Revisiting the Lampedusa Tragedy

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As most of us well remember with sour feelings and a heavy heart, more than 300 Africans (most of them Eritreans, among which were some refugees from Mai Aini refugee camp in Tigray) lost their lives in the most tragic way in the Mediterranean trying to cross to Europe.
What is the message one may take from this latest tragedy in Lampedusa, Italy? One way to look at it is simply as a tragedy, one of the many that occur daily in the world. Another way is to look at it in the context of European migration policies, which have become more restrictive of late. A recent opinion poll taken by The Financial Times revealed the following major outlooks in Europe. National restrictions on EU migrants’ rights to access social benefits were backed by 83% of Britons, 73% of Germans and 72% of French respondents.
About 3 in 5 respondents disapproved of Romanian and Bulgarian citizens gaining the right to work in any EU nation even though it is a basic right of EU membership. 2 in 3 Britons and more than half of Germans and Spaniards felt the EU would be better off with fewer powers. 44% of Italians and 43% of French respondents agreed. 1 in 4 British and French respondents and 19% of Italians said they were likely to vote for a euroskeptic political party in the next European parliamentary elections
Either of these two ways is correct, but limited. A better way to look at the issues of migration is in the context of globalization. Three things have changed since approximately the 1980s and they are what are driving the most recent migration wave.
The first is that the per capita GDPs of nations have diverged. Rich countries have, until about 2007, experienced higher growth rates than poor countries. This fact was not given much notice, because it was eclipsed by the extraordinarily fast rise of China, and more recently India.
The talk of the global middle class made the world forget that ten African countries, with a combined population of 150 million and counting, currently have per capita GDPs lower than at the time of independence. Most people are also unaware that in the 20 years between 1980 and 2000, Africa’s average per capita growth rate was zero. Thus, today the gap between rich countries like the United States and poor countries like Madagascar is 50 to 1. According to the World Bank and IMF data, that is up from a ratio of 10 to 1 in 1960.
Large gaps in mean incomes and wages are obviously a magnet for migration. As a recent UBS “Prices and Earnings” report shows, for exactly the same bus driving job, the real hourly wage rate, adjusted for the cost of living, is USD 20 in Amsterdam and only USD 3 in Mumbai.
Using the US’ New Immigrant Survey, which records current and past wages of recent U.S. green card holders, Mark Rosenzweig of UBS documents, not only the gaps between wages of U.S. and migrant countries, but also between migrant countries themselves. A South Korean high school graduate earns ten times as much as an Indian graduate, while a Mexican college graduate earns three times as much as the one in Indonesia.
It does not require much sophistication to realize that one can multiply one’s standard of living several fold by migrating to a richer country. Moreover, even an informal job, not covered by official wage rates, will yield much higher income to many people from poor countries than they can expect at home.
People in today’s crisis-stricken Europe forget how much richer Western Europe is compared to most of Asia, and practically all of Africa. The following is just one example: The poorest 1% of the Danish population has an income higher than 95% of the people living in Mali, Madagascar or Tanzania.
But large income gaps cannot produce migration flows unless other conditions are present. The second thing that has changed since the 1980s is much greater awareness of these income gaps.
As recently documented by Andrew Clark and Claudia Senik, who are renowned labour and income research economists, this is not only the product of globalization itself (TV, internet and social media). It is also the result of greater political openness of countries like the former Soviet bloc, China and Burma. People today know much better the difference in living conditions they and their children can expect in the rich world compared to their home.
Finally, the third thing that has changed is the cost of transportation. It is still not negligible. It is not the poorest of the poor who migrate, but the slightly better off, who can afford to do so. For them, the costs of migration, however hazardous the conditions may be, have gone down. These three changes explain most of the migration pressure. But the question is: What can be done to either stem or manage it?
One possibility is the policy that rich countries have followed so far, as illustrated by the building of the Mexican “fence” along the U.S. border or EU’s “interdiction” of access to its shores. That is the equivalent of creating gated communities at the global level.
The European and U.S. examples are the best known, but not isolated. Saudi Arabia has built a fence against Yemen, India is building one against Bangladesh, Spain’s exclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, ports on the Moroccan coast, are entirely fenced in against would-be African migrants.
This is a defensive approach, and although tough and costly, it is capable of only moderately stemming the tide of migration, and produces sporadic tragedies like the one at Lampedusa. It also raises many uncomfortable ethical questions about the right to stop the free movement of labour, while capital, goods, technology and ideas are supposed to move freely.
A better alternative would be a concerted policy by rich countries to allow much greater and orderly immigration of both skilled and unskilled labour through temporary workers’ programs. This would involve regularizing the ability of foreigners from poor countries to apply for and get jobs in rich countries and to generally implement more lenient and targeted migration policies.
The current view of development itself has to change, away from the “methodological nationalism”, that is not suitable for the era of globalization. From a global point of view, whether a person’s income increases while he is in his own country or elsewhere is unimportant, because global development is about higher incomes of individuals, regardless of where they live.
Of course, from the political point of view of a nation-state, these two options are far from being identical. But we have to perhaps begin to adjust our political institutions, and certainly our way of thinking, to be more in sync with globalization. If factors of production are free to move, then this must apply to labour as well