Thursday 14 March 2024

Politicians need to come clean about immigration

We seem to be living in times of unprecedented mass migration. Images of people from Africa crammed into unseaworthy boats desperately trying to cross the Mediterranean, asylum seekers crossing the Channel into Britain, and “caravans” of migrants trying to reach the Mexico-US border all seem to confirm fears that global migration is spinning out of control. 

A toxic combination of poverty, inequality, violence, oppression, climate breakdown and population growth appear to be pushing growing numbers of people from Africa, Asia and Latin America to embark upon desperate journeys to reach the shores of the wealthy west. All of this results in the popular idea of a “migration crisis” that will require drastic countermeasures to prevent massive waves of people arriving in the future, apparently exceeding the absorption capacity of Western societies and economies. 

Despite this, however, and as I argue in my book How Migration Really Works, there is no scientific evidence to sustain the claim that global migration is accelerating. International migrants account for about 3% of the world population, and this percentage has remained remarkably stable over the past half a century. 

Likewise, refugee migration is much more limited than political rhetoric and media images suggest. About 10% of all international migrants are refugees, representing 0.3 to 0.35% of the world population. While refugee flows fluctuate strongly with levels of conflict, there is no evidence of a long-term increasing trend. About 80-85% of refugees remain in regions of origin, and that share has also remained rather stable over the past decades. 

And there is no evidence that illegal migration is spinning out of control – in fact, the large majority of migrants who move from the global south to the global north continue to move legally. For instance, nine out of 10 Africans move to Europe legally, with passports and papers in hand.

The evidence also turns common understandings of the causes of migration on its head. The conventional view is that south-to-north migration is in essence the outgrowth of poverty, inequality and violence in origin countries – hence the popular idea that poverty reduction and development are the only long-term solutions to migration. 

However, this assumption is undermined by evidence showing that migration tends to rise as poor countries become richer. This is because increasing levels of income and education, alongside infrastructure improvements, raise people’s capabilities and aspirations to migrate. Instead of the stereotypical “desperate flight from misery”, in reality migration is generally an investment in the long-term wellbeing of families and requires significant resources. 

Poverty actually deprives people of the resources required to move over long distances, let alone to cross continents. This is also one of the many reasons why, contrary to common assumptions, climate change is unlikely to trigger mass movements of “climate refugees”. Research on the effects of droughts and flooding shows that most people will stay close to home. In fact, the most vulnerable people are most likely to get trapped, unable to move out at all. 

It is no coincidence that most migrants come from middle-income countries such as India and Mexico. The paradox is that any form of development in the poorest countries of the world – such as in sub-Saharan Africa – is therefore likely to increase their future emigration potential. 

Still, despite global averages remaining stable, it is difficult to deny that legal immigration to the US, Britain and western Europe has been growing over the past decades. The frequent discontent this has caused has gone along with repeated calls for less, more controlled or more selective immigration. But border crackdowns have clearly failed to achieve these objectives or have even made problems worse because they were not based on an understanding of how migration really works. 

The main reason is that these policies ignored the most important root cause of migration: persistent labour demand. The misleading assertion that poverty causes migration conceals the fact that labour demand has been the main driver of growing immigration to western countries since the 1990s. 

More widespread education, women’s emancipation and population ageing have led to labour shortages; these have fuelled a growing demand for migrant workers in sectors such as agriculture, construction, cleaning, hospitality, transport and food processing, as supplies of local workers willing and able to do such jobs have increasingly run dry. Particularly in post-Covid area, labour shortages have un particularly high across Western countries. Without such chronic demand for workers, most migrants wouldn’t have come. 

But this hasn’t been a natural process. It is instead one that has been encouraged by decades of policies geared towards economic and labour market liberalisation, which have fuelled the growth of precarious jobs that local workers won’t take. Politicians from left to right know this reality, but they don’t dare admit it out of fear of being seen as “soft on immigration”. 

They choose instead to talk tough and revert to acts of political showmanship that create an appearance of control, but that in effect function as a smokescreen to conceal the true nature of immigration policy. Under this current arrangement, more and more migrants are allowed in, and the employment of undocumented workers is widely tolerated as they fill in crucial labour shortages. Politicians have turned a blind eye to the employment and exploitation of undocumented migrant workers. 

The best proof of this organized hypocrisy are the laughably low levels of workplace enforcement. In Britain, for instance, in 2016-17, only three employers were persecuted for employing undocumented workers, and numbers have remained miniscule since then. In the US, too, prosecutions for employers have rarely exceeded 15–20 a year while fines are symbolically at levels of between $583 and $4,667. Workplace enforcement was as much a joke under Trump as it was under previous presidents as it is under the Biden administration. The situation in most other Western countries is not much different. 

This illustrates the largely symbolic nature of tough immigration rhetoric (and perhaps the occasional workplace raid) which seem mainly geared towards creating an impression of 'being in control' for electoral gain. To break away from this legacy of failed policies, politicians need to gather the courage to tell an honest story about migration: that it is a phenomenon that benefits some people more than others; that it can have downsides for some, but cannot be thought or wished away; and that there are no simple solutions for complex problems. 

 Fundamental choices have to be made. For example, do we want to live in a society in which more and more work – transport, construction, cleaning, care of elderly people and children, food provision – is outsourced to a new class of servants made up mainly of migrant workers? Do we want a large agricultural sector that partly relies on subsidies and is dependent on migrants for the necessary labour? 

The present reality shows that we cannot divorce debates about immigration from broader debates about inequality, labour, social justice and, most importantly, the kind of society we want to live in. 

NB. This is a slightly adapted version of an article that was published  earlier in The Guardian.

Friday 7 February 2020

Why development will not stop migration

Among the many myths perpetuated about migration, one of the most common is that ‘South–North’ migration is essentially driven by poverty and underdevelopment. Consequently, it is often argued that stimulating economic development would reduce migration from developing countries to North America and Europe. However, this ignores evidence that most migration neither occurs from the poorest countries nor from the poorest segments of the population.

In fact, the paradox is that development and modernization initially leads to more migration. Historical experiences show that societies go through migration transitions as part of broader development processes. In his The Hypothesis of the Mobility Transitiona seminal article published in 1971, the geographer Wilbur Zelinsky argued that all forms of internal and international mobility accelerated when countries start to transition from rural-agrarian to urban-industrial societies.

