“Economic Migrants” Getting Bad Rap in Refugee Debate

As sympathy from around the world pours in for victims of war seeking asylum in the West, government leaders from Europe to the United States who once dug their feet are finally agreeing to open their doors to more refugees. But there is one category of people that are specifically being excluded, in some cases with scorn: the population known as “economic migrants.”

Simply defined, these are individuals who move from place to place in search of employment or other ways to earn an income to support themselves or their families back home. The World Bank estimates that overall, there are about 250 million migrants globally – and nine out of 10 are economic migrants. Just 3 percent are refugees.

Yet both the mainstream media and government leaders are quick to dismiss them as somehow less worthy than those fleeing war and physical persecution.

“What we see [with these people] has nothing to do with seeking refuge and safety,” said Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner, as reported by The Washington Post. “It is nothing but opportunism.”

The UK’s Telegraph reported that, “Migrants from North Africa and the Middle East are using fake Syrian passports bought via Facebook to pose as refugees and enter Europe. Thousands of fraudulent documents are in circulation in Turkey and other migration routes into the EU, which the head of Europe’s border police described as a ‘windfall’ for economic migrants.”

Not to be outdone, The Washington Post revealed that, “There are well-dressed Iranians speaking Farsi who insist they are members of the persecuted Yazidis of Iraq.”

The UK’s Express added that Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to call for a tougher stance on migrants entering the European Union among “genuine” refugees.

There are indeed some people trying to escape their home country for reasons that are trivial when compared to the abject tragedy of others. And there is indeed a difference between economic migrants and refugees, defined as those fleeing war or persecution. It’s also true that the brutality of war demands immediate action and thus priority resettlement for its victims.

However, before we too easily dismiss these seemingly trifling “others,” it’s worthwhile to take a look at who they are and why they often take the same risks as refugees to create a better life.

Perhaps it cannot be put more poignantly than how it was by a 20-year-old Palestinian named Ahmed Al-Naouq, assistant for a project called We Are Not Numbers: “War leads to the killing of humans physically. Poverty leads to the killing of humans mentally and spiritually. Poverty is cruel.”

Al-Naouq lives in the Gaza Strip, a place that is often torn apart by war but is not considered a source of “genuine refugees” (as is Syria, Iraq and Eritrea). However, unemployment is an estimated 60 percent among young adults in Gaza due to the stifling Israeli blockade, and in September, the UN Conference on Trade and Development predicted that if current trends continue, the Gaza Strip will be “uninhabitable by 2020.”

“[The 2014 Israeli assault on Gaza] has effectively eliminated what was left of the middle class, sending almost all of the population into destitution,” the report observed.

Palestinians are not alone, of course. There is a world of pain out there, and not just from war and occupation. Take Egypt, for instance, which has tumbled even further into poverty and oppression since the revolution in 2011 and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s ascension to the presidency in 2014. According to the country’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics, about a quarter of all Egyptians earn below the poverty line; in Upper Egypt, 49 percent of residents cannot provide for basic food needs. Dissidents from any faction are thrown in prison if they speak out. Mohammed Salah, a 31-year-old who lives just outside of Cairo, completed an undergraduate degree in history (“Egyptology”), but says he has been unable to pay the fee required to receive his graduation certificate, without which he can’t get the job he wants as a government tour guide. For all other jobs he earns barely enough to cover his transportation costs. Unemployed at an age when most are usually marrying, he continues to live in his parents’ home and takes class after class in Chinese and other languages in the hope that one day he can emigrate and use his linguistic skills abroad.

“I am so sorry about the war in Syria, and I want the people to have the chance to live,” he said. “But what about me? I … feel like my future is going further down the drain every day.”

Kathleen Newland, cofounder of the Migration Policy Institute, commented at a recent World Affairs Council meeting in Washington, DC, that, “It is becoming more and more difficult to draw a bright line between refugees and non-refugees of all types. Many non-refugees migrate under some sort of compulsion, including extreme poverty, which is as much a humanitarian issue as the violence of war.”

It goes almost without saying that there is almost no support for totally open borders, and the capacity of any one country is not unlimited. However, at the same DC meeting, Dilip Ratha, head of the Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD) for the World Bank, urged a much more inclusive and embracing view of migration in general. In fact, he warned that anything but will mean increasing poverty and rebellion in one part of the world and an aging population without the means to support itself in the other.

“Most migrants are simply looking for a job,” he said, “not the perfect job, but anything that will allow them to support themselves and their families. People must move, and we should be glad they do.”

In 2014, Ratha told Truthout, migrants sent home $436 billion in remittances to support family members left behind. That compares to just $135 billion in donor aid. Unlike common perception, “It’s the poor people who are providing a lifeline to their families back home, not the international community,” he said.

According to Ratha’s World Bank team, migrants send home an average of $200 per month. Repeated month after month, by millions of people, this sum of money adds up to “rivers of foreign currency.” In 2014, India received $72 billion in remittances, larger than what it receives from its IT exports. In Egypt, remittances are three times the size of revenues from the Suez Canal. And in poorer, smaller, fragile and conflict-afflicted countries, remittances are a lifeline, as in Somalia or Haiti. That is, as long as they are allowed to move.

But that’s how the developing countries benefit. What about wealthier nations? The focus has been almost exclusively on competition for jobs. However, there is a lot of evidence at the macro, long-term level that the opposite is true.

“There’s not any credible research that I know of that in the medium- and long-term that refugees are anything but a hugely profitable investment,” Michael Clemens, a senior fellow who leads the Migration and Development Initiative at the Center for Global Development, recently told The Washington Post.

Refugees and other migrants who do not have jobs waiting for them open small businesses at a high rate, creating ripples of more commerce for everyone. Their arrival also boosts demand for food, shelter, infrastructure and many other services.

“There is a myth that desirable immigrants are the ones with PhDs, and that people with only high school degrees aren’t desirable. But there’s no economic substance behind that myth,” Clemens added.

And then there is the stark fact that many countries are aging rapidly. Germany’s population, for example, is expected to shrink from 81 million inhabitants to around 68 to 73 million in 2060. Since most refugees are younger, they can provide a boost to the working age population that will help economies grow and pay for the care of elders. In fact, Americans should thank immigrants for their comparatively strong demographic situation. In 2014, the Pew Research Center estimated that, from 1960 to 2005, immigrants and their descendants accounted for 51 percent of the increase in the US population. Looking ahead, from 2005 to 2050, immigrants and their descendants are projected to contribute 82 percent of the total increase in the US population. Without immigration, Pew noted, the United States would face the same kind of aging problems that Europe does.

I work in the community development field in the United States, and it is a common mantra that one’s zip code should not determine one’s fate. It seems to me that the same is true at the global level.

As the World Bank’s Ratha asked rhetorically, “Do we take the approach that we must stop people who are desperate to move due to poverty and crime? Are we still ‘barbarians’ who think everyone must stick to their tribe, and thus are born to their fate? Moving to improve is a basic human instinct, and should be a basic human right. It is up to us to learn how to manage it.”