Migration isn’t increasing, border restrictions don’t reduce crossings — and other home truths

People cross a canal after walking over the dry Colorado River to cross illegally into the U.S. from Mexico.

Increased border restrictions only push people to taking riskier routes.Credit: David McNew/Getty

How Migration Really Works: A Factful Guide to the Most Divisive Issue in Politics Hein de Haas Viking (2023)

Everyone has an opinion about immigration, but most people don’t understand it, suggests sociologist Hein de Haas in his impressively wide-ranging book How Migration Really Works. By busting myths that surround human mobility, de Haas provides a welcome corrective to common misconceptions. But with migration patterns shifting as the world rocks in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s unclear for how long his conclusions will hold true. In future, migration might operate differently from how it has done in the past.

de Haas first tackles the idea that the current scale of migration is unprecedented. In fact, only about 3% of the global population live outside their country of birth or that of their nationality — a percentage that has remained steady since the 1960s, when the volatile movement patterns that followed the Second World War had subsided.

Next, he confronts the notion that migration is a consequence of poverty. In 2020, almost two-thirds of migrants came from middle-income countries, such as Mexico, India and Russia, not low-income ones. This is because, de Haas highlights, the poorest people cannot afford to migrate. Thus, development in low-income countries drives more migration — not less — because more people can afford to leave.

Billion-dollar boost

And by moving, both migrants and their families at home benefit, quashing another myth — that emigration causes poverty in the country of origin. In 2022, a person moving from Bangladesh to Saudi Arabia could expect an 11-fold increase in pay; someone going from Mexico to the United States increases their income by about 7-fold. Immigrants sent around US$650 billion to their families in low- and middle-income countries in 2022. This is a lot more than the $200 billion that these nations received in the same year in official aid from rich governments, intended to promote economic development and welfare, and more stable than direct foreign investments, which fluctuate with business cycles and other disruptions.

Anti-immigrant stereotypes are next on the list. Migrants don’t ‘steal’ jobs, de Haas writes, they do essential work that local people can’t or won’t do. This includes low-wage jobs in sectors such as agriculture or domestic care, and high-wage jobs in science, medicine and trades, for which destination countries haven’t trained enough people to meet demand. In the United Kingdom, for example, more doctors who started work in 2021 gained their qualifications outside the country than in it.

Moreover, migrants earning high wages pay more in taxes than others receive in government benefits. For instance, in Australia, the average skilled migrant pays Aus$127,000 more tax over their lifetime than does the average resident. And although 35 million refugees and asylum seekers were entitled to protection under international law in 2022, this is a tiny portion of the global population — just 0.4%.

Tough talk, little action

On migration policies, de Haas points out that many right-leaning politicians talk tough on immigration to pacify potential voters, yet keep controls loose to help business owners to recruit staff from abroad. Politicians label the trafficking of sex workers as modern slavery, he claims, because this framing justifies the removal of migrants who choose to do such jobs by branding mass deportation as ‘rescuing’ those people. And border restrictions don’t reduce immigration, they just push people towards entering through riskier routes — by crossing the Mediterranean Sea in overcrowded boats, or Arizona’s deserts on foot.

How Migration Really Works also acknowledges the downsides of migration. For instance, immigrants can’t fix the problems of ageing societies, in which there are too few working-age taxpayers to support retired people, partly because they also become older. And, although the threat of mass migration has proved useful for scaring governments into taking climate actions, these large human flows probably won’t come to pass, de Haas predicts, in part because changes will be made to ensure that at-risk regions remain habitable.

Employees work in an office building in Midtown New York City.

Working patterns have changed since the COVID-19 pandemic.Credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty

de Haas’s efforts to give the full picture are laudable, and for the most part, a success. Yet, although the ‘myths versus facts’ style of the book makes it easily digestible, building up ‘straw men’ only to knock them down can become tedious, as can de Haas’s claims that he alone knows how things work, given that he mostly recycles well-known arguments. Other scholars in the field will also notice inconsistencies with his previous writings, including those associated with the idea that migration is increasing, and his paper that claimed to reveal the “ideologically driven naivety” of optimism around the benefits of emigration (H. de Haas Int. Migr. Rev. 44, 227–264; 2010).

Changing trends

The timing of the book is also slightly unfortunate, falling just after the largest mobility shock in human history, the COVID-19 pandemic. All bets about future migration are off, yet How Migration Really Works gives the impression that long-standing patterns of human movement will continue. This reflects a problem of the broader literature — researchers understand stable, predictable phases of population movement, but are less able to make sense of disruption, turbulence and volatility.

The world might revert to the patterns that de Haas describes. Or it might settle into a new dynamic. Either way, the outcome will be influenced by three key transformations in migration that have been catalysed by the pandemic.

The first is a decrease in demand for immigrant labour. Although the supply of migrant workers is bouncing back after prolonged travel restrictions, some businesses are automating labour-intensive tasks to reduce their reliance on migrant workers (see And increases in interest rates are taming inflation, so the global economy is slowing down, with more firms going bankrupt in the first half of 2023 than in 2022. It is expected that this will lead to higher levels of unemployment, so there will soon be more unemployed domestic workers to fill vacancies that previously had to be advertised abroad.

The second is changing incentives for (and against) migration. The pandemic has worsened the economic and humanitarian crises that drive forced and low-skilled migration. A decade ago, US Border Patrol typically reported fewer than 40,000 illegal border crossings a month. But in September 2023, it reported almost 270,000 encounters on the southwestern border alone. This increase is driven by poverty, violence and hunger, forcing people to leave some South American countries, including Brazil, or to travel from as far away as Burkina Faso, Uzbekistan and India.

The pandemic, along with continuing wars, has also made moving for work less appealing to those who have a choice, especially for people who can work from home. The global pool of highly skilled workers is therefore shrinking. In Australia, for instance, 36% of skilled occupations face labour shortages. Canada has introduced express visa routes to attract people in roles with persistent shortages, such as health-care workers and carpenters.

The third transformation is counter-urbanization. Before 2020, decades of infrastructure planning assumed that urban populations would always grow, but the COVID-19 pandemic ended that idea. First came mass ‘reverse migration’ from locked-down cities to the countryside. Tens of millions of people moved in India alone (A. Nizam et al. J. South Asian Dev. 17, 271–296; 2022). Then came the slower but more durable exit of office workers working remotely. Some US cities, such as Austin, Texas, expect almost 90% of new-built, high-rise offices to open vacant. Others are affected by urban decay. In downtown San Francisco, California, technology executives walk the same streets that host open-air drug markets and encampments of homeless people. The city recorded more deaths caused by overdoses than by COVID-19 between 2020 and 2022.

How Migration Really Works is an encyclopaedia of what we knew about human mobility before the pandemic. But the scale of change since then is breath-taking. Within just a few years, de Haas’s eloquent summary might read as a memorial to a bygone age.

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