MMC interviews Michael Clemens:
“More to come, more to do”

The following interview was originally compiled for the Mixed Migration Review 2018 and has been reproduced here for wider access through this website’s readership. 

As developing countries get richer, migration flows will increase, making it all the more important to understand the valid concerns of destination states and to rein in populist politicians, predicts Michael Clemens.

It has been said that “migration is the unfinished business of capitalism”. Do you think that the capitalist system can survive as we know it if migration is restricted? Will it become distorted and uneven?

The experience of history is that forms of capitalism and globalisation have not come close to substituting for migration in the way that many people predicted, and particularly during recent years where we saw a significant global expansion of capitalism. This should offer us a great deal of scepticism that other forms of economic linkages between, for example, sub-Saharan Africa and the rest of the world, will reduce migration in our lifetimes.

If legal migration continues to be restricted and irregular migration restrained, will the world just miss opportunities migration offers or will it be worse, perhaps a more dangerous, unstable world?

Absolutely, it will be a tremendously poorer world and not at all just for the people who thereby cannot move. Economists have shown that migration is critical to forming networks of international trade and investment and technology transfer.

You have talked about “unlocking the power of human mobility”, but recently the reaction to human mobility and prospect of more human mobility seems to have unlocked forces that run counter to the liberal values which the global north claims to champion. What’s going on?

Yes. What’s clear from history is that liberal values apply to different groups at different times. The same person who may be very concerned about social welfare for the most vulnerable people in Denmark, for example, may in the same breath advocate draconian measures to prevent people from coming to Denmark.

It’s not so much that people do not have liberal values but that they apply them to particular circles and what’s particularly noticeable over longer periods of time is how much those circles have moved tremendously and could move in the future. When people cross those lines, certain forces can be unleashed, like the bi-partisan nationwide movement to exclude several generations of Chinese in the United States, in practice from 1882 through 1965. You could say that this was something latent in the population that was unleashed by migration and therefore the responsibility of  ”migration” but retrospectively, now that the United States is full of Chinese Americans making all sorts of positive economic, social, cultural and other contributions, we can see this was not the case.

How do you explain the forces that oppose migration and even refugees?

To have pragmatic concerns about maintaining one’s culture, to be xenophobic, and to be racist are three entirely different things. There are some people for whom these overlap and there are some large numbers of people for whom they do not overlap at all. There are lots of people with simple pragmatic concerns about the labour market, about cultural change, about fiscal drain and so forth. These are factual questions. And, yes, with the issue of Syrian refugees coming to the US, for example, there are large numbers of people who express opposition to that, not out of some inherent feeling of superiority over a Syrian Muslim, but out of a fear of the pragmatic consequences of their coming. Additionally, they may have confidence in the ability of other measures to guarantee security and prosperity for those people without their coming to the US. But what I do know is that historically there is a tendency across many countries to drastically overestimate our ability to spread prosperity amongst the poorest and most vulnerable people of the world in the places where they are. At the same we have a tendency to vastly over-estimate the effects of immigrants on culture, fiscal institutions, labour markets and other aspects in destination countries. Many politicians have made their careers in the past by massively overstating the threat and had a strong incentive to inflame these kind of fears – and the same is happening today.

I want to be clear that those voters who oppose migration are absolutely not necessarily racist people or people acting in a racist way. They have concerns but often their concerns may be exaggerated or be taken advantage of by ambitious politicians subtly or indirectly promoting racist ideas who can have spectacularly successful careers. It’s tremendously easy now for leaders to invoke cultural fear based on nothing, based on no fact, based on hypothetical scenarios, and massively convince people that migrants are this threat. We are living through a bizarre and dark period and I don’t see it getting any better soon.

Do you feel the pressures on the world today such as demographic changes, high levels of displacement, environmental stress, regional inequality and even ideological divides, point to a context that is significantly different from past migration contexts?

The current situation is clearly more politically explosive due to the ideas that are commonly accepted and policies that have widespread support. What I don’t see is an objective basis of the large differences. Take the example of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, where suddenly 180,000 Hungarian refugees poured into Austria in the space of a few month. That was three percent of the Austrian population and a country that was still recovering from war and much weaker than the Austria of today. This is a larger burden than that which arrived in Germany in 2015.

In Austria at that time a decision was made not to demonise the Hungarian refugees – of whom many were Jews and Communists – as a threat to Austrian culture or source of violence, even violent revolution: not to place them in a large camp, and not to force them to return but, instead, the decision was to immediately resettle them amongst a wide coalition of western nations. So, the children of those refugees did not waste away un-integrated and vilified in a refugee camp. The point is they could have made it a disaster, but they decided not to, so what’s different between then and now is the difference in “ideas”, not volume of people.

Migration transition theory suggests that as countries get richer, higher numbers of people will desire and have the capacity to migrate. What’s your view on this?

