Demystifying Migration: A Call for an Evidence-Based Narrative
Mass hysteria has taken over migration. As a result of the moral panic spurred by the media and politicians, emotions and perceptions prevail over facts and rationality. Migration has been polarised and instrumentalised, before being analysed and understood. Because of this disjuncture between reality and representation, everyone has an opinion about migration, but very few really know what migration actually is.
The current misperceptions say more about the vacuity of mass media and the mediocrity of politics than they do about the reality of migration. When assessed from an evidence-based perspective, the reality is the exact opposite of the prevailing stereotypes.
Three main lessons can be drawn from available data.
First, while international migration has increased and will likely continue to do so in an ever-more globalised world, this phenomenon is not a crisis of numbers. Migrants only account for 3.5 percent of the world’s population, with some 272 million migrants globally (UNDESA, International Migrant Stock 2019, 1). Although the relative number of migrants has increased since 1990, a rise of 0.6 percent is very far from being the invasion of the Global North so frequently depicted by the media and politicians. This is even the contrary: since 2010, South-South migration has surpassed South-North migration (UNDESA, International Migration Report, 2017, 1–2).
Second, in contrast to the disproportionate focus on irregular migration, the vast majority of migrants are travelling in a safe and regular manner, most frequently for reasons related to work, family and study. Albeit impossible to quantify with accuracy, undocumented migrants are estimated around 10–15 percent of migrants worldwide (IOM, World Migration Report 2010, 29). Similarly, the myth of the male migrant from a developing country leaving his family behind in pursuit of a better life does not reflect reality. Here again, statistics speak for themselves: women account for 47.9 percentof the world migrant population, with higher percentages in Europe and North America (UNDESA, International Migrant Stock 2019, 2).
Third, the current narrative spread by media and political discourses hides the important contributions of migrants to their countries of destination and origin. In contrast to what is often claimed, they are a catalyst for economic growth in their host countries, providing the labour and skills needed in critical occupations and sectors (IOM, World Migration Report 2020, 144). Even if this may surprise some, migrants pay more taxes and social contributions than they receive (OECD, ILO and World Bank, The Contribution of Labour Mobility to Economic Growth, 2015, 1). They are also drivers of entrepreneurship and innovation. In the US, they comprise nearly 30 percent of all entrepreneurs, while representing only 13 percent of the total population (The Kauffman Index: Startup Activity, 2017, 5). Conversely, remittances sent by migrants contribute to their own country’s economy and represent more than three times the size of official development assistance (Migration and Remittances: Recent Developments and Outlook, World Bank Group, 2018, 3).
The enduring gap between perception and reality calls for demystifying migration as the evil of the century. Migration is not a problem to be solved; it is a fact as old as humanity. While being more visible than ever, it is both a challenge and an opportunity for migrants as well as for countries of origin and destination. However, migrants, as non-voters, are an easy target for political electioneering. They provide the perfect excuse to mask the failure of politicians in addressing the socio-economic difficulties and anxieties of voters. Although this tactic is all but new, it has gained considerable resonance over the last years with the rise of anti-immigrant ideologies and the growing racialisation of political discourses.
Racism and xenophobia have become so mainstream that calling for an evidence-based approach to migration is viewed at best as partisan and at worst as an affront to democracy. In such a politically toxic climate, there is more than ever a crucial need to develop a pedagogy of migration. This is essential to not only better understand the normality of being a migrant, but also to inform public debate and dispel the current manipulation surrounding the dominant discourse. Developing a rational and objective narrative about migration has become a critical endeavour; otherwise, demagogues will continue to hijack democracy.
This article is based on the Introduction to Professor Vincent Chetail’s last book, International Migration Law, Oxford University Press, 2019, 449 p.
This article was published in the latest edition of Globe, the Graduate Institute Review.