage in recent times has tended to obfuscate rather than enlighten current debates. Unfortunately, this seems to have been true for both those who have been unreceptive to refugees’ urgent need for protection as well as – albeit with very different and noble intentions – those who have rightly sought to highlight their plight.
The populist backlash has drawn its potency from exaggerated fears and demagogic vilification of migrants as a ‘threat’ to the social cohesion and economic prosperity of host countries. Unsurprisingly perhaps, this perspective has favoured harsh treatment of migrants and erecting physical barriers to their entry in various countries (most notably Hungary, Serbia and Macedonia). In some, strong nationalist sentiments have even justified de facto breach of the Refugee Convention of 1951 and undermined the Schengen Area visa agreement.
On the other hand, for those sympathetic to migrants the challenge of presenting migration as a general force for good has been side-lined by the need to articulate the case for national and global protection systems to address the plight of desperate refugees fleeing war, human rights abuses and persecution in recent years.
But widespread negative depictions of economic migrants misrepresent the role migration – forced or voluntary – has played in the course of social and economic development of many areas and regions, Europe included.
To be sure, the root causes of this conception predate the recent crisis. In his in-depth study of migration (Exodus – How Migration is Changing Our World, 2013), Paul Collier has carefully examined how the movement, on a global scale, of the poor eager to live and work in rich nations is giving rise to one of the ‘most pressing and controversial questions of our time’. He premises his study on the observation that ‘The control of immigration is a human right. The group instinct to defend territory is common throughout the animal kingdom; it is likely to be even more fundamental than the individual right to property.’ It is instructive perhaps that Collier views the control of immigration – not immigration itself – a matter of ‘human right’.
A sensible discussion and ultimately the need for a measured migration policy is undeniable, whether for home or host countries. What this perspective confuses, however, is a supposedly discretionary policy (immigration control) with an immutable principle (universal human rights). Imagine a policy of immigration control being advocated as a new amendment to a country’s constitution!
Statements of this type also often juxtapose immigration control to no immigration control – a false and unhelpful dichotomy. More generally, the anti- immigration narrative focuses on the short term picture by exaggerating its costs to receiving communities and underrating its long-term benefits both for home and host nations. This is questionable on at least three levels: philosophical, historical and economic.
First, from a philosophical point of view, the case against a desire to improve one’s well-being through relocation is directly at odds with the basic tenets of mainstream economics and the underpinnings of a capitalist system. Neoclassical economics is premised on the notion of rational choice and maximising behaviour of homo economicus. In consumer theory this translates itself to utility maximising individuals just as in the producer context it entails profit-maximisation. The same approach subscribes strongly to free trade among nations as a win-win strategy.More recent adulations with globalisation too are based on the central idea of the freedom of movement, across borders, for all factors of production. Yet the asymmetry between freedom of movement of labour and other factors is puzzling: international roaming for capital in search of the highest rates of return is applauded, but a similar enthusiasm for international freedom of movement of labour is conspicuous by its absence.
Second, there is ample evidence in support of the two-way economic benefits of migration for both receiving and sending countries. Migrants are more likely to be of working age (active in the labour force), more educated and less likely than the local population to use public sector services. Contrary to popular projections, migrants from the 28 countries of the European Economic Area in the UK are estimated to have made a net positive contribution exceeding £2.5 billion during 2010-14 (income tax and national insurance contributions paid net of benefits and welfare support received). Recent analyses of National Insurance figures also confirm that a third of EU migrants coming to work in the UK in the same period returned home within a year. Similarly, a new study has estimated that immigrants have started more than half of the start-up companies in the US, which are together valued at one billion dollars or more (creating an average of approximately 760 jobs per company). As for home countries too, evidence suggests migrant remittances help reduce poverty and promote consumption and investment (including household members’ education and human capital).
Last but not least, we may take a leaf from history, which offers a rich array of migration experiences across different countries and over time. There is little doubt that the wealth and prosperity of countries like the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand have much to do with incoming European immigrants. In turn, such movements afforded the Europeans significant opportunities to improve their own lives or to escape from hardship and poverty at home. This is also true of the GCC states where the largest concentration of migrants at both ends – high-paid, skilled expats and low-wage Asian workers with paltry social rights – has been oiling ambitious growth trajectories of these states.
In his seminal book Kicking Away the Ladder, Cambridge economist, Ha-Joon Chang, shows that despite benefiting from protectionist policies in the heyday of their own industrialisation in the 19th century, the developed countries today effectively deny emerging nations the same opportunities by advocating free trade.
It is hard to resist the temptation offered today by this analogy in the context of the current debates on economic forces behind international migration.
“Kicking away the migration ladder?”, by Dr. Hassan Hakimian. Firstly published on The Middle East in London (Vol.12, Num. 4) , June-July 2016, ISSN 1743-7598, published by The London Middle East Institute at SOAS.
Professor Hassan Hakimian
Director, Middle Eastern Studies Department at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHSS) in Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), Doha – Qatar.