11 Jan

Migration – problem or solution?

Posted By Politybooks

Luke Martell (Reader in Sociology at the University of Sussex) explores one of the factors involved in globalization and offers some alternative ways of viewing global migration.

The current financial crisis and the Copenhagen summit on climate change have recently drawn increased attention to global interdependency. The anti-government uprisings in Iran and similar events elsewhere in the world show the movement of media such as Twitter across national boundaries. At the same time, the rise of the far-right and intolerance remind us that another type of globalization exists: the globalization of people. This is a type which is not so freely allowed or welcomed by many governments and citizens. Yet evidence for the benefits of migration is overwhelming. When properly considered, it is difficult to see why migration should be opposed, except for reasons of prejudice and intolerance.

Migration is often described in terms of waves or similar tidal metaphors. But in rich OECD countries less than 12% of the population is born abroad. Globally 97.5% of people stay in the country they were born in. From popular myths you would think most migrants in a country like the UK were from Asia, the Caribbean or Eastern Europe. Yet the largest immigrant group is the Irish. Other significant migrant groups who rarely get mentioned are from countries such as Germany and the USA. 

Most migrants in the UK do not take the mainstay of British workers’ jobs: they often fill high- or low-level vacancies that British workers cannot or will not take up. It is often forgotten that much migration is temporary. And given the media coverage of immigration, it is surprising to learn that about 80% of asylum seekers in the UK are sent home.

The British government has estimated that migrants add £6 billion annually to economic growth. They often cannot work where they come from, but are able to be productive in their new home. Spending their earnings creates jobs for others, for example in the service sector, rather than taking them away. Money sent home sometimes provides greater income for countries of origin than aid or foreign investment. Rather than draining public services, migrant workers pay taxes which support these and the growing proportion of elderly people in rich countries.

It has been reported that 50% of Americans think there are twice as many immigrants in their country than there really are, which clearly demonstrates the misinformation that exists concerning migration. And those vigilantes who patrol the Mexican border forget that their country is almost entirely constituted by immigration. This is a big part of what gives the US its unique diversity and dynamism, and many of those who made the US what it is were escaping persecution and hardship. Quite apart from economic considerations, this is perhaps the most overlooked and important reason for seeing the value of migration.

This issue is discussed more fully in chapter 6 of Luke’s new book, The Sociology of Globalization, released this month, which addresses a wide range of distinctive insights that sociology has to bring to the study of globalization.