The third option | A different economic model as an answer to the migration

12. November 2018
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12. November 2018
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Migration to EU drops sharply, for now

Out of Africa

How many African migrants will come to Europe this century? There's a huge dispute about projected figures for migration and the economic factors that push people to leave.
by Benoît Bréville

Migration to the EU is now at its lowest level since the start of the refugee crisis provoked by the war in Syria, and the number of people crossing EU borders illegally has fallen from 1.8 million in 2015 to 204,219 in 2017. But the issue could still dominate the 2019 European elections, if France's president Emmanuel Macron and Hungary's prime minister Viktor Orbán get their way.

Orbán fears 'an invasion'. He said in August: 'There are currently two camps in Europe and one is headed by Macron. He is at the head of the political forces supporting immigration. We ... want to stop illegal immigration.' Far-right leaders, encouraged by opinion polls and their parties' strong performance in recent elections, believe they are now in a majority in Europe. Marine Le Pen, chair of France's Rassemblement National (former Front National), said in September: 'In Poland, Austria and Hungary, our ideas are in government.' Macron has identified 'nationalists' who 'preach hate' as his main adversaries.

It's hard to believe Orbán is sincere in calling Macron head of a 'pro-migration party'. Macron's 'Law for controlled immigration, an effective right to asylum and successful integration', which came into effect on 10 September, doubles the time for which failed asylum seekers (including families with children) awaiting deportation can be detained to 90 days. It introduces the keeping of police records on unaccompanied minors, approves the routine use of video conferencing for asylum hearings, makes it harder for parents of children with French nationality to obtain residence permits, and restricts automatic right to French citizenship under jus soli (right of the soil) in the overseas department of Mayotte.

The radical left is divided: those who call for open borders claim that those who want regulation to tackle the causes of population movements (1) are chasing an unattainable end, since the development of the South, far from reducing migration, will stimulate it.

Population pressure

This idea has become widely accepted since the publication, in February, of a book by Stephen Smith that predicts a 'rush to Europe' by 'young Africa' and the 'Africanisation' of Europe (2). Smith is a journalist, and his argument, backed by a mass of statistics, seems irrefutable. He maintains that Africa is facing unprecedented demographic pressure because of very high fertility south of the Sahara. According to UN medium scenario projections, Africa's population will rise from 1.2 billion in 2017 to 2.5 billion in 2050, and possibly 4.4 billion by 2100. Meanwhile, the continent will undergo significant economic development, incomes will rise, and more people will have the means to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Smith claims there will be a mass exodus from Africa, and that in 30 years, 20-25% of Europe's population will be of African origin, compared with 1.5-2.0% in 2015.

In the countryside or in the suburbs, those left behind watch as the gap widens between them and those who joined the consumer society

Smith anticipated that his predictions would raise passions and controversy, but the book, due to be translated into English, German, Spanish and Italian, won awards including the Brienne prize for books on geopolitics, awarded by France's foreign minister. Philosopher Marcel Gauchet said it should be 'compulsory reading for all political leaders', and Macron called it a 'perfect description of Africa's demographic time bomb'. For six months, the only challenge to Smith's claims came from anthropologist Michel Agier, in a joint interview.

The first serious attack came in September, from François Héran, migration and societies chair at the Collège de France, who points out that since the 1990s, 70% of African migrants have remained within Africa. Héran contests Smith's methods and data. Using the bilateral migration database created by the World Bank, IMF and OECD, he calculates that people of African origin will in fact be only 3-4% of Europe's population by 2050.

Héran does not dispute the idea of a mass exodus, but believes it won't happen before 2050. To gauge the scale of future migration, Smith cite style="display:block; margin-top: 5px; text-align: right; font-style:normal;"s historical population movements, especially the great transatlantic migration of the 19th century, in which 50 million Europeans settled in the US, and Mexican migration to the US between 1970 and 2015. Héran objects to this lack of rigour: 'If the [UN's] Human Development Index had a scale of 1 to 10, most Sub-Saharan countries would be at 1, Mexico at 6, France at 9 and the US at 10. While migrations from level 6 to level 10 are huge (25 million people in the diasporas concerned), those from 1 to 9 and 10 are limited (fewer than 2.3 million people). Sub-Saharan Africa is unlikely to reach Mexico's present level of development by 2050.' In other words, Africans will be too poor to migrate for another three decades.

