Saturday, 16 May 2015

How much do we really learn from history?

"German Jews Pouring into This Country". This is what the The Daily Mail, a British tabloid newspaper, had to say about German Jews seeking refuge from Nazi brutality in 1938. The article quotes a magistrate stating that "The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of the country is becoming an outrage. I intend to enforce the law to the fullest",

The reporter continues by reassuring the reader that enforcement is fortunately increasingly effective: "even if aliens manage to break through the defences it is not long before they are caught and deported".

1938 Daily Mail article

This article did not reflect some extremist, far right-wing sentiment, but a widespread anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe and the concomitant fear of massive immigration of Jewish refugees from Germany, who had been stripped of their German citizenship by the Nazi regime. In the late 1930s, when the situation of Jews in Nazi Germany became increasingly dangerous, European nations and the United States only accepted limited numbers of Jewish refugees

The Nazis initially saw emigration as an important 'solution' to what they called the 'Jewish Problem', including emigration to Palestine. However, European and American countries became increasingly reluctant to host significant numbers of Jewish refugees, while the British closed Palestine to Jewish immigration in 1939. When MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner tried to find a refuge for 915 German Jews, they were denied entry to Cuba, the United States and Canada, before returning to Europe, where many were killed during the Holocaust.

Also neighbouring countries like the Netherland and Switzerland closed their borders out of fear of being inundated with Jewish refugees, and many were sent back to Germany. (Although, thanks to smugglers, thousands were able to get out despite tough border controls). Such immigration restrictions were often defended with the argument that the crisis-stricken European countries could not bear the burden of large-scale Jewish immigration, but widespread anti-Semitic sentiment was generally the real reason. 

For instance, in 1938 the Dutch prime minister Colijn argued that allowing in more refugees would cause economic pressures. Wryly, he explained that the border closure was actually in the interest of Dutch Jews themselves, because allowing in more refugees would further fan the flames of anti-Semitism.  In an official statement the Dutch government proclaimed that "a further intrusion of alien elements will be harmful of the maintenance of the Dutch race. The government finds that, in principe, our limited territory should be reserved for its own people". 

How much do we really learn from history? 

Wednesday, 6 May 2015


Of course 'expats' are just emigrants. They only don't like to be called that way. These days, in Western Europe, the term 'migrant' is more and more associated to supposedly low-skilled people from less wealthy countries, who often have a darker skin, and/or are of a Muslim background, and who come to work and settle in the countries of the Wealthy, White West, sometimes without asking permission.

Europeans living abroad love to call themselves 'expats', although they are of course migrants. 'Expat' has increasingly become a class marker, a way in which privileged migrants from wealthy countries (and wealthy migrants from poor countries) tend to distinguish themselves from poor, low-skilled and undeserving migrants. Migrants do the dirty, dangerous and demeaning ('3D') and underpaid jobs shunned by many Europeans, but are at the same time often treated as potential job thieves and benefit scroungers or as threats to safety (terrorists!), social cohesion and cultural unity. 

UKIP election graphic encouraging 'Expats' to register for 2015 national elections

All of that of course does not apply to Europeans when they themselves move abroad to work and settle in foreign lands. In sheer contrast to the moral outrage about the 'illegal migrant', 'expats' often do not even bother applying for a residence permit in their host countries. Either because they don't need one, or because nobody bothers them if they don't have one.

Between 1998 and 2000  I lived in Morocco for two years on a string of tourist visas, which I renewed by hopping out and in of Morocco forth and back from the Spanish enclave Ceuta on the same day. It is very unlikely Europeans who overstay their visa in Morocco - and most countries in the world - will end up in migrant detention and get deported. And if they are asked to leave, they are highly unlikely to do so handcuffed. 

This is called privilege. And many Europeans (as wel as North Americans and citizens of a handful of other lucky nations) are hardly aware of it. They take for granted that it is their right to go anywhere, to impose their presence, while not being bothered about how 'locals' perceive them. They have done so since colonial times. It starts at a young age. Students find it completely normal to have gap years, to travel around the world, or to work or volunteer for a year or so in a far away country. We go on holiday wherever we want, and more and more people retire in lands where the sun shines and care workers are cheap.

Wherever Europeans find a job, residence and work permits seem to drop magically out of the air, or we simply don't bother getting one, or it is done for us by our employers. Those working for private companies, diplomacy or as development workers in poor countries tend to live luxurious, but highly segregated, lives as 'expats' in gated communities and compounds. When they interact with 'locals', it tends to be the elites, who speak the same languages and have similar manner and levels of education. 

Looking at migration, we still live in a colonial world order. Double standards are typically applied to the migrant 'other' and the expat 'us'. While migrants are expected to learn the language and to assimilate into 'our' culture and society - and 'we' complain if they refuse to do so, or not fast enough, or not wholeheartedly enough to our taste - 'expats' are generally exempt from such demands.

English speaking citizens of wealthy OECD countries set the international standard. Haughtily, 'expats' often do not bother to integrate at all, and nobody would dare to ask them to do so. They can live for years, if not decades, in other countries without speaking one word of the local language. Because they have the power to do so so and to ignore what others think. 

