Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Borders beyond control?

In my previous blogpost, I argued that politicians are often busy with feigning immigration control while in reality they often can or want to do little about it. Does that mean that borders are beyond control, as Jagdish Bhagwati famously argued in 2003? Have governments lost control? What do we actually know about the effects of immigration policies?

In order to answer this question, I have conducted a research project on the 'Determinants of International Migration' (DEMIG) at the International Migration Institute at Oxford University. This 5-year project, which lasted from 2010 to 2014 and received funding from the European Research Council, allowed a team of researchers to collect new data and conduct analyses on the effectiveness of migration policies. (See this this link for more information on the project, the 4 DEMIG databases, analyses and 28 research papers).

One of the main insights of the project is that while immigration restrictions often reduce immigration, these effects tend to be rather small. In addition, restrictions often have a four potential side-effects ('substitution effects') which further undermine their effectiveness or can even make them counter-productive.

Moroccan-Spanish border crossing near Ceuta
© Hein de Haas 2014

First, restrictions often compel migrants to 'jump categories', by finding other legal or irregular channels to migrate. For instance, when European countries tried to curb immigration from Moroccan and Turkish workers from the 1970s, people continued to migrate as family and irregular migrants.

Second, restrictions can lead to huge surges of 'now or never migration'. This happened when Suriname became independent from the Netherlands in 1975. While the Dutch were keen to make Suriname independent as a way to curb free migration from Dutch nationals living in the Netherlands, the irony is that over 40 percent of the Surinamese population migrated to the Netherlands to beat the impending immigration ban.

Third, restrictions often compel migrants to explore new geographical routes by migrating to or via other countries. For instance, if one European country toughens its asylum policies, this may divert asylum seekers to neighbouring countries. We also see this with migration controls in the Mediterranean Sea, which do not stop migration but rather compel migrants and smugglers to use other geographical routes.

The fourth and probably strongest side effect of immigration restrictions is that they not only reduce immigration but that they also reduce return migration.  In other words: they reduce circulation and push migrants into permanent settlement. Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of what the policies aim to achieve.

Thus, the effectiveness of immigration restrictions is partly or entirely undermined by such side-effects. Besides that, they have a human costs in terms of creating a market for smuggling (which is a reaction to border controls and not the cause of migration) and increased suffering of migrants and a rising death toll.

Yet this does not necessarily mean that policies always fail or that borders are beyond control. Policies that attract migrants tend to be more successful then policies that restrict immigration. For instance, most Western countries have opened their doors for skilled migrant and students and these policies seem to have worked to a certain extent. The extensive media attention for irregular migration also conceals that illegal border crossings represent a small share of total immigration. The majority of migrants abide by the law and migrate legally.

It would therefore be an exaggeration to say that borders are beyond control. It is be more correct to say that there are clear limits to border controls. The whole idea that migration can be micro-managed is illusionary. As the example of the Gulf countries shows, even authoritarian states cannot achieve total immigration control.

This is largely because migration is mainly driven by economic and social processes that lie beyond the reach of migration policies. Another insight of the DEMIG project is therefore that governments mainly influence migration via so-called "non-migration policies". Although economic policies, labour market policies, trade and foreign policies are not designed to affect migration, they have a considerable effect on migration.

Such policies often undermine the effectiveness of immigration restrictions.  The most obvious example is economic policies. While governments typically aim to boost economic growth and reduce unemployment, rosy economic prospects also tend to attract a lot of migrants.

As part of economic liberalisation policies of the past decades, many governments have privatised state enterprises and made it easier for employers to hire temporary workers on low pay. This has converted many relatively secure, respectable jobs into precarious jobs with little status, which native workers often shun and only migrants want to do. So, these policies have increased the demand for low-skilled labour migrants. It is also no coincidence that irregular migration of (predominantly) women working nannies and private care workers is a major phenomenon in countries which have weak public facilities for childcare and elderly care, such as in the United States and southern Europe.

More generally, the overall trend towards increasing economic openness and regional integration (within the EU, for instance) of the last four decades has also boosted migration. It is unlikely that this can be reversed. This also shows the hypocrisy of politicians who pretend to be immigration fighters, but have backed economic policies that have only increased the demand for regular and irregular migrant labour.

