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Myth: Development puts a stop to migration

Myth: Development puts a stop to migration

Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts/ Simone Golob

Myth busters

“Migration is one of those things people think they know something about”, says Melissa Siegel, professor of Migration Studies at UNU Merit and herself a migrant. Born and raised in the United States, she came to the Netherlands 13 years ago for a master’s programme at Utrecht University. “Ask the average person on the street to point out a migrant and they’ll never single me out. There’s a huge common misconception about why migrants leave their country of origin. Yes, because of conflict, persecution, economic reasons, to seek a better life. But rarely do we think of migrating for the sake of family formation or for someone’s studies.”

That said, Siegel would like to focus on a particular misunderstanding at policy level: that if ‘the West’ gave more financial aid to countries to promote access to health and education, people would no longer want to leave those countries. “That’s not true at all. Actually you could stimulate migration by giving aid to developing countries. The dynamics around migration are quite different. The issue is more that as a country develops, we stop caring about its people migrating. We see those migrants as expats, we beg them to enter our countries. Twenty five percent of all migrants in the world are from developed countries. Even the United Kingdom, a country that seems to have turned its back on migrants, is among the top 10 countries that send migrants abroad.”

To illustrate what is known as the ‘migration hump’, she draws a graph with a correlation between development and migration. The line goes up, hits a peak and then starts on a slight downturn. The least developed countries, like Burundi, have very few immigrants and emigrants, Siegel explains. “Burundi has few resources and networks, little human capital and money. People simply can’t leave. And others don’t want to receive them. The labour they can offer is not seen as interesting or ‘good’ or skilled enough.” Middle-income countries such as the Philippines, China, India and Mexico are on top, she says. They are relatively well developed, and their people have the resources to leave the country as well as skills that other countries want. Therefore, they produce a lot of migrants. Then there are highly developed countries like Germany. Some of its citizens do emigrate, but fewer than from the Philippines or China, because sticking around is no bad option either. “In short, as a country develops, migration increases. And if it’s developed enough, the discourse changes: we stop talking about people seeking a better life and instead refer to them as expats. It’s not the pattern of movement that is changing, but our perception of the emigrants.”

Siegel is by no means opposed to development aid, she stresses. “I completely agree with giving aid to Syria or Africa, but not for the purposes of keeping people there. It’s really bad that we get to decide, implicitly or explicitly, who is a good migrant – ‘the white and highly skilled’ – and who is a bad migrant.”

Currently there are said to be some 250 million migrants around the world. “But that’s an underestimation, as it only takes into account registered ones who stay for a year or longer. What about undocumented or seasonal migrants? Yes, forced migration is accelerating these days, especially with the Syrian conflict, but the idea that refugees are mainly hosted in developed countries in Europe or the United States is not even close to being true. Turkey tops the list of countries hosting refugees, followed by Pakistan and Lebanon. And when you look at it in relative terms, in percentage of population, you’ll see that Jordan and Lebanon have many more refugees than other countries.”

This is a series in which academics shoot down popular myths



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