Such double standards also become visible in the schizophrenic positioning of politicians on migration issues. During the 2014 municipal elections in the Netherlands, the right-wing liberal VVD party of PM Mark Rutte was campaigning with election posters featuring the text "In Rotterdam spreken we Nederlands" ("In Rotterdam, we speak Dutch") to clearly signal the VVD's anti-multicultural credentials. However, the same rules did apparently not apply to 'expat' migrants - overtly shown by another VVD election poster targeting resident foreigners who have the right to vote in local elections, which proudly stated (in English!) "Why do expats living in Amsterdam vote VVD?".

The contrast in attitudes towards expats and migrants was also visible in the graphic (see above) used by the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in a campaign to encourage 'expat' Britons (an estimated  5.5m in total  –  of which about 2.2m live in the EU- almost the same number as the 2.3m EU citizens in the UK) to vote in the 2014 national elections. So, ironically, by "harnessing that xenophobe expat vote" the UKIP tried encouraging British emigrants to vote them in to keep immigrants out of Britain.

Such contrasts in attitudes reveals the double standards applied to the expat 'us' and the migrant 'them'; as well as the superiority thinking underlying this distinction. 

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Will a 'Brexit' curb immigration?

Leaders of anti-immigration parties such as Nigel Farage of the UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) and Geert Wilders' of the Dutch Freedom Party have often stated that getting out of the EU is the only way to curb immigration. At first sight, this seems logical. After all, as long as countries stay in the EU, they have to respect the free mobility rights of half a billion EU citizens.

This is also why promises by politicians to cut back migration, such as the earlier pledge by the British PM David Cameron to bring UK net immigration down to below to the "tens of thousands" are hollow, since a large share of immigration consists of EU citizens, who are exempt from immigration controls.  For instance, in the 12 months preceding September 2014, about 40 per cent of immigrants were non-British EU citizens, while 13 per cent were British citizens, and 47 per cent were non-EU citizens.

The whole idea that immigration can be controlled just like we turn on and off a tap is a myth. This is once again shown by the increase in net immigration to the UK from an estimated 154,000 in (the year preceding September) 2012 to 298,000 in 2014 - showing the hollowness of Cameron's earlier promise to bring net immigration down below the 100,000 mark.

The recent increase in immigration to the UK is largely the result of a growth in labour immigration, which reflect increasing labour demand and falling unemployment in the UK. In general , levels of immigration are primarily driven by economic growth and labour demand rather than by immigration regulations - no matter how much politicians would like voters to believe that they are in control.

It is therefore unlikely that a 'Brexit' would drastically curb immigration, certainly if the UK wishes to remain an economically open country.

In this respect it may be interesting to look at migration to European countries that are not member of the European Union. Switzerland, for instance, has always insisted on its independence, and has a long-standing tradition of anti-immigration politics. This has been reinforced by the rise of country’s right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party (SVP) since the 1990s, which favours major immigration restrictions.

However, despite not being member of the EU, migration to Switzerland has soared to unprecedented levels over the last two decades, with yearly net-immigration (immigration minus emigration) of foreign nationals hovering around levels of 1 per cent (see graph).

This structural increase of migration to Switzerland is linked to economic growth combined with an ageing population, which has generated a continued labour demand in higher and lower skilled jobs, for which there is not sufficient domestic supply. These economic demands have put pressure on successive Swiss governments to continue allowing immigrants in.

There is little reason to believe that if the UK  leaves the EU, such structural labour market demands and economic pressures would not persist, and that governments would not succumb to such pressures, as they have always done in the past.

As the graph also shows, since the early 1990s there has been a structural increase of net immigration to the UK. This increase can be largely explained by a combination of economic deregulation, renewed economic growth, decreasing unemployment and a decrease of domestic labour supply because of demographic factors and skill shortages.

It it is therefore inaccurate to link the structural increase of UK immigration since the early 1990s to the decision by the Blair government in 2004 to allow free immigration from new accession states in  Eastern Europe. As the graph clearly shows, the increase of new migration to the UK has been a structural, long-term trend which started in the early 1990s. In 2003, net immigration already stood at levels of 0.4 per cent, up from 0.1 per cent in 1992, to jump up to around 0.6 percent in 2004 to consolidate at levels between 0.4 and 0.5 percent in the last decade. The decision to allow free mobility from new EU member states by the Blair government has consolidated, rather than being the most important cause of, pre-existing trends of rising immigration to the UK.

Assuming that the UK wishes to remain a wealthy and democratic country with an open, deregulated market economy (which all major parties including UKIP seem to wish), it is therefore very unlikely to expect a major decrease of immigration. The immigration of low and high-skilled workers and students (both major sources of immigration) is likely to continue as it is the case in other non-EU countries, and these migrants will inevitably be accompanied by family members.