* For more information on the DEMIG project see

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Feigning immigration control

The current attempts by UK politicians to outbid each other in being 'tough' on immigration reminds me of the comment by the well-known migration researcher Douglas Massey and his co-authors that politicians increasingly have turned to symbolic measures to create "an appearance of control"*.

The reality is that most immigration to the UK is basically uncontrollable since the majority of immigrants coming to the UK are EU citizens or family members of residence permit holders. Little can be done about this, and this is also why David Cameron's earlier pledge to bring annual net immigration down under the 100,000 threshold has proven to be unrealistic. The only hope of that happening is a major economic crisis in the UK, since the main driver of much immigration is labour demand.And this also shows the fundamental dilemma politicians face: Wealthy countries and fast growing economies inevitably attract substantial number of immigrants, although this is anything but an invasion suggested by politicians and the media.

Immigration is the most concrete manifestation of rather abstract, difficult-to-grasp processes such as globalisation, economic liberalisation, privatization and increasing flexibility of employment policies. The latter are the result of a series of political decisions which have increased economic inequality, dismantled social security, increased job insecurity, and have opened the doors of European nations not only for free trade but also for the free mobility of workers. These policies have brought many benefits for entrepreneurs and the relatively well-off, while less privileged socio-economic groups have often seen their job insecurity growing and their real incomes falling.

No wonder that politicians are tempted to tap into this discontent by blaming immigrants for problems they have not caused. However, this is turning the causality upside down, as growing feelings of socio-economic insecurity among large sections of the population is the partial result of the neoliberal policies pursued by the same governments that now use migrants as scapegoats to divert the attention away from their own responsibility.

Because EU immigration cannot be controlled, the current UK government has targeted its policies at those types of immigration it can control to a certain extent, particularly non-EU workers and students. Although these policies have made it more difficult for such groups to obtain a visa, it would be an illusion that this can reverse long-term migration trends and that this can undo Britain's position as a global migration destination. Even leaving the EU as propagated by the UKIP (UK Independence Party) and other politicians is an unlikely 'solution'. For instance, Switzerland has record-high immigration despite not being an EU member. A major long-term reduction of immigration can only be achieved by a return to highly protectionist policies and a UK government that is willing to wreck economy for the sake of stopping foreigners from coming.

As long as Britain remains an attractive and open country, it will inevitably continue to attract migrants. It is not a matter of being pro- or anti-immigration, which is the usual way the debate is framed. It is about understanding that you cannot have an open and wealthy society without considerable immigration. The current political muscle flexing around immigration therefore primarily serves to give the public the appearance of control.

Besides potentially damaging for social cohesion, there is also evidence that all the muscle flexing on immigration is rather ineffective. A study by Amber Jane Davis showed that such strategies are largely ineffective or can even be counter-productive. This is not only because as anti-immigrant voters tend to opt for the 'orginal' instead of the 'copycats' as Jean-Marie Le Pen, former leader of the French Front National, once argued, but also because their zigzagging or flipflopping on immigration issues undermines their credibility in the eyes of many voters.

*Source: Massey, D. S., et al. (1998). Worlds in motion: Understanding international migration at the end of the millennium. Oxford, Clarendon Press, p.288

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Human Migration: Myths, Hysteria and Facts

Migration is a hotly debated but poorly understood issue. Much conventional thinking about migration is based on myths rather than facts. Migration policies often fail because they are based on those same myths. It is therefore time that we learn to see migration as an intrinsic and therefore inevitable part of the broader processes of societal change and globalisation instead of a 'problem to be solved'.

This was the core of my argument of the inaugural lecture 'Human Migration: Myths, Hysteria and Facts' I gave on 27 June to accept the Extraordinary Chair ‘Migration and Development’ at Maastricht University. In this lecture, I discuss seven right- and left-wing migration myths and present recent research findings (particularly from the DEMIG project)  to prove them wrong.

While migration is commonly seen as the result of poverty and violence in origin countries, research shows that growing prosperity in poor countries increases migration and that the level of migration is largely determined by labour demand in destination countries. Because migration research is too focused on answering short-term policy questions, it often fails to adequately map the causes and consequences of migration. A better understanding of the fundamental causes of migration will also enable us to better and more realistically assess what migration policies cannot achieve.

