The migrants are coming

Mahmoud Mohieldin
Tuesday 16 May 2023

Migration will likely increase for demographic, economic, climatic, and geopolitical reasons, and origin, destination, and transit countries should plan for it to optimise its benefits and minimise its costs, writes Mahmoud Mohieldin


Migration presents both diverse opportunities and great challenges. It can help economies to improve or cause governments to fall. Policymakers have to decide whether to turn it into a tool for economic development and the fight against poverty or let it remain a source of tension, attrition, brain drain and squandered opportunities.

Last month, the World Bank released its World Development Report entitled “Migrants, Refugees and Societies.” The updated facts and figures on migrants in this are particularly useful, with these being defined as “people who live outside their country of nationality, whether they moved in search of better economic opportunities or were displaced across borders by conflict or persecution (refugees).”

The report says that there are around 184 million migrants in the world today, or about 2.3 per cent of the world’s population, of whom 37 million are refugees. About 43 per cent of migrants live in low- and middle-income countries.

More and more countries defy the conventional classification of migrant “exporter” versus migrant “host” countries. Demographic changes and the effects of climate change and geopolitical conflicts have combined to make migration an increasingly complex phenomenon. Today, many countries, regardless of their wealth, are both migrant exporters and hosts at the same time.

Though modern political and economic analysis brings new ideas and paradigms to bear on the question of migration, the drivers of migration are as old as the hills. People have been on the move from one place to another since the dawn of history and before the birth of borders. The classical writers gave considerable thought to the phenomenon and, indeed, wrote poetry on it, enumerating its causes and benefits.

The eighth-century Arab Muslim renowned scholar and the great Imam Al-Shafei is noted for a verse that lists five reasons for leaving one’s native land, for example, including release from distress and the search for a better livelihood, knowledge, moral edification, and illustrious company. Some motives may outweigh others, but generally economic reasons are the main driving force of migration and the source of attraction of destination countries. In 2020, more than 84 per cent of migrants settled in a country that was wealthier than their own.

Regarding demographics, one of the main drivers of migration, I have previously discussed this in relation to development and progress, noting how, in the countries of the South, longer life expectancy rates and population growth have given rise to a higher ratio of young people to old. The demographics in the countries of the North are heading in the opposite direction: a shrinking population and a larger ratio of elderly people.

The World Bank report cites Italy as a case in point. Its population, which currently stands at around 59 million, is expected to shrink to 32 million by the end of this century. People over 65 will increase from 24 to 38 per cent of the population. By contrast, the population of Nigeria is expected to rise from 213 million to 791 million by the end of the century, making it the second most populous country in the world after India. 

Statistically, “communicating vessels” mechanisms may offer a solution to such demographic problems, making it possible to balance population shortages and surpluses. But political, economic, social and cultural considerations tell us that this is not as easy as it might sound. Yet, even so legal and well-organised migration can undoubtedly help to remedy demographic imbalances and help both migrant origin and migrant destination nations to provide essential services to their public and meet their economic needs.

This is a subject that has not received its due share of recognition in the countries of the North. At the same time, optimising the benefit of the population resources of the countries of the South requires huge investments in human capital, and, above all, in education, skills and capacity building, and healthcare.

Climate change is the second major driver of migration, as its adverse impacts on economic activity and life in general have precipitated a phenomenon known as climate migration. The World Bank Report says that “about 40 per cent of the world’s population – 3.5 billion people – live in places highly exposed to the impacts of climate change: water shortages, drought, heat stresses, sea level rise, and extreme events such as floods and tropical cyclones.”

“Climate impacts are threatening the habitability of entire regions in places as diverse as the Sahel, low-lying Bangladesh, and the Mekong Delta. In some Small Island Developing States, these impacts are forcing leaders to contemplate planned relocations.”

In her book Nomad Century: How Climate Migration Will Reshape Our World, UK writer Gaia Vince vividly demonstrates how environmental deterioration due to climate change will increase forced migration from the warming countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and warns the countries of the North that they had better prepare for unprecedented influxes of climate refugees unless they take the necessary steps now to radically reduce climate-damaging emissions.

