Saturday 28 May 2011

Development leads to more migration

It is often said that the only way to reduce migration to Europe, North America and other wealthy countries is to stimulate development in poor countries.

This sounds very logical. But it is a myth. In reality, social and economic development in poor countries leads to more migration. If you don't believe it, please look at this graph:

(c) Hein de Haas
This graph (from this recent study) ranks all countries in the world according to the level of human development. This is an index used by the United Nations Development Programme to measure the level of development of countries, and is calculated on the basis of three indicators: life expectancy at birth, years of schooling and income (GNI) per head of the population. It is a rough indicator of the quality of life and living standards in countries.

I divided all countries of the world countries in five, equally large groups ranging from very low to very high levels of human development. The blue and red bars indicate the number of emigrants (citizens living abroad) and immigrants (people born abroad) as a percentage of the total population (using 2000 data). It shows a striking pattern
  • Immigration goes steadily up with the levels of development. More developed countries are more attractive. This makes sense. It also indicates that highly developed countries are inevitably high immigration societies.
  • The surprise is in the blue bars: emigration initially goes up with levels of development, and only goes down once countries move into high development categories. It indicates that if poor countries become wealthier, emigration will increase.
This comes as a surprise to many, and is often met with disbelief. However, the explanation is simple: Development increases people's capabilities and  aspirations to migrate. International migration is often a costly and risky affair. Many people in poor countries simply do not have enough money and other resources to migrate over long distances. When societies become wealthier, more people will be able to migrate. And more people will have diplomas and qualifications which will allow them to get visas.

It is therefore no coincidence that the most important emigration countries in the world, such as Mexico, Morocco, Turkey and the Philippines are not the poorest countries in the world.

But it's not only money that matters. Also education and access to modern media such as satellite television and Internet plays explain why development initially leads to more migration. If people go to school, they increase their life aspirations, become more aware of opportunities elsewhere. Together with schooling, also access to modern media lead to people aspire better opportunities and different lifestyles.

When I lived in a Moroccan oasis for my research, my young friends, who were all peasants' sons and had gone to school, simply could not imagine a future on the farm anymore. Again, this was not only related to the lack of jobs on the countryside; they found life on the countryside simply "boring". They wanted to go and live in Casablanca or Marrakesh, or to go to Europe.

These processes are universal. It reminded me of my own mother, who also could not image a life on the farm anymore in the far north of the Netherlands, and went to Amsterdam. My parents moved back to Frisia in the north when they founded a family, until it was my turn to get bored and so I moved "back" to Amsterdam at the age of 18.

It is an illusion that you can stop this. Most young people, particularly when they are educated, want to explore the world and discover new horizons. European and American students find it perfectly normal to take a "gap year" to travel around the world, but are surprised when young Africans or Asians show the same sense of adventure and want to discover the world. The tendency is to portray them as "desperate" and "poor" whereas the majority of migrants from developing countries are better off than those who are forced to stay behind.

Several studies about past migration have shown the same pattern. For instance, in the 19th century, most immigrants in the United States came from Britain and other North Sea countries, while migration from poorer, less developed countries in southern and eastern Europe, which were lagging behind in industrial development and urbanization, took off much later.

What can we conclude from this? If countries such as Morocco and Mexico will experience rapid growth and economic development, we can experience a decline in emigration from those countries and an increase in immigration. In recent decades, such 'migration transitions" have also happened with countries such as Spain, Italy, Greece, Ireland, South Korea, Taiwan; and Turkey seems in the middle of such a transition.

But development in the least developed countries, many of which are located in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, will almost inevitably lead to take-off emigration from those countries.

Therefore, future immigrants in Europe might increasingly come from sub-Saharan African instead of North African countries.

The graph and the study on which it is based also show something more fundamental: the need to see migration as an intrinsic - and therefore inevitable - part of human development rather than a problem to be solved.