Although receiving a lot of attention, asylum migration is actually a small component of UK immigration (24,914 asylum applications in 2014, which is 4.6% of total foreign immigration). Further curtailing asylum migration would imply serious encroachments on fundamental human rights. And even if UK would really be willing to do that, the effects are likely to be limited. As migration researcher Timothy Hatton has found in a sophisticated statistical analysis, fluctuations in asylum migration are mainly driven by levels of violence and terror in origin countries, and restrictiveness of asylum policies only play a secondary role.

Source: Long-term International Migration - Office for National Statistics

As long as future UK governments will not wreck the economy (which in many ways is by far the most effective way of bringing down labour demand and, as a consequence, immigration) or will not de-liberalise the economy (such as by drastically increasing labour market regulation and employment protection) it is likely that immigration to the UK will continue at high levels whether the the country leaves the EU or not.

On top of that, closing the borders to migration of EU citizens is likely to have a number of unintended side effects (so-called 'substitution effects') which can make such policies partly if not entirely counterproductive.

First of all, border closure can lead to a wave of 'now or never migration' by people who try to get in before it before it is too late. Such 'beat the ban rushes' happened in the past, for instance when Britain introduced restrictions for 'West Indian' migration with the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act.

Second, closing the border will interrupt the free circulation of EU migrants. As we have found from research in the DEMIG (Determinants of International Migration) project at Oxford University, immigration restrictions bring down return migration by roughly the same extent as immigration, making the effect of restrictions on net migration very small or insignificant.

In order words, borders restrictions have the tendency to push migrants into permanent settlement. This has happened at many occasions in the past. For instance, when West European countries closed the borders for Mediterranean 'guest workers' after the 1973 Oil Crisis, many workers who initially intended to return decided to stay. Because they feared not to be able to re-migrate after return, immigration restrictions encouraged their permanent settlement, followed by a (another unanticipated) wave of family migration.

Because EU citizens can move freely, their migration tends to be highly responsive to economic opportunities. In other words, EU migrants are much more likely to return in case of unemployment than non-EU migrants who have invested considerable effort in obtaining work permits and visas. Closing the borders to free circulation of EU citizens would increase the likelihood of their permanent settlement and make such policies therefore partly or entirely counterproductive.

In other words, assuming future economic growth and the continuation of liberal economic policies, continued high immigration to the UK (and other European countries) seems inevitable, whether in- or outside the European Union.

Therefore, by suggesting that an exit from the EU will bring down immigration, leaders of anti-immigration parties such as Nigel Farage of UKIP or Geert Wilders of the Freedom Party are deceiving the public as much as 'mainstream' politicians such as David Cameron and Ed Milliband with their empty promises to curtail immigration after the next elections.

Friday, 1 May 2015

The myth of invasion

Many people believe that migration is at an all-time high and accelerating fast. Images of people crossing the Mediterranean in ramshackle boats and rising political panic about immigration all contribute to the image that migration is rising rapidly and that drastic measures are needed to stem the tide.

These voices are not only coming from anti-immigrant parties and extremist groups. In fact, the idea that migration is rising fast has become mainstream over the past years. Every year again, organisations such as the International Organisation of Migration and the United Nations Population Division hit the news headlines with reports that migration is at an all-time high and will accelerate in the future.  

Some academics sing from the same hymn sheet. For instance, Oxford-based economist Paul Collier has recently published a book under the title Exodus Underpinning Collier's rather gloomy - albeit surprisingly uninformed - view is that future migration risks to reach such high levels that it will start to become harmful for both poor (origin) and rich (destination) societies. 

This all adds to a crisis narrative around migration, with politicians portraying soaring migration as a potential threat not only to the welfare state, but also to the cultural integrity and security of European, North American and other destination societies.

The frequent sinking of boats transporting migrants and refugees to southern Europe (and Australia)  and continuing irregular migration from Mexico to the United States contributes to idea that rich countries are 'under siege' of a rising tide of immigration driven by poverty, warfare and environmental crises in poor countries; and that drastic measures are needed to stop this 'exodus'. This further add to the overriding feeling of an impending migration invasion.

However, the best available data defy the whole idea the world migration is accelerating fast. Certainly, in absolute terms, the number of international migrants has increased fast, from an estimated number of 93 million in 1960 to 214 million in 2010. Yet the world population has increased at a similar pace. The number of international migrants as a share of the world population has therefore remained remarkably constant at levels of around 3 percent (see the graph above). 

So, global migration rates have remained remarkably stable levels. But why do we still think that migration is increasing fast?

First of all, migration has become a political hot topic and is receiving massive media attention. Interestingly, both conservative and progressive forces have a certain interest in playing into fears of mass immigration. Right-wing politicians routinely scapegoat migrants to win the next election through portraying migrants as a cultural or terrorist threat or potential welfare scroungers while also left-wing politicians and trade unions have often portrayed migrants as people who steal jobs from native workers or undercut their wages.

Also international organisations dealing with migration have a certain interest in migration being seen as an urgent issue 'in need of management'  to justify their own existence, increase their perceived relevance and boost their funding.