In the lecture, I discuss the following (right- and left-wing migration myths:
  1. We live in times of unprecedented mass-migration 
  2. Immigration restrictions reduce the number of immigrants 
  3. Immigration policies have become more restrictive 
  4. Development in origin countries will reduce emigration 
  5. Migration leads to ‘brain drain’ 
  6. Migrants steal jobs and threaten the welfare state 
  7. Migration can solve the ageing problem
The main facts refuting these migration myths include:

On myth #1: While the number of international migrants has almost doubled between 1960 and 2000, the world population has grown at the same pace. The relative rate of migration has thus remained stable, and less than three per cent of the world’s population is an international migrant. Yet the nature and direction of migration has changed. For the past centuries, it was mainly Europeans who emigrated and colonized foreign territories. Since WWII, Europe has evolved into the world’s most attractive migration destination. However, particularly since the end of the Cold War politicians have increasingly portrayed migration as a fundamental threat to security and prosperity, inflaming a panic over migration. This contributed to the incorrect idea that migation is accelerating.

On myth #2: Recent research shows that immigration restrictions are often counter-productive by interrupting circulation, discouraging return and pushing migrants into permanent settlement.

On myth #3: Although politicians like to give the impression that immigration policies have become more restrictive, research shows that policies have become less restrictive for most migrant groups over the past decades. Tough talk on migration is therefore mainly rhetoric aimed at winning elections.

On myth #4: Economic growth, education and infrastructure enable more people to migrate and increase their life aspirations. This is why migration increases as countries develop (see here and here). Economic growth of the poorest countries will therefore inevitably lead to more migration from those countries.

On myth #5: It is a misunderstanding that the emigration of skilled people (‘brain drain’) causes underdevelopment in origin countries (see here). The money migrants send back home (‘remittances’) dwarfs development aid, and many migrants invest in origin countries, although it is also an illusion to think that migrants can solve fundamental development problems such as corruption and inequality.

On myth #6: Migrants mainly do the jobs that local populations shun or for which they lack the skills. Generally, migration has a positive, but comparatively small, effect on economic growth, although it is predominantly employers, the middle classes and the wealthy who benefit from migration.

On myth #7: While migration is not a threat to prosperity, it is also not a solution to fundamental socio-economic problems such as ageing. The magnitude of migration is too limited, while ageing is becoming a worldwide phenomenon.

Open and wealthy societies will inevitably experience substantial migration. The trend towards economic liberalisation in recent decades—which has increased the demand for formal and informal migrant labour—contradicts the political rhetoric in favour of less migration. Both the positive and negative effects of migration tend to be greatly exaggerated.

Migration is unjustifiably seen as either a fundamental threat or a solution to fundamental societal problems. It is not migration, but rather the xenophobia fuelled by politicians and the media, that is the problem. The related migration panic and the recurrent scapegoating of migrants stands in the way of a nuanced debate about migration.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Visas reduce immigration ... and return!

The effectiveness of immigration policies is highly contested. While politicians often claim that visas and border controls are necessary to prevent uncontrolled immigration, many researchers argue that immigration restrictions fail to stop migration as they do not affect the fundamental causes of migration, such as income gaps, labour demand in destination countries, conflict, and paradoxically, development in origin countries. Other researchers have argued that immigration restrictions do significantly reduce immigration.

Yet such discussions are limited as they focus on how immigration controls affect inflows and ignore how they affect return. Politicians are generally concerned with net migration – the number of immigrants minus the number of return migrants from one country, which determines the number of migrants who stay.

Faced with the large-scale settlement of low-skilled immigrants, politicians have long been interested in stimulating return migration. This has recently led to much talk about circular migration as the ideal way to marry the interests of migrant workers to gain access to legal migration opportunities and governments of destination countries who often feel public pressure to reduce permanent immigration.

The pertinent question is therefore how restrictions affect the circulation of migrants. This has remained largely ignored by research to date. A new research paper I have written with my colleague Mathias Czaika at the International Migration Institute, I have just published a research paper that looks at this important issue. This is part of the DEMIG (Determinants of International Migration) project, which has received funding from the European Research Council and the Oxford Martin School.

