Mediterranean journeys in hope

The myths of migration

The conversation surrounding migration is full of disinformation. Challenging the resulting misconceptions is crucial to changing the everyday cost-benefit analysis of migration.

Cameron Thibos Patrick Taran
27 September 2016

Patrick Taran gives a historical perspective on the real scale of migration to Europe today. Duration: 1:28

My name is Patrick Taran, and I am now presiding over Global Migration Policy Associates which is an international expert group with about 40 recognised experts in various disciplines related to migration, such as development, human rights, social protection and so on. We are from countries all around the world, more or less equitably represented in terms of different regions, and gender balanced I would add. We do research, policy development, advisory services, training and advocacy on migration, but specifically from a rights-based and I would call it a socially responsible approach. We also take an explicitly global and multidisciplinarian perspective, rather than looking at it from the point of view of one particular country, region or interest.

Myth busting

Cameron: In your presentation you discussed several ‘myths’ around migration as well as the demographic and economic case for migration. You also discussed the double standard that exists when states are happy to intervene to ‘help’ people elsewhere in the world, but aren’t happy to either deal with the human consequences of those interventions, or to ‘help’ those same people when they come knocking at the door. Could you please lay out those arguments for us again?

And part of what we do, what I am concerned with, is myth-busting, because migration is one of the areas of global concern in politics and economics that is most characterised by misinformation, or disinformation, or is simply riddled with fabricated or materially-based myths. That is to say, if one looks at the press in recent months, one will read constantly that a million refugees and migrants arrived in Europe last year – that’s the sense everybody has.

The reality, if we look at the best recent figures that we have, is that annual immigration to European Union member countries over the last decade has been about three million or over three million a year. About half, a decade ago, was from one EU member country to another and the other half from third countries. Most recently, it is more migration and immigration from third countries, simply because in an ageing population there are less EU citizens willing to go and meet the labour needs or skills needs in other EU member countries.

Somewhere between 6% and 12% of all immigrants or foreign-born individuals in European countries are in irregular situations.

The last year for which we have concrete, verified figures was 2013, and the figures show about 3.4 million migrants, including refugees, and asylum seekers, arriving in Europe in regular or irregular situations. About 600,000 were asylum seekers, in many cases, who arrived in irregular circumstances. But another myth I would want to bust pretty quickly is that even Europol itself says that most migrants who end up in irregular circumstances in Europe actually arrive legally. They come with visas, in free movement regimes or without needing visas, and then ultimately end up overstaying the conditions of their entry. If they were tourists, they find a place to stay and go to work, and then, in technical terms they become migrants in irregular situations.

But again, the best figures done by a survey a couple of years ago of all EU member states suggested that the total number of migrants in irregular situations in the European Union was somewhere between three and six million. In other words, somewhere between 6% and 12% of all immigrants or foreign-born individuals in European countries. That is three to six million in a region that has a total population of 560 million, so it is clearly not a significant factor when one looks at it from any reference point. But again the myth is, most migrants are irregular, most are illegal – whatever the terms the press or some of the political commentators use.

At the same time, I think it’s important to recognise why those migrants are coming, what draws them. It is not only a set of push factors that force them to leave homelands caught up in warfare or external interventions, or where the employment rates may only be 20% because there are simply few formal jobs and few opportunities for people to work. If they want to provide for the families and their children they have to go somewhere else if they are to have some idea, or option, or any intention of finding work that will sustainably support their families over a period of time.

The economic argument for migration

The reality is that Europe is a region of ageing and declining populations, and of what we would call low fertility rates, that is rates below population replacement and that refer to the average number of children born per woman in society. An average of 2.1 or 2.2 children is logically the average per woman that a given population needs in order simply to replace itself or to sustain itself at the same level.

Here in our host country of Spain, the fertility rate is currently 1.4. A similar rate exists in Italy and several other European countries. I think that today not even France has a fertility rate high enough to replace its population. France is doing better because it has a certain level of immigration, and a number of programmes that make it a bit easier for women to contemplate having children, and having the child care support and the access to schooling and benefits that make it sustainable. But the reality is that with declining and ageing populations, public and private enterprise alike are having a huge problem finding enough workers with the qualifications they need. The situation in that regard is also getting worse.

