We must harness the true strength of migration – OECD Yearbook 2015

Migration is one of the morally, politically, and economically defining issues of the 21st century. Some 25,000 souls have died trying to cross the Mediterranean since 2000, including more than 1,500 so far in 2015, and many thousands more have perished in the Gulf of Aden and in the South Pacific.

There needs to be a united response to the question of migration. It is critical for all of us to fully engage our publics on migration and asylum issues–and not, through silence, abet the rise of those who dream of national purity. If we speak openly and truthfully about migration and asylum, we will help to dispel misconceptions that seriously constrain our ability to make reasonable policy.

In addition, we must make it a priority to include migration in the post-2015 UN development agenda. The question we face is whether we will run from migration–or embrace the opportunities and challenges it generates. At the moment, we are still doing a lot of running from it.

Migration does not currently figure among the proposed Sustainable Development Goals for instance; see link below. As a result, we have relinquished control to bad actors who exploit migrants–smugglers, unscrupulous employers, venal recruiters– and to right-wing populists. We are thus debasing government, destroying public trust in our ability as leaders and damaging our policy goals.

We need policies that will allow migration to occur in a safer, more orderly manner, and that also improve development outcomes. If we can achieve this, I am confident that the public will be on our side. In fact in some respects, we are seeing modest signs of progress. President Obama’s executive action in 2014 stands out, as does Germany’s exceptional efforts both to shelter refugees and to integrate migrants in recent years. The EU’s response to recent tragic deaths in 2015 is encouraging. Brazil, Morocco and Turkey have also shown great progress in organising migration in a thoughtful way, while also burdening a refugee load.

But these are more exceptions than the rule. We cannot win over the public if our politicians fail to speak the truth about migration. Anti-immigrant sentiment stems largely from misinformation, not entrenched animus. The recent Transatlantic Trends survey from the German Marshall Fund found that concern about immigrants falls sharply when people are given even the most basic facts. For example, when asked if there are too many immigrants in their country, 38% of the Americans surveyed agreed. But when respondents were told how many foreigners actually reside in the US before being asked that question, their views changed significantly: just 21% replied that there were too many. The same was true in country after country. In the UK, 54% of respondents said that there were too many immigrants; that number fell to 31% among those who were given the facts about foreigners. In Greece, 58% became 27%; Italy went from 44% to 22%; and so on.

In many developed countries, for example, the public believes that there are three times as many immigrants residing in their country as there really are. Such distortions mostly disappear in countries where migration challenges are confronted openly, discussed reasonably, and addressed with conviction. In Germany 62% of those surveyed by the German Marshall Fund viewed immigration as more of an opportunity than a problem. In Portugal, when asked if first-generation immigrants are well integrated, 79% of respondents said yes.

By failing to engage voters on the reality of migration, mainstream politicians in Europe are manufacturing support for extremist parties. This self-inflicted political wound is extremely dangerous. A deliberative approach to engaging the public on other aspects of migration also could help quell anti-migrant sentiment. For example, recent research in several countries, including evidence by the OECD, shows that, far from being a drain on public services, immigrants as a whole contribute more economically to their communities than they take from them. In Germany, a study by the Bertelsmann Foundation, released last month, shows that the net fiscal contribution per migrant amounted to 3,300 (US$4,260) in 2012. In the US, it is estimated that immigrants have paid $100 billion into the Social Security system over the past decade–monies that they do not intend to claim. I believe it is not so much the presence of migrants in Europe that has made migration such a toxic political issue. It is the absence of policies to manage migration.

The immigration debate will never be an easy one, but it can become less tendentious and more deliberative if its participants consider the facts. This is equally relevant in the international realm as well, and specifically in the context of the post-2015 UN development agenda. This is, in fact, a once-in-a-generation moment. Two decades ago, the membership of the International Organisation for Migration (www.IOM.int) consisted of just a few dozen countries. It now stands at over 150.

Twenty years ago, the human smuggling industry was a small fraction of the size it is today, charging $1,000 to navigate the US-Mexico border. Today, a single boat crossing the Mediterranean can gross $2 million for criminal syndicates, and the smuggling industry is now larger than the illicit trade in drugs and arms. The World Bank estimates that if all international migrants were grouped together, they would constitute the world’s sixth largest economy, with a GDP of $2.6 trillion.

Migration–when it takes place in a safe, orderly and responsible way–contributes powerfully to countries of origin and destination, and above all to the families of migrants. Migration deserves to be a prominent part of the post-2015 agenda. We have overwhelming evidence that smart policy interventions can help us protect the rights of migrants, suppress the activities of bad actors, and draw out the economic, social and human benefits of migration.

Remittances capture migration’s impact in a compelling way. Global remittances, including those to high-income countries, are estimated to touch $550 billion in 2014, and reach a record $707 billion by 2016. These flows are far more reliable than other funding sources: when the global financial crisis hit, foreign direct investment in developing countries plunged 89%, while remittances dipped just 5%; today, they are growing 9% annually. A decade ago, migrants paid an average of nearly 15% to intermediaries like Western Union to transfer their money home. Today, that number is about 7%, and in some places nearly zero, thanks to determined efforts by policymakers.

Consider as well the taxes migrants pay, the investments they make and the trade they stimulate. Migrant savings kept in countries of destination today total nearly 400 billion. Migration does not necessarily take jobs from natives either (in net terms): according to one recent study, on average, every new migrant creates one new job, thus expanding the overall economy. In origin countries, migration supports the balance of payments, making it easier to pay for critical imports, access capital markets and reduce interest rates on sovereign debt. All this makes our nations and communities more prosperous and resilient. So the evidence is clear: migration is development.

It is also clear that unleashing the potential of migration is within our reach. This is not rocket science–it is common sense. Let us reduce the cost of remittances to almost zero, so that an extra $35 billion can reach the hands of the world’s poorest people. Let us put crooked middlemen out of business by pursuing ethical recruitment and innovations like insurance for migrants. Let us ensure migrant workers have the same rights as others, that they receive decent healthcare, and that their children enjoy equal opportunities at school.

The post-2015 agenda can finally allow us to frame migration properly. We must not waste the greatest untapped development asset that the world has–the intrepid, entrepreneurial spirit of migrants.

This article first appeared in the OECD Yearbook 2015