Economic migrants getting bad rap in refugee debate

Economic migrants getting bad rap in refugee debate
Comment: While refugees fleeing war are rightfully being given attention and support, it should be no crime to migrate to escape economic violence, writes Pam Bailey.
5 min read
08 Oct, 2015
Moving to improve is a human instinct and should be a basic human right [Getty]

As sympathy from around the world pours in for victims of war seeking asylum in the West, government leaders - from Europe to the United States - who once dug their heels in are finally agreeing to open their doors to more refugees.

But there is one category of people that are specifically being excluded, in some cases with scorn: the unfortunate population known as "economic migrants".

Simply defined, these are individuals who move from place to place in search of employment or other ways to earn an income to support themselves or their families back home. The World Bank estimates that there are about 250 million migrants globally - and nine out of 10 are economic migrants. Just three percent are refugees.

     I am so sorry about the war in Syria, and I want the people to have the chance to live. But what about me?
- Mohammed Salah

Yet both the media and government leaders are quick to dismiss them as somehow less worthy than those fleeing war and blatant persecution.

"What we see (with these people) has nothing to do with seeking refuge and safety," The Washington Post reported Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner as saying.

"It is nothing but opportunism."

However, before we too easily dismiss these seemingly less-worthy "others", it's important to take a look at who they are and why they often take the same risks as refugees to create a better life.

Take Egypt, for instance, which has tumbled even further into poverty and oppression since the revolution in 2011 and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's ascension to the presidency in 2014.

Mohammed Salah, a 31-year-old who lives just outside of Cairo, completed an undergraduate degree in history, but says he has been unable to pay the fee required to receive his graduation certificate - without which he can't get his hoped-for job as a government tour guide.

All other jobs he can get barely pay enough to cover his transportation costs. Unemployed at an age he should be marrying, he continues to live in his parents' home and takes class after class in Chinese and other languages in the hope that one day he can emigrate and use his linguistic skills abroad.

"I am so sorry about the war in Syria, and I want the people to have the chance to live," he says. "But what about me? I am feel like my future is going further down the drain every day."

Kathleen Newland, cofounder of the Migration Policy Institute, said that population movement was often based on fleeing violence - even if that violence was econommic in nature.

"It is becoming more and more difficult to draw a bright line between refugees and non-refugees of all types," she said. "Many non-refugees migrate under some sort of compulsion, including extreme poverty, which is as much a humanitarian issue as the violence of war."

It goes almost without saying that there is almost nil international support for totally open borders, and the capacity of any one country is not unlimited. However, Dilip Ratha, head of the Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD) for the World Bank, urges a much more inclusive and embracing view of migration in general.

There is, he observes, increasing poverty and rebellion in one part of the world and an aging population without the means to support itself in the other.

"Most migrants are simply looking for a job," he said. "Not the perfect job, but anything that will allow them to support themselves and their families."

Last year, according to Ratha, migrants around the world sent home $436 billion in remittances to support family members left behind. That compares with just $135 billion in global donor aid. Unlike the common perception, "it's the poor people who are providing a lifeline to their families back home, not the international community," he stated.

Michael Clemens, a senior fellow who leads the Migration and Development Initiative at the Center for Global Development, recently told The Washington Post that host countries benefit as well.

Refugees and other migrants who do not have jobs waiting for them open small businesses at a high rate, creating ripples of more commerce for everyone. Their arrival also boosts demand for food, shelter, infrastructure and many other services.

And then there is the stark fact that many countries are aging rapidly. Germany's population, for example, is expected to shrink from 81 million inhabitants to around 68 million in 2060.

     Since most refugees are comparatively young, they can provide a boost to the working-age population

Since most refugees are comparatively young, they can provide a boost to the working-age population that will help economies grow and pay for the care of elders.

In fact, Americans should thank immigrants for their comparatively strong demographic situation. Last year, the Pew Research Center estimated that, from 1960 to 2005, immigrants and their descendants accounted for 51 percent of the increase in the US population.

Without immigration, Pew noted, the US would face the same kind of aging problems that Europe does.

I work in the community development field in the United States, and it is a common mantra that one's zip code should not determine one's fate. It seems to me that the same is true at the global level.

As Ratha asked rhetorically, "do we take the approach that we must stop people who are desperate to move due to poverty and crime?"

"Are we still 'barbarians' who think everyone must stick to their tribe, and thus are born to their fate? Moving to improve is a basic human instinct, and should be a basic human right. It is up to us to learn how to manage it."

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.