People have been moving between countries and across continents for millennia.
While many imagine the reason to be escape from conflicts or natural disasters, less than 10% of migrants in recent years are thought to be refugees. Most are economic migrants, and as this trend is unlikely to stop, we should consider what benefits could be gained by working with this phenomenon rather than against it; by relaxing border controls and allowing free labour movements within and between countries.
First of all, we should recognise that despite messages in the media now, the reaction to migration has not always been hostile. Following the Second World War, migration to the UK and other European countries was actively sought to fill vast labour shortages. And while passports and national identity cards are the prime symbols of international control on movement, these are relatively recent inventions. Passports were introduced only 200 years ago.
Today’s debate is preoccupied with the value or perceived threat of multiculturalism and whether or not to encourage closer integration. Addressing threat first, Toronto was recently voted the most diverse city in the world, with over 260 nationalities residing in the city. It has low crime rates compared to similarly sized cities. There are many other factors behind the crime figures and Toronto’s example won’t apply everywhere, but it shows that immigration doesn’t need to lead to a breakdown in society. Looking at value, social integration can’t be considered in isolation from the formal and informal contributions that migrants make to the local economy. Focusing only on the formal contributions, it is estimated that if barriers to immigration were entirely lifted, global GDP could benefit by upwards of US$39trn.
However, we know from experience that uncontrolled migration can often overwhelm host nations unprepared to deal with massive influxes of people in short timeframes. The resources and infrastructure needed to accommodate new communities takes time to develop.
With the trilemma of insecurity around water, food and energy, we urgently need to study migration patterns and to encourage movement to areas where people’s needs can be accommodated, and where they can have a positive impact on existing populations – filling labour shortages and contributing to the local economy. It is time to harness the mass migration movement, providing real help to people in need while minimising the burden to host countries.
Perhaps Habitat III will go some way to addressing not just the problem, but the opportunity posed by people constantly on the move.