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