Patrick Taran lays out the demographic argument for migration. Duration: 2:04

A couple of years ago a think thank that serves the corporate community released a survey calculating that, by 2020, there will be a global shortage of 40 million people with tertiary educations needed at that time by business to do the work that needs to be dealt with at that level of education and skills. And additionally, and this particularly affects developing countries, there will be a calculated shortage of about 45 million people who have the scientific, vocational and technical educations that you need to run factories, build buildings, infrastructure, to do research and development etc. That shortage is not being ameliorated at a moment historically when countries worldwide are cutting their budgets, going into austerity programmes, reducing funds for higher education, reducing state support for technical and vocational education.

This means we have two converging trends that spell disaster if they are not addressed. One is a declining workforce in a growing number of countries. Secondly, declining even faster, is the number of skilled people needed for the number of jobs that require those skills. In most countries that means a need to increase immigration, because other ways of responding to a declining workforce – raising the retirement age, increasing female participation or increasing productivity – are simply not going to compensate for the actual rate of loss of workforces.

Russia is approaching the rate of one million a year loss in workforce.

More concretely, I can already cite that Germany between now and 2030 will lose five million members of its workforce. Italy will lose three million. Since the year 2000 the Russian workforce has declined by 10 million. It is furthermore approaching the rate of one million a year in loss, due to the greater number of people reaching retirement age and who are leaving the workforce uncompensated for by fewer and fewer young people entering the workforce, because of low fertility rates. The biggest and most dramatic example is China. And the best estimates suggest that between now and 2040 or 2050, the Chinese workforces will decline by a mere 100 million people. In one way that is fairly obvious, because it is the ultimate consequence of five decades of a one child policy – which was needed at the time and is still needed to prevent unsustainable growth of the population.

But of course this has consequences, which will increasingly not be resolved by youth entering a net declining workforce. It also has huge consequences for social security systems that depend, as most systems do in western industrialised countries, on the payments of current workers to support retired people who are living on their social security income or their retirement pensions.

Migration from the eyes of those left behind by globalisation

And all of this is leading to massive challenges in terms of governance because on the one hand we have an environment that simply doesn’t understand what is going on. We also have an environment of a globalisation that has, shall we say, ‘developed’ but left many people behind. It is my sense and the sense of some others that a big part of the vote for a BREXIT of the UK was a protest vote by the many older people, particularly, in those societies.


Refugees on the Greek-Macedonian border. Natalia Tsoukala/Caritas International/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

These individuals have seen jobs grow fewer and become more precarious over the past two or three decades. They have seen their social security or their retirement pensions decline, or what they were promised would be their pensions and social benefits. They have seen massive slashing in state funding of the health systems, for education, for social services, and they are the ones who have been hurt by those cuts because they are the ones who can no longer get adequate health care, they are the ones who can no longer be seen immediately by a doctor if they get sick. The sense is that the BREXIT vote allowed people who have been hurt rather than helped, who have been left behind rather than carried along by globalisation, a chance to say, “this is what’s wrong”.

The exit campaigners were very astute in doing in England what Le Pen of the National Front in France did a few years ago: to say, “Look Frenchmen! (and he said Frenchmen, not French people) – there are 3 million unemployed in this country and there are 3 million migrants. You make the calculation!” The reality is of course that there may have been 3 million unemployed. But we are in an era in which structural unemployment has become a permanent feature of western capitalist industrialised societies, and in which migration both fills jobs that nationals no longer want and provides labour for so-called ‘3-D work’ – that is, dirty, dangerous and degrading.

Depending on how you portray a situation, that is how people will perceive it. If, in an environment of lots of problems – scarce housing, lack of social services, unemployment  – you point to the migrants and say ‘it’s their fault, migrants are taking our jobs’, or ‘migrants are raising crime rates’, then a lot of people who don’t get it and aren’t provided with an alternative explanation will believe the distorted narrative they are given. They then act on that distorted perception of reality, and call for solutions that are non-solutions to non-problems. The result can be political and economic disasters. The likely consequences of the BREXIT decision for instance, at least according to all the economic estimates, are higher costs, higher unemployment, lower business opportunities, and more obstacles for British industry and commerce to function in a globalised economy. But that’s another story.

A challenge, yes, but one with lots of potential

But if we come back to the refugee and migrant story that was the starting point for what we are doing here. I referred earlier to the calculation that annual immigration to EU member countries is in the neighbourhood of three to three and a half million. We don’t have the total figures for the last couple of years, but I think it’s a reasonably informed guesstimate to say that total immigration to EU member countries last year was around 4 million.

