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:
- We live in times of unprecedented mass-migration
- Immigration restrictions reduce the number of immigrants
- Immigration policies have become more restrictive
- Development in origin countries will reduce emigration
- Migration leads to ‘brain drain’
- Migrants steal jobs and threaten the welfare state
- Migration can solve the ageing problem
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.