His­tory shows mi­grant work­ers boost economies


POLITI­CIANS and the me­dia ex­pend in­or­di­nate amounts of en­ergy de­bat­ing mi­gra­tion, of­ten us­ing na­tivist, pop­ulist and xeno­pho­bic rhetoric. This is de­spite the fact that, as of last year, three out of ev­ery 100 peo­ple – 3.4% of the world’s pop­u­la­tion – have left their home na­tions to mi­grate to a new coun­try.

The mes­sage from peo­ple like US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and the UK’s “Brex­i­teers” is that mi­grants should be kept out at all costs to “save” their economies. Yet many schol­ars have ar­gued that at­tract­ing and keep­ing mi­grants is es­sen­tial to eco­nomic com­pet­i­tive­ness in a glob­al­is­ing world. Some coun­tries are re­spond­ing pos­i­tively to such

ar­gu­ments, em­brac­ing the ben­e­fits mi­grants can offer to their economies. Oth­ers – African coun­tries among them – are far be­hind the curve.

Many de­vel­op­ing coun­tries are im­mi­grant-send­ing coun­tries which can have some neg­a­tive ef­fects. Last year, 74% of all im­mi­grants were of work­ing age. It makes sense that los­ing this vi­tal de­mo­graphic can dam­age a coun­try’s econ­omy – and that gain­ing these work­ers can help grow an­other’s. This is borne out by his­tory: in the 19th cen­tury, mi­grant-re­ceiv­ing coun­tries like the US grew faster than mi­grant-send­ing coun­tries like Italy and Ire­land be­cause these mi­grants added to their host coun­try’s work­force and left their home coun­tries with fewer work­ers.

In my re­search on mi­gra­tion I have

found that coun­tries like Viet­nam, In­dia and China are ac­tively try­ing to re­cruit peo­ple from their di­as­po­ras – those liv­ing out­side the re­gion where they or their an­ces­tors were born – to help build their economies.

My re­search fo­cuses on fron­tier mi­gra­tion: the move­ment of peo­ple, tech­nol­ogy, ideas and cap­i­tal from a “de­vel­oped” to a “de­vel­op­ing” econ­omy. Among them are in­creas­ing num­bers of fron­tier re­turn mi­grants who were born and raised in one coun­try, leave it for some time but are now opt­ing to re­turn home.

Re­searchers used to as­sume that once peo­ple mi­grated to the West, they and their chil­dren would stay there. But this is in­creas­ingly not the case. An­other cat­e­gory I fo­cus on are fron­tier her­itage

mi­grants; those raised in the di­as­pora who re­turn to the land of their eth­nic her­itage.

The US is los­ing out The world’s most pow­er­ful coun­try and its largest econ­omy, the US, was un­til recently known as a coun­try of im­mi­grants. Mi­gra­tion and tech re­searcher Vivek Wad­hwa has warned for years that putting up bar­ri­ers to im­mi­gra­tion will re­duce the US’s in­no­va­tive, tech­no­log­i­cal and eco­nomic edge. Af­ter all, many US busi­nesses are started by im­mi­grants, and just over half of the coun­try’s one bil­lion dol­lar start-up com­pa­nies had at least one im­mi­grant founder.

Wad­wha’s re­search among Stem (sci­ence, tech­nol­ogy, engi­neer­ing,

math­e­mat­ics) grad­u­ate stu­dents who came to the US to study for ad­vanced de­grees re­vealed alarm­ing shifts. Be­fore 2001, most of these sorts of grad­u­ates would re­main in the US af­ter com­plet­ing their de­grees. Af­ter 2001, hos­tile im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies “pushed” them to be­come fron­tier re­turn mi­grants, go­ing home to coun­tries like In­dia and China.

The US was forced to change pol­icy to counter the trend to­wards Stem stu­dents’ re­turn mi­gra­tion.

Pol­icy ben­e­fits for Africa? African coun­tries are not seiz­ing the op­por­tu­nity pre­sented by the mi­gra­tion-eco­nomic nexus. Only a hand­ful of African coun­tries – among them Liberia and Ethiopia – have ac­tively worked to

bring in more mi­grants.

I have found that peo­ple in gen­eral and peo­ple of African de­scent, in par­tic­u­lar, both in Africa and the West, are par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in mov­ing to South Africa to work. This is be­cause South Africa has a well-de­vel­oped in­fra­struc­ture and of­fers what many mi­grants re­fer to as “life­style” – a good qual­ity of life.

Build­ing a ro­bust econ­omy has al­ways re­quired mi­grant. That’s not go­ing to change any time soon. The coun­try with the most open im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy will be best po­si­tioned to suc­ceed in the global econ­omy. – The Con­ver­sa­tion Melissa Tandiwe Myambo Re­search As­so­ciate, Cen­tre for In­dian Stud­ies, Univer­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand

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