Who and where are today’s migrants?
- There is nothing new about the act of human migration – the story of humanity is one of people constantly on the move. The official designation of people into categories of migrants is a relatively new phenomenon, however, that arose with the nation-state system.
- All designations and labels for migrants– legal, illegal, forced, voluntary, economic, refugees – are inherently political, and come with certain rights and protections. Yet, migrants can change status over the course of their journey; it is often difficult to identify the primary driver of a migrant’s mobility. Most human movement is motivated by intertwined social, economic and political factors.
- There are many more internal migrants than international migrants. Data is usually not collected on those who move voluntarily within their country of birth. The exception is internally displaced people (IDPs) forced to flee one area of the country for another, without crossing an international boundary. Twenty-six million people qualify as IDPs under UN guidelines, on the run from conflict or persecution. Another 25 million are thought to be internally displaced by natural or man-made environmental disasters. Asia and Africa are home to the most of the world’s 51 million internally displaced migrants.
- Most international migrants originate in a developing country and travel to another developing country or to a developed nation. North America (the US and Canada), Europe, and Oceania (Australia and New Zealand) are the primary countries of destination for international migrants.
- There are currently 200 million people living outside their countries of birth, representing 3% of the world’s population, or one in 35 people. Half of all international migrants are women. Sixteen million of the world’s foreign-born population are refugees fleeing conflict or persecution across international borders.
- Mobile, highly educated and skilled workers are in high demand; these migrants comprise an increasing percentage of the total immigrant population today.
- High profile migrant flows today include Mexicans to the US, North Africans to Europe, and internal migration within China. The majority of refugee flows are generated by wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as civil conflicts in Africa.
Why and how do people migrate?
- Migration is a function of “push” and “pull” factors. Some push factors include poverty, unemployment, low wages, and fear of persecution. Some pull factors include jobs, higher wages, opportunities for advancement, and family reunification.
- Modern migration is motivated by economic and demographic inequality in the world, and is facilitated by improved transportation and communication technologies. Family and ties to established immigrant communities as well as geographic proximity often determine where a migrant ends up.
- Human mobility is aided by a large formal and informal “migration industry,” including government officials, family members, immigrant communities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), charities, employers, banks and even smugglers and traffickers. The process progresses through legal, illegal and semi-legal channels.
- Different dispensations are made for work, education, travel, employment, family reunification and asylum. For each migrant, terms are established regarding entry, exit and length of stay; consideration is given to country of origin and circumstances of departure.
- “Illegal” or “undocumented” immigrants enter a country without permission, or more frequently, overstay the terms of their entry permit. In the US, 30% of foreign-born residents are considered to be in the country illegally.
What is the effect of migration on countries of origin?
- Remittance flows – earned immigrant dollars flowing back to their countries of origin – total by some estimates up to $318 billion annually. These funds are sent home primarily by workers from developing countries that have migrated to developed countries. Remittances often exceed the amount of money a developing country receives in foreign aid. Immigrant diasporas also provide non-monetary support to their home countries, in the form of political advocacy in developed nations and in international halls of power.
- “Brain drain” is a significant cost realized by immigrant-sending nations. It is often a country’s best and brightest citizens who have the means and motivation to relocate, robbing their home countries of critical talent; this is especially prevalent in medical and engineering disciplines.
What is the effect on countries of destination?
- Economically, the net effect of immigration on host countries is marginally positive. Immigrants often create jobs, bring entrepreneurial talent or perform labor considered undesirable by native-born workers.
- Not everyone benefits equally from immigration, and this is the subject of much debate. Employers generally benefit from lower labor costs and access to a flexible labor supply; certain groups of native-born workers may experience downward pressure on wages. Foremost among these are native-born workers of color without a high school diploma. On the flip side, lower labor costs make consumer goods cheaper for all domestic consumers, and some believe that this benefit, along with job creation by immigrant entrepreneurs, balances out the effect on wages overall.
- Contrary to popular belief, immigrants do not usually “steal” jobs from native-born workers. They either perform jobs natives consider undesirable (unskilled immigrants) or jobs for which natives are not qualified (highly skilled immigrants). Nor do immigrants place a burden on the overall public welfare system because they generally pay more in taxes than they consume in services during their lifetimes.
- Immigrants tend to be of working age and have higher fertility rates; this helps to counteract the population decline currently occurring in many developed countries. Immigrants also help to preserve dependency ratios in these countries, as the non-Hispanic white population ages and falls below replacement birth rates. In the long run, however immigration alone cannot solve this demographic dilemma.
- Socially and politically, immigrant populations can strain fragile community dynamics, generating nativism, nationalism and xenophobia.
- Many experts and observers have pointed out that immigration has other costs and risks to destination countries. These include security concerns, dilution of national identity, urbanization and settlement patterns that strain environmental resources.
How can the interests of all stakeholders – sending and receiving countries, migrants and the international community – be reconciled in the policy making?
- Fundamentally, these competing interests cannot be appeased and inevitably collide, as benefits realized by some parties translate into costs for others.
- Policies can generally only try to maximize the benefits and minimize the downsides for all, through the management of migration. The responsibility for developing laws, institutions and norms guiding migration is dispersed and international, national, state and local approaches overlap and contradict each other.
- One of the biggest issues affecting migration today is the acceptance of universal human rights that recognize the freedom of individuals to leave the country of their birth and/or to seek sanctuary in another country of their choice. However, entry and asylum for migrants leaving their countries voluntarily or involuntarily is controlled by individual nation states. National sovereignty is often at odds with human rights, as nations seek to protect their interests in the face of unwanted immigration.
- Many experts wonder if temporary or circular migration might provide the best compromise to the above dilemma. This would give flexible labor benefits to host countries, while encouraging the return of migrants to their home countries after a period of time. This approach is seen as facilitating the exchange of human energy and ideas, without the effects of brain drain on home countries and the unwanted effects of permanent immigration on host countries. However, most experts note that enforcing constant mobility would be nearly impossible for liberal democratic societies. Others wonder about the implications of transnational citizenship on the nation-state system and on the preservation of families and communities.
- Overall, current attempts by nations to restrict immigration generally do not result in less net migration, but result in more illegal migration. Legal status is seen as key to managing immigration’s effects on nations and on preventing the exploitation of migrants themselves. However, amnesty programs designed to legalize existing immigrants are politically unpopular in many developed nations.
- If reducing net migration is the goal of public policy, many believe that the only way to achieve this is to aggressively promote the economic development of immigrant-sending nations by diminishing the incentive for mobility at the source. Less poverty and conflict in developing countries should in theory produce less migration, or more manageable levels of migration.
- Migration policy is often formed without good data, and is influenced by emotional and political concerns. Both European nations and the United States must increasingly navigate different interest groups as they seek to regulate immigration. This highly charged policymaking atmosphere is expected to worsen as the current global recession impacts host countries’ economies.
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