learning pages / Themes and topics

5.9 : Misinterpreted facts on migration.

Migration is an important issue in public debate and policy-making – across Europe and worldwide. And the media are part of it. Sometimes they build their narratives around migration on pure myths or speculation. At other times, however, they may reply on more subtle distortions and misconceptions: these may be, strictly speaking, factually correct but presented or interpreted out of context or misleadingly.

Meeting with Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, Poland, 2019
Author: Anna Alboth

Migration is an important issue in public debate and policy-making – across Europe and worldwide. In many countries, media stories serve to reinforce powerful narratives that portray migration as a major ‘problem’ which needs to be controlled.

These narratives are often repeated so consistently by media outlets and politicians that they come to be accepted as true by large sections of the public. This is useful for politicians whose policies are based on excluding and persecuting people who are different. The same is true for those who rely on a security discourse to justify the way they govern the country, to shift the attention of the public elsewhere rather than hold their own leaders to account. 

And yet, the dominant narrative we hear in the media is sometimes built not only on outright lies, but also on distortions and misconceptions. These are facts, strictly speaking, but taken out of context or presented in a misleading way. 

Since as a journalist your job is to uncover and communicate the truth, this is something you need to pay attention to. Even a statistic based on reliable data, for instance, may not capture the whole truth and so you need to be aware when repeating another source’s claims to interrogate what they may be choosing to exclude from that narrative.

List of misinterpreted facts:

  1. Accommodating migrants is expensive, and has an impact on host countries’ economies.
  2. Migrant workers send more money to countries in the global south than developed countries send as international aid.
  3. Most of those arriving in Europe by sea are men.
  4. Europe’s population is ageing.

1. Accommodating migrants is expensive, and has an impact on host countries’ economies.

Integrating migrants and refugees into labour markets and societies can be really expensive – in the short term. But it is effectively an investment, which produces a very high return for host countries in the future. There is also the question of how the costs are distributed and managed.

But even in cases where the integration of a migrant may require some upfront costs, this is by no means the whole picture as it leaves out the important consideration of the considerable benefits, economic and otherwise, that they then bring. 

In 2005, the World Bank estimated that increasing migration by an amount equal to 3 per cent of the workforce in developed countries between 2005 and 2025 would generate global gains of approximately  US$356 billion. Most of this gain would end up in global north countries. Economists Kym Anderson and Bjorn Lomborg predicted that the global net benefit of a completely opened flow of migrants for 25 years (since 2008) would be somewhere between US$13 trillion and US$39 trillion – between 28 and 220 times the likely costs of such a measure. 

The McKinsey Global Institute has looked in their report at the impacts and opportunities which migration offers. They conclude that workers moving to developed countries contributed approximately $US6.7 trillion to global GDP in 2015 – comprising 9.7 per cent of the total. This is also around US$3 trillion more than they would have produced if they had stayed at home. And the majority of that – US$2.5 trillion and US$2.3 trillion – went to North America and Western Europe respectively. 

The benefits of migration should therefore be clear and uncontested. But the problem, as explained by Ian Goldin and Kenneth Reinert in their book on globalization and development, is that while most of the benefits of migration are dispersed and generalized, the burden can fall disproportionately on particular groups, sectors and localities. 

At the same time, the ‘costs of migration are often short-run, while the full benefits of increased mobility appear only in the medium or long run’. And those benefits are not usually as immediate and tangible as the costs, which come with much higher political costs. It thus requires governments to plan accordingly: ease the short-term costs while mitigating the impacts on communities and even whole regions that are likely to be affected.

2. Migrant workers send more money to countries in the global south than developed countries send as international aid.

Many migrant workers send money home to their families in their countries of origin. According to the UN, by 2018 these remittances totalled three times more than global aid budgets to developing countries. But it is important to mention that this includes not only global south countries but also, for example, countries in Central and Eastern Europe. For example, the inflow of funds from emigrant workers accounted for 2 per cent of GDP in Slovakia and 4 per cent in Bulgaria (source). Until the COVID-19 pandemic.

The World Bank in 2020 predicts the sharpest decline of remittances in recent history (see detailed press release from April 2020). Especially for low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), such as Central Asia, where losses could be almost 30 per cent. The economic crisis brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has meant less jobs and actual earnings for millions of people and by extension their families and communities. 

The report also says that this fall comes after a record US$54 billion sent to LMCIs in 2019 – more than foreign direct investments. As these are prospected to fall by an even higher proportion (35 per cent), remittances will remain important for many.

Remittances do not simply supplement the income of relatives in developing countries. They are invested in businesses and communities, supporting economic growth and  development. The international community is beginning to understand that remittances can be a tool for international development – they play a key role in working to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals on health and education, for example.

Migrants also act as ‘bridges’ between two places, transferring knowledge and skills, all of which can contribute to their home communities (see post on transnationals).

Remittances benefit migrant workers’ host countries as well as their countries of origin. This video from the United Nations in 2017 explains how:

And for those interested, there is an insightful TEDx talk by Dilip Ratha, an economist and expert on remittances:

3. Most of those arriving in Europe by sea are men.

Sure, so what? It is a rational strategy, especially when we are speaking about labour or economic migration. Men are generally less vulnerable to abuse than women during transit and irregular residency. But at the same time we need to acknowledge that this ratio is changing as there is an increasing proportion of refugees within mixed migration patterns. 

See these findings by UNHCR:

  • In 2016, 57 per cent of arrivals were men, 17 per cent women and 26 per cent children.
  • In 2017, 69 per cent of arrivals were men, 13 per cent women and 18 per cent children.
  • In 2018, 64 per cent of arrivals were men, 15 per cent women and 22 per cent children.
  • In 2019, 56 per cent of arrivals were men, 17 per cent women and 27 per cent children.

