Oxford University Press USA Blog

Very Short Introductions: International Migration

This month’s column comes from Khalid Koser, author of International Migration: A Very Short Introduction. Khalid is an expert on international migration, refugees and internal displacement. A former policy advisor on global migration issues, he is also deputy director of the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement.

Oxford University Press [OUP]: Why has international migration become an issue of such intense public and political scrutiny?

KHALID KOSER: It’s easy to forget that international migration isn’t a new phenomenon, and that it’s attracted political and public scrutiny before. Following British politician Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968, for example, in which he warned of the negative consequences of continued immigration from Commonwealth countries, there were strikes in London’s Docklands and 43,000 letters were written to Powell – many in support of his views. But it is probably true that today international migration is right at the top of the political agenda, attracts sustained attention in the media, and divides public opinion like never before.

There are three explanations. One is increasing numbers. There are more international migrants today than ever before – at least 200 million, which is roughly the same as the population of Brazil, the fifth most populous country on earth. Immigration levels in the UK are rising and have undergone a sharp increase in the last decade. In 2005 the estimated number of people arriving to live in the UK for at least a year was 565,000, an average of over 1,500 a day.

Within the totality of migration, secondly, certain types of migrants have attracted special attention. In the 1990s it was asylum seekers, although their numbers have decreased in recent years and so has the furore. Today it is irregular migrants – a term I prefer to the more commonly-used illegal migrants. Without any question there are more legal than irregular migrants in the UK and indeed in almost any other country in the world, but irregular migration has attracted political attention that far outweighs its numerical significance. The truth is we have no idea how many irregular migrants there are in the UK or anywhere else, who they are and what they do.

A final explanation is that links have been made between migration and security. There is very little evidence that migrants are a direct threat to security. But by arriving without authorization they can undermine a state’s control of its borders; in large numbers they can create competition in the labour market and pressures on social services; and they can generate xenophobic sentiments that are directed not only at migrants but also at established ethnic minorities.

OUP: Newspapers are full of negative stories about immigration. Can you tell us about some of the positive opportunities migration creates?

KOSER: Through history international migration has supported the growth of the world economy, contributed to the evolution of states and societies, and enriched cultures and civilizations. Migrants have been amongst the most dynamic and entrepreneurial members of society: in the USA Andrew Carnegie (steel), Adolphus Busch (beer), Samuel Goldwyn (movies) and Helena Rubenstein (cosmetics) were all migrants; Kodak, Atlantic Records, RCA, NBC, Google, Intel, Hotmail, Sun Microsoft, Yahoo and ebay were all started or co-founded by migrants.

It is often said – though hard to prove – that migrants are worth more to the UK economy than North Sea oil. The World Bank estimates that around the world migrant labour earns US$20 trillion – the vast majority of which is invested in the countries where they work. At the same time, migrants send home over US$200 million each year, which contributes significantly in many countries to poverty alleviation and development.

Migrants and migration don’t just contribute to economic growth; their impact is probably most keenly felt in the social and cultural spheres of life. In the last 24 hours your readers have almost certainly eaten food or listened to music originating elsewhere in the world, or watched a top-flight sports team that includes foreign-born players or the descendants of migrants. Throughout the world, people of different national origins, who speak different languages, and who have different customs, religions, and ways of living are coming into unprecedented contact with each other. Some people find this frightening; I find it very exciting.

OUP: You say in your book that there has been a dramatic increase in the numbers of women migrating. What are some of the reasons for that?

KOSER: Very nearly half the world’s migrants are women: in 2005 there were more female than male migrants in Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, North America, Oceania and the former USSR. What is more, whereas women have traditionally migrated to join their partners abroad, an increasing proportion that migrates today does so independently; they are often the primary breadwinners for the families they leave behind.

There are a number of reasons. One is that demand for foreign labour, especially in the more developed countries, is becoming increasingly gender-selective in favour of jobs typically fulfilled by women – services, healthcare and entertainment. Second, an increasing number of countries have extended the right of family reunion to migrants – in other words allowing them to be joined by their spouses and children. Most often these spouses are women. Changing gender relations in some countries of origin also mean that women have more independence to migrate than previously. Finally, and especially in Asia, there has been a growth in the migration of women for domestic work (sometimes called the ‘maid trade’), organized migration for marriage (sometimes referred to as ‘mail order brides’), and the trafficking of women into the sex industry.

OUP: A lot of media coverage has recently been devoted to human trafficking. What is the scale of this trade, and what are the effects on the migrants involved?

KOSER: Put simply, human trafficking involves moving someone against their will and exploiting them in the destination to which they are taken. Some people describe human trafficking as a modern-day version of slavery. It is one of the most terrible aspects of globalization today.

As human trafficking is illegal, it is almost impossible accurately to measure. The US State Department estimated that in 2004 alone between 600,000 and 800,000 women, children and men were trafficked. Two-thirds of the victims were trafficked in Asia and Europe.

The trafficking of women – and sometimes children – to work as prostitutes or in the sex trade has attracted most attention. By definition, human trafficking has negative consequences for the people involved. Human traffickers ruthlessly exploit migrants. Victims of human trafficking are not free to decide on the activities in which they engage. They are often forced into low-paid, insecure and degrading work from which they may find it impossible to escape and for which they receive trivial or no compensation. Women are at particular risk of abuse; and also face specific health-related risks, including exposure to HIV/AIDS.

OUP: Once people have read your Very Short Introduction, which five books would you recommend for further reading?

KOSER: Stephen Castles and Mark Miller, The Age of Migration: International Population Movements in the Modern World (3rd edition, Macmillan, 2003) is the leading textbook on international migration

Robin Cohen, The Cambridge Survey of World Migration (Cambridge University Press, 1995) is a comprehensive collection of short articles on various migration issues worldwide over the past three centuries

Global Commission on International Migration, Migration in an Interconnected World: New Directions for Action (GCIM, 2005) is the final report of a commission established by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan

IOM, World Migration 2005: Costs and Benefits of International Migration (IOM, 2005) focuses on migration and development as the theme for the latest edition of this biennial report

UNHCR, The State of the World’s Refugees (Oxford University Press, 2006) is the latest edition of a biennial UNHCR publication providing an excellent overview of current asylum and refugee issues and data

I would also recommend the following websites:

COMPAS: The Centre on Migration Policy and Society
The International Organization for Migration
Migration Information Source
UNHCR: The UN Refugee Agency

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