Development and humanitarian organisations regularly play into deep-seated fears of uncontrolled mass migration to advance their own agendas. For instance, you can frequently hear the argument that more development (through aid or trade) is the only way to curb migration. Many politicians and NGOs have often argue that climate change and environmental degradation, if remained unchecked, will cause mass migration.

While such arguments are based on the deeply flawed assumption that underdevelopment, poverty and violence are the main causes of migration (on the contrary, development rather leads to more migration), by using such arguments politicians and development NGOs (wittingly or unwittingly) play into and reinforce the idea were are facing an impending migration invasion if nothing is done. This is not to say that their concerns about issues such poverty, conflict and climate change are not valid; but rather that they are 'right for the wrong reasons'.

'Euro-centrism' is the second reason for the misconception that global migration is accelerating fast. While global migration rates have remained remarkably stable, there have been major shifts in the dominant direction of migration.

Since the 'discovery' and subsequent occupation of the America by Europeans five centuries ago, Europeans have invaded and conquered overseas territories while subjugating, killing or enslaving murdering their native populations - without asking permission. This was arguably the biggest illegal migration in human history.

European emigration reached unprecedented levels in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Douglas Massey, a prominent migration researcher, has shown that, only between 1846 and 1924, some 48 million Europeans moved out, which is equal about 12 percent of the European population in 1900. For some countries, emigration was much higher. For instance, in the same period, about 17 million people left the British Isles, which is equal to 41 percent of Britain’s population in 1900.

Since the end of World War Two, the direction global migration patterns has been reversed. As a consequence of decolonisation, high levels of economic growth and a drop in birth rates, European emigration has plummeted and Europe has evolved into a global migration destination.

This reversal of European migration has affected the global face of migration. The post-War decline of Europe as a global source of migrants has led to an increasing presence of African, Asian and Latin American migrants in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. The transformation of Europe from a continent of emigration to a continent of immigration has changed the face of European and European settler societies, often leading to heated debates around 'integration' and national identity.

So, from a Euro-centric perspective, migration may seem unprecedented in terms of the increasing diversity of immigrant populations. From a global perspective, this view simply does not hold.

*for more information and data see this study: The globalization of migration: Has the world become more migratory? by Mathias Czaika and Hein de Haas. International Migration Review 48(2): pp. 283-323, 2014

Monday, 27 April 2015

Let their people drown: Europe's self-inflicted migration crisis

In recent months, a record number of refugees and migrants have drowned in their attempts to cross the Mediterranean Sea. According to recent UN estimates, in 2014 almost 220,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean, and at least over 3,500 died during their journey. Over 30,000 have already made the crossing so far this year, with around 1500 reported dead or missing  – more than 50 times greater than at the same point in the previous record year 2014.

And, again, we hear the familiar appeals from European politicians to stop this tragedy by 'fighting' or 'combating' smuggling (and trafficking) in order to stop the suffering of migrants on the European borders. Although this all may sound very lofty, blaming the smugglers is a convenient scapegoating strategy that conceals politicians' own responsibility for this humanitarian tragedy.

Politicians (and the media slavishly copying their rhetorics) ignore that there is a direct relationship between the level of border controls and the number of migrant deaths. As I argued earlier, smuggling is a reaction to border controls, not the cause of migration. Smugglers are service deliverers who help migrants to cross closed borders. They may be involved in illegal activities, they may be criminals, they may deceive migrants, but smugglers are basically running a business. And there is only a market for this business because of the difficulties to migrate legally in search for work or to apply for asylum. So, the more governments militarise borders, the more they make it difficult to apply for asylum, the more they increase migrants'  dependency on smugglers to cross bordes.

Irregular boat migration across the Mediterranean is anything but a new phenomenon. It has ever existed since the early 1990s and resulted from the introduction of visas for North Africans by the European Union countries in 1991-1992. This interrupted previously free seasonal and circular (back-and-fort) migration flows of workers from countries such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, and compelled more and more people to migrate illegally.

From the 2000s, an increasing number of workers and also refugees from sub-Saharan Africa have joined this boat migration. The number of crossings oscillated between 30,000 and 80,000 per year (roughly 1-3 per cent of total legal immigration - about 2.5 million a year - into the EU), mainly depending on labour demand in Europe. The marked increase in the number of detected crossings since 2013 is mainly the result of the increase in the number of refugees, particularly from Syria, but also countries like Eritrea and Somalia.

25 years of European border restrictions have not only totally failed to curb immigration but have had counterproductive results through an increase in irregular migration and an increasing dependence of migrants on smugglers to cross borders. They have also interrupted the previous circular movement, pushing migrants into permanent settlement and border controls led to a constant diversification, shifting and geographical expansion of crossing points. The toughening of border controls and 'combating smuggling' have also increased the likelihood that smugglers will exploit the vulnerable position of migrants by extorting them increasing amounts of money or abandoning them on sea.

Recurrent proposals to 'combat irregular migration' by toughening border controls and closing off legal migration routes are bound to fail, as these restrictions are among the very causes of the phenomenon they pretend to combat. Policy making is caught in a vicious circle of more restrictions-more illegality-more restrictions.

