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