It is important to be aware of the risks people take crossing the Mediterranean Sea, particularly when travelling from North Africa to Italy. Over 5,000 refugees and migrants are thought to have died or gone missing in 2016, over 3,000 in 2017, almost 2,300 in 2018 and over 1,300 in 2019. 

It is also important to remember that EU member-states’ policies are actively putting lives at greater risk. Once Spain began to patrol the waters off of Senegal in order to reduce the number of migrants arriving in the Canary Islands, for instance, more people began to opt for the even riskier land and sea route over the Sahara towards Libya and the Mediterranean. 

Because the journey is so dangerous men tend to travel first, as they are most likely to survive. See Fortress Europe for more. Family members join them once they have reached safety.

In this UNHCR video, some refugees share their stories:

4. Europe’s population is ageing.

Eurostat estimates that in the next decades, the working-age population of the EU will have declined by 3.5 million people. 

This figure has two important implications – both are important in order to interpret it fully. 

First of all, an ageing population creates a growing need for migrants to maintain the workforce – and in a society dependent on social security payments, at the level that is needed. That is one side of the coin. 

The second issue is about the subsequent needs of an older population, such as increased demand in sectors like medicine and social care, the so-called ‘grey economy’. Many countries (for instance the UK, Austria and Germany) are already quite dependent on migrant workers to care for their growing numbers of elderly citizens.

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5.1 : Migration as a global phenomenon.

Migration is not a new phenomenon: people have been on the move since the dawn of humankind. Indeed, the history of humanity is a history of migration – some have even argued that movement is our natural state. Migration has always been an essential part of our adaptation to environmental stress, social upheaval and other challenges. The same is true today, even though it has now become global in scale.

5.2 : What is migration?

Simply put, migration is human movement from one place to another. It may involve a single individual or an entire community, internal resettlement within a country or a journey spanning multiple continents, forced flight from the threat of violence or a voluntary search for opportunities elsewhere. Indeed, in many cases it can involve a mixture of patterns and motivations: for instance, migrants may have to flee very real dangers to themselves and their families, while at the same time actively plan for a better life elsewhere. Migration has a variety of facets and there are plenty of reasons – some even seemingly contradictory – why people decide to leave or stay.

5.3 : Terminology matters: From ‘economic migrants’ to refugees.

'Migrant' is an overarching term for anyone (with the exception of tourists) who moves from one country to another for a significant period of time. A refugee is a person who flees from conflict, persecution of a natural disaster and seeks sanctuary in another country. (In many situations of insecurity, many or even most of those forced to move may in fact remain within their country: these internally displaced people, also called IDPs, rarely receive the same amount of attention in international media, despite often facing considerable challenges). An economic migrant is a person who moves in search of education, employment and other opportunities outside his or her country. Asylum-seekers are people who have applied for asylum in another country. Finally, stateless people are those who have either been deprived of or were born without citizenship.

5.4 : Transnationals.

Technologies have not only enabled people to move across the world far more easily than before, but also to keep in close contact with families back home. In particular, information and communication technologies (ICTs) have facilitated the development of complex social connections, crossing national borders and spanning the globe. As a result, a growing number of migrants are now ‘transnational’.

5.5 : Migration and development.

Migration is often closely linked to processes related to development. There is no single definition of development, but in broad terms it can be understood as the potential for individuals and communities within a society to access services, employment and other opportunities on an equitable basis. If people do not have a chance to develop their potential, if they are excluded from participating in development, they might decide to move.

5.6 : Migration and minorities.

A minority may be a group numerically inferior to the rest of the population but also in some cases larger in number, but in a non-dominant position. Minorities usually possess certain ethnic, religious, linguistic and other characteristics differing from those of the rest of the population. Due to their marginalized position within society, they are vulnerable to discrimination, and are unable to secure an equal share of development opportunities. This all makes these communities more exposed to various challenges that they may attempt to resolve by deciding to move.

5.7 : Smuggling.

According to the UN definition smuggling "is a crime involving the procurement for financial or other material benefit of illegal entry of a person into a State of which that person is not a national or resident." In principle, it implies a level of consent among those being smuggled – as opposed to those subjected to human trafficking, who are effectively captive to their traffickers. Once a migrant is smuggled through a border to their agreed destination, the relationship is usually over, while human trafficking generally involves the continued coercion of victims, often over a period of many years.

5.8 : Fortress Europe.

Since the EU was established, the borders between its member states have been dissolving. Yet at the same time, its external borders have hardened – an approach widely known as ‘Fortress Europe’. Even for those fleeing persecution, entering the EU has become increasingly impossible for most refugees. As a result, many have been forced to take more dangerous routes, with a corresponding rise in the number of dead or missing people as desperation leads them to seek out smugglers and puts them at risk of human trafficking. Fortress Europe does not stop at its actual borders, but goes deep into neighbouring countries or even further in some cases in an attempt to create a buffer zone through a web of agreements, funding, detention centres and naval patrols.

5.10 : Migration causes.

Migration is typically caused by a variety of factors, both ‘push’ and ‘pull’. People might decide to move because of a range of factors, be it employment, security, opportunities, education, even love, unavailable to them in their home country and ‘pulling’ them elsewhere. On the other hand, there can be compelling drivers of displacement such as conflict, persecution, natural disasters and other immediate threats, that push them to migrate. In this post we focus on the latter – push factors related to forced migration.

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