Published on Let's Talk Development

Seeing more development, less fear in migration

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Despite UN warnings that as many as 30,000 migrants may drown in the Mediterranean this year on their perilous way to Europe, western naval intelligence estimates that between 450,000 to 500,000 refugees are gathering in Libya to attempt the crossing in the coming summer months. 

The desperate plight of young migrants fleeing their countries in North Africa and The Sahel for what they hope is a new life of jobs and opportunity in Europe has been discussed by world leaders at the G-7 in Germany this week. 

In their communique, G-7 leaders declared, “recent tragedies in the Mediterranean and the Bay of Bengal/Andaman Sea illustrate the urgent need to address effectively this phenomenon, and in particular the crime of trafficking of migrants. We reaffirm our commitment to prevent and combat the trafficking of migrants, and to detect, deter and disrupt human trafficking in and beyond our borders. We call upon all nations to tackle the causes of these crises that have such tragic consequences for so many people and to address the unique development needs of middle-income countries hosting refugees and migrants.” 

While the so- called “death voyages” across the Mediterranean have seized the world’s attention, equally horrific scenes have played out in recent weeks in the waters off Indonesia and Malaysia as rusting boats crowded with migrants from Bangladesh and from Myanmar's ethnic Rohingya minority tried to dock with their human cargo in any South East Asian country which would offer them sanctuary. 

What drives so many tens of thousands of young people every year to leave everything behind and bet against fate to make such hazardous journeys to the richer countries of the world is the recurring topic of the 8th Migration and Development Conference held here at the Bank this week in partnership with the French development agency AfD, and the Washington-based Center for Global Development. 

Since its small academic beginnings eight years ago, the conference has become the premier development policy forum on migration, travelling like a nomad from one country to another and offering its researchers a maximum wattage stage for their new insights. Two hundred researchers submitted their papers for presentation at the conference but only 30 made the final cut, according to Caglar Ozden, a lead economist in the DEC Research team for Trade and International Integration (DECTI), who is this year’s lead organizer. 

“We have made great progress on migration research so that the policy debate does not take place behind a veil of ignorance and cultural biases,” says Ozden. “Despite the rhetoric, our databases showed that global migration levels stayed pretty stable over the last sixty years—around three percent of the world population. In short, we showed that research is the most important tool in the policy debate which will be captured by emotion and empty rhetoric otherwise.“ 

Before the forum starts, Ozden tells me to look around the room where the conference is being held. Look, he says, most of us are migrants here today. We maintain our identity and yet we live and function well in our adopted homes. This, he sighs, is not the case for most migrants, especially with the West going through such dramatic economic and demographic changes. Bank Chief Economist Kaushik Basu opened this week’s Migration and Development Conference by appealing to his audience not to overlook the privation and misery of migrants in East and South Asia who like the migrants of North Africa, were also sailing towards what they hoped were better lives. 

Far from being a 20th century problem, Basu says, migration became a root and branch topic for development economists as early as the late 1880’s with the first appearance of the seminal work “The Laws of Migration” written by the British geographer E. G. Ravenstein in the Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Though his basic laws came to be contested, they provided stimulus for later research. 

“International migration is the area we see the toughest barriers to global integration because you get pushback on both sides: the sending country laments the loss of its doctors, its workers, and its young people to richer countries, and the host country worries about integrating them,” says Basu. “The US is a good example of a country which has been historically open to immigration and has generated significant economic growth as a result.” 

Reminding his keynote speaker that they had first met in a Vietnamese restaurant in Boston in the mid-Nineties, Basu then introduced Dani Rodrik, the Albert Hirschman Professor of Economics at the Institute for Advanced Study. 

In his presentation “Is the State the Enemy of Global Equity?” Rodrik asked that if cross-country labor mobility could be, in principle, a potent force for global equality, could we still justify restrictions at our borders? The answer Rodrik said depended on the following question: “If the group to which we must justify ourselves is the tribe, or the nation, then our morality is likely to be tribal, or nationalistic. If, however, the revolution in communications has created a global audience, then we might need to justify our behavior to the whole world. This change creates the material basis for a new ethic that will serve the interests of all those who live on this planet in a way that, despite much rhetoric, no previous ethic has done.” 

Rodrik believes that current immigration levels between countries are too low given previous historical patterns, and for reasons of ethical and economic fairness between poor and wealthier countries, is well below what it should be. How much higher should economic immigration be? Rodrick says he’s not sure but reiterates his strong sense that it’s ethically and economically too modest. 

Compare today’s immigration situation, Rodrik says, with the mass migrations of the 19th century which made the economies of the Northern Atlantic countries richer and more industrialized even if it also drove global income inequality for decades to come. 

Rodrik finishes his presentation by answering his own question, saying that the state is not the enemy of global equity. He says the existence of states, and the public goods and services they provide, are critical to elimination of global poverty and inequality. So national borders and strong market-lead institutions will endure. 

As the first day of the conference winds down, a visibly relieved Caglar Ozden tells me that “immigration is not only about wages and income gains. As the papers in this conference (and the past ones) show, when people move, many other wonderful things happen. People’s movements are closely related to education and gender issues, transfer of cultural norms, environment and crime, and almost every issue you can think of that is related to development. This is where the academic and policy research is moving and we need to pass these messages to the policymakers."


Phil Hay

Communication Adviser, Development Economics, World Bank

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