The increase represents an additional number of refugees or people in refugee-like situations who arrived in greater numbers than in the past. But in overall terms, that figure represents perhaps a 20% increase over what it has been in the last number of years, which hardly should a global let alone a European Union crisis make!

Yes, it is an additional burden, an additional challenge to respond to the sudden arrival of an additional six thousand people over the course of a year, most of them entering first by two countries – Greece and Italy – and then in the case of those who entered by Greece, exiting and entering again the European Union through the so-called Balkan route. But with the resources of a region of five hundred and sixty million people, it should seem hardly an untenable emergency to deal with 600,000 more people than there have been in the past.

This is especially the case as things stand right now. Why did Germany welcome, in a sense, the first million people who came last year? Well, if you look at the labour force demographics, they stand to lose five million people from their labour force over the next 15 years. If you straight line average that out – which isn’t exactly going to happen – that’s about 300,000-350,000 people a year leaving the workforce who aren’t automatically replaced.

The community and workforce, sooner or later, will most likely need migrants' labour and skills, as well as their contributions to national social security systems.

If you consider a million migrants arriving, and probably 60% of them being economically active or at least of working age, you would see that that entire million migrant arrivals represents simply the replacement rate of two years for what their labour force is losing. That might explain why the German government, Deutsche Bank, and the business community in Germany initially favoured the announcement that Germany would welcome refugees, even if they hadn’t followed the Dublin procedures of landing, making their application in the first country of their arrival in the European space, and then waiting to be resettled somewhere else.

The challenge we face, and the purpose of this conference, is to look at the impact of migrants and refugees on local communities. I use the terms deliberately interchangeably, because as a colleague of mine who works in Vienna said: ‘In reality, from the perspective of people’s own experience and even from the perspective of international law, figuratively: Day 1 – person arrives, makes an asylum claim and they are a refugee. Day 2 – they start to look for work, because they have to support themselves and there is no expectation that there will be automatic food and housing falling from heaven. Day 3 – they get a job. In international terms, already by day 2 they are a migrant worker, that is someone who is looking for work, is working, or has worked in a country other than that of their citizenship. Day 4 – as many of them are young adults with family, they start saying, ‘well my family has been left behind and I have to figure out how I’m going to bring my family here.’’

So in terms of both of legal concepts and also in terms of what city and national governments need to deal with, people – whatever their motivation for arriving – are facing similar circumstances; coming in with similar needs; have similar potential destinations; and, ultimately, similar intentions to join the community and workforce. That community and workforce, sooner or later, will most likely need their labour and skills, as well as their contributions to national social security systems and so on.

Western culpability

If Europe wants to stop mass migrations of people, it should stop abetting their creation says Patrick Taran. Duration: 3:05.

We must also seek to put this into the bigger picture, because we are speaking of an emergency situation. Yes there has been a significant increase. Why has there been a significant increase in people in refugee-like situations arriving in Greece and Italy, in particular, and especially in Greece over the last part of 2015 and the beginning of 2016?

If we are serious about providing a future for the people on this planet, then the place to start is stopping the destruction of our habitat and warfare.

According to the statistics, if you look where most of them are coming from, around 85% come from five countries – Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and I think the fifth largest is from a couple of the barely functioning Balkan states. With four of those, you are clearly looking at countries that are at war, have been at war, and if you are talking about Syria – look at pictures of almost any Syrian city today and they can only remind you of Dresden after the firebombing of 1943/44. They are completely destroyed. So of course people have to leave.

What’s destroying them? Well of course one can say that it is the civil warfare. But if you look at the arms being provided, the armed intervention, and the support for belligerent groups on the ground, you are looking at the involvement of European Union states, the US, other western powers, and the Russian Federation in direct engagement in warfare that is destroying the habitat of where people live today. If we are talking about addressing the causes and consequences, and if we really want to reduce the current emergency and prevent future movements of people who move en masse because they have no choice, then we need to be start with the mega-state policies. We need to negotiate peaceful solutions to conflict situations, withdraw arms, and reduce if not stop arms sales.