           The Migration Transition

This has been confirmed by various historical studies. For instance, tn their classic study of large-scale European migration to North America between 1850 and 1913, The Age of Mass Migration published in 1998, economic historians Timothy Hatton and Jeffrey Williamson showed that trans-Atlantic migration was driven by the mass arrival of cohorts of young workers on the labour market, increasing incomes and a structural shift of labour out of agriculture towards the urban sector. The rapidly industrializ­ing Northwestern European nations therefore initially dominated migration to North America, with lesser developed Eastern and Southern European nations fol­lowing suit only later.

This pattern also applies to contemporary migration. As societies develop, they go through migration transitions, leading to a accelerating emigration. This is a long-term, structural relation. Unlike temporary 'migration humps' generated by economic or political shocks, development-driven increases in emigration linked to the migration transition tend to last for several generations.

Recent advances in data and analysis have improved insights about the relationship between devel­opment and migration. In 2010, newly available global data on migrant populations enabled me to do a first global assessment of the relationship between levels of development and migration. The graph below shows how levels of emigration and immi­gration are related to development levels, as measured by the Human Development Index (HDI).

de Haas, H. (2010) Migration Transitions. University of Oxford, International Migration Institute

The pattern for immigration is linear and intuitive: more developed countries attract more migrants. The relation between levels of human development and emigration is non-linear and counter-intuitive: middle-income countries tend to have the highest emigration levels. This pattern also held when using per capita income levels as a measures for development levels.

This finding has been confirmed by later studies (for instance, see here and here) which replicated and expanded my original analysis using global migration data covering the 1960–2015 period. These all demonstrate that increases in levels of economic and human development are initially associated with higher levels of emigration. It is therefore no coincidence that important emigration countries, such as Mexico, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, the Philippines and Indonesia are typically middle-income countries.

Only when countries achieve upper-middle to higher income status, such as has recently been the case with Mexico and Turkey, does emigration decrease alongside increasing immigra­tion, leading to their transformation from countries of net emigration to countries of net immigration. In a recent study, Michael Clemens estimated that, on average, emigration starts to decrease if countries cross a wealth-threshold of per-capita GDP income levels of $7,000–8,000 (corrected for purchasing power parity), which is roughly the current GDP level of India, the Philippines and Morocco.

Development in low-income countries boosts internal and international migration because improvements in income, infrastructure and education typically increase people’s capabilities and aspirations to migrate. Particularly international migration involves significant costs and risks which the poorest generally cannot afford, while education and access to information tends to increases people’s material aspirations.

Education and media exposure also typically accelerate cultural change which changes people of the ‘good life’ away from rural and agrarian lifestyles towards urban lifestyles and jobs in the industrial and service sectors. The inevitable result is increasing migration to towns, cities and foreign lands.

Middle-income countries therefore tend to be the most migratory and international migrants predominantly come from relatively better-off sections of origin populations. Although these are averages that cannot be blindly applied to individual countries, it seems therefore very likely that any form of development in low-income countries such as in sub-Saharan Africa, South- and South-East Asia and Central America will lead to more emigration in the foreseeable future.

* This text partly draws on the sixth edition of The Age of Migration, a textbook on migration published in 2020, see An earlier version of this blog appeared here.

Friday 31 January 2020

Climate refugees: The fabrication of a migration threat

In recent years, it has become popular to argue that climate change will lead to massive North-South movements of ‘climate refugees’. Concerns about climate change-induced migration have emerged in the context of debates on global warming. Without any doubt, global warming is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity, and the lack of willingness of states and the international community to address it effectively – particularly through reducing of carbon emissions – is a valid source of major public concern and global protest.

However, to link this issue with the specter of mass migration is a dangerous practice based on myth rather than fact. The use of apocalyptic migration forecasts to support the case for urgent action on climate change is not only intellectually dishonest, but also puts the credibility of those using this argument - as well as the broader case for climate change action - seriously at risk.

The climate migration apocalypse 

Media, politicians, environmentalists and migration experts have increasingly claimed that the effects of global warming, especially on sea-levels, rainfall patterns, and extreme weather events such as hurricanes will lead to massive population displacements.

Map published on the website of the United Nations 
Environment Programme (UNEP) in 2005.

This idea is not new. Back in 1995, in a publication entitled ‘Environmental Exodus , the influential biodiversity specialist Norman Myers drew a direct, but simplistic, link between environmental change and large-scale migration, arguing that there would already be 25 million ‘environmental refugees’ which would further increase to 200 million by 2050.  In 2005, the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) issued a warning that a whopping 50 million people could already become environmental refugees by 2010, fleeing the effects of climate change (see the map below). They also published a map of world regions where people were likely to be displaced by the ravages of global warming.

Since then, scenarios have become increasingly apocalyptic. In 2007, in a report called Human Tide: The Real Migration Crisis, Christian Aid, an influential UK-based development NGO, escalated dramatic  forecasts of future population displacements up to one billion by 2050. In recent years, more and more organizations, researchers and media have put forward alarmist scenarios of mass displacement as a result of climate change. This includes widely-respected news outlets that are normally not known for unfettered sensationalism. For instance, in 2019 VICE news spread the idea that climate change will create 1.5 billion migrants by 2050 (see photo), without providing any evidence or source.

News item on VICE website, published 13 September 2019

Debunking the climate migration myth

Such forecasts have turned out to be highly speculative because they are not based on fact and scientific knowledge. They either have no scientific basis at al, or reflect extremely simplistic quasi-scientific reasoning, by assuming that all people impacted by climate-change induced environmental stress will move away from their homes. 

The typical approach of apocalyptic climate migration forecasts has been to map climate-change-induced developments (such as sea-level rise, drought or desertification) onto settlement patterns to predict future human displacement. For instance, if climate change models predicted a sea-level rise of (say) 50 centimeters, it would be possible to map all coastal areas affected by this and work out how many people lived in such areas. The assumption then is that all these people would have to move.

Yet research evidence challenges the popular idea that climate change will lead to mass migration. In 2011, a group of prominent researchers conducted a study for the UK Government of Science on the links between migration and environmental change. They concluded that because migration is driven by many factors, it can rarely be reduced to the effects of just one form of change, such as climate change or other environmental factors. 

