It is important to consider in our exploration of human migration the ends served by modern human movement around the world. Just as the decision to migrate involves a cost-benefit analysis for the individual migrant, the experiences of the countries involved can similarly be captured as a calculation of risk to reward. There are three parties involved in every act of international migration – the migrant himself, his country of origin and his country of destination. Each of these parties has its own distinct and often conflicting interests in the process. What is good for the migrant may not be good for his home or host country; the home and host countries gain and lose in different ways.
Is migration good for the migrant’s country of origin? The answer lies in an analysis of who the migrant is, where he goes and what he does there.
Safety Valve Functions
Migration can serve an important safety valve function for a “sending” country:
- Relieving a country of some of its inhabitants can reduce the pressure on resources – from land to water to food -- particularly in densely populated and impoverished regions.
- If significant ethnic and civil strife are present, migration of certain interest groups in society can also serve as a safety valve. Exiling of dissidents serves the same function.
- Migration of certain demographic groups in society can relieve pressure on labor markets and ease intergenerational tensions. Countries with large youth/working age populations experience downward pressure on wages, especially among unskilled laborers, if labor supply significantly exceeds demand. Unemployed youth populations are politically destabilizing as well, and their migration is often welcomed by their home countries.
Migrants perhaps benefit their home countries most when they send home a portion of their wages to family and friends, or make investments in their countries of origin. By some estimates, remittances comprise double the amount of foreign aid that LDCs receive and up to 30% of some poor countries’ total GDP. Remittances that are made through formal banking channels from migrants in MDCs back to LDCs have by some estimates quadrupled over the last two decades, from $60 billion in 1990 to $240 billion in 2007. Other estimates put the current figure closer to $318 billion or nearly 1 billion dollars per day. Millions more in remittances are made through informal channels.
- Immigrants living in the US send the most money back home, with $42 billion leaving the country in 2006, $25 billion of it going to Mexico (formal banking channels only).
- Remittances can be so significant that origin countries encourage migration. The Times of India reports that 20 million Indians working and living abroad have made India the largest single recipient of remittance flows; India receives $27 billion remitted from various countries, which comprises one-tenth of total global remittances. As a result, the government has been accused of “pandering” to the growing diaspora by helping to support migrants living abroad with “welfare funds” to purchase health insurance in countries where coverage is compulsory.
- Ironically, the poorer the migrant, the more likely he is to send remittances. The majority of remittances to LDCs come in small increments from unskilled laborers.
- Remittances are less volatile than foreign aid or investment and tend to actually increase during times of global economic hardship.
- The net effect of remittances is complicated. Relying on these cash flows can discourage governments from making needed economic investments and reforms to boost development. Moreover, the lucrative nature of remittances serves as a “reward” or “incentive” for out-migration when what developing countries often need is to keep their most industrious workers home to grow the home economy.
- Remittances can drive up inflation rates in developing economies, leaving those without a remittance source facing higher prices for everyday goods.
- Remittances are generally encouraged by both the countries of origin and destination. Destination countries benefit from fees on banking transactions incurred in sending the money home. It has also been shown that remittances nurture ties between immigrants and their home communities that serve as a “safety net.” When immigrants fall on hard times in their host countries, they are often able to depend on relatives and connections back home instead of becoming reliant on public welfare.
When large immigrant communities form in wealthy and influential nations, they form a powerful diaspora which can advocate for the interests of their countries of origin (usually an LDC) in the host country and in the international community.
- Benefits negotiated by and made possible through this diaspora can include investment, aid, preferential trade policies and even political pressure for reform in the home country. For instance, the Chinese diaspora in the West has spearheaded business deals and agitated for Communist Party reforms in China.
- When migration is temporary or circular, or when migrants maintain close ties to their home countries, valuable exchanges of ideas are facilitated and the country of origin benefits from the immigrant’s experiences in a more modernized society.
The primary cost associated with migration for the country of origin is the “brain drain,” or the loss of some of its brightest citizens.
- When migrants are skilled and/or highly educated, the sending country experiences not only the loss of that worker and his contribution to society, but also the investment made in his education or training, and the potential for him to mentor and teach others.
- Considering that making an international move requires some financial solvency and entrepreneurship from anyone, even unskilled workers who migrate are a loss to their country of origin.
- The effect of “brain drain” is acute in many developing nations where doctors and nurses are in short supply locally because they have been so heavily recruited to make up for shortfalls in developed countries such as the United States.
- PBS Frontline World’s Barnaby Lo has reported that the US is expected to have a deficit of 800,000 to one million trained nurses by the year 2020, and the American government actively recruits medical personnel all over the world with special visas. Lo goes on to note that the nursing shortfall is so extreme, and the recruitment so lucrative, that many trained engineers, teachers and even doctors in places like the Philippines, India and South Africa are abandoning their careers to enter nursing school with an eye toward emigration. In the Philippines alone, a study by the country’s former Secretary of Health found that “80% of all government doctors have become nurses or are in nursing schools. There are roughly 9000 doctors-turned-nurses and 5000 of all these medical practitioners are now working abroad.” The public health and economic effects of this trend are potentially devastating to developing countries.
- Not only are financial successes and talents transferred to the recipient country, but potentially valuable political assets as well. Most migrants are from poor countries, which often have poor governance as both a cause and symptom of their impoverishment. When the best and brightest leave, they take potential reformist energy and acumen with them.
The Negative Impact of Diasporas
- Just as immigrants in host countries can act in ways that benefit their countries of origin, they can also act in ways that are destabilizing. Pressure from migrants, exiles and expatriates exerted on incumbent leaders who are resistant to reform often backfires. This can lead to repression and/or retaliation toward citizens back home.
- Many civil conflicts are initiated and/or exacerbated by the advocacy and fundraising of emigrants with particular interests. For example, the fragile situation in post-genocide Rwanda is thought to be imperiled by the opposing activities of Hutu and Tutsi exiles abroad.
- Interstate conflicts can be aggravated by their opposing champion diasporas living abroad as well. An example is the influence of Chinese and Taiwanese diasporas in the US during moments of tension in the Taiwan Strait. Similarly, foreign nationals who participate in terrorist acts in their host countries strain relations between those nations and their countries of origin, and can discredit their home countries.
The Balance Sheet
Whether a migrant’s decision to relocate hurts or helps his country of origin is highly subjective and situational. Countries of origin usually have little say over the matter, unlike the migrant (if he is acting voluntarily) or the recipient country (to the extent that it can enforce its legal restrictions on immigration). Rarely, and only in highly repressive regimes, are people prevented from voluntarily leaving their country. The country of origin is thus largely a passive actor in the migration equation.
Some LDCs have experimented with tying financial assistance for in-country education to promises by students to stay at home for a period of years after graduation; others have tied financial grants to study abroad with promises of return. These measures are difficult to enforce and have met with limited success. Sadly, some experts have noted that one possible recourse would be for LDCs to offer subsidies and grants for only K-12 education in-country so that when talent flees, the investment in more expensive higher education doesn’t go with it.
Next: Migration Basics: Migration - To What End?: Effect on Countries of Destination