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Is Economic Migration Still Sustainable?

Public Policy

Migration has always been part of the human experience. As the world’s population has grown, so too has the number of people migrating. But have we reached the point where the developed world is no longer seeing a benefit from the economic migration of people from the developing world?

From the 18th Century onwards, 55 million Europeans went overseas, many to the USA, peaking at nearly nine million arrivals in the first decade of the 21st Century. By 1910, the total number of people worldwide – including legal and illegal international migrants and refugees – living in a country not the one they were born in was estimated to be about 215million. Today, the influx of migrants to Western countries approaches in absolute terms the scale of 19th Century emigration. When Europeans migrated in the 1800s however they generally filled up territory occupied by few indigenous people. The problem we now have is that today’s migrants tend to go to places with already relatively high population densities.

No one can deny that migration has positive aspects. Diasporas spread information and ideas and facilitate trade. They can, and often do, generate money flows to poor countries. A recent study by Duke University showed that immigrates make up an eighth of America’s population but have founded a quarter of the country’s technology and engineering firms. Generally, however, migration works best when sending and receiving countries have roughly the same standard of living, not when there is a steep economic gradient to be traversed.

It’s not surprising that people want to move from poorer countries to richer ones. Migrants who move for economic reasons are by far the largest category. They move because they believe that they can better their life chances somewhere else, although the data consistently show that when families move, women’s employment opportunities are apt to be less favourable than they had been. And there are other even more distressing issues; migration often means leaving some family members behind and though sometimes a large degree of integration is easily achieved, sometimes immigrants may experience almost total exclusion from the host country.

But who benefits from economically driven migration? Undoubtedly the migrants generally gain from the process. The bigger the gap been the migrant’s earning power in their country of origin and that to which they have moved, the greater the gains will be. So, with travel as cheap as it is today, movement from poorer to richer countries can be expected to increase in proportion to the size of the gap in living standards between developed and developing nations. With economic migration only set to increase, the key issue then is whether on balance the overall gains from large-scale migration outweighs the benefits. To assess this we need to look at the pros and cons of migration generally.

First, it is consistently argued in the UK and elsewhere that there are large numbers of jobs here that the indigenous labour force doesn’t want but that migrant works are happy to fill. This may be true. But employing large numbers of low-skilled people on low wages is not the only way of getting necessary work done. By sticking to the low-skill, low-wage tradition of using large-scale immigration to do essential work we are only discouraging investment in labour-saving machinery and the productivity improvements that go with this. Furthermore, the losers in such a situation tend to be those indigenous workers competing with the new arrivals.

Secondly, it is often argued that immigrants are required to redress imbalances in the age structure of developed countries with aging populations and low birth rates. This argument is used particularly in Europe and Japan. But there are two problems with this approach: one is that immigrants get older too and sooner or later they become part of the dependency problem and the second is that immigration on the scale required to fill population gaps is completely impractical; the number of immigrates required to bring this about would be far greater than any estimates of the host countries’ capacity to absorb them.

Thirdly, it is maintained that immigration provides otherwise absent cultural diversity. There is something in this argument but it needs to be balanced against the resentment which large cultural and lifestyle differences can easily bring about. Finally, it is argued that because immigrants tend to be extremely hardworking, positively motivated and entrepreneurial, they have a lot to offer. There is considerable weight to this argument too. Many immigrants have done extremely well in the UK, making a significant contribution to our economy and country. But the obverse of this is that the benefits we have gained from the contributions of these talented people have been lost from their country of origin; benefits which these countries can ill-afford to lose.

In summary, while large-scale migration for economic reasons has some merit for the migrant, the implications and benefits for everyone else are less clear. Those in the developed world with a low income tend to find their earning capacity reduced while the pressure generated on housing and infrastructure and other social resources generally increases, especially in countries or urban environments where the population density is already high. At the same time the poorer countries from which migrants tend to come can ill-afford to lose the skills and abilities of the type of people who most want to migrate.

It is also clear that, as the scale of migration increases, the strains in all directions get greater and the tolerance of those in host countries is stretched. We can see this happening right now in the UK and across Europe. So if migration is to be kept within reasonable bounds, as far as possible, the living standards between rich countries with low birth rates and poor countries with high birth rates must be kept as small as possible and reduced rather than increased. It’s clear that the wider the gap in living standards between the poorest and richest nations, the greater the incentive to migrate for economic reasons.

