Beyond the rhetoric: weighing gains from global migration

Unfortunately, the public discourse on migration is dominated by political rhetoric
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First Published: Tue, Feb 05 2013. 10 17 AM IST
According to data from the World Bank, over 215 million people live outside their country of origin–this is about 3% of the world population. Photo: AFP
According to data from the World Bank, over 215 million people live outside their country of origin–this is about 3% of the world population. Photo: AFP
Updated: Tue, Feb 05 2013. 11 06 AM IST
Global migration has come to stay as an important geo-political issue. Whether as election campaign speeches, policymaking in times of a global slowdown or nationalistic concerns about preserving culture, global migration clearly is an issue that may even threaten diplomatic relations. Recent World Bank data revealed that remittance flows to developing countries are expected to cross $400 billion in 2012. Remittance to developing countries forms over 76% of the global remittances for 2012. According to data from the World Bank, over 215 million people live outside their country of origin—this is about 3% of the world population. Understanding global migration trends and their policy impact will require us to look beyond these macro indicators.
An important distinction that needs to be made in these debates is between skilled and unskilled migration. Depending on our position, we choose to concern ourselves with one or the other group of migrants. Often, policymakers of developing countries seem to be more concerned about the negative effects of migration of skilled professionals, while policymakers in the destination countries usually (in public) seem more concerned about the ‘unregulated inflow’ of unskilled migrants. This is on expected lines as researchers have claimed that high-skilled migrants bring more benefits to their destination countries while low-skilled migrants bring more benefits to their home countries. Thus, when attempting to understand the issues involved, we must also take into account, the impacts on the migrants (and their families if applicable) as well as the recipients of their remittances back in their home countries. Given the importance of remittances in the home countries, these conceptions need to be tested from time to time.
There have been heated debates on the subject of ‘brain drain’. As the term suggests (somewhat pejoratively), this refers purely to the migration of skilled professionals and policymakers in developing countries. For instance, last year, India’s Union health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad created a flutter with a proposal that Indian doctors travelling to the US for higher education would have to sign a bond promising to return to India after their studies. Across the developing world, there have been concerns raised about the migration of skilled medical professionals migrating in search of greener pastures. However, research has shown that the availability of the option to migrate may result in an improvement in the stock of skilled workers in the home country. This, they found, was primarily driven by the anticipation of the opportunity to migrate to lucrative opportunities abroad. Research by Michael Clemens (of the Centre for Global Development, a leading US-based think-tank) claims that African countries that experience the largest outflow of doctors and nurses in fact have better health conditions than other countries in the continent. It must be noted though that it is likely that countries that see higher rates of emigration by medical professionals have better health infrastructure (including training and healthcare) in the first place.
Another important aspect of this debate is the role of global migration in times of economic crisis. Research compiled in the book, ‘Migration and Remittances during the Global Financial Crisis and Beyond’ (2012), demonstrates how migrant remittances to developing countries continued to remain strong. Data used in the book shows that for the top seven destinations of remittance inflows, remittance inflows remained strong barring a minor blip in 2008. Correspondingly, the data shows that the outflow of remittances from the top six migration destinations continued to be nearly equal or was higher in 2011 compared to the figures prior to 2007. These figures throw up several interesting questions: How do these figures look when mapped against GDP figures in these countries for the said years? What is the dominant profile of immigrants in these countries—are they mostly skilled or unskilled? The answers to these questions would help us understand the impact of global migration.
These are primarily economic impacts of global migration and needless to say, there are manifold political and social impacts that are of interest to policymakers and researchers. The gains and losses from global migration need to be weighed carefully. Unfortunately, the public discourse on migration is dominated by political rhetoric. As with other key drivers of global development, we must keep pressing for policymaking on global migration to be evidence-driven.
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First Published: Tue, Feb 05 2013. 10 17 AM IST
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