The big migration debate: time to cut the link with development

Migration02 Nov 2018Wim Naudé

In the big ‘migration debate’ strong assumptions have been made about the link between migration and development. Often, development is regarded as a tool to reduce migration and, vice versa, migration as a tool to affect development. This, however, is not necessarily true, resulting in unnecessary confusion and even worse – bad policies for the management of migration. It is time to take a critical look at the assumed migration-development link and stop treating development cooperation as a tool to stem migration.

Although migration is often regarded as instrumental for achieving development, research has shown that positive impact depends on how migrants are treated and integrated in their host countries. That said, there is little evidence to suggest that migration has a negative impact on development, either in the host country or the home country. In short, migration to Europe may not automatically contribute to development, but it does not hold back development either, unless poorly managed.

Similarly, just as migration has no automatic impact on development, so development per se has little impact on migration. This is a sobering fact for those who advocate using development cooperation as a tool to stem the flow of migrants to Europe, as in the calls for a ‘Marshall Plan for Africa’. The assumption underpinning this plan, that development will stem migration, has been shown to be flawed. Development generally, and aid specifically, are in fact, poor instruments to affect migration.

Unfortunately, the linking of migration and development in the current debate does a lot of harm. This is because it leads to development becoming a means to an end – to stop migration – instead of an end in itself, which it should be.

Development becomes a means to a dubious end

If one assumes that development will affect migration, then one may come to see migration as a barometer of development. That is to say, one may think that most people migrate because they find the level of development in their home country unacceptable. If, coupled with this view, one also assumes that migrants have a negative impact on the host country’s economies, for instance, by taking jobs or putting pressure on public finances, some harsh conclusions can be drawn. Based on these views, the conviction might emerge that migration should be reduced, that there are too many migrants and that spending on development aid to keep migrants in their own countries is a better investment than improving integration in the host country. This is precisely the logic of those currently opposing migration to Europe. Even those sympathetic to migrants may support development projects that aim to stop migration, because who can be against development?

These views seem to be dominating policy decisions in more and more European countries. This is a concern, because it leads to increasing EU resources being allocated to schemes that are informed by the migration-development link. Such schemes include providing ‘shelter in the region’; investing in rural development to address the so-called ‘root causes of migration’; trying to force the role of ‘super-entrepreneurs’ on migrants; or ‘externalizing’ border management to third countries, as is the case in the much criticized Turkey-deal. Such policies are too often ‘misaligned with reality’ and are the result of a desperate bid to attain the end goal – reducing migration.

Unfortunately, because it is based on the faulty assumption that development is a good way of reducing migration, EU taxpayer money is not optimally spent and there is a risk of it being redirected from projects that really matter. Worse still, misinformed development spending may perversely encourage migration to Europe, because if more migrants try to cross the Mediterranean, Europe will send more money to poor countries in a bid to ‘develop’ them and keep their citizens from migrating. Not to mention all the unscrupulous human smugglers who become rich in the process or the swelling of the profits earnt by Europe’s border defense industry.

The losers of these policies are both European citizens and the citizens of developing countries. The former, firstly, because their tax dollars are less than optimally spent on projects that are evaluated based on their promise of reducing migration. Secondly, because they are denied the full benefit of the influx of labour that their ageing societies need to alleviate the decline in productivity growth, entrepreneurship and interest rates that characterizes what has been termed ‘secular stagnation’. The citizens of developing countries who migrate to Europe also lose because they face dangers during their hazardous migration journeys, made worse by EU policies seeking to prevent such journeys. Those who are successfully prevented from migrating lose because they miss the opportunity to put pressure on their rulers to rule better: diasporas can shine a sharp spotlight on human rights abuses back home and strengthen the opposition to autocratic rule.

Conclusion: a crisis of misconceptions

Objectively speaking, there is no migrant or refugee crisis of historic proportions in Europe. Since World War II, the continent has been able to cope with much larger numbers of refugees. Moreover, research has shown that most Europeans greatly over-estimate the real number of immigrants in their country, and widely mistake their countries of origin and religious affiliations. The real crisis then, is not so much one of numbers, but one of misconceptions. And the strong assumption about the link between development and migration is among the most damaging.

This crisis of misconceptions comes with a price tag to EU taxpayers in terms of opportunity cost and money spent fruitlessly. Migration is no panacea for development, and development is no panacea for migration. Yet, if one acknowledges that migration does little harm and that, if managed well, it can bring benefits, it becomes sensible to invest in the better integration of migrants and not, as is often the case, dehumanize them. In practice, this means at least three things: migration policy needs to be based on scientific research; commitments made under international law need to be honoured; and migrants need to be integrated and treated well, with respect for their dignity and human rights.

(Based on a keynote address at the Partos Innovation Festival in Amsterdam, 11 October 2018.)