People are certainly going to move in larger numbers as people in poorer parts of the world, particularly in parts of Africa, get richer. There is almost no country over the past half century that has sustainably economically developed without an increase in migration. They are going to go somewhere, and militarisation of borders and anti-migrant policies can shape where they can go, but that more of them are going to leave is almost unquestionable, unless some drastic change between migration and development occurs in the future. The turning point is far off; the poorest fifth of the world’s countries will take over two centuries to get to that point, so it’s not going to come in our lifetime.

In a Dutch newspaper earlier this year, you mentioned there will be 800 million new young Africans entering the labour market in the next 30 years. You speak about increased regular labour migration, skills matching, etc. but with these kind of demographic projections, isn’t demand always going to outstrip supply?

Certainly. World Bank research suggests that only a quarter of those 800 million new sub-Saharan workers will find work in their country of origin. Three quarters will be in subsistence agriculture or informal urban work. So it’s absolutely clear that many millions will attempt to move somewhere. The only question for those people is where they will move, and whether they will move on regular or irregular terms. Knowing this, Europe has the chance now to handle much better than the US did in the 1980s, pursuing a policy focused almost entirely on enforcement rather than management of migration. In that setting, the result was large waves of irregular Mexican workers entering the US economy – even though the economy needed them – and causing conditions that almost certainly led to the political outcomes and conflicts we see today.

Europe could pursue a different path, recognizing the absolutely inevitable large supply of potential migrants by complementing its enforcement efforts with other policies to manage and shape migration. Two critical ingredients are actively investing in migrants’ skills prior to migration, so that those who come to Europe arrive with the skills to integrate quickly and contribute quickly, and actively fostering new migration destinations within the African region.

Is artificial intelligence and automation the unquantifiable elephant in the room in the economic development debate? How might this impact the aspirations of future migrants seeking overseas employment?

It’s very clear that some of the key jobs that some of the migrants have always done are going to be drastically reduced, the most obvious area concerns commercial driving – taxis and trucks. These are things that human beings may no longer do in the foreseeable future and they are filled with immigrants. That particular technological change will doubtless be a major negative shock to those labour markets. But the same shocks that affect some markets may well open new opportunities in others. It hard to draw conclusion around this at this stage. It is also clear that even as technological change reduces the demand for some types of migration, it could increase migration pressure by raising the supply of some kinds of migrants. For example, when richer countries have machines that make more of their clothing, this will reduce the number of jobs in developing countries to make clothing for export, and thus job opportunities in migrant-origin countries.

With respect to the global compacts on migration and refugees, is it correct to say there is a major divide between the aspirations of the draft texts of the compacts and the current and future policy reality?

It’s both correct and incorrect. It is incorrect in so far that the final text will not have large calls for large new migration; it’s certainly not feasible that destination countries get together and promise additional slots for migration. No, it is a compact for safe, orderly and regular migration. That can be very small or very large numbers. The worldwide movement to restrict the number of migrants both regular and irregular is by no means in conflict with that objective.

At the same time, it’s correct in that many of the things that signatories will be committing to do, like providing technical skills to migrants in the Global Skills Partnership, could be seen as facilitating migration. I would argue that they shape migration in positive ways and could happen at low levels of migration and high levels of migration but obviously the public perception is that it could encourage more migration and that is radically at odds with the political environment. The magnitude of the migration challenge, however, means that there is no practical alternative to policies that shape migration in positive ways, to some degree. So this disconnect between reality and the “policy environment” cannot endure indefinitely.

According to UNHCR, the asylum space for refugees and asylum seekers is at an all-time low. Are they being penalised because they are part of irregular mixed flows or is there something else going on?

Absolutely. The current systems of asylum claims and other forms of survival migration are so far over-matched by circumstance that something needs to rise from the ashes to replace them. So far, it is entirely unclear what will come to replace them but also quite clear the compacts on migration and forced migration have very little prospect of building the tremendous overhaul that’s needed. Just from the US perspective, I observe how the arbitrariness of the asylum system for refugees from one president to the next, has de facto dismantled the refugee resettlement system and de facto eliminated Syrian refugees from the inflow. Separately, and long before the current US administration, the acceptance rates for asylum claims that come before US judges vary between roughly five percent and 95 percent depending on which judge the cases are randomly assigned to. So it has become an arbitrary system that has too little systematic or factual basis.

More generally, the current system and legal framework is also inadequate to address the mixed nature of the flows in that an individual may be seeking asylum on the basis of a number of mixed drivers or circumstances that all are relevant to their case. And this will become more apparent as survival migration gets bigger.

Is irregular and smuggler-dominated mixed migration disproportionately influencing politics and having a detrimental impact on our understanding and reaction to the bigger issue of international migration?

Yes, 100 percent. The current US administration, for example, campaigned on and doubled down on inflammatory and baseless statements about irregular migrants. In the midst of that, this [current] administration proposes cutting legal migration by half. That proposal certainly enjoys more support due to the administration’s systematic campaign to create fear of irregular migrants but affects a group of people that has nothing to do with irregular migrants. Ironically, the policy of decimating regular migration channels is very likely to exacerbate irregular migration.