To study the effect of immigration policies on patterns of circulation, we used two new databases DEMIG compiled over the past four years. The DEMIG C2C database tracks country-to-country migration flows between 38 destination countries and a worldwide selection of origin countries. The DEMIG VISA database details travel visa requirements for every country from 1973-2010. In the paper, we treat visa requirements as an important instrument used by governments to prevent the unlimited immigration of people from 'undesired' countries.

Our analysis provides evidence that:
  • Visas reduce immigration and return migration 
  • Visas interrupt circulation and push migrants into permanent settlement 
  • Visas makes migration less responsive to economic opportunities in origin and destination countries
Our statistical estimates show that travel visa requirements significantly decrease inflows (estimated at 67 percent on average) but that this effect is undermined by also decreasing outflows (88 percent on average) of the same migrant groups. We estimated that visa requirements reduce overall circulation by 75 percent on average. Although the real effects vary across countries, the results are statistically significant and provide evidence that immigration restrictions interrupt circularity. 

Importantly, our analysis also shows that visas severely reduce the responsiveness of migration to economic fluctuations in destination and origin societies. This is easy to understand. If migration is free, as is the case between EU countries or US states, people face fewer obstacles to packing their suitcases and moving in search of better opportunities. They will however, also decide to return more easily if they loose their job or if opportunities back home improve. For instance, many Polish migrants in the UK have returned with the rapid improvement of economic conditions in Poland.

If you have invested a lot of effort and money in securing a visa and work permit, it is less likely that you will return if you encounter problems. Immigration restrictions makes returning more risky – if the situation back home is not how you imagined there is a risk of not being able to migrate again. So, what we often see is migrants staying put even in economic crisis and choosing to reunify their families, which partly explains why legal migration continues over formally closed borders.

The irony seems that policies that officially aim to reduce immigration and stimulate the return of 'less desired' low-skilled migrants often have the opposite effect of interrupting circularity, increasing family migration, and encouraging permanent settlement.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Dutch racism

Geert Wilders, the popular leader of the Dutch PVV (Freedom) Party, is well known for his anti-Islam and anti-immigrant viewpoints. Dutch Moroccans are his favourite target, who are systematically put down by Wilders as criminal, extremist, terrorist, and benefit scrounging untermenschen.

The Dutch have now been debating for years whether Wilders' public statements are racist or not (see here). To me, this is somehow puzzling, as what else can you call the stereotyping and scapegoating of entire population groups?

Why this hesitance? Part of the explanation is that most mainstream Dutch politicians have become terrified of Wilders.They have even been taking over many of his viewpoints on immigration in  attempts to win back votes. The right-wing liberal VVD party, in particular, has done its best to copy PVV's anti-immigration, anti-diversity (see here) and 'law and order' viewpoints.These strategies have failed, but have made Wilders' viewpoints respectable.

They also avoid very harsh attacks against Wilders because they may need his party to form the next coalition government. After all, the PVV is now the biggest or second biggest party in national polls.

In other words, politicians are afraid to call Wilders a racist because he has become too powerful. Yesterday, he went one step further during a speech to celebrate his party's victory in local elections in The Hague (see video)

- Wilders: "I ask you. Do you want, in this city, and in the Netherlands, more or fewer Moroccans"
- Audience: "Fewer, fewer, fewer.... " (shouting)
- Wilders:  "Then we will fix this" (audience and Wilders laugh)

Innocent: no. Deliberate:yes. Racist: yes.

Yet once again, PM Rutte of the VVD party stated this week that he does not rule out the possibility of forming a next government with Geert Wilders, who already gave vital support to Rutte's previous government.

To be honest, this makes me angry and scares the hell out of me. Not so much because of what Wilders says (racism is of all ages after all), but because he gets away with it (not in the legal, but in the moral sense), because mainstream politicians lack the moral compass, courage and self-confidence to go in the counter-attack, show solidarity and identify with fellow Dutch citizens of Moroccan origin or Islamic faith.

What we need is a Prime Minister who has the guts to say: "I am a Moroccan". That would be real leadership. What we get is cowardice.