A second reason why European politicians bear direct responsibility for the rising number of deaths is their decision to stop the search and rescue 'Mare Nostrum' programme in November 2014. Many EU governments argued that cutting search and rescue operations would stem migration - as if refugees had no reason to flee their countries. (In October 2014, for instance, Theresa May, the UK Home Secretary, defended her decision to end British support for search-and-rescue operations for migrants in danger of drowning in the Mediterranean (which had so far saved the lives of over 150,000 migrants) were acting as a “pull factor” for irregular migration)

How wrong could they be? As a direct result of the suspension of Mare Nostrum, the number of border deaths has gone drastically up, while the number of migrants and, particularly, refugees has further increased. So, politicians' have defended their voluntary decision to let people die at sea with the outrageous argument that this would deter people from coming. This shows politicians' de facto disregard for human rights despite their hypocritical public grievances and crocodile tears about migrants' tragic fate. These public displays of grief are nothing more than cynical attempts to appear humane while factually being involved in a political rat race who can appear 'toughest' on migration. Whatever reason politicians have to defend such tragic decisions, by doing so they have lost their credibility for public shows of moral outrage.

The lack of credibility among European politicians is shown by their unwillingness to save migrants in distress and host significant number of refugees. It would be outrageous to suggest the EU (the worlds' richest economic block with more than half a billion habitants) lacks the resources to host refugees coming from worn-torn countries such as Syria. What we are dealing with here is not an uncontrollable movement of masses of poor and desperate people from Africa and the Middle East to Europe. What we are dealing with is a humanitarian tragedy and a displacement crisis unfolding in the European periphery, in the turmoil of which a sizeable, but comparatively still small proportion of refugees seek protection in Europe.

Despite all talk about 'regional solutions', it is easily forgotten that the vast majority of refugees stays in their own region. For instance, the vast majority of the 3 million Syrians refugees live in relatively poor neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Compared to that the numbers of Syrians coming to Europe (a few hundreds of thousands so far) is quite limited. Europe currently hosts 4 percent of all Syrian refugees (see figure). With the exception of a few countries such as Sweden and Germany, most European countries have only accepted tiny numbers of Syrian refugees. As Alexander Betts has argued in a brilliant article "Forget the ‘war on smuggling’, we need to be helping refugees in need", the recent proposal for a "voluntary" resettlement scheme for 5,000 refugees to emerge at last week’s Brussels meeting "is absurd against the backdrop of three million Syrian refugees".

The truth is that there is no 'solution' in the sense of stopping this migration, which is likely to persist at current levels as long as conflicts in countries such as Syria continue, and migrants will inevitably keep on crossing the Mediterranean illegally as long as legal entry channels are blocked. Immigration restrictions and border controls create lucrative markets for smugglers and traffickers.

The only short- to medium-term 'solution' should be focused on helping refugees in need through (1) a serious scaling up of search and rescue operations; (2) a significant increase in refugee resettlement quota by EU countries and other wealthy nations; and (3) increased support to countries such as Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan to host refugees in the region.

Any thinking about 'solutions' in terms of a further toughening of borders controls and closing legal routes for migration will not stop migration but will only increase migrants' dependency on smuggling and increase the death toll. The lack of support for serious search and rescue operations and the unwillingness to host significant numbers of refugees shows that the current response of EU countries is tantamount to saying "let their people drown". EU politicians have become tragic actors in a self-inflicted drama which they decry so melodramatically.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Borders beyond control?

In my previous blogpost, I argued that politicians are often busy with feigning immigration control while in reality they often can or want to do little about it. Does that mean that borders are beyond control, as Jagdish Bhagwati famously argued in 2003? Have governments lost control? What do we actually know about the effects of immigration policies?

In order to answer this question, I have conducted a research project on the 'Determinants of International Migration' (DEMIG) at the International Migration Institute at Oxford University. This 5-year project, which lasted from 2010 to 2014 and received funding from the European Research Council, allowed a team of researchers to collect new data and conduct analyses on the effectiveness of migration policies. (See this this link for more information on the project, the 4 DEMIG databases, analyses and 28 research papers).

One of the main insights of the project is that while immigration restrictions often reduce immigration, these effects tend to be rather small. In addition, restrictions often have a four potential side-effects ('substitution effects') which further undermine their effectiveness or can even make them counter-productive.

Moroccan-Spanish border crossing near Ceuta
© Hein de Haas 2014

First, restrictions often compel migrants to 'jump categories', by finding other legal or irregular channels to migrate. For instance, when European countries tried to curb immigration from Moroccan and Turkish workers from the 1970s, people continued to migrate as family and irregular migrants.

Second, restrictions can lead to huge surges of 'now or never migration'. This happened when Suriname became independent from the Netherlands in 1975. While the Dutch were keen to make Suriname independent as a way to curb free migration from Dutch nationals living in the Netherlands, the irony is that over 40 percent of the Surinamese population migrated to the Netherlands to beat the impending immigration ban.