Maybe in an armed world that’s a bit of a pie in the sky approach, but if we are serious about development, government, human rights, providing a future for the people on this planet, then the place to start is stopping the destruction of our habitat and the warfare that is producing huge numbers of people who would not move if they didn’t have to.


A man walks among what's left of Homs, Syria in 2014. Chaoyue 超越 PAN 潘/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

Cameron: There is an assumption that anyone coming on a boat is going to be without skills and a drag on the state, which is of course not true, but nevertheless I wondered if you could clearly explain why it is not just the highly skilled who are important for our economies and societies. Also, you mentioned Le Pen’s suggestion that “there are 3 million unemployed in this country and there are 3 million migrants. You make the calculation!” This is seductive logic – could you explain why it doesn’t actually hold water?

Patrick: Well let me start by saying that again we are entering into lands of mythology. Yes, of course we need to attract the highly skilled. And yes, a significant proportion of migrant workers are concentrated in low-skilled jobs for which, because of the economics of those jobs and the demographics of host societies, native workers are simply not available. Plenty of jobs continue to require manual work – there is a lot of construction work you simply can’t do without manual labour, similarly with agriculture and health care – yet, given the social welfare systems in western countries, even unemployed native workers are not willing to take those jobs. Why should it be a reasonable expectation that the children of urbanised working class families move to isolated rural areas or infrastructure/construction areas in order to have a low-paying job?

At the same time, maintaining the economic viability of certain sectors – such as the farms that put food on the table in Europe, the US , South Africa and elsewhere – at prices that a poor working population can afford requires keeping the prices of production and therefore the prices of labour low. So you have a kind of paradox, in which migrants are attractive for and attracted into jobs that are below standards, below prevailing wages and so on. If migrant workers weren’t constrained to take those jobs, those sectors in fact would not be able to raise prices and make those jobs attractive to native workers. They would simply disappear.

Why should it be a reasonable expectation that the children of urbanised working class families move to isolated rural areas or infrastructure/construction areas in order to have a low-paying job?

Similarly with textiles. You can have some production of textiles, food, certain services, as long as the prices are low and in fact lower than what they could be if you paid union or the prevailing wages in those sectors. This becomes a paradox because if companies hired nationals or locally resident people into those jobs at wages that would be acceptable, those jobs would not be sustainable. This is because they would be undercut by low cost products and services either imported from elsewhere or offshored – clothing sewn in Bangladesh, automobiles assembled in Brazil, North Africa or eastern Europe.

The challenge is that in a deregulated economy, there is space for employers to maintain jobs underpinned by cheap labour by insisting that foreign labour shouldn’t benefit from the same level of standards or the same level of protections. This creates an unfair level of competition, but maintains production and a certain level of economic activity for society as a whole.

I think you are going to see this increasingly for an ageing population in Europe and elsewhere. The paradox is that you have parents who would rather be at home, and children who would rather have their parents at home, than see them sent to some institution where they receive impersonal care. But in order to keep either children or aged parents at home you need domestic help. It is not something that working age, economically active people today can do, without someone who can come in and help them maintain the care. But how are you going to have that happen if there isn’t also immigration that provides the people willing to work at a price that society and the people hiring them can afford?

The long-term perspective

It is a difficult paradox and not easy to explain. There are three essential points. First, in an economy that is trying to provide for millions of people, and if there is a sincere attempt through business and government to provide the goods and services that people need, there needs to be sufficient governmental regulation to ensure decent conditions and treatment for everyone, regardless of immigration status. There would then be no incentive for employers to dismiss national workers and hire foreign workers, because foreign workers would no longer be obliged to work in worse conditions for less pay.

Second, it is important to provide a degree of stimulus in terms of decent pay, so that people have money in their pockets so that they can buy the products that keep the economic cycle going in a market economy system.

Third, we need a clear recognition of the need to maintain labour forces. This means declining or ageing populations need to be supplemented and replaced by people who may come from elsewhere. Here I would underline that the sometimes-contemplated solution of replacing disappearing labour with technology is a myth as long as all the capital that states can raise is allocated to bailing out failed banks and financial systems rather than the extraordinarily costly R&D that such a solution would require. It’s one thing to look at it today and in the next five years. It is another thing to look at it in 30 years, when practically all countries in the world will be approaching lower if not zero growth fertility rates (as is happening with China).

There won’t be a supply of workers from other countries 30 years from now that could replenish workforces.