As my colleague Ann Singleton said on Twitter yesterday: "Shocking times across Europe - racist parties are again becoming respectable power brokers". Cynical power politics apparently justify sacrificing any principle.  It is a dangerous slippery slope.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

In Rotterdam we speak Dutch

Tomorrow, the Dutch will vote in municipal elections. In Rotterdam, the VVD (People's Party for Freedom and Democracy), the right-wing liberal party of Prime Minister Rutte, is campaigning with an election poster featuring the text In Rotterdam we speak Dutch ("In Rotterdam spreken we Nederlands"). 

This official expression of intolerance in one of Europe's most diverse cities is part of the general backlash against multiculturalism that has swept over the Netherlands since the early 2000s. The new political correctness is that diversity is bad and that immigrants have problems because they refuse to integrate. In the recent past, some Dutch politicians have even proposed to outlaw speaking foreign languages in public spaces. 

However, is it really about speaking foreign languages? Or only particular languages with even more guttural sounds than Dutch, which most Dutch do not understand and which may therefore sound scary in their ears, such as Arabic or Berber? 

This seems indeed to be the case, if we consider another election poster used in the Amsterdam local campaign by the same party, which proudly states, in English!, Why do expats living in Amsterdam vote VVD? 

This poster targets resident foreigners who have the right to vote in local elections. The answer to the question seems easy: So-called 'expats' (which is really a euphemism for wealthy immigrants who do not like to see themselves as 'immigrants', a term rather associated to foreigners doing unattractive, low-skilled jobs) tend to support the VVD's political agenda of lower taxation, less regulation and a smaller welfare state. The poster even tries to conveys the message to the native Dutch that 'expats' possess some sort of special political wisdom. They are the super-immigrants.

This reveals the double standards that apply to different kind of immigrants. British, Americans and other immigrants from English-speaking countries are never expected to 'integrate'. Those who wish learn Dutch are often even discouraged to do so by the Dutch who are eager to speak English.

Indeed, some languages - as well as the immigrants speaking them - are more equal than others. 

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

What drives human migration?

Why do people migrate? This question is both simple and difficult. On the one hand, it seems reasonable to assume that most people migrate hoping to find better conditions or opportunities elsewhere, such as jobs, higher wages, safety or freedom of expression. This is the implicit assumption underlying ‘push-pull’ models taught at secondary school as well as neo-classical migration theories. Although few researchers would contest that most migrants have good reasons to move however, this does not really help us to understand the complexity and drivers of real-life migration.

To say that most people migrate to find better opportunities is somehow stating the obvious. Push-pull models usually list factors in origin and destination areas, all of which may contribute to migration, but fail to make clear how the various factors combined together lead to migration. Push-pull models fail to explain why there should be a difference between push areas of and pull areas in the first place, and are therefore “a platitude at best”, as a Ronald Skeldon has aptly stated*.

Advert for bus company, Tineghir, southern Morocco - (c) Hein de Haas 
Neo-classical migration theories assume that people migrate to maximise their income or wellbeing. They see migration as a (temporary) response to development ‘disequilibria’ between origin and destination countries, and assume that migration will decline through a process of wage convergence. However, this view ignores that migration has been a constant factor in the history of humankind and can therefore not be reduced to a temporary by-product of capitalist development. Furthermore, the wage convergence assumption ignores how power asymmetries actually can sustain economic inequalities between central and peripheral countries and areas.

Both push-pull and neo-classical models lack explanatory power by failing to provide insight into the social, economic and political processes that have generated the spatial wage and opportunity gaps to which migration is supposedly a response. It is therefore not surprising that the predictions of push-pull models and neo-classical theories are fundamentally at odds with what is seen in real-life migration patterns. For instance, most migrants do not move from the poorest to the wealthiest countries, and the poorest countries tend to have lower levels of emigration than middle-income and wealthier countries. It is often said that the only way to reduce migration from poor countries is to boost development. However, this ignores that the relation between development and levels of emigration is fundamentally non-linear. Important emigration countries such as Mexico, Morocco, Turkey and the Philippines are typically not among the poorest. Going against popular perceptions of a ‘continent on the move’, Sub-Saharan Africa is the least migratory region of the world.

