Everything we think we know about migration is wrong

Reading How Migration Really Works by Hein de Haas for New Scientist, 8 November 2023

Three decades of research, conducted largely with teams at the University of Oxford and the University of Amsterdam, have gone into geographer Hein de Haas’s comprehensive, fascinating, often shocking survey of global migration. Everyone will arrive at this book nursing some opinion or other about migration. Few will finish with the preconceptions still intact. De Haas is out to show how everything we think we know about migration is wrong, not because migration is an especially complex matter, but because economic and political interests, on both the left and the right, have lost sight of the evidence, when they haven’t actively covered it up; both would rather shape public narratives out of just-so stories than resort to anything so dull and intransigent as fact.

The shibboleths surrounding migration are demolished in three waves. De Haas explores trends in global migration patterns, first, moves onto examine the impacts of migration on both destination and origin societies, and closes with a series of fairly devastating takedowns of popular ideas championed by politicians, interest groups and international organizations across the political spectrum.

How degraded has the evidential foundation around the migration debate become? Consider, for starters, frequently quoted figures released by UNHCR, the United Nations’ own refugee agency, which to show that the total number of displaced people in the world increased from 1.8 million in 1951 to 20 million in 2005, rose to 62 million in 2018, then leapt up to almost 89 million in 2021 and 100 million in 2022. What explains this shocking rise? Globalisation? War? Climate change? Or the inability to present statistics? “What appears to be an unprecedented increase in refugee numbers,” de Haas explains, with what weary patience one can only imagine, “is in reality a statistical artefact caused by the inclusion of populations and countries that were previously excluded from displacement statistics.” UNHCR’s current figures are truly global. Their 1951 figure, however, was drawn from a database covering just 21 countries.

Its the direction of migration in the post-war world that has proved so disconcerting. Former emigrant nations have become immigrant destinations. The numbers have fluctuated hardly at all. At any one time, three per cent of the world’s population are migrants. A tenth of those are refugees. The figure for unsolicited border crossings fluctuates wildly, depending on labour demand in destination countries (for illegal migration) and conflict in origin countries (for refugee migration), but the underlying figure remains consistent.

From where, then, comes all this Stürm und Drang around migration? De Haas pulls no punches. Both right and left have a vested interest in inflating migrant numbers, he says: “Although they may advocate very different solutions, politicians from left to right, climate activist and nativist groups, humanitarian NGOs and refugee organizations and media have all bought into the idea that the current era is one of a migration crisis.”

That this results in some staggeringly wrong-headed policy-making comes as no surprise — witness the massive US investment in border enforcement since the late 1980s that has turned a largely circular flow of Mexican workers into an 11-million-strong population of permanently settled families living all across the United States.

There’s also the cultural impact. In host nations including the UK, nightmare scenarios are regularly peddled to tickle every political palate. An international cabal controls people smuggling! (No evidence.) Across the world, the mafia are trafficking young women for sex! (No evidence.) Migration flows are predominantly from the impoverished South to the wealthy North! (Wrong.) Migration lifts all boats! (No: it overwhelmingly benefits the already affluent.) Few scenarios credit migrants themselves with foresight, agency, or even intelligence.

How Migration Really Works is a carefully evidenced diatribe against a political culture that would rather use migration as a domestic psychodrama than treat it as an ordinary and governable part of civics. To be pro-immigration, or anti-immigration, is to miss the point entirely. You wouldn’t ask an economist whether they’re for or against the economy, would you?

We’re constantly told we need “a big conversation” about immigration. I’m currently re-reading this book (something crabbed reviewers never normally do). And until I’m done, I’ll keep my big mouth firmly shut.

Rogues and heroes

Reading Sam Miller’s Migrants: The Story of Us All for the Telegraph, 23 January 2023

The cultural opprobrium attached to immigration has been building at least since Aristotle’s day, according to Sam Miller’s flawed, fascinating stab at a global history of migration.

Today, “having a permanent home and a lifelong nationality are considered normal, as if they were part of the human condition.” On the contrary, says Miller: humankind is the migratory species par excellence, settling every continent bar Antarctica, not once, but many times over.

Mixed feelings about this process have a deep anthropological foundation. Forget national and regional rivalries; those came later, and are largely explanations after the fact. What really upsets settled people is the reminder that, long ago, their kind chose to live an urban life and became less as a consequence: less wily, less tough, less resilient. The emergence of the first cities coincided with the first poems in uneasy praise of wild men: think of Mesopotamian Enkidu, or Greek Heracles. Aristotle, writing in 330 BC, declares that “he who is without a city-state by nature, and not by circumstance, is either a rogue or greater than a human being” — a wonderfully uneasy and double-edge observation that acknowledges a pre-urban past populated by formidable feral heroes.

Athenians suppressed this awareness; they were the first Western people to take pride in being, in Herodotus’s words, “the only Greeks who never migrated.” Ming Dynasty China performed the same flim-flam, a 15th-century administrator declaring: “There exists a paramount boundary within Heaven and Earth: Chinese on this side, foreigners on the other. The only way to set the world in order is to respect this boundary”.

“History books have, on the whole, been written by the sedentary for the sedentary,” says Miller, and naturally reflect a settled people’s chauvinism. The migration stories we learned at school are often wrong. The Vandals who “sacked” Rome in 455, did not, as a general rule, kill or rape or burn.

Alas, neither did they write; nor did the Roma, until the nineteenth century; nor did the (handsomely literate) Chinese of Victorian London. Migrants rarely find time to write, and where first-person accounts are missing, fantasy is bred. Some of it (Asterix) is charming, some of it (Fu Manchu) is anything but.

Miller thinks that humans naturally emigrate, and our unease about this is the result of pastoralism, cities, and other historical accidents.

The trouble with this line of argument is that there are umpteen “natural” reasons why people move about the earth. Humans naturally consume and lay waste to their immediate environment. Humans naturally overbreed. Humans naturally go to war. Why invoke some innate “outward urge”?

Different distances on the human story allow one to tell wildly different stories. If you follow humanity through deep time, our settlement of the almost the entire planet looks very much like manifest destiny and we’ll all surely end up on Mars tomorrow. If on the other hand you trace the movements of people over a few dozen generations, you’ll discover that, absent force majeure, people are homebodies, moving barely a few weeks’ walking distance from their birthplaces.

What is migration, anyway? Not much more than a hundred years ago, women regularly “migrated” (as Miller says, “it might take as long to cross a large English county as it would to fly halfway around the world today”) to marry or to work as governesses, domestic servants and shop workers. And yet they would never have called themselves “migrants”.

Miller, in a praiseworthy bid to tell a global story, adopts the broadest possible definition of migration: one that embraces “slaves and spouses, refugees and retirees, nomads and expats, conquerors and job-seekers.”

Alas, the broader one’s argument, the less one ends up saying. While they’re handsomely researched and stirringly written, I’m not sure our concepts of migration are much enriched by Miller’s brief tilts at historical behemoths like slavery and the maritime spice route.

What emerges from this onion of a book (fascinating digressions around no detectable centre), is, however, more than sufficent compensation. We have here the seed of much more enticing and potentially more influential project: a modern history that treats the modern nation state — pretending to self-reliance behind ever-more-futile barriers — as but a passing political arrangement, and not always a very useful one.

In view of the geopolitical crises being triggered by climate change, we may very soon need (or else be forced by circumstances) to come up with forms of government outside the rickety and brittle nation state. And in that case, peripatetic perspectives like Miller’s may be just what we need.