'Migration transition'

Smith and Héran agree on two points: that the populations of very poor countries do not move around much, and that economic development, far from reducing emigration, encourages it. Philosopher Alain Finkielkraut told Smith in an interview: 'You have shattered one of our most firmly held convictions' (3). However, the old neoclassical model, which held that any narrowing of the economic gap between countries of origin and destination would reduce migration, had already been questioned by geographer Wilbur Zelinsky, who in 1971 advanced the hypothesis of the 'mobility transition', now usually known as 'migration transition' (4). Zelinsky identified a number of stages: as very poor countries develop, their mortality rate falls, especially among children, their population becomes younger, and their emigration rate rises; only when they reach a certain level of prosperity does emigration fall, and immigration rise, except under extraordinary circumstances, such as war or an economic or political crisis.

Many studies have confirmed this model over the last 40 years. Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malaysia, South Korea, Spain and Taiwan, all formerly countries with net emigration, have completed the cycle and now have net immigration. China, India, Morocco and Turkey may reach this point in the next few decades. Economists Michael Clemens and Hannah Postel note that between 1960 and 2010, emigration increased from 67 of the 71 countries that rose from low-income to middle-income status (5). The phenomenon is so widespread, regardless of time or place, that it seems almost natural. Unless Africa is an exception to the rule, economic growth could lead to a spectacular increase in emigration, especially from Sub-Saharan countries. This idea panicked Finkielkraut: 'By granting development aid, which everyone thought was the way to keep Africans at home ... rich countries are shooting th emselves in the foot.'

Researchers have suggested a number of explanations. The only one that Smith considers valid, and the most often cite style="display:block; margin-top: 5px; text-align: right; font-style:normal;"d, relates to reduced financial constraints. Emigration is expensive: the need to pay for a visa, the journey, moving expensesis an obstacle for the poorest. When incomes rise, more people have the money to emigrate, and the pool of potential emigrants grows as the proportion of young people in the population increases.

A lack of resources can thwart plans to migrate, but the big question is why people want to leave a country where the economy is growing. The researchers offer a simple answer: in the poorest states, economic development does not mean prosperity for all. Rising agricultural productivity disrupts rural society and leaves unemployed an abundant, often young and increasingly well-qualified, workforce, whom the emerging industrial and urban economy cannot absorb. Stuck in the countryside or in the outer suburbs of cities, those left behind watch as the gap widens between them and those who have been able to join the consumer society. With improved access to information, they try their luck elsewhere, and rising incomes make this possible.

'Mexicans won't have to migrate'

In many cases, economic development is now intertwined with the adoption of free trade, which has a proven impact on population movements. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), signed in 1992, was presented as a way of reducing migration from Mexico, and President Carlos Salinas de Gortari promised: 'Mexicans won't have to migrate north looking for jobs ... they will be able to find them in [Mexico]' (6). Economist Philip L Martin predicted the opposite effect (7), and was later proved right. Once the tariff barriers were lifted, the US flooded Mexico with subsidised maize produced by intensive farming. Falling prices destabilised Mexico's rural economy and drove out millions of campesinos who could not find work in their own neighbourhood or in the new fact ories close to the border. The number of clandestine Mexican immigrants to the US rose by 144%, from 4.8 million in 1993 to 11.7 million in 2002. Having signed free trade agreements with 30 African countries in 2014, the EU could in fact be encouraging the immigration it is attempting to fight.

Smith does not mention the inequalities of growth, the impact of a free market, capital accumulation, or land-grabbing by big landowners who turn smallholder farmers into salaried workers (8). All studies on migration transition reach the same conclusions, probably because they focus on the same kind of development, based not on the achievement of full employment and reduction of inequality, but on free trade, privatisation, labour market flexibility, and maximising 'comparative advantage' to attract foreign direct investment.

