Humanity in motion, but where are we all headed?

The world is on the cusp of a century of unparalleled population mobility. How governments craft migration policy will determine whether the future is defined by prosperity or inequality.

African migrants disembark from a naval patrol boat at the Maltese port of Valetta after being rescued at sea. With tens of thousands of migrants from North Africa arriving on its shores or stranded by smugglers in its territorial waters, Malta requires assistance from the European Union and others to meet the challenges of migration.
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John Kenneth Galbraith, the eminent economist, once wrote that migration is "the oldest action against poverty". "It selects those who most want help," he said. "It is good for the country to which they go; it helps break the equilibrium of poverty in the country from which they come." Why should we not want more migration, he asked.

Thirty years after Galbraith wrote these words we live in a world defined by migration - and we are on the cusp of a century of unparalleled human mobility. The United Nations estimates that in 2010 the total number of international migrants in the world was 214 million people, or a little more than three per cent of the world population. We should not be surprised to see this number more than double in future decades.

Indeed, the population of the United Arab Emirates is around 70 per cent migrant, and the share of the workforce made up of migrants is closer to 90 per cent, according to data compiled by the UN and the International Organization for Migration. Where law permits (and even when it doesn't), people will cross borders in search of prosperity and security. In the UAE, as in other countries, foreign workers help propel economic dynamism.

In our book, Exceptional People, my co-authors and I contend that global migration is a defining issue of the 21st century. How governments craft and co-ordinate migration policy will determine whether our collective future is defined by a more open and cosmopolitan global society or one that is unequal, partitioned and less prosperous. To appreciate the role of migration in world development, we need to understand its historical role, its costs and benefits today, and how global changes are pushing us towards a future defined by migration.


For most of human history, people have moved freely across borders and frontiers, sometimes by choice and often by force of circumstance - to escape poverty, persecution or famine. Indeed, the migration of people has been a key stimulant to social progress, notwithstanding its disruptive and painful effects.

We live today in a world defined by highly regulated and managed migration, a state of affairs quite different from that which prevailed in the late 19th century. During this first wave of globalisation (from about 1870-1914), international mobility was embraced as a characteristic of the modern world. The prevailing wisdom was that open borders would promote economic growth - and new transportation technology and industrial expansion helped to encourage movement.

And move people did. Between 1846 and 1940, around 150 million people sought their fortunes overseas - moving from Europe to the Americas (about 55 million), from India and southern China to South-east Asia and the South Pacific (about 48 million), and from Russia and north-eastern Asia to Siberia, Central Asia, Manchuria and Japan (about 46 million). Most of these migrants were free, some came under contracts with debt obligations, and a smaller portion moved as indentured labourers.

Many saw migration as a way to break the shackles of feudalism and to build modern economies. In 1889, the International Emigration Conference declared: "We affirm the right of the individual to the fundamental liberty accorded to him by every civilised nation to come and go and dispose of his person and his destinies as he pleases." The conference was stating what was almost common sense at the time - reflecting the wisdom espoused by Adam Smith and other Enlightenment philosophers more than a century before.

Today, a century later, we live in a world of managed migration, where states seek control over their borders and often seek to limit migration - or at least carefully select who gets to come and go. The consequences of curtailing migration are significant for both economic and human development. Limiting movement can stifle economies and perpetuate poverty.

In 2009, the UN's annual human development report highlighted the intrinsic value of migration as an expression of human freedom. Indeed, in an unequal world, moving across a border is sometimes the best opportunity for an individual to improve his or her life. A doctor from the Ivory Coast will make six times as much working in France. A junior lecturer from China will earn more than five times more in Australia than at home. And software engineers get paid at least three or four times more in the United States than in India.

Even modest increases in the rate of migration produce significant gains for the global economy. Both rich and poor countries would benefit from increased migration, with developing countries benefiting the most. As increased migration has a more dramatic impact on the incomes of the poor countries, it serves to reduce inequality between countries. The World Bank estimates that increasing migration equal to three per cent of the workforce in developed countries between 2005 and 2025 would generate global gains of $356 billion.

Other models suggest that with a five per cent increase in migration, 80 per cent of the gains would accrue to developing countries. Completely opening borders, some economists predict, would produce gains as high as $39 trillion for the world economy over 25 years.

These numbers compare with the $70 billion that is currently spent every year in overseas development assistance and the estimated gains of $104 billion from fully liberalising international trade. A small increase in migration would produce a much greater boon to the global economy and developing countries than free trade and development assistance combined.

Migrants bring other benefits to an economy. Knowledge, entrepreneurship and technology are the driving force of a dynamic economy. Two reliable ways to generate ideas and innovation in an economy are to increase the number of highly educated workers and to introduce diversity into the workplace. Both of these objectives are advanced through higher levels of immigration.

