Borders beyond control? / Hein de Haas

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Borders beyond control?

In my previous blogpost, I argued that politicians are often busy with feigning immigration control while in reality they often can or want to do little about it. Does that mean that borders are beyond control, as Jagdish Bhagwati famously argued in 2003? Have governments lost control? What do we actually know about the effects of immigration policies?

In order to answer this question, I have conducted a research project on the ‘Determinants of International Migration’ (DEMIG) at the International Migration Institute at Oxford University. This 5-year project, which lasted from 2010 to 2014 and received funding from the European Research Council, allowed a team of researchers to collect new data and conduct analyses on the effectiveness of migration policies. (See this this link for more information on the project, the 4 DEMIG databases, analyses and 28 research papers).

One of the main insights of the project is that while immigration restrictions often reduce immigration, these effects tend to be rather small. In addition, restrictions often have a four potential side-effects (‘substitution effects’) which further undermine their effectiveness or can even make them counter-productive.

Moroccan-Spanish border crossing near Ceuta
© Hein de Haas 2014

First, restrictions often compel migrants to ‘jump categories’, by finding other legal or irregular channels to migrate. For instance, when European countries tried to curb immigration from Moroccan and Turkish workers from the 1970s, people continued to migrate as family and irregular migrants.

Second, restrictions can lead to huge surges of ‘now or never migration’. This happened when Suriname became independent from the Netherlands in 1975. While the Dutch were keen to make Suriname independent as a way to curb free migration from Dutch nationals living in the Netherlands, the irony is that over 40 percent of the Surinamese population migrated to the Netherlands to beat the impending immigration ban.

Third, restrictions often compel migrants to explore new geographical routes by migrating to or via other countries. For instance, if one European country toughens its asylum policies, this may divert asylum seekers to neighbouring countries. We also see this with migration controls in the Mediterranean Sea, which do not stop migration but rather compel migrants and smugglers to use other geographical routes.

The fourth and probably strongest side effect of immigration restrictions is that they not only reduce immigration but that they also reduce return migration.  In other words: they reduce circulation and push migrants into permanent settlement. Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of what the policies aim to achieve.

Thus, the effectiveness of immigration restrictions is partly or entirely undermined by such side-effects. Besides that, they have a human costs in terms of creating a market for smuggling (which is a reaction to border controls and not the cause of migration) and increased suffering of migrants and a rising death toll.

Yet this does not necessarily mean that policies always fail or that borders are beyond control. Policies that attract migrants tend to be more successful then policies that restrict immigration. For instance, most Western countries have opened their doors for skilled migrant and students and these policies seem to have worked to a certain extent. The extensive media attention for irregular migration also conceals that illegal border crossings represent a small share of total immigration. The majority of migrants abide by the law and migrate legally.

It would therefore be an exaggeration to say that borders are beyond control. It is be more correct to say that there are clear limits to border controls. The whole idea that migration can be micro-managed is illusionary. As the example of the Gulf countries shows, even authoritarian states cannot achieve total immigration control.

This is largely because migration is mainly driven by economic and social processes that lie beyond the reach of migration policies. Another insight of the DEMIG project is therefore that governments mainly influence migration via so-called “non-migration policies”. Although economic policies, labour market policies, trade and foreign policies are not designed to affect migration, they have a considerable effect on migration.

Such policies often undermine the effectiveness of immigration restrictions.  The most obvious example is economic policies. While governments typically aim to boost economic growth and reduce unemployment, rosy economic prospects also tend to attract a lot of migrants.

As part of economic liberalisation policies of the past decades, many governments have privatised state enterprises and made it easier for employers to hire temporary workers on low pay. This has converted many relatively secure, respectable jobs into precarious jobs with little status, which native workers often shun and only migrants want to do. So, these policies have increased the demand for low-skilled labour migrants. It is also no coincidence that irregular migration of (predominantly) women working nannies and private care workers is a major phenomenon in countries which have weak public facilities for childcare and elderly care, such as in the United States and southern Europe.

More generally, the overall trend towards increasing economic openness and regional integration (within the EU, for instance) of the last four decades has also boosted migration. It is unlikely that this can be reversed. This also shows the hypocrisy of politicians who pretend to be immigration fighters, but have backed economic policies that have only increased the demand for regular and irregular migrant labour.

* For more information on the DEMIG project see www.migrationdeterminants.eu

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