Opinion: Countries must compete for migrant workers to boost their economies
By: Melissa Tandiwe Myambo*
Politicians and the media expend inordinate amounts of energy debating migration, often using nativist, populist and xenophobic rhetoric. This is despite the fact that, as of 2017, only three out of every 100 people – a mere 3.4 per cent of the world’s population – have left their home nations to migrate to a new country.
The message from people like US President Donald Trump and the UK’s "Brexiteers" is that migrants should be kept out at all costs to "save" their economies. Yet many scholars have argued that attracting and keeping migrants is essential to economic competitiveness in a globalising world. Some countries are responding positively to such arguments, embracing the benefits migrants can offer to their economies. Others – African countries among them – are far behind the curve.
Many developing countries are immigrant-sending countries which can have some negative effects. In 2017, 74 per cent of all immigrants were of working age. It makes sense that losing this vital demographic can damage a country's economy and that gaining these workers can help grow another’s.
This is borne out by history, too: in the 19th century, migrant-receiving countries like the US grew faster than migrant-sending countries like Italy and Ireland because these migrants added to their host country's workforce and left their home countries with fewer workers.
In my research on migration, I have found that countries like Vietnam, India and China are actively trying to recruit people from their diasporas – those living outside the region where they or their ancestors were born – to help build their economies.
My research focuses on frontier migration: the movement of people, technology, ideas and capital from a "developed" to a "developing" economy. Among them are increasing numbers of frontier return migrants who were born and raised in one country, leave it for some time but are now opting to return home.
Researchers used to assume that once people migrated to the West, they and their children would stay there. But this is increasingly not the case. Another category I focus on our frontier heritage migrants those raised in the diaspora who return to the land of their ethnic heritage.
Globalisation has spurred increasing numbers of all types of frontier migrants. One of the unexpected consequences is that developed countries might lose out as more and more frontier migrants set their sights on emerging market economies.
The US is losing out
The world’s most powerful country and its largest economy, the US, was until recently known as a country of immigrants.
Since 2017, the Trump administration has championed a number of measures to keep immigrants and refugees out: building a wall on the country’s southern border with Mexico, limiting refugees and even deleting the phrase, "nation of immigrants" from an official mission statement. But this shift didn’t begin with Trump: it started in earnest after the events of September 11, 2001.
Migration and tech researcher Vivek Wadhwa has warned for years that putting up barriers to immigration will reduce the US’s innovative, technological and economic edge. After all, many US businesses are started by immigrants, and just over half of the country’s one billion dollar startup companies had at least one immigrant founder.
Wadwha’s research among STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) graduate students who came to the US to study for advanced degrees revealed alarming shifts. Before 2001, most of these sorts of graduates would remain in the US after completing their degrees. After 2001, hostile immigration policies “pushed” them to become frontier return migrants, going home to countries like India and China.
The US was forced to change policy to counter the trend towards STEM students’ return migration.
India and China, meanwhile, have also realised the value of attracting their own diasporas back home, and drawing talent from elsewhere in the world. They’ve developed several new policies to make this easier.
For example, China recently changed its visa policy so that “overseas Chinese” can have multiple-entry visas valid for five years instead of just one. A number of other initiatives have also been introduced to entice skilled migrants to China.
Robin Li, the billionaire entrepreneur behind the internet company Baidu – often referred to as China’s Google – is one of those who’ve pointed out that the US’s loss could be his country’s gain, saying
this is a good time that China stand up and say, ‘Hey, come to us, we welcome immigrants…’
China and the US are in a battle over which nation will dominate the 21st-century technologically and immigration is at the heart of this battle.
However, it is not only technology migrants who add value to an economy. Workers with all different skill sets are necessary. For example, US agriculture largely relies on foreign workers and Japan, a highly industrialised country with an ageing population, will need to bring in more and more young foreign workers to survive.
Policy benefits for Africa?
African countries are not seizing the opportunity presented by the migration-economic nexus.
Only a handful of African countries – among them Liberia and Ethiopia – have actively worked to bring in more migrants.
I have found that people in general and people of African descent in particular, both in Africa and the West, are particularly interested in moving to South Africa to work. This is because South Africa has a well-developed infrastructure and offers what many migrants refer to as “lifestyle” – a good quality of life.
South Africa is trying to position itself as the gateway to the African continent and needs a strong economy to do so. The country would therefore benefit tremendously from a more migrant-welcoming policy.
Building a robust economy has always required migrant workers of all types. That’s not going to change any time soon. The country with the most open immigration policy will be best positioned to succeed in the global economy.
Melissa Tandiwe Myambo is a Research Associate, Centre for Indian Studies, University of the Witwatersrand
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)