Migration and development: a question of barriers

Immigration policy should balance both the needs of the British economy and the developmental impact the policy will have on countries of origin. Overcoming popular and political resistance to this will not be easy, but it is a conversation that needs to start now.

Alex Glennie and Glenn Gottfried
30 July 2012

Immigration is a sensitive topic in contemporary British politics. As the number of immigrants has steadily grown over the past decades and with no end in sight to the current economic crisis, the public have sustained their demand for increasing the limits to immigration. All of the major political parties have been burned politically by this issue. Labour remains on the defensive for its decision not to impose transitional controls on migration from Poland and other EU accession countries in 2004, while the Coalition is coming under increasing pressure over its pledge to reduce annual net migration to the “tens of thousands”; a goal which seems neither economically viable nor practically obtainable. Yet it is ironic that the political discourse around such an international subject matters focuses predominantly on domestic matters.

Since 2007, the United Nations has convened an annual Global Forum on Migration and Development, bringing together senior policymakers, academics, NGOs, experts and other migrant organisations in order to foster cooperation between different stakeholders on the issue. It is a key area of focus for the UN and other international organisations like the World Bank, the IOM, and the ILO, while the European Commission and UNDP coordinate the multi-year, multi-million Euro Joint Migration and Development Initiative. The migration-development nexus has also started receiving considerable attention from both academic and policy-oriented researchers. Between 2007 and 2010, IPPR and the Delhi-based Global Development Network jointly coordinated Development on the Move, an innovative project designed to look at migration and development in the round. Our aim was to create a new methodology for assessing the wide range of impacts that migration can have on economic, social and political development, to collect evidence on those impacts by conducting nationally-representative household surveys, to build research capacity on migration and development issues in developing countries, and to examine fresh policy options for maximising the developmental outcomes of migration whilst minimising its costs such as a brain drain or family separation.

However, this increasingly active international debate has failed to translate into meaningful policy change at the national level. Despite occasional flurries of interest in finding ways to make migration work better for development, in most advanced economies – including the UK – migration policymaking is the preserve of home offices while development policy is set by international development agencies. In developing economies, the situation is slightly different. The developmental benefits of increased mobility are widely recognised, but few countries have developed successful strategies for promoting the circular migration of talented emigrants. Why?

Last week, IPPR and the Center for Global Development (CGD) in Europe co-hosted a lecture on this subject by Michael Clemens, a senior fellow and migration and development expert at the CGD. He claims that minor reductions in the barriers to labour mobility “would add more value than the total, global elimination of all remaining policy barriers to goods trade and all barriers to capital flows combined”. He illustrated this with an example of how immigration policy in the United States has had an immense impact on development in Haiti.

Haitians have been one of the largest migrant groups to establish a community in Miami over the past decades. A simple comparison between migrant Haitians in Miami and Haitians in Haiti suggests that the answer to Haiti’s development may lie outside its borders. The prospective earnings for a low-educated male Haitian will – at minimum – increase 7 times just by going to the United States and doing the same job there that he would otherwise be doing in Haiti. This dramatic increase in earnings has an enormous effect on bringing Haitians out of poverty. A study by Clemens has shown that nearly 4 out of 5 Haitians who were born in Haiti and are above the poverty line (adjusted for both Haiti and the United States) live within the United States. This figure doesn’t include the number of Haitians who live in Canada, Europe and elsewhere, which would make the estimate higher.

Using these figures, Clemens modelled the possible amount Haitians working in the United States would be able to contribute directly to Haitian families and their development. He estimates that if 2,000 low-skilled workers had the ability to migrate from Haiti to the United States they would be capable of providing nearly $380 million to Haiti over just 10 years. In comparison, the United States government has pledged nearly $655 million in aid money to Haiti, of which only 1 percent has reached the Haitian people to date. Developing a more flexible migration policy to allow Haitian workers into the United States would essentially be a form of free aid, and would have a more direct and influential impact on development within Haiti. By demonstrating this to influential members of the United States Congress, Clemens has succeeded in getting Haiti added to the eligible countries list for the H-2 worker visa programme.

A second example of the impact that well-designed migration policies can have on development can be seen in links between the Philippines and the United States, the latter of which is currently experiencing a nursing shortage. The Philippines have invested in nursing schools to meet American medical standards so that these newly trained nurses can move to the United States and take advantage of the nursing supply visa. This does not necessarily create a brain drain, as these individuals would not have been trained otherwise and many who gain these skills will end up staying in the Philippines rather than emigrating. Notably, the Philippines have a higher number of nurses per capita than both the UK and Austria.

In the United Kingdom, immigration policy could have just as much of a beneficial effect on development. This is not to say that Britain need open its borders to all developing countries, but rather that immigration policy should take into consideration both the type of migrants the British economy requires and the developmental impact which the policy will have on the country of origin. As Duncan Green points out, the pressures created by an aging European society and the need for care workers may soon necessitate policies that encourage the immigration of more well-qualified young people from outside the EU. Overcoming popular and political resistance to this will not be easy, but it is a conversation that needs to start now.

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