Migration continues to dominate political debate in many countries. Rightly so: the issue affects economies and societies worldwide. But public opinion on this crucial topic tends to be shaped by emotions, rather than facts. The result is a lack of open and effective dialogue about migration’s risks – or its many benefits.
Populist leaders, in particular, have been eager to manipulate the migration debate, using inflated figures and other gross exaggerations to stoke popular fears. Such incendiary rhetoric directly hurts immigrants, even those who have long lived in their new country. In the United Kingdom, reported hate crimes against immigrants surged 42% year on year in the run-up to and aftermath of June’s Brexit referendum.
But the impact of anti-immigrant sentiment extends far beyond national borders. If populist fear-mongering drives their countries to embrace exclusionary, protectionist policies, the effect on the global economy – and the livelihoods of millions of people around the world – would be disastrous.
It is now up to rational political leaders and mass media to reintroduce facts into the debate. They must publicize the actual figures for migration flows, both into and out of their countries. They must make clear to citizens that many of the problems for which immigrants are blamed are not actually their fault. And they must highlight immigrants’ large social and economic contributions.
The Brexit vote was driven by a distorted picture – eagerly painted by tabloid newspapers and populist politicians – of a country overflowing with migrants. And, in fact, surveys show that in most countries, residents greatly overestimate the number of migrants in their midst. In some Eastern European countries, Muslim migrants are perceived as being up to 70 times more numerous than they are.
The truth is that the share of people living outside their countries of origin has barely increased in recent decades, standing around 3% of the nearly 7.5 billion people alive today. In the last five years, 36.5 million people – just 0.5% of the global population – have left their native lands.
It is a myth that all developing-country citizens seek to reach wealthy Western societies. Those who do migrate are far more likely to stay in their own region. Less than 1% of Africans have relocated to Europe. Meanwhile, plenty of advanced-country citizens – including 4.9 million UK nationals – are represented in global migration figures.
Claims that migrants are a drain on national budgets are similarly inaccurate. In the UK, immigrants generate more in taxes than they draw in benefits.
In fact, many advanced countries need migrants. Of the ten countries with the highest share of people over the age of 65, nine are in Europe. While industrialized countries often suffer a shortage of low-skill workers – Hungary recently acknowledged that it needs 250,000 foreign workers to fill the gaps in its labor market – immigrants are not necessarily uneducated. In 2010, 29% of immigrants to the OECD had university degrees.
Beyond contributing to host economies as workers, entrepreneurs, investors, and taxpayers, migrants (and refugees) support development in their countries of origin through remittances. Indeed, remittances account for a significant share of GDP in many developing countries, and are often the largest source of foreign-currency earnings. Not only do remittances help pay for critical imports; by improving the balance of payments, they allow countries to borrow at lower interest rates in private capital markets.
Of course, there are challenges associated with migration. But they can be overcome. The refugee crisis in the Mediterranean, which has spurred panic across Europe, could have been addressed effectively with coordinated international action, as occurred in the past. In the 1970s and 1980s, the international community rallied to resettle more than a million Vietnamese. In the 1990s, when the Balkan conflicts displaced almost four million people, Europe stood up and helped.
But the political atmosphere today is less welcoming. Donald Trump, the Republican US presidential nominee, portrays Syrian refugees fleeing for their lives as a security threat, despite the thorough screening procedures implemented by the current administration, which has committed to taking 10,000 Syrian refugees by the end of the fiscal year. Hungary is set to hold a referendum in October on EU refugee quotas.
As advanced countries fight to keep out asylum-seekers – in Hungary’s case, just a few thousand – developing countries are housing millions of them. Five countries that together constitute less than 2% of global GDP – Turkey, Jordan, Pakistan, Lebanon, and South Africa – provide shelter to almost half of the world’s refugees. The world’s six wealthiest countries – the US, China, Japan, Germany, France, and the UK – account for 60% of global GDP, but they hosted fewer than 9% of all refugees last year.
This is no accident. From 2010 to 2014, European states spent more than €1 billion ($1.1 billion) on walls and borders. These attempts to “regain control” by erecting new barriers force migrants into the hands of exploitative smugglers and undermine trade and cooperation.
As it stands, only 7,200 of the 22,504 non-European refugees that the EU pledged last year to resettle have arrived. Thousands of unaccompanied children, the most vulnerable of migrants, have yet to find a place. Beyond the legal obligations of all signatories of the 1951 Refugee Convention, this is a test of humane values and decency – one that the so-called advanced countries are largely failing.
It is time for these countries to recognize that the best way to ensure orderly migration is to open legal channels for refugees and migrants. As for integration, some of the practical hurdles can be overcome through more local investment and more coherent policies across government departments.
People have always moved, either by choice or when forced by circumstances. This will not change. It is time to stop resisting it and, armed with facts, start managing it.
Peter Sutherland is United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for International Migration and Development, is former Director General of the World Trade Organization, EU Commissioner for Competition, and Attorney General of Ireland.