about migration A review of Hein de Haas’ “How Migration Really Works” – providing insights on the reality of migration.
Can you answer this question: has the British government been strict or lenient on immigration since the last general election? The answer may seem clear based on your political beliefs, but it is actually more complex. On one hand, the Johnson and Sunak administrations have ended EU free movement and stated plans to deport unwanted asylum seekers to Rwanda. However, net migration (the difference between those immigrating to the UK and those emigrating) reached a record high of over 600,000 last year.
Depending on your political beliefs, this may appear as a typical example of hypocrisy from the Conservative party. However, esteemed migration expert Hein de Haas argues that this is a contradiction present in governments across the Western world, regardless of who is in power. De Haas and his colleagues have conducted a long-term study analyzing data from 45 countries, which shows that immigration policies have generally become more open since World War II. At the same time, there has been an increase in border security measures such as walls, surveillance, and crackdowns on human smuggling. For example, between 2012 and 2022, the budget for the EU border agency Frontex increased from €85m to €754m.
According to de Haas, a paradox arises due to the conflicting demands faced by western governments, which are dedicated to economic liberalism. They must balance staying open to global markets, which necessitates some immigration to address domestic skill shortages, protecting the rights of immigrating individuals for work, study, or settlement, and acknowledging the desires of citizens who want to limit or decrease immigration.
The issue is that only two out of the three can be satisfied simultaneously. Limiting individuals’ rights to employment or residency can disrupt the efficient functioning of the economy. For example, consider the difficulties that arose in Britain when there was a shortage of truck drivers to deliver goods during the previous Christmas season. On the other hand, promoting open borders is often seen as a risky political move. Therefore, most governments choose to implement symbolic measures to tighten immigration policies, which can actually do more harm than good. As De Haas explains, these are “dramatic displays of political performance that mask the real intentions behind immigration policies.”
According to de Haas, this method is consistently used by both left and right governments. However, it has resulted in a divisive political discourse where people are often categorized as either “pro” or “anti” immigration, preventing a true understanding of migration. Using extensive research from his background as a sociologist and geographer at Oxford and Amsterdam universities, de Haas aims to challenge this distorted view in How Migration Really Works. This informative book provides readers with the necessary tools for a more educated discussion on the topic in the future.
De Haas’s main idea is to view migration as a worldwide occurrence, instead of only considering the perspective of western countries receiving migrants from other places. Despite the portrayal in the media, migration levels have not significantly increased in recent times. Since World War II, the number of international migrants has remained relatively constant at around 3% of the world’s population. Refugees make up an even smaller percentage at 0.3%, which De Haas argues should prompt refugee supporters to reconsider their claims of a “global refugee crisis”.
Previously, migration mainly involved Europeans traveling to the New World and European empires relocating indentured workers between colonies. However, the current trend has shifted with more people from various countries moving to the west. This change is acknowledged by De Haas, but it is not unexpected or unmanageable. For example, immigrants currently make up approximately 14% of the US population, a similar percentage to a century ago. Additionally, emigration is not solely driven by poverty; it is often a result of economic progress as individuals gain the necessary education and resources to seek employment elsewhere.
De Haas argues that we need to shift our perspective on migration and stop seeing it solely in terms of costs and benefits. While immigration can help address labor shortages, it has limited impact on labor markets and primarily benefits employers. Similarly, while remittances can support communities in home countries, the overall benefits are often outweighed by the costs of individuals leaving in the first place. Instead, De Haas suggests viewing migration as a natural part of life. This means that the social and political issues it raises – such as work rights, economic priorities, and national identity – are relevant to all of us. As De Haas states, any meaningful discussion on migration will inevitably revolve around the type of society we want to live in.