Globalisation means the movement of migrants is only going to increase
The world is on the move and Europe will be the destination of choice for ever more people in the decades to come
Published 30/08/2015 | 02:30
Although the push and pull factors driving the movement of people around the planet are complex, migration from poorer parts of the world to richer parts has been on the rise. It is unlikely to go into reverse in the foreseeable future. It is much more likely that the numbers moving will grow.
This can be seen from the most recent developments in Ireland. Despite an unemployment rate of over 10pc in the latest year for which the newly released migration figures cover (the 12 months to last April), almost 70,000 people moved to Ireland, a very high number by historical standards and higher than any year before 2004 when the EU almost doubled its membership.
When both emigrants and immigrants are added together, the numbers moving in and out of the State in the year to April was the third highest on record, with only the boom years of 2006-07 recording higher flows.
This is all part of a more globalised pattern of living, with more people spending less of their lives in one country. As with other aspects of globalisation, human flows are being facilitated by changes in communications. Finding a job in another country is much easier and cheaper than it once was, thanks to the internet in particular. A huge increase in the number of international flights and, in many cases, much lower ticket prices, has made jetting around accessible and affordable for the masses. Mobile telephony has made getting started in a new country easier - picking up a cheap phone at the airport is as easy as buying a coffee. And staying in touch with home is easier thanks to Skype and email, which lessens the downside of departing.
These factors are only going to keep making the world a smaller place and, in the process, facilitate the globalisation of the labour market. While we in Europe have been focused on migration owing to the increase in the numbers of people coming to the continent over the summer, it is easy to forget that it is actually a phenomenon involving the movement of people between what is sometimes called the "global south" and the "global north". Along with Europe, the other pole of the global north is North America. If anything, immigration is an even hotter political potato on the other side of the Atlantic, with the topic shaping up to be among the main issues in the 2016 presidential election. One candidate (admittedly, one so buffoonish that his name is not worth mentioning) is even proposing to build a giant wall along the 3,000km border with Mexico.
A country that is famed for being a nation of immigrants is increasingly hostile to fresh immigration. And much of that has to do with numbers - in the 1970s, less than 4pc of the US population was born abroad. It is now 14pc.
Migration into Europe is also rising, and, as in the US, bigger numbers are leading to greater support for anti-immigration parties in many countries (since WWII there has been a strong link between increased immigration and the rise of the far right). And there is reason to be concerned about further electoral gains for reactionaries because we in Europe are likely to have more immigration in the foreseeable future than north America.
One factor driving migration in Europe is that our near-abroad is more war-prone than the western hemisphere. While Mexico's drug cartels slaughter thousands and some of the other countries in central America have murder rates which are among the highest in the world, none suffers the sort of full-scale war that is happening in Syria or even the lower intensity conflict in eastern Ukraine. Nor is there any country to the south of the US in which the state has failed as comprehensively as in Libya and which migrants from other countries can use as a launch pad to migrate northwards.
If our neighbourhood is more dangerous and unstable than America's, Europeans are also much less likely to take a muscular approach to problems in other countries that affect us. Libya is a classic case. Because of the brutal order that the deposed dictator Muammar Gaddafi imposed on that huge country, getting into or out of Libya was difficult. But since his ousting, the law of the jungle has taken hold. Among those taking advantage are the people smugglers who all too often send migrants to their deaths in the Mediterranean.
Europe's response to this has been typically light of touch. By far the most effective way to control the flow of migrants from Libya would be to send a stabilisation force into the country. But that option is not even being considered.
A second, longer-term driver of migration is demographics. Here again, Europe can expect more migrants than the US if only because our neighbouring regions are experiencing much higher population growth.
In Latin America, population growth is slowing fast. In the Middle East and Africa, from where most of the people who come to Europe originate (both refugees and economic migrants), populations continue to explode.
The combined population of the two regions passed the billion threshold 15 years ago. According to the UN, the numbers living in the Middle East and Africa will pass the two billion threshold in another 15 years. That, incidentally, will be three times the projected population in all of Latin America in 2030.
And even if developing countries continue to record higher per capita income growth in the future, it will take more than a lifetime for standards of living in many countries to come close to those enjoyed in Europe. That means that people in the regions closest to Europe who are looking for a better life will very rationally see that moving north offers them the best chance of a higher standard of living.
From an economic perspective, all this should be welcomed. Almost universally, studies on the costs and benefits of migration show that immigration results in net benefits for the receiving country. As Ireland receives an unusually high share of university-educated immigrants - 56pc of the total in the year to April - the benefits should be greater than in most other countries.
But despite these benefits, the human fear of outsiders, which evolved over millennia, almost inevitably causes concerns about being "swamped" and "inundated". So deep is the fear of new arrivals that opinion polls internationally usually show that people hugely overstate the number of foreigners living in their country.
The relatively low level of public opposition to immigration in Ireland and the relatively few problems that have arisen in integrating new arrivals are both very positive trends. The smooth experience so far suggests that the biggest potential downsides to immigration - negative social consequences of different cultures rubbing up against each other - have been avoided, thereby allowing the net economic gains to be enjoyed.
But I sometimes wonder about the public discussion, such as it is, around the issue. Could it be that Irish people are as suspicious of immigration as in other countries but because it is not discussed in the media, as it is in Britain, people do not feel they can express their real views? If that is the case, there could be an undercurrent of resentment and hostility. If it exists and if it surfaces, it might not be at all pleasant.