An integrated and collaborative international approach is of the essence in order to marshal the necessary resources and investments for climate mitigation and adaptation action. This includes compensation for climate-related damage. It should also be borne in mind that climate action projects should be designed in a framework that integrates them with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This, in turn, entails developing migration policies for both migrant origin and destination countries.

The third major driver of migration is the spread of conflict, civil strife, violence, terrorism and persecution in tandem with mounting geopolitical tensions. Forced displacements due to conflict – i.e. refugees – have more than doubled during the past decade, according to the World Bank Report. Many people have said that they have seen nothing like the current waves of conflict-related migration since the end of World War II.  

According to the report, refugees make up 20 per cent of the total number of migrants. We should note however that the majority of impacted population by conflicts are internally displaced in their home countries. Those who manage to flee abroad tend to seek refuge in countries close to their homelands. Children account for around 41 per cent of the total number of refugees in the world.

In a previous article, I discussed how the average length of refugee stays in their host countries has risen to more than 17 years, which necessitates addressing a broader range of interrelated concerns, from urgent to mid-term humanitarian relief and services to longer-term development, security and other basic needs.

The World Bank Report provides a framework for handling migration that it calls the “Match and Motive Matrix.” This relies on a fusion of labour market economics with international law. The labour economics side focuses on the right fit between the migrants’ skills, qualifications and other socioeconomic attributes and the needs of the destination country. Obviously, the better the match, the greater the benefit for the economy of the destination country, for the migrant in terms of income and related benefits, and for the country of origin through remittances.

As noted above, the motives for migrating vary, from the desire for better work opportunities and living standards to security and safety concerns due to outbreaks of violence or different types of persecution in the original homeland. These, in turn, raise the question of the destination countries’ obligations under international law, such as the need to offer protection and support under the UN Refugee Convention or for victims of racism and other forms of discrimination.

The report incorporates both dimensions – Match and Motive – into a framework that helps policymakers to identify priorities and procedures, whether in the country of origin, the destination country, or the transit countries depending on the length of the migrant’s stay there, which could end up being quite long depending upon the destination country’s restrictions.

It underscores the need to understand the different types of migration and how these relate to the Match and Motive Matrix in order to optimise potential benefits while minimising losses in the event of a weak fit on the labour economics side the equation. For simplicity’s sake, I have distinguished between four cases:

− The first case is when migrants have the skills and attributes that the destination country needs, while their motives for migrating are relatively easy to deal with. In this case, the benefits of migration outweigh the costs. An example might be the migration of Indian engineers to Silicon Valley in the US.

− In a second case, migrants may lack the skills needed in the destination country, while the motives for migration are more complicated. In this case, the costs of migration outweigh the benefits. An example would be poorly skilled migrants at the southern US border.

− A third case is when highly skilled refugees are forced to migrate due to conditions in their homeland and whose skills are in demand in the destination country. The World Bank Report cites the examples of Syrian entrepreneurs in Turkey and doctors from Venezuela. In this case, the destination countries need to take special measures in order to benefit from their skills, such as providing security and legal protection.

− A fourth case is when refugees are fleeing for their lives and not legally allowed to work. This is the worst-case scenario and applies, for example, to unaccompanied refugee minors in Africa or the victims of brutal wide scale cleansing like the Rohingya who were forced to flee from Myanmar. In this case, humanitarian and security considerations outweigh all others.

 Dealing with migration requires a fact-based approach, a high degree of flexibility, and rational dialogue as free as possible from politicisation and the associated ills of demagoguery and political opportunism that often capitalise on racist and xenophobic currents in society.

For countries to benefit from the movement of people and minimise the costs, policymakers must objectively analyse the types of movement they are dealing with in order to devise the most sensible and mutually beneficial policies possible in the light of the economic, political, social and humanitarian situation.

Migration in all its forms and patterns will likely to increase due to the above-mentioned economic, demographic and climatic factors as well as geopolitical conflicts. It would be wise for origin, destination, and transit countries to start planning and working together in comprehensive and integrated ways, taking advantage of such tools as the Match and Motive Matrix, in order to prepare for the inevitable.

Burying the heads in the sand is a recipe for dire consequences.

* This article appeared in Arabic in Wednesday’s edition of Asharq Al-Awsat.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 May, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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