If the poorest countries are to become better off, it is even more important that the rich countries do enough to provide trading opportunities and aid. We need to ensure our economy is strong enough to weather any coming storms. If the West falters, the result over the coming decades is likely to be more, not less, migration.

There are already signs that developed countries now have limited capacity to absorb immigrants from poor countries before tensions rise to an intolerable level. The rise of populism in the UK and across Europe is an outward manifestation of this. If we are to tackle the likely further increase in economic migration – or stem that flow – it is in Britain’s interest to look evermore carefully at policies which will deliver sustainable economic growth and raise the living standards of all workers in the UK, not just those in the South of England or in service industries. Only then will we have the capacity to cope with economic migration and help the developing world raise its own living standards too.


10 Comments on "Is Economic Migration Still Sustainable?"

  1. Makati1 on Wed, 30th Jul 2014 9:10 pm 

    The overall world economy is shrinking, no matter what lies you hear or read about that claim otherwise. Immigration has only begun. When climate change takes away the ability to survive in one country, that population will relocate, either peacefully or by force.

    Many of those in the more expensive countries will migrate to the countries with lower costs of living and more freedom. Especially retirees or those who’s income is not dependent on being able to go to a factory or office near their residence. The internet is freeing those people from place-of-business and allowing more choices.

    For the more wealthy countries who are now also dealing with shrinking economies and crowded cities, it will only get worse, until the outsiders see that they have nothing to gain by going there. But, if you lived on $10 per day in your country of birth, even $20 per day seems good until you realize that it takes $30+ per day just to survive in your new country.

    In the US, the government cannot afford to stop food stamps or welfare or unemployment or the many other social safety nets that keeps the lid on the populace. Over half of the population receives money from Uncle Sam. When you have a socialist country pretending to be a democracy, you have a lot of lies to cover and a corner to try to find your way out of without causing a revolution. I think there is no escape this time. Printing money doesn’t last for long. Especially when the rest of the world has decided they don’t want to use the Charmin anymore.

    I don’t know what the immigration conditions are in the EU, but I read that they are getting dicey there also.

    Immigration here in the Ps is pretty well controlled. The laws are strict. If you come and want to stay you have to do a number of things and have a regular income above a certain amount. The last time I checked, it was 800 USD per month from a reliable income source, per person. Or enough to invest or start a business. That amount is in the 6 figures. but there are million of immigrants here now from all over the world.

    (BTW: The Philippines just celebrated their 100,000,000th person born here.)

  2. dashster on Thu, 31st Jul 2014 3:02 am 


    The only way immigration would continue in a declining Europe and United States from the third world, is if the rhetoric remains strong from the immigration beneficiaries, pollyannas and worshipers in the elite, and the masses continue to fall for it. But at some point it is likely conditions will force sensible thinking to prevail. At that point immigration stops as it is not hard to stop, if the countries decide they want to stop it.

    You don’t even need a fence, although one could be built. You just need to search out and jail people employing illegals.

    It is also a simple matter to outlaw immigration that is currently legal.

  3. Arthur on Thu, 31st Jul 2014 3:53 am 

    Wow, the HuffPo lefties getting second thoughts about the beneficial effects of mass-immigration. But it is already too late for our marxist Huffpo friends: America is gone. You only have to look at sad examples like Palestine, Yugoslavia and Iraq to know what is going to happen if you mix incompatible people: they go at each others throat sooner or later. America is a ticking time bomb, an accident waiting to happen. America so far has largely been a ‘fair weather country’: the largest group of Europeans united under a single tax farm, with little or no war on their own soul and limited losses overseas. The moon, here we come. That all changed after LBJ opened the doors for mass immigration from third world countries in 1965. Now the civilization carrying Euros are reduced to perhaps 65% of the population, the aging population segment that is. Below five years old, more than 50% is of color, which is good news for the rap and basketball trade, but not much else. As Paul Craig Roberts has repeatedly sad: the US is going to be a third world country by 202x, with corresponding economic and military and technological clout: namely little. America committed suicide. All Russians and Chinese need to do is lean back and let the clock do the dirty work. Countries with near zero internal cohesion will fall apart, automatically. It is only a matter of time before dominantly white states will try to secede. Washington will try to prevent that and attempt to erect a racial-communist state with forced racial integration. The Euro-Americans are desperately going to need the continental Europeans to liberate them once again. This time not from the British.

