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All the information that politicians give about immigration is incorrect. This is the real way it operates. - Hein de Haas
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All the information that politicians give about immigration is incorrect. This is the real way it operates. – Hein de Haas


It appears that we are currently experiencing a significant increase in mass migration. Images of individuals from Africa packed onto unsafe boats in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean, refugees crossing the English Channel into Britain, and groups of migrants attempting to reach the Mexico-US border all seem to validate concerns that worldwide migration is becoming unmanageable.

A dangerous mix of economic hardship, disparity, aggression, subjugation, environmental deterioration, and population increase seem to be driving more and more individuals from Africa, Asia, and Latin America to embark on desperate voyages in order to reach the prosperous western shores.

This leads to the widespread notion of a “migration crisis” that will demand extreme measures to avoid overwhelming influxes of individuals in the future, potentially surpassing the ability of western societies and economies to accommodate them.

However, there is no scientific evidence to support the idea that global migration is increasing, despite this. Only about 3% of the world’s population consists of international migrants, and this percentage has stayed consistent over the last 50 years.

Refugee migration is not as widespread as political rhetoric and media portrayals suggest. Refugees make up only about 10% of all international migrants, which is a small percentage of the world population (0.3%). While the number of refugees may vary depending on levels of conflict, there is no indication of a long-term upward trend. The majority (80-85%) of refugees tend to stay within their region of origin, and this trend has remained consistent over the past few decades. There is also no evidence to support the claim that illegal migration is becoming uncontrollable. In reality, most migrants from the global south to the global north do so legally, with proper passports and documentation. For example, nine out of 10 Africans migrate to Europe through legal means.

The evidence also turns common understandings of the causes of migration on its head. The conventional view is that south-to-north migration is in essence the outgrowth of poverty, inequality and violence in origin countries – hence the popular idea that poverty reduction and development are the only long-term solutions to migration.

However, this assumption is undermined by evidence showing that migration rises as poor countries become richer. This is because increasing levels of income and education, alongside infrastructure improvements, raise people’s capabilities and aspirations to migrate. Instead of the stereotypical “desperate flight from misery”, in reality migration is generally an investment in the long-term wellbeing of families and requires significant resources. Poverty actually deprives people of the resources required to move over long distances, let alone to cross continents.

One of the many reasons why climate change is unlikely to cause large-scale migration of “climate refugees” is due to research on the impact of droughts and floods. Contrary to popular belief, most individuals tend to remain in their local area. In reality, those who are most at risk are often unable to relocate at all.

There is a reason why the majority of migrants originate from countries with moderate incomes, like India and Mexico. Interestingly, progress in the most impoverished nations, like those in sub-Saharan Africa, may actually lead to a rise in their potential for emigration.

However, while the overall global averages have remained steady, it is undeniable that there has been a significant increase in legal immigration to the US, Britain, and western Europe in recent decades. This has often led to dissatisfaction and repeated demands for decreased, more regulated, or more selective immigration.

However, efforts to tighten borders have proven ineffective in reaching these goals and may have even exacerbated issues due to a lack of understanding about the true nature of migration. The primary factor is that these strategies overlooked the key underlying factor driving migration: ongoing demand for labor.

The false belief that poverty is the sole cause of migration overlooks the fact that labor needs have been the primary force behind the increase in immigration to western countries since the 1990s. As education becomes more prevalent, women gain more independence, and the population ages, there has been a shortage of available labor, leading to a higher demand for migrant workers in industries like agriculture, construction, cleaning, hospitality, transportation, and food processing. This demand has arisen due to a lack of local workers who are willing and able to fill these positions. If not for these ongoing labor shortages, the majority of migrants would not have migrated.

However, this has not been a natural occurrence. It is the result of decades of policies focused on promoting economic and labor market deregulation, leading to the rise of precarious employment opportunities that are often rejected by local workers. Politicians across the political spectrum are aware of this reality, but they are hesitant to acknowledge it publicly due to the fear of being perceived as lenient on immigration. Instead, they choose to take a tough stance and engage in political theatrics to maintain the illusion of control, while in reality, it serves as a cover-up for the true intentions of immigration policies. Within this system, an increasing number of migrants are allowed to enter, and the employment of undocumented workers is widely tolerated to meet labor demands.

Politicians have chosen to ignore the issue, as evidenced by the extremely inadequate levels of workplace enforcement.

In order to move beyond past unsuccessful policies, politicians must have the bravery to share the truth about migration. This includes acknowledging that it may benefit certain individuals more than others and that it cannot be ignored or eliminated. Ultimately, there are no easy fixes for intricate issues surrounding migration.

Important decisions must be made. For instance, do we desire to reside in a community where an increasing amount of labor – such as transportation, construction, cleaning, elderly and child care, and food production – is delegated to a new group of employees primarily consisting of migrant workers? Do we support a significant agricultural industry that receives subsidies and relies on migrant workers for necessary labor? The current situation reveals that discussions on immigration cannot be separated from larger conversations about inequality, employment, social justice, and ultimately, the type of society we wish to inhabit.

  • Hein de Haas is a sociology professor at the University of Amsterdam and the writer of “How Migration Really Works.”

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Source: theguardian.com