By: John Berthelsen

At a recent garden party in a Manila suburb, a cosmopolitan crowd that included Swiss, Italian, Belgian, American and Australian expatriates and well-educated, urbane Filipinos rocked gently along, sipping white wine and soft drinks while some of the men quietly smoked cigars, until the issue of immigration came up. 

The soft tropical night exploded with the kind of fury that would characterize some of the most outraged of US President Donald Trump’s supporters. Europe, according to the consensus at the party, is being overrun by illegal immigration, particularly Italy, Germany, and France, to the point where the character of Europe is being destroyed and civil war is likely. 

More than half of all international migrants – 141 million – live in Europe and North America, according to an exhaustive, 496-page World Immigration Report released on November 27 by the UN-related International Organization for Migration. The report, compiled by scores of researchers, can be found here

“You mark my words,” warned an Italian woman in a diaphanous dress. “There will be blood. This can’t continue. It has to stop. There will be war. People will die.”

It might have been heard in a redneck bar in Abilene, Kansas, say, but it wasn’t. The outrage spilling forth from Trump’s base seems not to be an aberration. While majorities in top migrant destination countries believe correctly that their economies are strengthened by immigrants, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey of 18 countries that host half of the world’s migrants, significant minorities disagree. Majorities in Hungary, Greece, South Africa, Russia, and Israel are among them. 

The inflammatory rhetoric of the US president, Viktor Orban in Hungary and regimes in Poland, Austria, and Italy is stoking an irrational fear of immigrants, contradicting research that concludes conclusively that immigration is generally beneficial to the host countries. Despite that, regional population pressure, war, climate change-caused weather disaster, famine, and disease have combined with extraordinarily cheap mobility to push millions onto the road to what they hope will be a better life but which all too often ends in tragedy. 

Social scientists who study immigration closely almost universally report that migration is healthy, bringing new blood to stagnating economies, that migrants, both legal and illegal, are revenue-positive, that they commit fewer crimes than their domestic counterparts. In the United States, all immigrants, regardless of status, will contribute approximately US$80,000 more in taxes than government services used over their lifetime, according to a study by the NGO UnidosUS. By paying into the US social security program despite receiving no benefits because of their illegal status, the millions of undocumented immigrants in the US actually help to prop up the system. 

The largest corridors tend to be from developing countries to larger economies such as those of the United States, France, the Russian Federation, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. 

“This pattern is likely to remain the same for many years into the future, especially as populations in some developing subregions and countries are projected to increase in the coming decades, placing migration pressure on future generations, according to the IOM report. Climate and weather-related hazards have displaced migrants in Mozambique, the Philippines, China, India, and the US. 

Almost 272 million migrants globally are on the move, nearly two-thirds of them labor migrants. That is 3.5 percent of the world’s population. The number of international migrants already is surpassing some projections made for the year 2050, expected at 230 million.

“The unfortunate reality is that there have been major migration and displacement events during the last two years; events that have caused great hardship and trauma as well as loss of life,” according to the report. Foremost has been the conflict-related displacements of millions due to conflict such as within and from Syria, Yemen, the Central African Republic, Congo, and South Sudan). 

The number of internally displaced persons due to violence and conflict reached 41.3 million, the highest number since the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center began its role in 1998. Extreme violence fomented by leaders has been inflicted upon Myanmar’s Rohingya, who have been forced to seek safety in Bangladesh. Millions of Venezuelans have been forced to flee their country because of severe economic and political instability. The number of internally displaced persons due to violence and conflict reached 41.3 million, especially driven by conflicts in Syria, Yemen, and other countries.

According to the report, India, whose diaspora has always ranked at or near the top, had the largest number of migrants abroad (17.5 million) followed by Mexico and China, 11.8 million and 10. 7 million respectively. Accordingly, the top three remittance recipients were India (US$76.8 billion), China US$67.4 billion) and Mexico (US$35.7 billion). The Philippines, at US$34 billion, was fourth.

The top destination remained the United States, which hosts 50.7 million migrants despite President Trump’s inflamed rhetoric and the intensive campaign to stop them by the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), although the number of migrant workers in high-income countries declined slightly. Accordingly, the US remained the top remittance-producing country at US$68 billion, followed by the UAE (US$44.4 billion) and Saudi Arabia (US$36.1 billion). 

The numbers of migrant workers in high-income countries fell from 112.3 million to 111.2 million between 2013 and 2017, with upper-middle-income countries observing the biggest increase, from 17.5 million to 30.5 million. 

Labor migration remains a prominent feature in Southeast Asia and a key driver of economic growth and development, according to the report. However, it is also associated with inconsistent human rights practices. Major destination countries are Malaysia, Singapore, and Thailand – where they help fill gaps in labor markets. (See Asia SentinelMalaysia’s Massive Foreign Worker Dependency, Nov. 26, 2019)

These human rights shortcomings are especially the case for lower-skilled sectors such as fisheries, domestic work, and construction. The prospects for employment and higher wages often compel people from countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia to move to more prosperous economies within the subregion. Many migrants send significant shares of their earnings to their families back home, with the Philippines, for example, consistently ranking among the largest remittance recipient countries

“But even as labor migration has helped relieve labor shortages in destination countries, many migrants continue to face exploitative conditions,” according to the report. “Workers employed in low-skilled, labor-intensive sectors, regardless of their legal status, are most affected, with wage-related abuse the most common, with workers required to work extremely long hours for below minimum wages, a consequence of inadequate protection afforded to migrants during both recruitment and employment.” 

While most international migrants born in Africa, Asia, and Europe reside within their regions of birth, the majority of those from Lain America, the Caribbean and Northern America reside outside, according to the report. In Oceana, those residing outside the region remained about the same in 2019. Migration is described as a key determinant of population change in several countries, including the United States, where fertility levels have fallen below replacement.  

“We are living in a period in which the core values underpinning global governance are being challenged.,” the report concludes. “The values of equity, accountability, impartiality, fairness, justice and probity are being actively undermined as some political leaders disregard common interest in preference for personal interest – even if it corrodes laws, processes, and institutions that have, overall, sought to advance whole nations and peoples, without excluding or expelling some because of their inherent characteristics or beliefs.20 Ongoing and systematic corrosion, as we have witnessed throughout history, can extend to attacks on human rights and ultimately on groups of people within societies.”

International migration, it notes, “has increasingly become weaponized. It is being used by some as a political tool, undermining democracy and inclusive civic engagement, by tapping into the understandable fear in communities that stems from the accelerated pace of change and rising uncertainty of our times. Some leaders seek to divide communities on the issue of migration, downplaying the significant benefits and enrichment migration brings and steadfastly ignoring our migration histories. And we are increasingly witnessing the harnessing of social media as a means of division and polarization, not just on migration, but at certain times we have seen the deployment of online “tribal tactics” by activists attempting to depict migration in a negative and misleading light.”

Underpinning these changing depictions of international migration is the uptake of technological innovation, particularly information and communications technology (ICT). “However, we must also recall that the politicization of migration is not new.”

John Berthelsen is the editor of Asia Sentinel