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Migration: Global development'™s biggest good news story ... almost

Analysis: Strict laws enforced by wealthy nations not only prevent migration, but also sustain poverty around the world

Migration is big news — it makes headlines when UK Prime Minister David Cameron proposes to limit immigrants’ access to tax credits, and it leads the bulletins when boats loaded with migrants and refugees drown in the Mediterranean.

But there is something missing from the public discourse: the lives of migrants themselves. We’re pretty good at talking about what we as a country get out of immigration: depending on your position, migrants are either viewed as engines of entrepreneurship, growth and diversity or the source of economic decline and cultural decay.

On International Migrants Day (Dec. 18), it’s worth pointing out that we are far less good at putting a face to the numbers. Each movement across an international border is underwritten by a human story, whether it’s the family fleeing the horror of a civil war or the young worker bitterly frustrated by the lack of opportunities at home. 

The fact that this perspective is usually absent from the debate in turn obscures a simple yet powerful idea: that international migration is one of the most effective ways of reducing global poverty. To put it into perspective, more than $400 billion of remittances were sent back by international migrants in 2012; compare this to the $135 billion spent by OECD donors on foreign aid in 2013. 

Researchers have examined the size of economic losses caused by current restrictions on international migration, and the findings are frankly remarkable. As development economist and world-leading migration expert, Michael Clemens, puts it, “The few estimates we have should make economists’ jaws hit their desks.”

In his review of the available evidence, Clemens reports that an expansion of international migration, realized through the removal of some (read: not all) restrictions on people’s movement, could generate economic gains equivalent to 20 percent of global GDP. And that’s a conservative estimate - some studies place the figure closer to 60 percent.

In short, migration works for poverty reduction — to an extraordinary degree. 

Wasted potential

Harsh regulations on migration and work visas damage the global economy.
Sam Hodgson/Reuters

Despite the fact that migration is capable of producing these huge positive effects, there are systemic features undermining its potential.

Part of this is about the kinds of restrictive border controls imposed by wealthy nations. It’s also about the vulnerabilities faced by migrants on a day-to-day basis, which undermine economic gains and place huge stresses on the individual.

International migration is a risky business.

For one thing, it’s expensive. 

Research done by the UK-based Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium in Nepal estimates that the average cost of a loan required to finance migration to the Gulf States is the equivalent of an entire year’s household expenditure. But it also exposes migrants to different forms of physical violence, exploitation and mental suffering on a huge scale.

And contrary to popular belief, these risks are not confined to transit or the foreign workplace. As the research from Nepal shows, they start at home

The stories reported on the challenges facing migrants are a reminder that international migration is a huge gamble for the individual.

And the stakes could not be higher.

Every day around the world, migrants risk life and limb, incarceration and extortion.

It is these enormous financial cost and personal risks — themselves manifestations of the way the system works — that are undermining what could be the most impressive tool for poverty reduction there is available.

Migration is about people wanting to make a better life for themselves and their families. Containing mobility, and thereby limiting people’s ability to seek out new opportunities, is a waste of endless possibility. This chronic failure to recognize and protect the welfare, safety and dignity of migrants is a shameful indictment of twenty-first century nation-state politics and neoliberal economics.

What's the way forward?

So what can be done about this? Restrictive border controls, which essentially serve to cordon off the world’s spaces of wealth and opportunity from billions of people, are part of the problem. But it’s unlikely that we will see a drastic relaxation of these any time soon. 

While the domestic political climate in many Western states means we are unlikely to see a drastic relaxation of these any time soon, there is a powerful case to be made that more humane border regimes are exactly what is need to improve this situation. And only because it is a difficult argument to make, doesn’t mean it’s not worth making.

Less radical options also exist.

David McKenzie and Dean Yang, two US-based development economists, recently examined the effectiveness of a mix of policies designed to enhance the benefits of migration and mitigate the costs. Unfortunately, the evidence we have on this is pretty weak, but they do find a couple of areas where potential for real improvement exists. One of these is pre-departure policies: holding orientation sessions before migrants get on the plane can help tackle the kinds of information asymmetries that make migrants so exploitable in the first place in places such as Nepal.

Likewise, research suggests that the ‘migration middle-men’ — agents who line migrants up with documents, flights and jobs, often for an inflated cost — need to be much better regulated. In many places, there are already laws claiming to offer this regulation, but that’s not to say they are being implemented.

There is also evidence to suggest that much more could be done to improve the development impacts of remittances. Research earlier this year by the Overseas Development Institute found that excessive bank fees placed on remittance transfers is costing sub-Saharan Africa nearly $2 billion a year — money which then cannot be used by migrants to send their kids to school or keep their family healthy.

The evidence reviewed by McKenzie and Yang shows that reducing the cost of sending remittances boosts migrants’ saving and spending levels. This could be achieved through a number of means, but increasing competition within the money transfer market is a sensible option.

In fact, there is a whole lot that could be done — not least in relation to respecting the basic human rights of migrant workers. But apathy and inaction on a huge scale is sustaining a global system of exploitation.

Until governments start taking this issue more seriously, migration will remain development’s biggest good news story that never quite was. 

This is the last of a four-part series by journalists and researchers looking at the human story behind migration. The pieces were brought together by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, a global program focusing livelihoods and service delivery in conflict-affected situations.

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