The environment is but one of the many factors that shape migration, and this effect is indirect rather than direct. This makes it difficult to directly attribute migration to climate change and other environmental factors. In fact, migration is likely to continue regardless of climate and the environment, because it is mainly driven by powerful economic, political and social processes, such as labor demand (in destination areas) and development (in origin areas). 

For instance, this challenges the popular idea that much migration within Bangladesh is an ‘obvious example’ of mass displacement due to the sea-level rise. After all, much of this movement would have happened anyway as part of more general processes of urbanization, education and the growth of urban-based industrial and service sectors. In fact, many people voluntarily migrate from rural into urban areas of greater environmental vulnerability, such as fertile deltas and cities partly built on floodplains. They do so because of improved livelihood opportunities they can expect to find there despite high population densities and environmental hazards (particularly flooding) they often encounter there.

Areas of erosion and accretion from 1985 to 2015 in coastal Bangladesh.
 Source: Ahmed et al. 2018. Where is the coast? Ocean & Coastal Management, 151, 10-24.  

The environment as dynamic systems 

Furthermore, we cannot just assume that low-lying areas will simply be submerged through sea level rise. Whether land will come at risk of being submerged and inhabitable (unless dikes are built) does not only depend on sea levels, but also on natural patterns of erosion and sedimentation as well as land subsidence through soil compaction.

For instance, delta areas have always been highly dynamic and characterized by constantly shifting patterns of land formation and erosion. We should therefore refrain from simplistic analyses. For instance, research on Bangladesh has shown that while in some areas, land is being lost, in other areas land has been gained. A recent study revealed that, in the period between 1985 and 2015, the rate of land area growth (through sedimentation) in coastal areas of Bangladesh has been slightly higher than the rate of erosion (see map above).

This highlights the danger involved in making a direct link between climate change, environmental stress and large-scale migration. In brief, there are five main reasons to be skeptical on the idea that climate change will lead to mass migration: 
  • First, climate change, however serious, is a slow-onset phenomenon, which gives people time to adapt to resulting environmental stresses, such as to sea level rise. 
  • Second, people can use various adaptation strategies, such as flood defense systems (dikes, polders), changes in livelihoods or short-distance mobility to cope with environmental stress.
  • Third, existing studies suggest that in cases of floods and other environmental havoc, the vast majority of people move over short distances, such as to the next neighborhood, village or town. 
  • Fourth, most of such displacements tend to be temporary, because most people wish to return home as soon as possible. 
  • Fifth, most people living in the poorer countries of the world do not have the resources to move over large distances. 
A comprehensive review of research evidence conducted by the Migration Policy Institute for the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in 2018 confirmed that in situations of environmental degradation people generally prefer to stay home. Communities strongly prefer not to move following rapid onset natural shocks, such as tornadoes or earthquakes; and when government support for rebuilding infrastructure and overcoming hardship exists, these events are therefore unlikely to increase migration. In situations where agricultural productivity is affected, households with sufficient assets may adopt migration as an alternative or supplemental livelihood strategy to reduce income risks. However, such moves are more likely to be internal than international, as people prefer to remain close to their communities of origin.

On the move or getting trapped?

More in general, the idea that climate change will lead to mass migration is based on outdated push-pull models that assume that migration is the result of poverty, violence and other forms of human misery. However, migration requires considerable resources, particularly long-distance migration from rural areas to cities or abroad. Extreme poverty (whether influenced caused by environmental stresses or not) can actually deprive vulnerable people of the means to travel and migrate over large distances, and they might find themselves therefore trapped where they are, unable to flee.

The most vulnerable are often deprived of the means to move at all. For instance, a study by François Gemenne, a migration researcher at the University of  Liège, showed that when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, many of the car-less poor got trapped in the city, and African Americans were over-represented among those who died.

In the same vein, when people are impoverished by such factors as drought, they often lack the resources to move, trapping them in situations of extreme vulnerability. Detailed studies from Africa therefore fail to find a simple causal link between environmental stress (whether linked to climate change or not) and migration. In Malawi, for instance, droughts decreased rural out-migration. In Burkina Faso, droughts have shown to increase short-distance migration between villages, but reduced international moves to Côte d’Ivoire.

Complex links: the case of 'desertification'

Another popular ideas is that 'desertification' is a major cause of migration, particularly from African countries. The underlying idea is that deserts are advancing rapidly, and that the resulting increases in the incidence of droughts would be a major cause of migration, for instance from the Sahel zone in Africa. However, also in this case the evidence challenges such simplistic narratives.

First of all, the idea of an 'advancing' desert is challenged by evidence from satellite imageries that parts of the Sahel zone have in fact been ‘greening’. This confirms field studies that have shown that ‘desertification’ is generally a local phenomenon largely caused by human intervention, such as the cutting of trees and shrubs or the collapse of traditional institutions for land and water management. While scholars have even questioned the very existence of 'desertification', cases of environmental degradation are almost always primarily human-made.

In the case of North African oases, this has for instance led to the breakdown of traditional irrigation system. As my own research has shown, more often than not, such crises in land and water management, are the partial result of the social changes brought about by migration (such as the emancipation of former serfs and sharecroppers) as well as massive water extraction for urban and industrial use rather than a cause of migration. This highlights the human and political origins of 'desertification'.

In various North African oases, traditional agriculture has suffered from lack of maintenance of collective
 irrigation systems and mechanical  water pumping for urban use and modern agriculture, leading to declining
water tables and the drying up of wells, small rivers and other natural water sources. Photo (Morocco): Hein de Haa

So, what may appear to be migration caused by a lack of water resources, is in fact an environmental crisis caused by people. This shows that the links between climate change, environmental factors and migration are complex, defying simplistic reasoning according to which climate-change would 'lead' to migration. In fact, depending on circumstances, environmental stress can lead to more, or less migration.

Recycling the climate migration myth

For all these reasons, it is unlikely that climate change will ‘lead’ to large-scale international migration, let alone on the massive scale predicted. In some cases, this has already embarrassed the organisations putting out such claims. For instance, when the massive climate migrations predicted by UNEP in 2005 failed to materialize (in fact, populations turned out to be growing in the regions it identified as environmental danger zones), UNEP distanced itself from earlier wild claims and deleted their climate refugee map (see above) from their website.

