Tuesday, 15 November 2011

The only way to reduce immigration is to wreck the economy

There is increasing evidence that migration from Mexico to the United States is declining fast, and that, in fact, quite some migrants are returning. Politicians are usually quick to claim that such decreases are the result of border controls, the erection of fences and walls, and tough immigration rules. Yet the real cause of such decline is the protracted economic crisis in the US and soaring unemployment, which has particularly hit the construction sector, where many migrants tend to find employment.

This shows once again that immigration is primarily driven by economic conditions. Fluctuations in both legal and illegal immigration are closely associated to the business cycle in receiving countries. If the demand for migrant labour does not meet supply in the form of regular migration channels, migration will not stop, but migrants will come illegally. Only sustained economic recessions tend to significantly curb immigration.

To put it differently, the only way to really reduce immigration is to wreck the economy.

But the recent decline in Mexican immigration cannot be solely explained by the economic crisis in the US. Another important factors include shrinking families and expanded opportunities in Mexico, explaining why more and more young people prefer to stay at home instead of migrating to the crisis-ridden and increasingly immigrant-hostile United States. Mexico itself is also becoming a migration destination for poorer Latin American countries,

A similar, and probably even more convincing story can be told about Turkey. In recent years, migration from Turkey to the European Union has rapidly decreased. This is only partly related to declining opportunities in the European Union, as this decline already started before the onset of the economic crisis.

The main reason for this change has been extraordinary high growth Turkey has witnessed over the past decade following fundamental political and economic reforms. Why bother going abroad, if your own country offers so many new opportunities? This has made Turkey into a new migration destination - which means that more people migrate to Turkey than Turks move abroad. Also other emerging economies, such as Brazil and China, are attracting increasing numbers of migrants.

This shows how fast the world is changing. European and American debates on migration are still based on the self-centered notion that the whole world wants to come to the Western lands of milk and honey.

However, seen from Africa, Asia and Latin America, they increasingly appear like regions in crisis. So, people may either prefer to stay home or to simply go elsewhere. For instance, more and more sub-Saharan Africans migrate to Asia, North Africa, Turkey or even Latin America.

If and when economic growth resumes in the US and the EU, migration is likely to increase again, but with increasing global competition for migrant labour, governments and societies cannot afford the luxury to just take for granted that migrants will keep on coming - with this attitude, they may be shooting themselves in their own feet.

In many ways, in the future, the question will no longer be how to prevent migrants from coming, but how to attract them.

Although politicians and opinion makers may celebrate declining immigration, in their shortsightedness they do not see that this is in fact a sign of crisis.

Rising nations attract migrants, declining powers try to keep them out.


  1. Brilliant piece, Mr de Haas! I salute your courage as a scholar at a time when deep-seated racism has inflected even Left-wing intellectuals in Europe and the rest of the Euro-American world.

    Indeed, there is a massive return migration to the countries of the South (Turkey and Morocco are just two examples). Let's hope this trend continue, especially now that racism has been normalised in Europe and people give you a second look because you look like an Arab or a Pakistani. It doesn't matter whether you are a medic or hold 3 PhD degrees in economics, politics and nuclear physics. Racism on this continent is on the increase and it is disgusting and feels like hell (I'm forcing my tears back). We are here as exiles and immigrants because our countries have been pillaged by Western empires and colonialism has left us with scars that won't heal before a long time. Ever since 1492, imperialism has made us who we are.

    JB, Amazigh nomad in Scotland.

  2. Eh...well, actually that is kind of not true.

    Immigration reduction is very effective and only needs a determined nation not constrained (or willing to deconstrain itself) by human right treaties that have drifted off from their original purpose.

    - Japan is rich and has no big immigration.
    - Operation Wetback (US, 1950s)
    - America before 1967: no large scale immigration

    It is a matter of will and political mandate.

    Not of fate, as mr De Haas would have us believe.

    1. Respect for human rights is indeed one major reason why liberal democracies cannot stop immigration. Think for instance about the right on family life. In addition, these countries tend to be wealthy and nonmigrants tend to shun certain jobs migrants pick up. Even non-human rights respecting nations have difficulties controlling immigration. Gulf countries also face increasingly long-term immigration for instance


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