  1. This is not surprising at all and maybe one should look carefully at the concepts used when analyzing migration pull factors. There are some odd approaches in migration theories (and not only) about considering migrants separate, uncreative and unsophisticated. In this view, leisure is considered an aspect of western modernity that facilitates tourism - or "gap years" - characterized by the absence of work, while migration is undertaken by less modern people pushed by certain causes at home. Why should the travels to work of people from less developed countries be supposed to differ fundamentally from those of developed countries?Instead of considering the former as people with identities attached to the economic environment in which they grow, they should be seen as ordinary people working to overcome specific problems, exhibiting pleasure and desire to travel and work like anybody else. In this view, development facilitates migration by increasing people's capabilities to migrate, whereas their aspirations, dreams, desires are not different from those of westerners.

  2. I do agree with this conclusion: the more you can afford money to travel, the more people think of living their own born cities or villages; there is a new migratory phenomenon in Morocco, the migration of employed people; young men and women migrate to europe and canada when they save money in the banks after five or six years of work in Morocco; i know a lot of freinds of mine who just quit their job as primary or secondary teachers and travel to a country in europe or canada to restart their life of their own choice; there re now whole families with middle income where you find: the father, the mother, one or two children degide to migrate to canada for their siblings future; they sacrifise everything in their country ( after ten or more years of hard work, having a house of their own and having a middle income status). i do beleive that the more people are educated and have money to move they will do it. these are past migartion dreamers but their dream is postponed till conditions are met then the adventure starts; this is also the case of subsaharan( irregular ones or students who study in Morocco) the percentage of subsaharn who go back to their country of origin willingly and voluntarily ( not by force) is rare; also the ones who get their diplomas here in Morocco either find a job here or go to europe or canada to pursue their studies. here I argue with Amartya Sen: develoment is Freedom.

  3. Noureddine Harrami28 May 2011 at 21:09

    Ce rapport entre développement socio-économique et émigration est totalement vérifiable sur des plans très micro. Dans le rural de la région du Tadla au Maroc (où je travaille depuis quelques années), la migration internationale caractérise les douars de propriétaires terriens. Elle quasi-absente des douars de paysans sans terres...
    Autre chose intéressante : dans ces mêmes douars de propiétaires terriens, on pratique très rarement la migration interne (vers les grandes villes). Ce type de mobilité spécifie les douars des paysans ss terre.

  4. Merci pour ce commentaire. j'ai constaté la même chose au sud du Maroc pendant mes travaux de terrain sur l'échelle régionale. Dans la province de Tata, au sud du Bani, région très marginalisée, peu de gens migrent vers l'étranger - la quasi totalité se trouve à Casa, Agadir, Marrakech. Au contraire, dans la vallée du Todgha, région rélativement plus prospère et beaucoup mieux connectée, un grand nombre de ménage participent dans la migration internationale, mais surtout des villages plus centraux.

  5. Fully agree with this post, but want to add that the role of certain institutions is, however, paramount. Why did we see emigration from all over Europe 150-100 years ago, but not from France, which also did experience demographic transition and industrialization similar to other countries? Answer: land rights. France was nearly the only country in old Europe to grant land rights to all heirs, not just the oldest kid in the family. The result: when families were growing, kids were moving to cities, faced unemployment and poverty, but all of them were able to come back home to the countryside, have a piece of land, and feed themselves from it. This is not what was happening in Italy: as only the eldest child inherited land, all other kids were forced to migration abroad once all possibilities to find work in the cities were exhausted. A simple institution created a completely different scenario and history of migration in one single country. We are observing similar things in Ethiopia today. There, individuals lose right to own the land if they do not work on it for more than three years. As Ethiopians know that migration is a risky experience and may not nesessarily turn out right, they prefer staying at home and keeping their land, rather than assuming this risk and finnding themselves with nothing. This is why we do not see that many Ethipioans abroad, even from richer areas of Ethiopia...

    A food of though for someone who wants to "stop" migration ;)

  6. Is migration the basic human right we fail as humans to uphold? If development and economic growth creates a much mobile society the need for borders becomes much more trivial. What a beautiful world it would be where we can all travel freely to where we want to go and chose the best location to reside. The location that enhances one's capabilities provides the best conditions to fulfil one's aspirations. A world that is only possible for the top (access all areas) passport holders at the moment.


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