Although the assumptions and methodologies of studies on which such forecasts are highly problematic, why is this myth being persisted by international organization, researchers, climate activists and various pressure groups?  The main explanation seems that doomsday scenarios of climate change leading to mass migration serves powerful political agendas both on the left and right.

For left-wing groups, it serves to raise attention to the issue of climate change, and the urgency to address this. For right-wing groups, it serves to raise the specter of future mass migration, and the need to step up border to controls to prevent such an imagined deluge. For researchers and international organizations, the climate migration narrative seems to serves fundraising purposes.

The climate refugee narrative therefore mainly serves to generate media attention. As argued by Gemenne, they organization recycling these myths abused the topic of climate change and migration to give a ‘human face to climate change’.  Urging governments to ‘do something’, NGOs and international organizations use alarmist rhetoric about impending mass migrations. In this way, they turn climate change into a security topic.

Blaming the climate: depoliticizing displacement

By drawing a simplistic, direct causal link between climate change and migration, the ‘climate refugee’ narrative also depoliticizes the migration of vulnerable people. 'Depoliticization' refers to strategies to remove the political dimension from a social issue. Political issues affect the vulnerability of people and their resilience to cope with environmental and other stresses.

For instance, poverty, poor housing and weak governmental services explain why the damage and the number of people injured and dying is much higher when a hurricane hits a poor country like Haiti compared to the damage inflict by similar hurricanes in a much wealthier countries like the US. And, as shown by the example of hurricane Katrina, poor people are much more likely to lose their homes, to get injured, or to die during such extreme events.

Politicians often depoliticize social issues by shifting the blame to environmental or climatic factors ‘beyond their control’. For instance, in Morocco politicians and bureaucrats often invoke 'drought' and 'desertification’ to explain a whole range of perceived problems in rural areas, from low agrarian productivity, economic stagnation to rural-to-urban migration. Crisis narratives of climate change and desertification have been invoked to justify policies that have marginalized nomadic groups and forced them to settle down.

It can be convenient for governments to use ‘the climate’ as an excuse to displace people, for instance in the case of discourses around sea level rise in Pacific islands. In a recent article, Uma Kothari, a professor of migration studies at the University of Manchester, showed how the government of the Maldives has recycled older, highly controversial, proposals for the resettlement of its population dispersed over 200 islands onto 10–15 islands. The main motive has always been economic, because the government finds it too costly to provide services and resources to dispersed populations. However, in recent years the same ideas are gaining renewed leverage by being couched in environmental and ‘sea level rise’ terms.

Rising seas or sinking lands?

In fact, the main immediate cause of increased flooding risk in coastal cities and deltas is land subsidence, which is mainly a consequence of groundwater extraction for cities, irrigation and industry. This highlights the political causes of most environmental hazards, which climate migration narratives try to conceal.

For instance, a recent study indicated that in Jakarta, recent rates of land subsidence in some coastal parts of have estimated at levels up to 15 cm per year, against an average sea level rise of around 2 mm per year. In the same vein, the construction of houses, hotels, industries and roads are generally the most direct cause of coastal erosion in the Pacific and many other areas of the world. This also questions the popular 'sinking islands' narrative.

Estimated rates of land subsidence and sea level rise in Jakarta 1989-2025.
Source: Jeuken et al. (2015) Lessons learnt from adaptation planning in four deltas and coastal cities.
 Journal of Water and Climate Change 6 (4): 711–728 

The political roots of displacement

There is often a wide gap between dominant media images of 'climate refugees'  and the reality on the ground. Political and social issues are the main cause of environmental crises, and a focus on ‘climate’ not only ignores the facts but also diverts the attention away from governments’ responsibility to address these issues and to increase people's resilience to environmental adversity.

If people are displaced or die as a result of natural disaster, this is not just the direct consequence of the disaster, but also reflects the inability of governments to help people to cope with such stresses, such as by building flood defenses, timely evacuation efforts and building regulations.

A simplistic view of the relation between environmental factors and migration distracts the attention away from the political causes of much displacement. In fact, apart from conflicts and persecution, development projects (such as dams, mining, airports, industrial areas and middle-class housing complexes) and wildlife conservation are a major cause of displacement. Development-induced displacement is the largest single form of forced migration, leading to the internal displacement of an estimated 10–15 million people per year, mainly affecting vulnerable groups such as slum dwellers, the urban poor in general, indigenous peoples, and other ethnic minorities.

Climate change mitigation can become a cause of displacement in itself. In China, hydropower, irrigation and water transfer projects are an integral part of climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies, but also displace a large number of people. Ironically, wildlife conservation and other environmental protection projects are estimated to prompt the displacement – or forced settlement in case of herders ('pastoralists') and nomadic people – and the loss of land and property for hundreds of thousand of people each year.

Displacees tend to be among the most vulnerable people, unable to defend themselves and they often get barely compensated for the loss of livelihood. These examples expose the importance to remain aware of the deployment of categories, concepts and discourses by political actors that serve to try to conceal the political causes of environmental hazards and people's vulnerability.

Being right for the wrong reasons

By deploying alarmist rhetoric around future waves of ‘climate refugees’, media, politicians, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), humanitarian organizations and also researchers have turned climate change into an immediate security threat linked to migration. This ignores evidence showing that climate change is unlikely to cause mass migration. It also overlooks the fact that the implications of environmental adversity are most severe for the most vulnerable populations who may even lack the means to move out. It also draws the attention away from the political causes of most environmental hazards and displacement.

To be sure: the absence of the displaced millions predicted by climate migration fearmongers is by no means a reason for complacency. The forecasted acceleration of climate change is likely to have severe effects on production, livelihoods and human security and the overall stability of planetary ecosystems. Climate change will create serious challenges for humanity.

However, using the specter of mass migration to make the case for urgent action on reducing CO2 emissions is an example of ‘being right for the wrong reason’, which is not only intellectually dishonest, but can also put the credibility of organizations using this argument seriously at risk.

* This text partly draws on excerpts from Chapter 2 of the sixth edition of The Age of Migration, a textbook on migration published with Red Globe Press in 2020, see 

Wednesday 29 March 2017

Myths of migration: Much of what we think we know is wrong

The debate over migration is plagued by a variety of inaccuracies and misunderstandings - on both the right and the left. Here is what the research really shows.