Analyses of historical and contemporary data show that human and economic development is initially associated with increasing emigration**. Any form of development in the poorest countries of the world is therefore likely to lead to accelerating emigration. Such findings contradict conventional thinking, and force us to radically change our views on migration. In particular, we need explanations that do not confuse individual factors or motivations to move (which indeed often refer to better opportunities) with macro-structural explanations of migration processes.

Such rethinking can be achieved by learning to see migration as an intrinsic part of broader development processes rather than as a problem to be solved, or the temporary response to development 'disequilibria'. For instance, in the modern age, much migration within and across borders has been inextricably linked to broader urbanisation processes. It is difficult to imagine urbanisation without migration, and vice-versa. Rather than asking ‘why people migrate’ – which often begs a simple, all-too-obvious and often quite meaningless answer – the more relevant question for understanding migration in the modern age is therefore how processes such as imperialism, nation state formation, the industrial revolution, capitalist development, urbanisation and globalisation change migration patterns and migrants’ experiences.

For instance, how can we explain why development is often associated to more, instead of less, migration? To understand this, it is important to move beyond sterile views of migrants as entirely predictable ‘respondents’ to geographical opportunity gaps. Seeing migration as a function of people’s capabilities and aspirations to move can help to achieve a richer understanding of migration behaviour. Processes of human and economic development typically expand people’s access to material resources, social networks and knowledge. At the same time, improvements in infrastructure and transportation, which usually accompany development, make travel less costly and risky.

It therefore seems safe to assume that development generally increases people’s capabilities to migrate over larger distances. However, this does not necessarily lead to migration. People will generally only migrate if they have the aspirations to do so. Migration aspirations depend on people’s more general life aspirations, as well as their perceptions of life ‘here’ and ‘there’. Both are subjective and likely to change under the influence of broader processes of structural change. Improved access to information, images and lifestyles conveyed through education and media tend to broaden people’s mental horizons, change their perceptions of the ‘good life’, and typically increase material aspirations. Development processes tend to initially increase both people’s capabilities and aspirations to move, explaining why development often boosts migration. Once sizeable migrant communities have settled, social networks tend to reduce the costs and risks of migrating, with settled migrants frequently functioning as ‘bridgeheads’.

If societies get wealthier, overall emigration aspirations are likely to decrease because more people can imagine a future within their own country, while immigration is likely to increase. Although it is often assumed that technological progress increases migration, easier transportation and communication may enable people to commute or work from home, while outsourcing and trade may also partly reduce the need to migrate. In fact, from a long-term historical perspective, technology has facilitated humankind to settle down. Ever since the Agricultural (‘Neolithic’) Revolution began some 12,000 years ago, technology has enabled people to shift away from hunting and gathering to more sedentary lifestyles. In modern times, technological progress has certainly boosted non-migratory mobility – such as commuting, tourism and business travel – but its impact on migration is rather ambiguous. This may partly explain why the number of international migrants as a share of the world population has remained remarkably stable at levels of around three per cent over recent decades.

Nevertheless, wealthy remain characterized by substantial levels of migration. We see significant migration even between societies with roughly equal levels of development and wages. In this short essay, it is impossible to do justice to the full set theories explaining this phenomenon. However, a major factor is growing social and economic complexity. Economic and human development typically goes along with increasing educational and occupational specialization. This often requires people to move within and across borders to fulfill the desire to match qualifications and preferences with labour market and social opportunities. The higher skilled therefore tend to migrate more and over larger distances.

This shows that it is illusionary to think that large-scale migration is somehow a temporary phenomenon that will disappear once – an equally illusionary – equilibrium is achieved. More generally, such ideas reflect a flawed, ahistorical view on the history of humankind. It is development itself that drives migration. Migration has therefore always been – and will remain – an inevitable part of the human experience.

 *Skeldon, Ronald (1990) Population Mobility in Developing Countries: A Reinterpretation. London: Belhaven press. 
**de Haas, Hein. 2010. Migration transitions: a theoretical and empirical inquiry into the developmental drivers of international migration. IMI Working Paper No 24, International Migration Institute, University of Oxford.
*** For a seminal overview of migration theories, see here the classic paper by Massey et al. (1993).