There won’t be a supply of workers from other countries 30 years from now that could replenish workforces. That’s a longer term challenge that almost no one has addressed, and neither immigration nor workforces are phenomena that governance can turn on or off from one year to the next. You can’t change fertility rates or economic growth rates with a simple stimulus – there are no simple solutions to complex problems. Those of us working with a certain broader perspective or long term view can see that there are a lot of questions coming up that we don’t have easy answers for, where there is no soundbite that can reassure you that three equals three and that it is a zero sum game. It is not.

There is one more thing to say about Le Pen’s three million and three million that is particularly pertinent to the BREXIT vote. In France as in the UK and elsewhere, many of the unemployed are older people who have skills, in some cases, highly developed skills. But they were skills of running the assembly lines and the labour intensive industrial production processes of the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties, which largely today have been replaced by technology and by robotics.

In terms of labour, those jobs have been replaced by the very significant growth in services work, in some cases lesser skilled. The challenge is that many of the jobs that have opened up are jobs that some people simply will not do. Why should you be a street sweeper if you were trained as a lathe operator in a woodworking mill? Why should you contemplate that as opposed to some way of surviving which doesn’t end your life being demoted from a highly skilled worker to a grunt worker?


Rasande Tyskar/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

Many of the three million immigrants are taking those service and new cheap labour jobs in the economies that I referred to earlier, that the existing unemployed – I think – shouldn’t even be expected to consider. At the same time, the high skilled jobs that exist require skills that states are not willing to invest in for older workers. It’s expensive, for starters, and it takes a lot longer to train a fifty year old in computer graphics design than to train someone coming out of high school who has already been using a computer since he or she was four years old. So again you have another layer of contradictions here that intersect with the migration debate. And unfortunately they aren’t put on the table, so that these simplistic equations somehow make sense to people who don’t see and who are not encouraged to see the bigger picture.

Cameron: As much as you say that the older generation or the native population shouldn’t be expected to take such a hit, it’s quite the indictment that maintaining our living standards requires the perpetuation of this underclass.

Patrick: I’m not sure that it is necessary. You also need to look at corporate policies that say, “we will lay people off because that will show a higher bottom line in our results to our stockholders”, or “we will engage in austerity policies because that will reduce overall the tax burden for individual and corporate taxpayers”. Instead, you could also say – as at one point the US did – “we will in fact engage in economic stimulus and bail out automobile producers as well as banks, because that will save jobs and retain the economic activity in this and related sectors”. And to a certain extent it seems to have worked better than the policies imposed on certain countries in Europe and more recently in the US as well, where in fact the US has maintained low but positive growth rates and is currently showing a lower overall unemployment rate than the majority of European countries.

In contrast, Spain is now showing real job growth and a reduction in unemployment. But nearly all the jobs being created are in fact precarious, short term, temporary or otherwise unsustainable employment and a far cry in terms of benefits from the more stable, permanent, or long-term contracts that they might have had in both the private and public sectors a decade ago.

People feel a huge inequality as a result. Or let me put it another way: the top percentile groups in most industrialised western countries have actually increased both their share of, and the total amount of, the incomes or the wealth that they command. Whereas the lower percentile groups are growing both in proportion and number, and they command an ever-smaller proportion of the global wealth created.

I think there was a certain simplification by the Occupy movement on this point, when they contrasted the 99% and the 1%. A better way to describe the challenge might be to say that somewhere close to 50% of the US population, on a per capita basis, is either below, at, or no more than 20% above the official poverty line. This means that a large proportion of the population that is still employed is what we can fairly call the working poor. Sometimes they even end up on the streets, because even though they are working full time they cannot afford to pay the rising costs of housing.

London is another good example. In many parts of the city in the last three or four years, you have had social or rent controlled housing condemned, demolished, and replaced by high price apartment buildings. This creates new housing units, but not necessarily more than were demolished. More significantly, socially affordable housing for people living in London disappears while high cost housing becomes more available. The people who benefit are those who can afford it.

A significant part of the population can no longer afford a roof over their heads, or do so only with great difficulty, and obviously that is going to create discontent. Immigrants can then be pointed out to the BREXIT voter as the problem. But essentially what those voters are up against is a system that has allowed for greed, speculation, and a concentration of capital in the construction of housing to eliminate existing low cost or moderate cost housing options.

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