Migration was the issue of the year in 2016 and it will likely remain important in 2017. The topic is, however, just as hotly debated as it is poorly understood. The so-called "refugee crisis" in Europe and the omnipresent images of overfilled boats arriving on Mediterranean shores give the impression that migration is threatening to spin out of control and that radical action is needed to curtail the uncontrollable influx of migrants. The fear of mass migration has fueled the rise of extreme nationalist parties throughout Europe and helped Donald Trump win the presidential election in the U.S.

This call for tougher migration policies is juxtaposed by another, albeit somewhat weaker, opinion voiced by the business sector, human rights and religious organizations and left-liberal parties. They argue that migration tends to be beneficial for both origin and destination societies, and that we should not see refugees as a burden but as a potential resource.

But in this polarized debate, the rather more sobering facts unfortunately get lost. Both the left-wing and right-wing narratives on migration are rooted in a series of myths that reveal a striking lack of knowledge about the nature, causes and consequences of migration processes. This text examines eight of the myths that I have often encountered in my research.

1. No, closed borders do not automatically lead to less migration

It isn't quite as easy as simply slamming the door shut. Migration restrictions can have several unintended side-effects which may undermine their effectiveness. First, restrictions can compel migrants to find other legal or illegal channels - the use of family reunification channels by de facto economic migrants, for example. Second, strict border controls often divert migration flows through other terrestrial and maritime routes, thereby increasing the market for smugglers. Third, restrictions can lead to surges of "now-or-never" migration. When Suriname became independent from the Netherlands in 1975, for example, about 40 percent of its population migrated to Holland before visas were introduced.

Finally, restrictions tend to interrupt circulation and push migrants into permanent settlement. This is what happened, for instance, with the so-called "guest-workers" in the 1970s and '80s. Fearful that they would not be able to re-immigrate after a temporary return home, many opted for permanent settlement. Prior to 1991, when movement was free, many Moroccans travelled back-and-forth to Spain as seasonal and temporary workers, but the introduction of visa requirements in 1991, as a consequence of the Schengen Agreement, set in motion the phenomenon of illegal boat migration and triggered permanent settlement of Moroccan laborers in Spain. They, in turn, brought over their families, leading to the rapid growth of the Moroccan population in the country to over 700,000.

This does not mean that governments cannot or should not control migration. It rather shows that liberal immigration policies do not necessarily lead to mass migration and that ill-conceived migration policies can be counterproductive. Free migration is often strongly circulatory, as we see with migration within the EU. The more restrictive entry policies are, the more migrants want to stay. Such unintended effects create fundamental dilemmas for policymakers.

2. No, migration policies have not failed

Significant media attention on persistent boat migration and irregular border crossings have created a distorted and misleading image that migration policies are "broken" and borders are beyond control. The intense focus on the "refugee crisis" has hidden the fact that most migration policies are, in fact, quite effective. After all, the large majority of migrants - according to best available estimates, at least nine out of 10 - enter Europe legally, defying the idea of that migration is "out of control." As such, illegal migration is a relatively limited phenomenon. Periods of extremely high refugee migration, such as in 2015 or in the 1990s during the Balkan conflicts, are more the exception than the rule and tend not to last.

Immigration is not a flow that can be turned on and off like a tap. Modern immigration policies aim to influence the selection and timing of migration rather than volumes of migration. We do, however, often overestimate what migration policies can achieve. This is because migration is driven by processes of economic development and social change - both in origin and destination societies - that lie beyond the reach of migration policies.

In most European countries, for instance, immigration levels tend to strongly correlate with business cycles (see the graph for the German case). In times of strong economic growth, more migrants are likely to find jobs and thus obtain work permits. Economic migration is strongly driven by labor demand, defying popular ideas that it is an uncontrolled phenomenon largely driven by poverty and violence in origin countries.

3. No, migration policies have not become more restrictive

This is what politicians may want us to believe, but the reality is more nuanced. For a recent study we conducted at the University of Oxford, we examined 6,500 migration laws in 45 countries between 1945 and 2010. We concluded that immigration policies have become more liberal for most migrant groups over the past decades. In Germany for instance, some 61 percent of all relevant regulations passed since 1945 had an alleviating effect, with 35 percent of a more restrictive nature and 4 percent neutral.

The main exception to this rule are the eye-catching border controls and visa policies aimed at preventing asylum seekers and irregular migrants from entering European territory. These groups, however, only represent a minority of all immigrants. If we look at long-term trends in admission policies, most other migrant groups - including labor migrants, families and students - have been increasingly welcomed. Just 20 years ago, German and Dutch politicians frequently claimed that their countries were not "countries of immigration." Today, such voices have become the exception or have been relegated to the right-wing fringe. That too is an indication that migration has become increasingly accepted, despite rhetoric suggesting the contrary.

4. No, development aid in origin countries does not prevent migration

Many governments as well as development organisations see development aid as a tool to reduce migration. This view is based on the misleading idea that poverty and violence are the main drivers of south-north migration. In reality, however, development initially leads to increasing levels of emigration.

Confirming this "migration paradox," research has confirmed that the poorest countries exhibit a much lower level of emigration than more developed nations. Migration, after all, requires significant resources. Extreme poverty immobilizes people - they get trapped because they cannot afford to leave their homeland. This is also why the idea that climate change will lead to mass migration to the West is unrealistic. Adverse environmental change can increase aspirations to move, but it can also limit the capacity to do so.

Economic growth and improved education typically increase people's capacities and aspirations to migrate. It is therefore no coincidence that prominent emigration countries such as Mexico, Morocco and Turkey are middle-income countries. Development in the poorest countries, for instance in sub-Saharan Africa, will almost inevitably lead to more migration from those countries. Therefore, future immigrants in Europe might increasingly come from sub-Saharan Africa instead of Turkey and North Africa.

5. No, migration doesn't lead to "brain drain"

One oft-repeated argument holds that emigration causes "brain drain" - the departure of those with higher levels of education - thus undermining the development potential for origin countries. In this case, too, levels of emigration are generally simply too low to have such an effect. Research has shown that it would generally be unreasonable to blame migration - the departure of doctors, for example - for structural development problems such as inadequate health-care facilities in rural areas.

