February 20, 2014

The iceberg of global migration and a calm state of mind

Migration is a difficult topic to talk about, particularly when in many European nations political extremists have monopolized the discussion. Those who do not find racism and xenophobia compelling try to avoid the issue. Estonia’s history of migration differs considerably from that of Western Europe, meaning the discussion over immigration in Estonia has a completely different starting point. Still, it is an issue where finding a balance between political correctness and blind nationalism is not a simple matter. Talking about migration often causes emotions to go through the roof.

Paul Collier, Exodus. Immigration and Multiculturalism in the 21st Century, Oxford University Press, 2013
A growing body of scientific research that focuses on economic and sociological arguments instead of engaging in spiteful malcontent and shouting bloody slogans is therefore laudable. Paul Collier, a renowned British economist and professor at the Oxford University, provides an example of such readworthy material in his recent work Exodus.  Collier primarily analyzes three factors: how immigration influences the society the migrants join, how emigration influences the country migrants leave, and how migrants themselves feel about the issue of migration.
In contrast to many other treatments, Collier’s starting point is not the question of whether migration in itself is good or bad. Instead, he is more interested in determining whether migration is useful, and how state immigration policy can help find an equilibrium where a majority of both the native population and the newcomers would benefit. Collier also considers the consequences that emigration brings to source countries. Another laudable feature of the book is that in addition to analyzing the economic  dimension of migration, Collier also delves into its social and political aspects, giving us a refreshingly comprehensive treatment.
According to Collier, the economic balance of migration is more or less positive when viewed from the perspective of either receiving nations, the migrants themselves, or the source countries. Research conducted in Continental Europe and Great Britain shows that immigration causes wages for the native population to rise. Contrary to the supposition that immigrants compete on the job market with natives, they instead compete with other immigrants. In addition, immigration can help boost the receiving country’s economy if immigrants possess some specific skills in short supply  in the receiving country. Research also shows that immigrants tend to be more innovative than the native population. In the United States, immigrants apply for more patents for new inventions than the native population. Immigration, therefore,  potentially embodies very positive opportunities for the receiving country.
As a rule, the economies of source countries also benefit because the majority of emigrants send at least a part of their income back home. In the case of less well- off nations these remissions can constitute a very sizable part of the country’s gross domestic product. For instance, according to World Bank estimates, developing countries earned approximately $410 billion through remissions in 2013, a remarkable sum. Economically speaking, however, the biggest winners are the migrants themselves. Their personal income noticeably increases as a result of migration. For example the salary of a worker who moves from Haiti to the United States instantly rises almost tenfold. This increase certainly does not apply to everyone, but according to Collier moving from a poor and inefficient economic system to a country with a developed economy is enough to cause a perceptible, and often quite large, increase in the worker’s productivity and salary. Wealth is created by efficient economic and political systems, not individuals.
Collier also brings forth a number of potentially negative economic outcomes, including increased stress on the receiving country’s social security system, financial risks to migrants related to emigration and brain drain from source nations. It is important to note that, according to Collier, the balance between good and bad economic results depends largely on the character of three factors: the  source country, the receiving country, and  the migrants themselves. Due to this multiplicity of factors, it  is therefore impossible to reach definite conclusions. Factors such as the population density of the receiving country, the cultural distance of the immigrants from the native population, immigrants’ level of education, the size of the already existing community etc. all play a role in determining the relative weight of the positive and negative impacts. Collier admits that even though the negative aspects of migration have often been stressed more than positive aspects, the negative effects of migration (for instance the decrease in investments into training in the receiving country caused by the influx of qualified workers) have not been adequately studied.
However fascinating Collier’s discussion about the economy may be, the most interesting part of his analysis is his discussion of the political and social effects of migration. Collier proposes the impetus for political change in source countries brought about by the political conduct of a diaspora movement as one of the most important political effects. For instance, immigrants’ experiences with democratic and efficient governance in their new country may inspire them to demand political reforms in their source country as well. Collier uses political reform in Senegal as an example. During the elections of 2012, a survey was conducted among Senegalese immigrants in France and the United States. It showed a vast majority of immigrants encouraged their compatriots who had remained behind in Senegal to register as voters. The survey also indicated that almost half of the emigrants gave recommendations as to whom to vote for. Similar results have been obtained from studies undertaken in Mali and Moldova. Migrants who had returned from other countries were far more likely to participate in elections than non-migrants. Moreover, returned migrants’ behavior influenced the behavior of  non-migrants, whose electoral activity also increased (interestingly, this influence was most pronounced among their least educated compatriots).
Collier also notes that diasporas can have a negative political impact. In the case of authoritarian states, for instance, emigration can decrease pressure on the governing regime since contrarian citizens are more likely to leave due to the government’s repressive methods. A good example of this effect is Zimbabwe. There are almost a million refugees from Robert Mugabe’s bloody grip in South Africa alone. Such population drain can hinder political development, particularly when the emigrants are well-educated. In general, the higher percentage of educated people in the population, the stronger the pressure towards democratization.