Third, restrictions often compel migrants to explore new geographical routes by migrating to or via other countries. For instance, if one European country toughens its asylum policies, this may divert asylum seekers to neighbouring countries. We also see this with migration controls in the Mediterranean Sea, which do not stop migration but rather compel migrants and smugglers to use other geographical routes.

The fourth and probably strongest side effect of immigration restrictions is that they not only reduce immigration but that they also reduce return migration.  In other words: they reduce circulation and push migrants into permanent settlement. Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of what the policies aim to achieve.

Thus, the effectiveness of immigration restrictions is partly or entirely undermined by such side-effects. Besides that, they have a human costs in terms of creating a market for smuggling (which is a reaction to border controls and not the cause of migration) and increased suffering of migrants and a rising death toll.

Yet this does not necessarily mean that policies always fail or that borders are beyond control. Policies that attract migrants tend to be more successful then policies that restrict immigration. For instance, most Western countries have opened their doors for skilled migrant and students and these policies seem to have worked to a certain extent. The extensive media attention for irregular migration also conceals that illegal border crossings represent a small share of total immigration. The majority of migrants abide by the law and migrate legally.

It would therefore be an exaggeration to say that borders are beyond control. It is be more correct to say that there are clear limits to border controls. The whole idea that migration can be micro-managed is illusionary. As the example of the Gulf countries shows, even authoritarian states cannot achieve total immigration control.

This is largely because migration is mainly driven by economic and social processes that lie beyond the reach of migration policies. Another insight of the DEMIG project is therefore that governments mainly influence migration via so-called "non-migration policies". Although economic policies, labour market policies, trade and foreign policies are not designed to affect migration, they have a considerable effect on migration.

Such policies often undermine the effectiveness of immigration restrictions.  The most obvious example is economic policies. While governments typically aim to boost economic growth and reduce unemployment, rosy economic prospects also tend to attract a lot of migrants.

As part of economic liberalisation policies of the past decades, many governments have privatised state enterprises and made it easier for employers to hire temporary workers on low pay. This has converted many relatively secure, respectable jobs into precarious jobs with little status, which native workers often shun and only migrants want to do. So, these policies have increased the demand for low-skilled labour migrants. It is also no coincidence that irregular migration of (predominantly) women working nannies and private care workers is a major phenomenon in countries which have weak public facilities for childcare and elderly care, such as in the United States and southern Europe.

More generally, the overall trend towards increasing economic openness and regional integration (within the EU, for instance) of the last four decades has also boosted migration. It is unlikely that this can be reversed. This also shows the hypocrisy of politicians who pretend to be immigration fighters, but have backed economic policies that have only increased the demand for regular and irregular migrant labour.

* For more information on the DEMIG project see

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Feigning immigration control

The current attempts by UK politicians to outbid each other in being 'tough' on immigration reminds me of the comment by the well-known migration researcher Douglas Massey and his co-authors that politicians increasingly have turned to symbolic measures to create "an appearance of control"*.

The reality is that most immigration to the UK is basically uncontrollable since the majority of immigrants coming to the UK are EU citizens or family members of residence permit holders. Little can be done about this, and this is also why David Cameron's earlier pledge to bring annual net immigration down under the 100,000 threshold has proven to be unrealistic. The only hope of that happening is a major economic crisis in the UK, since the main driver of much immigration is labour demand.And this also shows the fundamental dilemma politicians face: Wealthy countries and fast growing economies inevitably attract substantial number of immigrants, although this is anything but an invasion suggested by politicians and the media.

Immigration is the most concrete manifestation of rather abstract, difficult-to-grasp processes such as globalisation, economic liberalisation, privatization and increasing flexibility of employment policies. The latter are the result of a series of political decisions which have increased economic inequality, dismantled social security, increased job insecurity, and have opened the doors of European nations not only for free trade but also for the free mobility of workers. These policies have brought many benefits for entrepreneurs and the relatively well-off, while less privileged socio-economic groups have often seen their job insecurity growing and their real incomes falling.

No wonder that politicians are tempted to tap into this discontent by blaming immigrants for problems they have not caused. However, this is turning the causality upside down, as growing feelings of socio-economic insecurity among large sections of the population is the partial result of the neoliberal policies pursued by the same governments that now use migrants as scapegoats to divert the attention away from their own responsibility.

Because EU immigration cannot be controlled, the current UK government has targeted its policies at those types of immigration it can control to a certain extent, particularly non-EU workers and students. Although these policies have made it more difficult for such groups to obtain a visa, it would be an illusion that this can reverse long-term migration trends and that this can undo Britain's position as a global migration destination. Even leaving the EU as propagated by the UKIP (UK Independence Party) and other politicians is an unlikely 'solution'. For instance, Switzerland has record-high immigration despite not being an EU member. A major long-term reduction of immigration can only be achieved by a return to highly protectionist policies and a UK government that is willing to wreck economy for the sake of stopping foreigners from coming.

As long as Britain remains an attractive and open country, it will inevitably continue to attract migrants. It is not a matter of being pro- or anti-immigration, which is the usual way the debate is framed. It is about understanding that you cannot have an open and wealthy society without considerable immigration. The current political muscle flexing around immigration therefore primarily serves to give the public the appearance of control.

