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Extending the Conversation about Migration

In the article, “When Worn Out (African) Arguments are Repackaged for Mainstream Consumption”, featured in this edition of Eritrea Profile, the author exposes several of the key shortcomings and weaknesses of a recently published article in African Arguments which discussed migration in Eritrea.

Beyond its compelling arguments, the critique of the African Arguments article serves as an important reminder that most mainstream coverage about migration is frequently sensationalized, regularly lacks context, and often deeply flawed. In this article, I briefly discuss several important points that are often overlooked or downplayed when discussing migration, both generally and with specific regard to Eritrea.

Migration has long been characterized as a fundamental component of the human experience. It is a multidimensional issue, involving a broad array of complex factors. According to the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO), in 2017, the total number of people who left their home country in search of work, to join family, or to flee conflicts and persecution increased to approximately 277 million from about 232 million in 2013. Of course, part of the reason for the growing number of people on the move across the world is down to a rising world population, which is expected to reach approximately 8 billion in 2023. Another important factor is the relatively improved quality of data, which allows for better estimates.

However, it is important to keep in mind that rates of migrants as a share of the global population have been stable and remained mostly unchanged for more than five decades. For example, between 1960 and 2015, the share of migrants in the global population has fluctuated narrowly between 2.5 and 3.5 percent. According to most analysts, migration will likely remain a fundamental feature of the world in the coming decades due to a number of factors, including globalization, climate change, continued income and opportunity gaps, differences in demographic profiles, and the rising aspirations of the world’s poor and vulnerable.

As was alluded to in the critique of the African Arguments article, most mainstream analyses of Eritrean migration completely fail to consider, either deliberately or through sheer ignorance, one of the key external “pull factors” that has contributed to migration trends from Eritrea – the longstanding de facto policy of Western countries to grant automatic asylum to anyone from the country. If discussions of Eritrean migration are to be regarded as truly objective, balanced, reasonable, and ultimately useful or worthwhile, this surely would be an area worth e x p l o r i n g and noting. Doing so would reveal how such policies (i.e. favorable treatment of certain groups of migrants) are not unique, are often intricately tied to broader foreign policy and geo-political machinations, and have often directly impacted patterns of migration.

For instance, extensive research has been conducted on how for over half a century, patterns of Cuban migration to the United States (US) have been an outgrowth of the fact that Cuban immigrants to the US have been awarded unique immigration privileges with a path to citizenship offered to no other foreigners. The granting of special privileges is firmly grounded in US foreign policy and was implemented in order “to sap the Cuban regime of its talented citizens and highlight Cubans’ preference for capitalist democracy over communism” (Eckstein n.d.). The similarities with the politicized approach that has been applied to Eritrea are quite clear. Furthermore, while Haitian migrants may face considerable challenges in posing as Cubans once they reach American shores, nationals of countries bordering or near Eritrea face a much less difficult time in posing as Eritreans. Interestingly, to date, inadequate attention has been given to considering the impact of this special treatment on patterns of migration from Eritrea and the Horn of Africa.

Invariably, most discussions and analyses about migration are filled with myths, inaccuracies, hasty assumptions, and misinformation. That is probably why the general population in many Western, developed countries (e.g. across Europe and North America) tend to grossly overestimate the number of migrants or foreigners residing in their countries, while the number of migrants and refugees in developed countries is actually far smaller than in the developing world.

Additionally, it is often claimed that migrants and refugees increase unemployment rates by undercutting wages and “stealing” scarce jobs, and also that they are a drain on host countries, with migrants frequently labelled as benefit seekers or welfare tourists. In contrast, however, the reality is that migrants generally avoid countries of high unemployment, and migrants – including low-wage and irregular migrants – make significant and valuable contributions to the socio-economic well-being of host countries. Research shows that most migrants do jobs that local populations shun or for which they lack the skills. Moreover, foreign-born populations are often net positive contributors to the welfare systems of many Western, developed countries.

It is also important to consider how long-term demographic trends within developed countries have led to critical labour and skills challenges, ageing populations, and threats to established social welfare and security systems. Accordingly, immigration from developing countries – which have higher fertility rates and young, growing populations – can actually end up supporting the economies and social systems of developed countries.

Despite the sheer complexity of migration, many discussions about “addressing” it are limited in scope and offer only crude solutions that are impervious to facts, logic, or reason. Of course, with migration being a fundamental component of the human experience and an intricate part of broader processes of globalization and change, the fact that it is frequently categorized as “a problem to be solved”, particularly by the media and politicians, may also be construed as a problem by many. However, quite often, there is resort to the quick, easy answer, with many of the fundamental causes and drivers – such as poorly-conceived, hubristic foreign interventions, disastrous invasions, and devastating military engagements and support for repressive, harsh regimes – being obscured or ignored. Moreover, there is no genuine consideration of the fact that truly addressing migration will require that more be done to reduce poverty, decrease global inequalities (both within and among countries), and promote inclusive, sustainable socio-economic development within origin countries.

According to the ILO, rising levels of inequality in many parts of the world were a significant factor in the growing number of people on the move across the planet in recent years (along with a number of other issues). The World Bank estimates that almost half of the world’s population live on less than $US5.50 a day, and struggle to meet basic needs. Recently, Oxfam released a startling report which revealed the growing concentration of the world’s wealth. One striking figure showed that the 26 richest billionaires in the world own as many assets as the 3.8 billion people who make up the poorest half of the planet’s population.

Furthermore, it seems simplistic and ineffective to fault and vilify migrants or solely pin blame on origin countries when much more can and should be done by wealthy, developed countries and international organizations or institutions to restructure discriminatory trade and economic policies. Trade distorting agricultural subsidies, tariffs, and quotas established by developed countries often contribute to significant challenges for farmers and producers within developing countries, thus contributing to poverty, economic instability, inequality, and emigration.

Migration is a complex, multidimensional issue. It has occurred throughout the history of humanity and will continue to do so in the future. As we seek to better understand migration, more nuanced discussions and debate, involving a greater number of views and perspectives, will likely prove to be more useful and beneficial.

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