It is not development that leads to emigration, but the disparity between labour supply and demand, especially for young people. Economist Robert Lucas emphasises that 'virtually all the evidence indicates that tighter labour markets at home discourage departure' (9). Clemens and Postel write: 'There is an unmistakable negative relationship between youth employment and emigration. The emigration rate in countries with youth employment over 90% is half that seen in countries where only 70% of youth are employed.' Hein de Haas notes the importance of not confusing correlation and causality, emphasising that population growth does not necessarily lead to high emigration: 'People do not migrate because of population growth. This will only happen if population growth goes along with sluggish economic growth and high unemployment ... If high population growth coincides with rapid economic growth, such as in most oil-rich Gulf states, emigration will be low' (10).

The idea that millions of Africans, driven by a lack of prospects, war, or climate change, will chose exile is widely accepted in Europe. Those who want to provoke fear over 'identity' use it to justify demanding greater restrictions - in Finkielkraut's words, 'Europe shouldn't become African.' Others are fatalistic, calling for freedom of movement and open borders. The 'Manifesto for the Welcoming of Migrants' published by Politis, Regards and Mediapart states: 'It is illusory to think that migration flows can be contained and interrupted ... In the coming decades, migrations will expand, voluntary or constrained ... Refugees driven by wars and climatic disasters will be even more numerous.' There is another way, not being explored, which would start by challenging the dominant economic model and working to make potential migrants' own countries more attractive. Simply predicting a future of crises and poverty for the South is defeatist.

People do not migrate because of population growth. This will only happen if population growth goes along with sluggish economic growth and high unemployment Hein de Haas

Resentment in countries receiving migrants is not inevitable but comes from austerity, the destabilisation of social welfare, the decline of public services, and from a political decision to encourage competition - for aid, social housing or childcare places - between the poor and the poorest, the public and private sectors, those of working age and pensioners, those on minimum income and the unemployed. Under these conditions, migrants are seen as a strain on scarce resources, which allows the far right to set different sectors of the working class against one another. Le Pen said last January: 'I choose to give preference to the French people, because I believe it is to them that we need to show national solidarity, and I am revolted by the idea that we should recklessly and irresponsibly welcome thousands of migrants and leave our own homeless in the street' (11). There is another way, which involves, not demanding that borders be opened in the knowledge that this will never happen, but patient political campaigning to bring to power a government capable of changing the course of events.

Translated by Charles Goulden

(1See Benoît Bréville, 'French left has no policy on immigration', Le Monde diplomatique, English edition, April 2017.

(2Stephen Smith, La Ruée vers l'Europe: La jeune Afrique en route pour le Vieux Continent (The Rush to Europe: Young Africa Heads for the Old Continent), Grasset, Paris, 2018. Unless otherwise stated, all quotations are from this book.

(3'Répliques', France Culture, 17 March 2018.

(4See Wilbur Zelinsky, 'The hypothesis of the mobility transition', Geographical Review, vol 61, no 2, New York, April 1971.

(5See Michael A Clemens and Hannah M Postel, 'Can development assistance deter emigration?', Centre for Global Development, Washington DC, February 2018.

(6Carlos Salinas de Gortari, talk at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, 28 May 1993.

(7See Philip L Martin, 'Trade and migration: the case of NAFTA, Asian and Pacific Migration Journal,vol 2, no 3, Thousand Oaks (California), September 1993.

(8See Douglas S Massey, 'Economic development and international migration in comparative perspective', Population and Development Review,vol 14, no 3, September 1988.

(9Robert EB Lucas, International Migration and Economic Development: Lessons from Low-Income Countries, Edward Elgar Publishing, Northampton, 2005.

(10Hein de Haas, 'Migration transitions: a theoretical and empirical inquiry into the developmental drivers of internation migration', International Migration Institute, University of Oxford, January 2010.

(11RTL, 16 January 2017.


This article is part of the November 2018 issue of Le Monde diplomatique english edition