Second, many developing countries face increasing levels of unemployment among university graduates.

Third, the "brain drain" argument ignores the fact that migrants often invest significant amounts of money in their countries of origin. In 2015, migrants from developing countries sent some $410 billion back home, and that is just the officially recorded remittances. The amount is well more than 2.5 times the global total of development aid that same year ($161 billion).

Such remittances improve living standards and decrease poverty levels for families and communities in origin countries. At the same time, however, it would be erroneous to believe that migrants can solve fundamental development problems such as corruption and inequality.

6. No, migrants don't steal jobs, nor do they undermine the welfare state

Research shows that most migrants do jobs that local populations shun or for which they lack the skills. Furthermore, several studies indicate that while migration's effect on economic growth tends to be positive, it is rather small.

Also, claims that highly developed welfare systems, such as those that exist in Germany and the Netherlands, attract more migrants than countries with a less generous social net like the United Kingdom or the U.S., have likewise never been proven.

Studies do show, however, that it is predominantly businesses, the wealthy and the upper-middle classes who benefit from migration - apart from the migrants themselves. Lower income earners have generally much less to gain, or may in some cases lose out while, ironically, ex-migrants have the most to fear from new immigrants in terms of job competition. Advocates of open borders often ignore this potential for migration to increase inequality.

7. No, migration cannot solve the problems associated with an aging society

The magnitude of migration is far too low to offset the effects of population aging. A United Nations study has shown that, to achieve such a result, levels of migration would have to reach levels that are both undesirable and unrealistic. In order to counter its aging population, this study found that Germany, for example, would require net immigration of 3.5 million people per year - 12 times higher than the annual average of 280,000 from the years 1991 to 2015.

Furthermore, this argument ignores that population aging is becoming a worldwide phenomenon, and that aging societies such as China have started to become international migration destinations in their own right. The future question might therefore not be so much how to prevent migrants from coming, but how to attract them.

8. No, we aren't living in an era of unprecedented migration

And finally, a look at the broader picture. For over half a century, the number of migrants as a percentage of the world population has remained remarkably constant at levels of roughly 3 percent since 1960. Even as the number of international migrants has increased from 93 million in 1960 to 244 million in 2015, the global population has increased at approximately the same rate, from 3 billion to almost 7.3 billion.

The idea of a global "refugee crisis" likewise has no basis in fact. On a global scale, refugees represent a relatively small share of all migrants. While the number of refugees decreased from 18.5 million to 16.3 million between 1990 and 2010, the total rebounded to 21.3 million in 2016, primarily as a result of war in Syria. Still, refugees only represent between 7 and 8 percent of the global migrant population, and about 86 percent of all refugees live in developing countries.

Countries such as Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon, Iran, Ethiopia and Jordan currently host the largest refugee populations. Western societies, by contrast, receive a comparatively low number of refugees, and current numbers are anything but unprecedented. Currently, about 0.4 percent of the total EU population is a refugee. That figure hovered around 0.5 percent between 1992 and 1995.

The main change in global migration patterns has been the dominant direction of population movements. Whereas in past centuries, it was mainly Europeans who migrated to foreign territories (or conquered them), this pattern has been reversed since World War II.

With its strong economy and aging population, the EU has emerged as a global migration destination, attracting between 1.5 and 2.5 million non-EU migrants per year. Although this sounds significant, it corresponds to between 0.3 and 0.5 percent of the EU's total population of 508 million.

Furthermore, between 1 million and 1.5 million people leave the EU every year. Net migration in European countries like France and Germany tends to fluctuate, as illustrated above, in parallel to business cycles, but the long-term trend does not show an increase.

There is an urgent need to see migration as an intrinsic part of economic growth and societal change instead of primarily as a problem that must be solved. It is inevitable that open and wealthy societies will experience substantial immigration in the future as well, whether they like it or not.

This exposes one of the paradoxes of liberalization: The political desire for less migration is fundamentally incompatible with the trend towards economic liberalization and the desire to maximize economic growth. The erosion of labor rights, the rise of flexible work and the privatization of formerly state-owned companies in recent decades have significantly increased the demand for migrant labor in Europe. The heated migration debates in Britain and the U.S. - both strongly liberalized market economies facing persistently high levels of immigration - are powerful illustrations of this liberalization paradox.

As such, the only way to really cut down on immigration seems that of reversing economic liberalization and strictly regulating labor markets. That, though, could also decrease levels of wealth across the board. The question then becomes: Is that really what we want?

Hein de Haas is a professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam. He was a founding member and former co-director of the International Migration Institute (IMI) at the University of Oxford. For more information on research findings underpinning this article, see and

This article is an edited version of an article originally published in German in Der Spiegel under the title Mythen der Migration and in English under the title Myths of Migration.

Friday 16 December 2016

There is no 'silver bullet' migration policy

By Katharina Natter 

Intensified border controls and development cooperation have become the pillars of European immigration policy over the last decades. Yet, the consequences of these policies are often wrongly assessed - in part because discussions about migration and ‘how the problem can be solved’ are often disconnected from analyses of wider social changes.

Recent scientific insights can provide a useful orientation in those debates and explain why development cooperation can only be a long-term strategy to reduce emigration; why more border controls paradoxically lead to more irregular migration; and why migration policies can only be effective if they are coherent with structural developments and wider policy goals in origin and destination countries.

Migration and development - a complex interplay 

One credo of today’s migration policies is that development cooperation reduces emigration. Yet, this is only partly true. As Ronald Skeldon (Sussex University) has shown in his studies on Asia and Latin America since the 1990s, development generally boosts emigration. This is because rising incomes, higher education levels, as well as improved transportation and communication infrastructures increase both people’s aspirations to migrate as well as their capabilities to realize them.

First insights from the Migration as Development (MADE) research project at the University of Amsterdam also show that globalization has in the first place accelerated emigration over the past decades, as in the case of migration from Ethiopia to the Gulf States or from Morocco to Europe. This also explains why the countries with the highest emigration rates worldwide are neither the poorest nor the richest countries, but those with intermediate development levels - such as Mexico or the Philippines.

