Avery Anapol, Commissioning Editor, Politics + Society, The Conversation Weekly Podcast
Mend Mariwany, Producer, The Conversation Weekly, The Conversation Weekly Podcast
Around the world, borders between countries are getting tougher. Governments are making it more difficult to move, especially for certain groups of vulnerable people. This comes with a message, subtle or not: that people are moving to higher-income countries to take advantage of the welfare system, or the jobs of people already living there.
But evidence shows that much of what we think about migration – particularly those of us in Europe, North America and Australia – is wrong. Political narratives, often replicated in the media, shape the conversation and public attitudes toward migration.
As the researchers we speak to in this episode of The Conversation Weekly tell us, these narratives are not the full picture. Our interviewees explain what migration really looks like around the world, what drives people to uproot their lives and move, and how some countries in Africa are welcoming refugees.
Challenging the narrative
Heaven Crawley, a researcher at UN University Centre for Policy Research based in New York, has been interested in migration since the late 1980s. Then, the breakup of the former Yugoslavia caused what was often referred to as a refugee “crisis” in Europe.
Language like “crisis” has been a part of the discourse on migration for years. But Crawley thinks of this in a particular way: “It’s absolutely fair to say that there is a crisis associated with migration. It’s normally for the people who are actually moving, because they’re often in situations where there are huge inequalities in the right to move.”
Crawley shared that migration, while “intrinsic to our economies and the way we function”, is not actually the norm. Most people don’t migrate, and those who do mostly move within their country of origin.
She explained how, in Europe especially, perceptions of those who do migrate are often clouded by a narrative that people who move, legally, for work are “good” migrants. Conversely, people who move without visa permission or through clandestine means are viewed as “bad” migrants.
In reality, people moving for any reason is usually a force for good for the country they move to and the people they encounter, Crawley suggested. “People are coming to realise that actually, migration can be very positive in terms of their day-to-day lives, who they mix with, who their family are married to.”
When people decide to migrate, whether seeking economic opportunities or to escape violence or persecution, there are a number of factors influencing where they go. Valentina Di Iasio, a research fellow at the University of Southampton in the UK, has researched what makes people choose one country over another.
Di Iasio and her colleague Jackie Wahba wanted to investigate the theory of the “welfare magnet”, that people choose to migrate to countries where the welfare state is more generous.
But looking specifically at asylum seekers, they found that the strongest “pull factor” attracting people to particular countries is social networks. In other words, it’s not about the economy or welfare state, it’s about “having the possibility to rely on a community that is already there and already established”.
Di Iasio also noted that many countries have policies preventing asylum seekers from working when they first arrive. But she said these policies often backfire, both for people arriving, and the host country’s overall economy: “If you ban asylum seekers from employment, this leads people … to become more dependent on public spending in the short term, and this is not good for anyone.”
Migration in the global south
It’s impossible to understand the global picture of migration if we only look at specific routes – for example, from India to the UK, or from Mexico to the US. According to Crawley, about one third of global migration happens within the global north (Europe, North America, Australia and parts of Asia), one third happens within the global south (South America, Africa and parts of Asia), and the remaining third is between the two.
With that in mind, we spoke to Christopher Changwe Nshimbi, a researcher at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, about a region with frequent movement across borders. He studies the relationship between migration, development and regional integration (countries forming economic and trade relationships with each other) in Africa.
Nshimbi said that more open borders are beneficial to regional integration in Africa. They allow people to move where their skills are needed, and to send remittances (money) back home to family, often within the same region.
And yet, some countries are tightening their migration policies. Part of this, Nshimbi explained, is even influenced by attitudes in the global north. For example, development funding from the European Union is often tied to efforts to curb migration from Africa to the EU. Nshimbi said that when migrants are seen as a threat to high-income European countries: “The tendency seems to be to try and influence the movement … of Africans within the African continent.”
But he said this approach is misguided, and that funding development in low-income countries “doesn’t necessarily translate into people stopping migrating”. In some cases, this funding to stop migration has been used in a way that causes instability and violence – and ultimately, more migration.
Looking toward the future
Nshimbi is now researching how the effects of climate change, such as extreme weather patterns, are leading people to migrate. While this will present challenges for governments, Nshimbi said the history of migration on the continent gives him reason to be optimistic.
He said he wonders why European countries talk about refugee “crises” when countries in Africa regularly host many more refugees. Citing the example of Uganda, he said: “There are shining examples on the continent of countries that, though poor, host large numbers of refugees.”
Again referencing Uganda, Nshimbi said that some countries are used to hosting refugees, providing them with land and resources so they can participate in local economies until they move elsewhere: “A poor country, but they take care of them.”
Listen to the full episode of The Conversation Weekly to learn more about migration around the world, what factors drive people to move, and what some countries in Africa are doing to welcome refugees.
This episode was written and produced by Avery Anapol and Mend Mariwany, who is also the executive producer of The Conversation Weekly. Eloise Stevens does our sound design, and our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.
Charles Telfair Centre is an independent nonpartisan not for profit organisation and does not take specific positions. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in our publications are solely those of the author(s).