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How does economic inequality affect migration?

Posted By Kevin Jae, Friday, September 11, 2020

Kevin Jae, a member of our Emerging Fellows program inspects the impact of economic inequality on migration in his ninth blog post. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

How does economic inequality affect migration? We can examine the question from two vantage points. The first vantage point will take the international context. As for the second, we will examine the effects of economic inequality on migration from the intra-national context.

In the international context, economic inequality and migration seem to be inextricably tied in a cause-and-effect relationship. In a dominant narrative, migration happens because of economic inequality, or the differences between the economically underdeveloped nations and the developed world. In this narrative, there is an inversely proportional relationship between economic development and migration: the less economically developed the nation, the greater the motivation for potential migrants to emigrate and pursue a better livelihood. Pursuing this logic, some politicians, development workers, and scholars advocate for a “smart solution” to migration by tackling the problem at the roots. They advocate for ideas like “circular migration” and suggestions for temporary migration, in which international migrants contribute to the development of their home countries through remittances and the development of human capital through their experiences working abroad. These hopes seem justified, given the role of remittances on economic output for some underdeveloped countries. For example, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO), 42% of Tajikistan’s GDP came from remittances in 2015.

More recent scholarship puts the correlation between development and migration into doubt. Actual empirical migration processes hardly conform to this relationship. While it seems rational to assume that people will migrate to improve their long-term material prospects, a more nuanced way of conceptualizing migration takes migratory capabilities into consideration. Realistically speaking, migrants need access to information, personal networks, a certain degree of capital, and skills for the labour market to migrate to another country. Higher levels of human and economic development actually facilitate migration, although migratory aspirations eventually decrease as nations reach developed country status.

Empirical data also corroborates this way of theorizing migratory patterns. The largest movement of migrants come from countries like Turkey and Mexico, not from countries like Liberia and Bhutan. Eventually, after a certain level of development, potential migrants will be satisfied with the opportunities available at home and the home country will start to become a destination for migrants. Countries like South Korea, which has traditionally been a sender of migrants, are starting to become a receiving nation. In either case, economic development will lead to migration to a certain extent. Given how vastly unsuccessful development initiatives have been in the past decades, this does not promise to radically increase migrations from the global South to the global North in the future.

In the domestic context, economic inequality plays a role in the reception of and the attitudes toward migrants by the local population. Studies suggest that individuals who perceive a lack of control harbour anti-migration sentiments: these individuals often face financial insecurity, feel political alienation, and lack trust in public institutions. As it stands, the general feeling of a lack of control looks to increase in the future. In the current political-economic landscape, there is increasing alienation of citizens from the political process, there are the politics of austerity, and income and wealth inequality are as high as they have been for decades. In the United States, almost 40% of Americans report that they would struggle to meet an unexpected $400 expense. These trends were happening before COVID-19 exacerbated the situation: the wealth of American billionaires has grown $365 billion to $3.65 trillion since the middle of March, while middle-to- low-income families have not fared well. Following the research, we may expect anti-migrant sentiments to increase, along with anti-migrant discourse from political parties, if these trends continue to hold in the future.

Economic inequality affects migration in both the international context and the intra-national context. In the international context, economic inequality creates migratory aspirations while limiting migratory capabilities. In the intra-national context, economic inequality sets the ground for nationalist, anti-migration sentiments. This latter point will drive the next article, which will examine future scenarios of migration given a nationalist response.

© Kevin Jae 2020

Tags:  economics  inequality  migration 

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