New evidence on migration: clearly good for development, but no guide to immigration policy
Immigration has been addressed rather worryingly in the early stages of Labour’s leadership debate. It seems that the contestants are in danger of repeating or worse exaggerating the errors of New Labour’s capitulation to right-wing ideas on migration – being tough on migration rather than tough on the reasons that migration causes problems, like workplace exploitation and the scarcity of decent, cheap housing.
So it’s not surprising that the liberally-minded should claim that IPPR’s new research on global migration – Development on the Move – proves that tougher immigration controls won’t be effective in reducing migration (a claim which is only a minor point in IPPR’s own press release, but which has been the main finding to be promoted). I have only been able to access the summary so far, but it seems to me that, while it proves how useful migration is for migrants’ living standards (wealth, health and education – all good things in themselves), it doesn’t prove that tougher immigration controls will fail to control the scale of migration because it doesn’t distinguish between what is generally referred to as legal and illegal migration (albeit this is a rather crude distinction).
If the evidence for that claim is in the full report, my apologies, but it should have been put in the summary.
The research does seem fairly unambiguously to suggest that migration gives migrants higher standards of living, and that most migrants transfer at least some of that back to their country of origin, or at least their families there. But to suggest that this means tougher immigration controls won’t reduce the numbers travelling seems to me to be a leap of faith. The study’s summary doesn’t distinguish between the status of migrants in their destination country. There’s lots of evidence to suggest that those with legal status are better paid than those who are undocumented in some way, not least because the latter are open to more exploitation. My general perception is that immigration controls don’t affect the number of migrants (and nor do amnesties for ‘illegal’ migrants – the evidence is that illegal immigration is increasing in developed countries regardless of whether an amnesty is applied). But they do seem to affect the proportions of people working legally and otherwise. The IPPR study suggests that because migration (undifferentiated) leads to higher incomes for migrants, it will be unaffected by immigration controls. But if the immigration controls affect how much incomes increase when people migrate, it’s quite possible that migration will be affected.
I’m also wary of making any judgments about why people migrate from developing countries to developed countries, and what the effects are, without comparing the evidence on that with the evidence about why people migrate between developed countries, and between developing countries. It’s likely that the reason for any migration is about higher wages for the individual, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that south-north migration is any better than south-south migration (in the same way that increasing south-south trade may be a better development tool than more north-south trade). Social science is obviously more difficult than science generally, but both benefit from controls (the scientific sort, not the immigration variety!)
The summary claims that:
“policies that open legal routes for migration that make it easier for migrants to invest and buy property in their country of origin while away; or that reduce remittance costs are likely to boost migration’s development impacts, as are all policies that recognise and work with the grain of people’s migratory intentions and migrants’ interactions with their country of origin. In contrast, policies that try to stop emigration, to induce return without changing the wider policy environment, or even those that are simply poorly connected to the lives migrants live (such as policies that try to induce migrants to invest in community development projects over which they have little control or to which they have few links) are much more likely to fail.”
The first part of this claim seems well-proven – immigration controls are bad for international development. The second claim, that they won’t reduce immigration, seem to be unproven.