At the same time, Collier stresses that diasporas can function as an indispensable depository for states in post-conflict situations. Leaders who have lived in democratic countries and have internalized their norms can influence the post-conflict situation in a positive way, through helping to rebuild a responsible and efficient state and to develop the economy. This change can take place both at the leadership level and at that of ordinary migrants,  utilizing their experiences and resources. The World Bank and other relevant international organizations are increasingly leveraging the potential of diaspora communities for use in the context of their development aid programs. For instance, the World Bank recently launched a program in cooperation with Zimbabwean diaspora-organizations that should help Zimbabwe maximize emigrant expertise in the course of the nation’s development. A database is being created within the framework of the program that enables professionals of Zimbabwean origin to sign up so that both the public and private sectors can get in touch with experts from various fields. Special investment programs are also being launched that enable the diaspora to find suitable investment opportunities in the Zimbabwean public and private sectors.
Although studies undertaken so far do not allow us to draw definite conclusions about the political influence of diasporas, they do provide us with food for thought about conflict resolution and the liberalization of political systems. The same applies to social and economic development. While migration to societies with a higher level of development, development aid, and other indirect measures can help ameliorate the living conditions of the needy, the reduction in the income gap between the world’s richest and poorest requires a more thorough change. This requires a systematic shift towards a more efficient societal model that better utilizes workers’ potential to raise the living standard of society –something that European nations and other destination countries can no doubt help with through a calculated migration policy. It is plausible that the influence of diasporas on political change is rather indirect and only manifests itself over a long period of time. It would be naïve, however, to expect that a well-functioning system of government and economy can be created overnight. Moreover, it must be taken into account that every crisis hotspot and authoritarian system has its own dynamics that are manifested in different ways, and which demand individualized solutions. In any case, the possible positive role of the diaspora is no doubt something that should be taken into account while drafting recommendations on migration policy, including in the European context.
Collier also proposes recommendations that would help shape such a migration policy and make it beneficial to the majority of locals, source countries, and migrants alike. Collier recommends setting reasonable immigration quotas. According to him, if a certain threshold of immigration is crossed, the influx of immigrants may begin to threaten the mutual trust between native population and immigrants, hindering the normal functioning of society and threatening the values that make a democratic society possible. Furthermore, Collins proposes influencing who is granted residence opportunities. This would mean preferential treatment for immigrants with a specific level of education and skills, which would be beneficial to both the receiving society and serve as a motivational factor for those in source countries to obtain an education and develop skills. Collier opines that the private sector should play an important role in such a selection process based on the level of education and skills of immigrants, since it has a better overview of which kinds of workers are in short supply. For moral reasons, doors should also remain open to citizens of countries that suffer from the worst political or economic conditions.
In addition, Collier recommends introducing measures to improve a receiving society’s ability to integrate the immigrants into society. For example, immigrants could be dispersed over the entire territory of a country in order to avoid the emergence of overly closed communities, promote an integrated education system, and encourage a common sense of civic identity. It is also practical to quickly legalize the status of those who have entered the country illegally within the boundaries of the immigration quota in order to keep immigration at a steady pace.
Most of Collier’s ideas remain relatively general, particularly the part of his book which has garnered the most criticism: his views on regulating immigration. Many have criticized  his approach to regulating immigration, which is still relatively focused on receiving nations and stresses the necessity to defend local culture and societal arrangements. There have also been doubts about Collier’s claim that an influx of immigrants from remarkably different cultural backgrounds from the native population would produce the negative results he describes.
In all likelihood, it is impossible to develop an immigration policy that pleases everyone. Even though Collier looks at the issue slightly more through the lens of the receiving countries of migration, he has created a relatively broad framework for assessing the results of migration processes. It is also important to keep in mind one of Collier’s central messages: there is no scientifically sound evidence that migration has a significant negative effect on receiving countries. At least economically speaking, migration has generally had a positive economic effect. This certainly does not mean that unlimited and indiscriminate immigration would be desirable. There is definitely a need for a well-designed migration policy that considers different viewpoints, bolsters both the society’s and the immigrants’ ability to adapt, and maximizes the efficiency of migration. There is some food of thought in this for Estonians, since smaller states in particular face a considerable threat from emigration. As people with important skills and know-how leave, it will begin to hamper the society’s further development more and more.
According to Collier, we have so far only seen the tip of the global migration iceberg, since the income gap and differences in standards of living between the world’s rich and poor countries are greater than ever. The development of better means of communication also allows diasporas and potential migrants in source countries to keep in touch, thereby further encouraging migration. If Collier’s predictions come true, migration pressure upon Europe will further increase in upcoming decades. Migration within the European Union will also remain an important topic. According to OECD, the economic crisis and the EU’s enlargement have considerably increased the labor mobility of the European workforce set in motion, and as economic gaps in Europe are still increasing this means a continuous emigration pressure upon Southern Europe and Ireland in the upcoming years. Migration is therefore an issue that will not disappear from policy agendas any time soon. Hopefully there will be more thought- provoking studies published in the near future as well.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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