Immigration, like a high-scoring Scrabble letter, has become the ‘Q’ stuck in the Prime Minister’s hand as his opponents play their last letters to end the game. Sunak’s promises to control immigration, made ever more forcefully but never kept, have become a liability, a pledge too far. His government’s anti-immigration policies don’t acknowledge the realities of international migration. This is the conclusion to be drawn from Professor Hein de Haas’ article in the 29th December Guardian, itself a potted summary of his informative recent book How Migration Really Works: A Factual Guide to the Most Divisive Issue in Politics, Penguin/Viking 2023.
De Haas is Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam and Professor of Migration and Development at the University of Maastricht. Drawing on three decades of scholarly research into immigration and integration around the world, his book is a sobering myth-buster. We have been conducting the wrong arguments. Much of what is popularly believed about immigration – I confess to a measure of gullibility myself – is just plain wrong, misguided or exaggerated. The world is not facing an unprecedented refugee crisis, South-North migration is more a rational economic decision than ‘a desperate flight from poverty, hunger and conflict’. Immigration’s impact on the wages of indigenous workers is negligible. We need migrant labour. We don’t have enough UK-born trained staff in the NHS, social care and a range of vital occupations. Neither development nor border restrictions will stop migration.
De Haas’ starting point is to view the movement of people as an integral part of global economies. The great dynamo of migrancy is the demand for labour. Most migrants abide by the requirements set for their entry. Governments and businesses in prosperous countries attract migrant labour, unostentatiously for the most part, and for a variety of reasons: aging populations, a workforce unwilling to undertake the more unpleasant and onerous jobs and citizens unable or unwilling to do their own domestic work.
When you think about who is capable of responding to labour demand in Europe, USA and the Gulf States, the answer is obvious: not the poorest unable to save enough for the journey or pay recruitment agents rather people from middle-income countries such as Mexico, Philippines, Pakistan and many Indian states. Threaten to tighten control of borders and the numbers increase as migrants fear it will be their last chance to cross them. Those who might have returned home after a period of work remain because they are worried about getting back again (much migrancy is of course cyclical and temporary but who counts those returning home?).
The wealth generated and sent home by migrants is prodigious. In 2020 it came to 2.6 times overseas aid from governments, $193 billion, to their countries of origin. Unlike official aid, remittances go straight into the pockets of recipients who use it to build sturdy houses, educate children, pay for health care and improve their diet. And the amount of cash moving this way is increasing. Between 1990 –2020 total estimated remittances grew from $29 billion to $502 billion. The impact on economic development in the global South should not be underestimated.
De Haas argues that we imagine the numbers of economic migrants today are at an unprecedented crisis level. But, according to the United Nations Population Division, the rate of migrancy has remained stable at around 3% of the world’s population. In 1960 the global population of 3 billion generated 93 million international migrants; in 2000, 6.1 billion produced 170 million migrants and, in 2017, 247 million came from a population of 7.6 billion. Even the number of undocumented immigrants in the UK estimated at between 674,000 and 800,000 amounts to only 1% of the country’s population. In the USA the figure is 3.2%. 97% of humanity have always lived and still do live in their country of birth.
Why the panic and resentment now? The numbers don’t warrant it. Britain – usually at first grumpily - has hosted and integrated wave after wave of immigrants in the past and could do so now. Though localised pressures are real, the present sense of widespread crisis is manufactured, aided by pictures of small boats crossing the Channel and their tragic victims. Successfully counter one means of transportation, and sadly the people smugglers will open up another.
And what about refugees? They compose only a small fraction of people crossing international borders. Between 1985-2021 only 7-12% of migrants were refugees, estimated as between 9 and 21 million, about 0.3% of the world’s population. The numbers fluctuate according to levels of conflict. The Russian intervention in the war in Syria in 2015 caused a notable spike with Angela Merkel famously admitting one million to Germany where they are now mostly settled and productively employed (what Germans call one of her decisions of the heart not the head). But most refugees move to neighbouring countries, or become ‘displaced people’ within their own. In 2018 there were 3.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, 4.4% of the population, a million in Lebanon in a population of 6 million. African countries hosted 5.5 million refugees almost all from other African countries, with Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia the main hosts. Such numbers might lead us to question our attitudes and assumptions.
Once immigration is framed as an aspect of economic life, as De Haas does, it should be game-over for governments whose rhetoric plants immigrants at the heart of a divisive problem. It becomes obvious that it is government policies leading to inequality, low wages, job insecurity, and failing public services, which are the real problem. The next to no checks on ‘illegal’ workers in hospitality, food processing and other low-paid employment taken by migrants is a tacit admission of economic reality. Underpay childcare or care of the elderly and large numbers of foreign workers will be drawn in. Likewise, underfund universities and they will have to rely on high-fee paying foreign students who - guess what - sometimes want to settle here and bring their families.
De Haan at times pushes the conclusions from his data too far but he is to be thanked for reminding us that a few facts and evidence-based policy-making might be a good idea. And, it should be added, would free us to tackle the social, economic and political problems that have become ever more pressing.
The debate should not be anti-versus- pro-immigration but a discussion about what kind of society we want to live in, the values required to sustain it, and how migrants can be successfully integrated in such a society. We should be focusing on what needs to be done, the economic reforms needed to reduce inequality removing social divisions and resentment at reduced life opportunities.
See TheArticle 04/01/2024