Diversity through immigration becomes a stimulant to further innovation and growth. The different cultural and social perspectives brought by migrants help to contribute to more effective and creative decision-making. Groups composed of similar people are more likely to engage in what social psychologists call "convergent thinking", which reinforces the status quo, whereas "divergent thinking" can introduce novel ideas and approaches. Diversity can help groups to be more creative - an asset to businesses looking to stay on the cutting edge of their industry.


Sending countries also benefit from migration, especially developing countries. As the number of migrants has grown in the past 30 years, they have contributed to the remarkable growth in the volume of recorded remittances. From about $31.1 billion in 1990, they are estimated to have reached about $316 billion in 2009 - the majority of this money flowing to developing countries. World Bank studies indicate that in 2010, remittances from the UAE were as high as $17.5 billion - flowing primarily to India, Pakistan and the Philippines.

By some estimates, remittances now exceed the volume of both foreign aid and foreign direct investment in many low-income countries. Of course, remittances are the upside of an imperfect system, where the families of migrant workers may be left behind - a heavy burden that cannot be compared to the material benefits.

New research on "brain drain" is also now turning this concept on its head. While the mass departure of skilled workers may have short-term costs for developing countries, in the long term the promise of moving abroad can stimulate more people to invest more in their education. The result is that a proportion of educated workers may leave for greener pastures, but ultimately the country is left with a higher number of graduates than it would have without "brain drain". This phenomenon has been studied in countries like Ghana, Fiji and the Philippines, where concerns about past brain drain have been replaced with the benefits of "brain gain".

Migration is not without costs and drawbacks, which need to be managed by domestic policy and international co-operation. The burdens of migration often fall narrowly and unevenly on particular people, sectors and localities, and they are usually strongest in the short run, while the full benefits of increased mobility may appear only in the medium or long run.

Particular countries or localities may bear, at certain times, a disproportionate share of the costs of migration without anticipating that these will bring eventual benefits. This is particularly the case where large numbers of migrants, in relation to the native population, arrive with no intention of long-term settlement.

For example, the island of Malta is small in terms of its size and population (about 400,000 natives), but due to its location off the toe of Italy, it is a relatively close entry point from Africa into the European Union. With tens of thousands of migrants from North Africa arriving on its shores or stranded by smugglers in its territorial waters, it requires assistance from the European Union and others to meet the challenges of migration.

Similarly, an influential study of migration in the United States found that while the fiscal impact of migration is "strongly positive at the national level", it can be "substantially negative at state and local levels". The costs imposed by migrants are usually borne by local authorities - who provide public services, health care, education, etc - while their tax contributions go to the national government. Reaping the full benefits of migration requires governments to relieve its short-run costs and address negative impacts on localities and groups that are shouldering a heavier share of the costs.

The UAE faces other challenges associated with the rapid and large influx of migrants. With an economy built and (some might argue) sustained by migrants brought into the country from all over the world, the benefits of migration are clear. In this respect, the policies of the UAE are more enlightened than those of many western countries.

Enlightened migration policies will become increasingly necessary for countries to adapt to the coming changes of a century characterised by higher rates of migration. Over the last 25 years, the total number of international migrants doubled worldwide, and we can confidently say that this growth trend will be amplified over the next 50 years. Learning how to respond constructively to the challenges and opportunities created by more diverse societies will be a key concern for governments.

History teaches that rapid economic and political change - and, increasingly, environmental change - dislodges people from their traditional routines, compelling them to seek opportunity and security in unfamiliar places.

Against a backdrop of rapid globalisation, the individual risks and costs of moving internationally will continue to fall. With lower transport costs and better connectivity, our societies will be more diverse than ever before. The global community will be connected in a manner not experienced since our evolutionary origins in Africa.

Working-age populations are still growing rapidly in some developing countries, while in others (notably in East Asia) they will soon be shrinking relative to the elderly. The most dramatic effects will appear in sub-Saharan Africa, where the population will grow by a billion people between 2005 and 2050. The economically active population between ages 15 and 64 will also grow steadily among developing countries in Asia - which include countries from Iran across to India and Nepal - in the next half-century.

In the next 50 years, the supply of potential migrants will expand alongside economic growth, urbanisation and rising educational attainment in low-income countries. As they climb the ladder of prosperity, they will send more migrants beyond their borders. Contrary to popular perception, economic development and migration are reinforcing processes. Development doesn't stop migration; it encourages movement.