Only at a relatively high development level does further development reduce emigration. The evolution of Italian and Spanish migration patterns since the 1980s are powerful examples of this transformation from emigration to immigration country. In a 2014 study, the economist Michael Clemens has identified this tipping point at an average income per capita between USD 7000 and USD 8000 per year. But he also highlights that the exact level of this tipping point highly depends on the respective national socio-political context.

Nevertheless: The fact that average per capita incomes are still well below that threshold in most Asian or African countries, apart from those rich in natural resources, suggests that development cooperation can only be a very long-term strategy to counter emigration, at best taking several decades or generations. In the short run, development is more likely to boost emigration from such countries.

Intensifying border controls - a dangerous spiral 

But migration policy decision makers do usually not take into consideration these complex dynamics. The result of this widening gap between the reality of migration patterns and migration regulations is irregular migration. A widespread and in the very short term often successful answer to irregular migration is the intensification of border controls - through the construction of walls, the deployment of police and military, or simply through more red tape. The closure of the ‘Balkan Route’ starting in October 2015 at the border between Hungary and Serbia is only one example of this logic.

Yet, this does not prevent migrants and especially refugees from countries like Syria, Eritrea or Iraq from trying to reach Europe - they now only choose longer, more expensive, more dangerous and also deadlier routes. One result of this situation is the growing number of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea - the International Organization for Migration counted 2905 deaths between January and June 2016, nearly twice as many as in the first six months of 2015 and four times as many as in 2014 over the same period. By mid-December 2016, this number has further risen to 4742 deaths.

Paradoxically, rather than achieving its proclaimed aim of ‘combatting’ smuggling networks, increased border controls result in their professionalization. And ironically, the most common response to this result is the further intensification of border controls. This creates a morally and financially counterproductive vicious circle in which border controls, irregular migration and smuggling reinforce each other.

In his newest publication, Douglas Massey (Princeton University) and his colleagues have indeed shown that the militarization of the US southern border has paradoxically increased the number of Mexican irregular migrants in the US: Three decades of data from the Mexican Migration Project provide strong evidence that tougher US border controls have pushed Mexican migrants to change their migration patterns - from commuting seasonally between the US and Mexico into permanently settling in the US.

When is migration policy effective? 

Given the intrinsic link between migration patterns and the broader social, economic and political context within which they evolve, specific migration policy measures have only very little leverage on their own - especially when they go against structural developments in origin and destination countries or contradict the goals of other policy areas such as trade, labor market or foreign policy.

Thus, the growing arms exports of European countries over the past years are only difficult to reconcile with the declared aim to reduce the number of asylum seekers or to ‘tackle the root causes of migration’. Also, it is illusory to expect that specific migration policy measures can counter the migration effects of macro processes such as economic liberalization or demographic transitions - be they a result of the continuously high birth rates in sub-Sahara Africa or of the shrinking generations entering labor markets in Europe and elsewhere.

This does however not mean that states have no room for manoeuvre in shaping international migration. The Determinants of International Migration (DEMIG) project (University of Oxford) has shown that migration policy can be effective in achieving its goals if there is a concertation between the goals of migration policy and the goals of other policy areas and if migration is understood as a structural part of the continuous transformations of destination and origin societies. This requires an understanding of migration not as a deviation from the norm, but as intrinsic to humanity.

In the heated discussion about immigration and the policy measures to ‘solve the problem’, two facts are however often forgotten: First, for a long time, Europe was the continent of emigration par excellence, be it in the context of colonization or as a result of wars, persecution, economic hardship and poverty. Only since the 1960s has Europe become a destination for migrants from all over the world, partly as a consequence of active state recruitment policies, partly as a result of its economic prosperity and attractive socio-political conditions characterized by peace and the rule of law. 

Second, while public and media attention is almost exclusively directed to irregular border crossings, the most recent, available data from Eurostat show that in 2014, 93 percent of all immigrants have entered the EU through regular channels. Even the important increase in irregular migration in 2015 and to a lesser extent in 2016 has not fundamentally changed this reality. Thus, amidst all the more or less valid criticisms, it seems that European migration policies have not failed to the extent often propagated in political und public debates.

About the author: Katharina Natter has a Master in Comparative Political Science from SciencesPo Paris (2012) and worked on the DEMIG project at the International Migration Institute (Oxford University) between April 2013 and June 2015. Since September 2015 she is doing her PhD in the framework of the MADE project at the University of Amsterdam, researching Moroccan and Tunisian immigration policies under supervision of Prof. Hein de Haas.

Previously published in German in Der Standard, “Migrationspolitik: Keine eierlegende Wollmilchsau”, 25 August 2016

Friday 28 October 2016

Migration Matters

While migration has become a political 'hot topic', public debates about migration have often remained remarkably fact-less. Thanks to the increase in migration research and availability of data, we know much more about the trends, causes and impacts of migration than a few decades ago. However, this knowledge does often not reach the broader public. This is highly unfortunate, since modern migration scholarship has so much to offer in order to facilitate informed debates and better, more effective policies.
Part of the blame lies with politicians, who willingly ignore inconvenient evidence that would unveil their demagoguery and unnerve their migration scaremongering and scapegoating of migrants.

All too often, the news media buy into - and thereby reinforce - the fact-free crisis narrative around migration fed to them by politicians. Many journalists fail in their basic professional duty of fact checking. A case in point is the false political claim that the EU-Turkey 'deal' on refugees has stopped refugee migration from Syria.

However, part of the blame also lies with migration researchers, who often fail to communicate their findings in clear, jargon-free language to the broader public, while research papers often remain inaccessible behind prohibitive paywalls of scientific journals. Much knowledge about migration therefore never leaves the academic ivory tower.

This is why we should highly welcome Migration Matters, a new initiative that aims to bridge the gap between evidence-based research and public debates.  Migration Matters was founded in January 2016 by four women who are connected by their distinct backgrounds in journalism and academia  yet common experiences of migration: Julia KarmoSophia Burton, Kelly Miller, and Elina Ribakova. It is entirely supported by individual donations and was recently awarded the Advocate Europe grant.

Migration Matters aims to address the public’s biggest conundrums and fears surrounding migration. This is to fulfil its ambition to approach the migration debate "as an open and evidence-based conversation, where no concern is ridiculed and no question dismissed".