Besides potentially damaging for social cohesion, there is also evidence that all the muscle flexing on immigration is rather ineffective. A study by Amber Jane Davis showed that such strategies are largely ineffective or can even be counter-productive. This is not only because as anti-immigrant voters tend to opt for the 'orginal' instead of the 'copycats' as Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader of the French Front National, once argued, but also because their zigzagging or flipflopping on immigration issues undermines their credibility in the eyes of many voters.

*Source: Massey, D. S., et al. (1998). Worlds in motion: Understanding international migration at the end of the millennium. Oxford, Clarendon Press, p.288

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Human Migration: Myths, Hysteria and Facts

Migration is a hotly debated but poorly understood issue. Much conventional thinking about migration is based on myths rather than facts. Migration policies often fail because they are based on those same myths. It is therefore time that we learn to see migration as an intrinsic and therefore inevitable part of the broader processes of societal change and globalisation instead of a 'problem to be solved'.

This was the core of my argument of the inaugural lecture 'Human Migration: Myths, Hysteria and Facts' I gave on 27 June to accept the Extraordinary Chair ‘Migration and Development’ at Maastricht University. In this lecture, I discuss seven right- and left-wing migration myths and present recent research findings (particularly from the DEMIG project)  to prove them wrong.

While migration is commonly seen as the result of poverty and violence in origin countries, research shows that growing prosperity in poor countries increases migration and that the level of migration is largely determined by labour demand in destination countries. Because migration research is too focused on answering short-term policy questions, it often fails to adequately map the causes and consequences of migration. A better understanding of the fundamental causes of migration will also enable us to better and more realistically assess what migration policies cannot achieve.

In the lecture, I discuss the following (right- and left-wing migration myths:
  1. We live in times of unprecedented mass-migration 
  2. Immigration restrictions reduce the number of immigrants 
  3. Immigration policies have become more restrictive 
  4. Development in origin countries will reduce emigration 
  5. Migration leads to ‘brain drain’ 
  6. Migrants steal jobs and threaten the welfare state 
  7. Migration can solve the ageing problem
The main facts refuting these migration myths include:

On myth #1: While the number of international migrants has almost doubled between 1960 and 2000, the world population has grown at the same pace. The relative rate of migration has thus remained stable, and less than three per cent of the world’s population is an international migrant. Yet the nature and direction of migration has changed. For the past centuries, it was mainly Europeans who emigrated and colonized foreign territories. Since WWII, Europe has evolved into the world’s most attractive migration destination. However, particularly since the end of the Cold War politicians have increasingly portrayed migration as a fundamental threat to security and prosperity, inflaming a panic over migration. This contributed to the incorrect idea that migation is accelerating.

On myth #2: Recent research shows that immigration restrictions are often counter-productive by interrupting circulation, discouraging return and pushing migrants into permanent settlement.

On myth #3: Although politicians like to give the impression that immigration policies have become more restrictive, research shows that policies have become less restrictive for most migrant groups over the past decades. Tough talk on migration is therefore mainly rhetoric aimed at winning elections.

On myth #4: Economic growth, education and infrastructure enable more people to migrate and increase their life aspirations. This is why migration increases as countries develop (see here and here). Economic growth of the poorest countries will therefore inevitably lead to more migration from those countries.

On myth #5: It is a misunderstanding that the emigration of skilled people (‘brain drain’) causes underdevelopment in origin countries (see here). The money migrants send back home (‘remittances’) dwarfs development aid, and many migrants invest in origin countries, although it is also an illusion to think that migrants can solve fundamental development problems such as corruption and inequality.

On myth #6: Migrants mainly do the jobs that local populations shun or for which they lack the skills. Generally, migration has a positive, but comparatively small, effect on economic growth, although it is predominantly employers, the middle classes and the wealthy who benefit from migration.

On myth #7: While migration is not a threat to prosperity, it is also not a solution to fundamental socio-economic problems such as ageing. The magnitude of migration is too limited, while ageing is becoming a worldwide phenomenon.

Open and wealthy societies will inevitably experience substantial migration. The trend towards economic liberalisation in recent decades—which has increased the demand for formal and informal migrant labour—contradicts the political rhetoric in favour of less migration. Both the positive and negative effects of migration tend to be greatly exaggerated.

Migration is unjustifiably seen as either a fundamental threat or a solution to fundamental societal problems. It is not migration, but rather the xenophobia fuelled by politicians and the media, that is the problem. The related migration panic and the recurrent scapegoating of migrants stands in the way of a nuanced debate about migration.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Visas reduce immigration ... and return!

The effectiveness of immigration policies is highly contested. While politicians often claim that visas and border controls are necessary to prevent uncontrolled immigration, many researchers argue that immigration restrictions fail to stop migration as they do not affect the fundamental causes of migration, such as income gaps, labour demand in destination countries, conflict, and paradoxically, development in origin countries. Other researchers have argued that immigration restrictions do significantly reduce immigration.

