The benefits of migration

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 26. April 2016 - 23:57

Arthur Dahl's Blog at International Environment Forum


Arthur Lyon Dahl

The cover story in a recent issue of New Scientist provides an objective scientific basis for dispelling many of the myths and lies about the migration crisis, and substantiates many of the points that IEF has raised for years. Debora MacKenzie, in "On the Road Again: From our origins in Africa we've conquered the world by migrating. Can modern immigration really be a crisis" (New Scientist, 9 April 2016, Vol. 230, No. 3068, pp. 29-37) shows the historical importance of migration for the human race. She puts in perspective the current migration crisis which is producing political reactions of rejection that have no significant basis in fact. The following is a summary of her main points. The original article provides the references.

In 2015, there were 244 million immigrants in the world, or 3.3% of the total population, but only 10% of these are refugees, and they should be entitled to humanitarian assistance. Few people migrate unless they have no other option. Globalization has not created enough jobs, so people must go where there are jobs. The biggest emigration in history was from Europe to America between 1850 and 1910, with over 2 million people a year moving at its peak. The French revolution had led to the idea of national borders and passports, but the industrial revolution of the late 19th century encouraged the free movement of money, trade and labour. Generalized passport controls on foreigners are hardly a century old.

Today governments in many places are closing borders and crowding refugees into camps, creating a humanitarian crisis. The World Economic Forum ranked large-scale refugee flows as its global risk of highest concern this year. The issue is highly emotional and drives xenophobia. Perceptions of competition and wariness of contact with strangers have roots in our evolutionary past that the multicultural societies of today need to leave behind. With the present insecurity about jobs, there are concerns raised by populist parties about economic migrants taking jobs away from local people.

This is not how modern economies work. Economic migration provides increased labour that brings an increase in profits. Businesses can invest and diversify, creating demand for a broader range of workers. Migration helps to match workers more efficiently to demand, and makes the economy more resilient when migrants do jobs local people do not want to do. More people expand the economy. In Europe, for every 1% increase in the population from immigration, GDP grew by 1.25 to 1.5%. The World Bank estimates that immigration increasing the workforces of wealthy countries by 3% would boost global GDP by $356 billion by 2025. Removing all barriers to migration would increase world GDP by between 50 and 150 percent, or $39-117 trillion. Most of this extra wealth goes to migrants and to their home countries, to which migrants sent $440 billion in 2015, more than twice foreign aid. There is no evidence that immigrants crowd out local workers or reduce wages. Immigration to the US between 1990 and 2007 boosted the average wage by $5100, one quarter of the total rise. Highly skilled migrants plug labour shortages in health, education and information technology.

Migrants are not a burden on welfare services but want to work. They pay as much in taxes as they take in benefits. Britain expects 140,000 net immigrants per year. If that number doubled, it would cut government debt by almost a third, while stopping immigration would increase the debt by half. Illegal migrants contribute even more, since they rarely claim benefits. In the US, this amounted to $20 billion between 1990 and 1998, helping to keep the Social Security system afloat. The image of migrants taking away jobs, pushing up housing prices and overloading social services is false, with the real cause neoliberal economic policies. On economic grounds, immigration is good for everyone.

One major issue is a perceived threat to social cohesion. There is no evidence of an increase in violent crimes associated with immigration, and only at most a 2% increase in local crime where migrants are not allowed to work. In fact, immigration is often associated with a reduction in crime rates. There can be pressure on local communities where high rates of arrival can strain schools, housing and other services, requiring some short-term local investments. China has managed 155 million migrants from rural to urban areas, showing this is possible.

Remaining is a perceived threat to national identity in countries with a clear ethnic identity and no recent history of significant migration, producing a loss of cultural homogeneity and a backlash against immigrants. This may in fact be a result of an increasing loss of social cohesion with rising individualism in the structure of work and the impact of mass media, creating a longing for community and a desire to control differences. Increasing diversity is seen as lowering social capital such as trust, cooperation and altruism. Some countries have overcome this by accommodating rather than erasing diversity, creating a broader sense of "we", not through assimilation but through adaptation on both sides, as in Canada with a national identity based on immigration.

Diversity should be seen as the engine of investment and a source of creativity. Culturally diverse groups consistently outperform less diverse groups due to cognitive diversity, exposure to disagreement and alternative ways of thinking. Immigrants are often successful in business start-ups, science and the arts. More diversity does mean more complexity and requires more efforts to maintain, which may be why some countries do better at this than others. It requires broad agreement on core goals and principles. The challenge is bound to grow for wealthy countries that will need to import workers to compensate for falling birth rates. The automation of production will worsen unemployment and political instability and greatly increase migration pressure, requiring a more coordinated and strategic approach to the global workforce. There is no global body to oversee the movement of people or to set official policy, emphasizing the need for a UN agency to manage migration in the global interest and to develop the huge positive potential of migration.

The IEF has been calling for such a global approach to migration for several years, including in its submissions to UN events. While the article does not mention it, climate change and associated impacts will be another major driver of migration. The Bahá'í principles of unity in diversity, consultation, community solidarity and kindness to strangers are precisely what is needed to turn migration from a perceived threat into a positive asset, as both science and economics so clearly demonstrate in this article.


Last updated 26 April 2016

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