Growing inter-country inequality will give further incentives for people to seek their fortunes abroad. The income gap between the richest country and poorest country in the world about 250 years ago was about five to one, whereas today it is around 400 to one. Millions of Europeans left for the Americas in the late 19th century to seek, among other things, wages that were two to four times higher than those at home. Today, migrants stand to earn as much as 15 times more by moving to another country to work.

Over the coming decades, climate change is expected to make many parts of the world less viable places to live, threatening the security and livelihoods of millions of people. The environmental effects of climate change will also be accompanied and compounded by population growth and urbanisation. As the effects of climate change compromise millions, if not billions, of people's livelihoods, they will search for greater security and better opportunities. While many will move locally, others will draw on social and family networks to move internationally.

As always, people will move to seek better opportunities, higher wages and security, concerns that will become more salient with growing inequality and widespread environmental change. Demand for migrants will also increase dramatically in most developed countries and in many developing countries.

Over the next 50 years, demographic changes in many developed countries will make expanding migration an increasingly attractive policy option. The vice president of the European Commission, Jacques Barrot, was quoted in 2008 as saying: "The demographic situation of Europe means a need for focused migration ... Immigration is both an economic and moral obligation."

Medical and public health advances mean that people are living longer, while persistently low fertility levels and the end of the post-Second World War baby boom mean that the number of native-born workers in developed countries will fall in the coming years. In most wealthy countries, but also in many developing countries, populations are getting older and the working age population smaller, creating demand for migrant workers.

An ageing population, particularly in Europe and the United States, will generate an unprecedented demand for low-skilled services. Projections of future job growth in developed countries now routinely include service occupations in areas related to ageing populations (such as home health aides, nursing aids, medical assistants, and maids and housekeepers). These are all jobs that require short-term on-the-job training or a vocational certificate. These are also the kinds of jobs that native workers in developed countries are less likely to accept, and ones that are already staffed disproportionately by migrants.


The global competition for skilled labour has already been gaining steam over the past decade. Corporations want a mobile workforce to work where they want, and borders are seen as obstacles to the commercial ideal of a "flat world". The pressures of national competitiveness in a global economy will increase as large emerging economies, such as India and China, intensify their contest for skilled workers.

Restrictions on skilled migration to the United States have already led large Indian technology firms, such as Wipro and Satyam, to expand their operations at home because of blocked access to US markets. This explains, at least in part, an eight-fold expansion of the Indian IT industry between 1994 and 2001. In the future, concerns about promoting national innovation and growth may outweigh domestic pressures to "safeguard" jobs for natives.

Countries that maintain obstacles to skilled migration will lose out to emerging economies as they become more open to mobility. Armed with a growing volume of evidence, multinational corporations are exerting considerable pressure on governments to permit mobility for their workers and recruits. Even local communities are finding that as manufacturing industries are shipped overseas, they are also competing for talent to revitalise their economies.

While nationalist backlashes and the recessionary impulse toward scaling back on globalisation may reverse the trend towards more skilled migration, such an effect is likely to be temporary. It will eventually be overwhelmed by the economic demand for more migration.

The social and economic transformations at hand presage a 21st century that will give more people the means and reasons to move. How many people make the journey to another country will depend on the pace of development in emerging economies, immigration policies in destination countries, and the design of effective mechanisms to manage and integrate foreigners into their new homes. Migration controls will remain relevant in the coming decades, but they will be limited in their ability to radically curtail migration.

Developed countries will face difficult choices between a future of economic prosperity, security and health in old age, and one of greater cultural uniformity generated by long-settled populations. If we agree that prosperity and social welfare are primary goals of government policy, then governments and electorates may well prefer to accept more social, linguistic and cultural diversity that higher rates of migration will produce in the interests of a more dynamic and secure future. The forces that have propelled migration in the past are continuing to intensify, and the sheer pressure of human movement requires that more attention be paid to the governance of global migration.

In the context of extraordinary demographic, environmental and economic changes in the coming century, we cannot simply wait for the emergence of an international organisation to advance a global migration agenda. Bilateral and regional agreements should provide interim frameworks to free up cross-border mobility. Legislative reform at a national level is needed to craft more enlightened policies that safeguard the welfare of migrants and harness the opportunities presented by mobility.

In pursuit of these goals, civil society organisations, religious communities, business associations and opinion leaders should be at the vanguard of reforming our patchwork system of governance.

The idea of freer movement and the need for a global institution to promote and protect it may well end up like the other big ideas of history that emerged from the margins of impossibility into the realm of the self-evident. As our distant ancestors would have told us, the earth is one country and all of humanity its citizens.

Geoffrey Cameron is a research associate at the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford. This article draws from the book Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future, co-authored with Ian Goldin and Meera Balarajan.