Yet such discussions are limited as they focus on how immigration controls affect inflows and ignore how they affect return. Politicians are generally concerned with net migration – the number of immigrants minus the number of return migrants from one country, which determines the number of migrants who stay.

Faced with the large-scale settlement of low-skilled immigrants, politicians have long been interested in stimulating return migration. This has recently led to much talk about circular migration as the ideal way to marry the interests of migrant workers to gain access to legal migration opportunities and governments of destination countries who often feel public pressure to reduce permanent immigration.

The pertinent question is therefore how restrictions affect the circulation of migrants. This has remained largely ignored by research to date. A new research paper I have written with my colleague Mathias Czaika at the International Migration Institute, I have just published a research paper that looks at this important issue. This is part of the DEMIG (Determinants of International Migration) project, which has received funding from the European Research Council and the Oxford Martin School.

To study the effect of immigration policies on patterns of circulation, we used two new databases DEMIG compiled over the past four years. The DEMIG C2C database tracks country-to-country migration flows between 38 destination countries and a worldwide selection of origin countries. The DEMIG VISA database details travel visa requirements for every country from 1973-2010. In the paper, we treat visa requirements as an important instrument used by governments to prevent the unlimited immigration of people from 'undesired' countries.

Our analysis provides evidence that:
  • Visas reduce immigration and return migration 
  • Visas interrupt circulation and push migrants into permanent settlement 
  • Visas makes migration less responsive to economic opportunities in origin and destination countries
Our statistical estimates show that travel visa requirements significantly decrease inflows (estimated at 67 percent on average) but that this effect is undermined by also decreasing outflows (88 percent on average) of the same migrant groups. We estimated that visa requirements reduce overall circulation by 75 percent on average. Although the real effects vary across countries, the results are statistically significant and provide evidence that immigration restrictions interrupt circularity. 

Importantly, our analysis also shows that visas severely reduce the responsiveness of migration to economic fluctuations in destination and origin societies. This is easy to understand. If migration is free, as is the case between EU countries or US states, people face fewer obstacles to packing their suitcases and moving in search of better opportunities. They will however, also decide to return more easily if they loose their job or if opportunities back home improve. For instance, many Polish migrants in the UK have returned with the rapid improvement of economic conditions in Poland.

If you have invested a lot of effort and money in securing a visa and work permit, it is less likely that you will return if you encounter problems. Immigration restrictions makes returning more risky – if the situation back home is not how you imagined there is a risk of not being able to migrate again. So, what we often see is migrants staying put even in economic crisis and choosing to reunify their families, which partly explains why legal migration continues over formally closed borders.

The irony seems that policies that officially aim to reduce immigration and stimulate the return of 'less desired' low-skilled migrants often have the opposite effect of interrupting circularity, increasing family migration, and encouraging permanent settlement.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Dutch racism

Geert Wilders, the popular leader of the Dutch PVV (Freedom) Party, is well known for his anti-Islam and anti-immigrant viewpoints. Dutch Moroccans are his favourite target, who are systematically put down by Wilders as criminal, extremist, terrorist, and benefit scrounging untermenschen.

The Dutch have now been debating for years whether Wilders' public statements are racist or not (see here). To me, this is somehow puzzling, as what else can you call the stereotyping and scapegoating of entire population groups?

Why this hesitance? Part of the explanation is that most mainstream Dutch politicians have become terrified of Wilders.They have even been taking over many of his viewpoints on immigration in  attempts to win back votes. The right-wing liberal VVD party, in particular, has done its best to copy PVV's anti-immigration, anti-diversity (see here) and 'law and order' viewpoints.These strategies have failed, but have made Wilders' viewpoints respectable.

They also avoid very harsh attacks against Wilders because they may need his party to form the next coalition government. After all, the PVV is now the biggest or second biggest party in national polls.

In other words, politicians are afraid to call Wilders a racist because he has become too powerful. Yesterday, he went one step further during a speech to celebrate his party's victory in local elections in The Hague (see video)

- Wilders: "I ask you. Do you want, in this city, and in the Netherlands, more or fewer Moroccans"
- Audience: "Fewer, fewer, fewer.... " (shouting)
- Wilders:  "Then we will fix this" (audience and Wilders laugh)

Innocent: no. Deliberate:yes. Racist: yes.

Yet once again, PM Rutte of the VVD party stated this week that he does not rule out the possibility of forming a next government with Geert Wilders, who already gave vital support to Rutte's previous government.

To be honest, this makes me angry and scares the hell out of me. Not so much because of what Wilders says (racism is of all ages after all), but because he gets away with it (not in the legal, but in the moral sense), because mainstream politicians lack the moral compass, courage and self-confidence to go in the counter-attack, show solidarity and identify with fellow Dutch citizens of Moroccan origin or Islamic faith.

What we need is a Prime Minister who has the guts to say: "I am a Moroccan". That would be real leadership. What we get is cowardice.

As my colleague Ann Singleton said on Twitter yesterday: "Shocking times across Europe - racist parties are again becoming respectable power brokers". Cynical power politics apparently justify sacrificing any principle.  It is a dangerous slippery slope.