Migration Matters does so by offering free, video-based courses that break down commonly held preconceptions about migration and offer nuanced and solution-oriented perspectives from leading thinkers in the field: researchers, practitioners, as well as migrants and refugees themselves.

Earlier this year, I had the honour of hosting the Migration Matters team at my home in the Amsterdam Bos & Lommer neighbourhood for the recording of a series of 10 short video lectures on various aspects of migration. These have been compiled in a "Migration 101" course. This introductory course hopefully gives a fundamental understanding of the realities surrounding today’s debate on migration. Other courses include 'Six Impossible Ideas (after Brexit)' by researchers of the London School of Economics (LSE) and 'A Migrant's View' by origin country expert Nassim Majidi, and many more are to follow.

Subscribers to courses will receive one email a day over the duration of the course with a link to a 3-5 minute video as well as hand-picked reading lists for further learning.

Given the political rhetoric about migration, the Migration Matters initiative comes at the best possible time. It is more important than ever that scientific knowledge about migration reaches the public. This is essential to enable more informed debates about migration and to see through the fear-based migration politics and reporting that fan the flames of xenophobia and do not provide any solutions.

To sign up for Migration 101 with yours truly, click here:

Subscribe to the Migration Matters newsletter to receive more information about courses and opportunities to donate: 

Monday 29 August 2016

The case for border controls

Sovereign states have good reasons for controlling their borders. States are political communities with a need to define who is member, and who not.  This is important to determine who is eligible to vote, who has to pay taxes, and who has access to public services such as education, health care, social security, and other social services.

This is usually defined through citizenship, although there is a large grey zone between ‘unwanted foreigners’ and full citizenship. Immigration policies of modern states typically include ‘pathways’ to permanent residency and citizenship, in which permanent residents typically enjoy largely similar rights to citizens, except for the right to vote (at least in national elections).

Young men near Mosquée Hassan II, Casablanca, Morocco, February 2012 © Dominique Jolivet 

It would therefore be foolish to argue that countries should just 'open their borders' by allowing everybody to immigrate and settle. Modern (welfare) states have an inbuilt need to define who is member and, hence, who has the right to work and who can use public amenities and social services. This creates an intrinsic need for immigration policies, which define who has the right to enter, stay, settle and eventually acquire citizenship. There is nothing inherently immoral about this.

It is thus a legitimate right of sovereign states to control their borders. To achieve this, modern states have designed sophisticated immigration rules that use elaborate criteria such as nationality, age, diplomas, marital status and wealth to grant or refuse people the right to enter and settle.

Contrary to what many people think, states have generally been rather effective in regulating migration. Although media images of migrants scaling fences or crossing the sea in rickety boats may give the impression that borders are ‘beyond control’, the fact is that the vast majority of migrants abide by the rules. With some exceptions, irregular migrants form a small minority of all immigrants, and research has shown that most undocumented migrants have in fact crossed borders in a legal fashion, but 'overstayed' after their visas expire.

The ‘open borders’ proposition is clearly naïve, as modern states need to establish rules about entry, stay and citizenship. However, the ‘closed border’ proposition is equally naïve. Total migration control would basically require a totalitarian state in order to effectively control all maritime and land borders.

Total migration control would require the literal ring-fencing of entire countries, a total disrespect of human rights (such as the right to family life and asylum), and a willingness and practical ability to invest massive resources to round up and deport undocumented migrants. It would also require giving massive powers and resources to police forces for internal surveillance, such as massive random ID checks and the frequent raiding of places where immigrants live work - including people's private houses where many domestic workers stay. In practice, such levels of total migration control are not possible in open, democratic societies, and any politician suggesting this is therefore selling illusions.

The reality of migration policy making is thus infinitely more nuanced than the false opposition between closed and open borders. In practice, immigration policies are about selecting, and not about ‘closing’ or ‘opening’ borders, neither of which exist in practice. This was confirmed by a recent analysis of 6505 migration policy changes in 45 countries I conducted with my colleagues Katharina Natter and Simona Vezzoli (for more information, see this free-for-download article which we recently published in International Migration Review).

Although politicians may have an interest in making people believe that they are 'tough' on migration, our analysis shows that over the past decades governments of most Western countries have liberalized immigration regimes by relaxing or giving up immigration restrictions for many migrant groups. Immigration has generally become easier for high- and even low-skilled workers, students and wealthy people. Also within regional blocks such as the EU, migration policies have been liberalized.

The main exceptions on this rule are family members of low-skilled workers and, particularly, refugees from developing countries. Refugees in particular have become the target of restrictions and fierce anti-immigrant rhetoric, although in reality refugees form a small minority of all immigrants.

The essence of modern migration policies is thus not about growing restriction or influencing numbers per se, but the selection of migrants; By favoring the entry of some groups, and discouraging the entry of others. This shows that both 'open' and 'closed' borders are simplistic rhetoric positions, which ignore the complex reality of migration policy making.

While the desire of political communities to regulate migration is legitimate, it is important to consider the effectiveness of policies, which are often blatantly ignored. As with any form of regulation, immigration rules can be circumvented by migrants. This particularly happens when immigration rules are at odds with the structural causes of migration. Classic examples are structural labour demand for migrant workers in destination countries without legal channels to match this demand (resulting in irregular migration and stay) or the unwillingness of countries to host refugees (resulting in an increased role of smuggling and boat migration and the risks refugees have to take to reach safe lands).

It is therefore inevitable that border controls will result in some degree of irregular migration. Also, research has shown that immigration restrictions often interrupt circulation by discouraging return and pushing migrants into permanent settlement, which is the contrary of what these policies intend to do. Such unintended and often unforeseen effects of immigration controls does not mean that the desire to control is illegitimate, or that the policies are totally ineffective, but reveal fundamental policy dilemmas in terms of how and the extent to which the desire to control regulate migration can be translated into concrete results, and against which financial and humanitarian price.

This shows that both the 'open' and 'closed' border positions are unrealistic and do not justice to the complex realities of migration policy making, which is primarily about the selection of migrants, and not about numbers, despite muscle-flexing political rhetoric suggesting the contrary.

States have good reasons to control immigration and it would be an huge exaggeration to say that borders are beyond control, because policies generally work and the majority of migrants abide by the rules. It is more correct to say that there are clear limits to border controls.