  4. dashster on Thu, 31st Jul 2014 4:48 am 

    “That all changed after LBJ opened the doors for mass immigration from third world countries in 1965.”

    I have read that Teddy Kennedy led the push too get Congress to open the US to the world. He initially was supposed to have been looking to get more Irish in.

  5. Arthur on Thu, 31st Jul 2014 5:41 am 

    Kennedy was acting as the front man, where in reality Emanuel Celler had written the law. His people had been pushing for non-white mass immigration for a century:

  6. Davy on Thu, 31st Jul 2014 7:35 am 

    Art said – You only have to look at sad examples like Palestine, Yugoslavia and Iraq to know what is going to happen if you mix incompatible people: they go at each others throat sooner or later. America is a ticking time bomb, an accident waiting to happen.

    Sounds like you are describing Europe Art. Europe is the manufactured pseudo United States that will never hold together in a social and economic union when things get really bad. The armies will be on the march again soon leaving rape, pillage, and destruction in their paths.

    Art, the US is a continent sized country there is a vast area that has a diverse population and a variable mix of ethnicities. I am in northern Michigan now and I have seen two black people that were tourist. In my home state of Missouri except for the two largest cities there are few Hispanics or blacks. There are areas where your described volatile mix exists but then that is also typical of the global world mega cities. So you are only partly right. I would worry about LA or New York but no problems where I live. What about Paris or Amsterdam? You going to tell me there is social harmony.

  7. Arthur on Thu, 31st Jul 2014 8:30 am 

    Davy, I know that your state is quite homogeneous and that in general the ‘red states’ don’t run the risk of a major confrontation. But the coasts are a different story. It is very instructive to study in detail what happened in New Orleans after the hurticane. Hundreds of people/looters were killed, an event covered up by the authorities. Compare that with the behavior of the Japanese after the tsunami there. Never heard of a single incident of looting.

    Yes, you are right, some cities in western Europe are very vulnerable to an uprising. Most British cities, as we have seen in 2011, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Brussels, Antwerp, Paris and several other French cities. But that is about it.

    EU: 500 million, of which 30 million non-Euro immigrants.
    US: 330 million, of which 150 million non-Euros.

    That is a considerable difference in proportion. And the US does nothing to stem the tide, is now even busy setting up immigration bureaus in Latin-America (all against the will of the Americans). In Europe in contrast, the right is on the rise and with it resistance against further immigration. The breakthrough will occur in Europe first, probably France.

  8. Davy on Thu, 31st Jul 2014 8:40 am 

    Yes, Art but what about when the French are fighting the Germans or the Northern Europeans fighting the Southern Europeans in a collapsed BAU. You Europeans are so cozy now but there was a time when this was not the case and nationalism is still in every Europeans heart. The US may have ethnic Balkanization ahead but Europe has Nationalism to contend with and Balkanization. When the Europeans who are living better than everyone else on earth finally experience widespread pain and deprivation they will be at each other’s throat. History does not just vanish from the terrain and genes.

  9. Arthur on Thu, 31st Jul 2014 10:54 am 

    Thanks to the USA and USSR (and sidekick Britain) Europe is no longer the center of the universe. With Russia and 1300 million Chinese around and the prospect of France becoming an islamic country in 2050, I find it highly unlikely that Britain will manage for a third time to organize a coalition against Germany. I trust we Europeans in continental Europe, North-America and Russia will get our act together, stamp out the City and Wallstreet, and become lords again in our own lands and form a coalition that will be able to contain China for the rest of the 21st century, in a multipolar world. That’s the most logical agenda.

  10. J-Gav on Thu, 31st Jul 2014 12:15 pm 

    Arthur – Logical agenda, maybe, but I don’t have nearly as much trust in it ever happening as you do. Why? Because I don’t see Europeans, North America and Russia even beginning to get their act together yet.

    On the other hand, I do go along with the idea that a multi-polar world of some description is on the way.

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