NEW YORK – Hundreds of destitute migrants from Africa and the Middle East died in two shipwrecks this month while attempting to reach the shores of Italy. In the meantime, wealthy Chinese, Indians, Russians and South Africans continue to glide serenely to their favored European destinations as they flee their increasingly unstable countries.
Nations damaged by the euro crisis — Cyprus, Ireland, Latvia, Malta, Portugal, Spain — seem to have entered a race to sell the right to reside in Europe. Malta offers the cheapest path to eventual citizenship: just €260,000. The small conditions — no criminal record, for instance — are hardly onerous. Even U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne promised, while visiting Beijing last week, to expedite visas for China’s businessmen and tourists, and to open all doors to Chinese students.
This eager courtship by Western politicians and businessmen of deep-pocketed and well-educated foreigners can mislead one into thinking that globalization encourages free and open movements of peoples. In actuality, the shutters are coming down, and walls are going up, everywhere.
Even Indian software engineers face fresh hurdles to entering the United States today; they seem pampered compared with their fellow citizens toiling on construction sites in Dubai, who in turn enjoy privileges undreamt of by the Mexicans, described in a shocking new book, “The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging the Narcos on the Migrant Trail” by Oscar Martinez, who risk everything to get to the U.S.
The “open for business” banner unfurled by Osborne and Johnson in Beijing seems no more than a fig leaf for hard-line immigration policies. The same week that they were in China, the British government introduced a new immigration bill remarkable for its ill-concealed xenophobia. The Conservative Party is being pushed further to the right by the recent electoral successes of the stridently anti-immigrant UK Independence Party.
In France, the extreme-right Front National led by Marine Le Pen is gaining ground among voters. A member of the Socialist government, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, has affirmed the general rightward shift by openly calling for the expulsion of the country’s Roma population and arguing for the extension of the French ban on Islamic headgear. Last week, stalwarts of the French Left cried out in anguish as Valls deported a Roma teenager while she was on a school trip.
Greece confronts, in addition to a failing economy, the viciousness of the anti-immigrant party Golden Dawn. After an election campaign marked by competing promises to thwart immigration, Australia has a conservative prime minister determined to send boats carrying asylum seekers back to where they come from.
Even countries that host the international diaspora of the rich are inwardly seething. This month in Hong Kong I was amazed to hear, in several different conversations, a word now commonly used by local residents to describe mainland Chinese in their midst: “locusts.”
Singapore, the new magnet for the plutocracy of China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines, may be set to replace Switzerland as the capital of wealth management with its deregulated banking system. But it will have to reckon with rising local protests against steeply growing inequality, rising prices and visceral loathing of flashy Chinese in Ferraris.
Given the darkening anti-foreigner climate in Europe, the Chinese and Indian plutocrats furiously buying villas, palazzos, chateaus, haciendas and apartments in London’s Mayfair cannot feel certain that their arrival won’t provoke their rich neighbors to mutter, “There goes the neighborhood.”
When even itinerant individuals with ample skills and wealth provoke racial anxiety, less fortunate migrants cannot help but incite wholly unreasoned hostility. This politically volatile distrust of foreigners in high-income countries is another side of the problem of unregulated mobility I discussed in my last column. While still-developing nation-states such as India and China hemorrhage wealth and talent, politicians in advanced economies seem far from honestly accepting their need for migrants of all kinds, and the related imperative to fight blind prejudices and ill-informed notions about migration.
One well-sourced analysis after another has disproved popular ideas about immigration as a further drain on public resources during a time of fiscal austerity. Foreign arrivals contribute about as much in tax revenue as they receive in benefits, according to a report in June from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
The economic rationale for migration is further underscored by the changing profile of high-income countries: high wages; slowly growing, if not declining, populations; and shortages of domestic talent. Some of the walled-off countries are slowly seeing the light. South Korea, for instance, has started to open its doors to immigrants. On the other hand, Japan, with its severely restrictive immigration policies, continues to suffer conspicuously from a shortage of unskilled workers in the construction, medical, social welfare and other service sectors.
Indeed, as the OECD report warns, countries that fail to understand the effects of immigration may end up crafting policies that make it harder for them to deal with demographic changes. Yet cynical domestic politicians, in the U.K. as well as in France, have stolen the initiative in defining the costs and benefits of migration.
Their opportunistic demagoguery relies upon a lack of enlightened global consensus about the subject. What defines globalization today is the mobility of human beings as much as that of capital and goods.
But there is no sustained attempt to draw up a global or regional framework of principles governing cross-border flows of people, even by institutions such as the World Trade Organization, which lays down the rules governing the international trade of goods and services, or the International Monetary Fund, which concerns itself with the stability of the international monetary system and global capital markets.
At present, individual countries that receive (and send) migrants make policies in response to local needs and sentiments (xenophobia prominent among them). There is no multilateral process that subjects migration flows to global rules and standards. In his recent book “The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy,” the economist Dani Rodrik writes that leaders seriously committed to boosting incomes equitably around the world should “focus single-mindedly on reforming the rules that govern labor mobility.”
Rodrik proposes a “temporary work visa scheme” in rich countries that could generate $360 billion annually for the world economy. Its potential benefits are greater than all the gains from removing tariffs and subsidies (what the negotiators at the Beckettian Doha Round of trade talks endlessly toil over), and would go directly to the poorest people on Earth, skipping altogether the arduous and plainly inefficient process of trickle-down.
Rodrik is, of course, aware of potential objections and hurdles to his idea, and carefully pre-empts them with an additional set of suggested policies. Immigration, he also knows, lacks a large domestic political constituency. But, as he argues correctly, so did trade liberalization, which was pushed through by a combination of political leadership, lobbying by business groups and activist economists.
A global institutional framework for migration could regulate low-cost labor as well as the so-called “talent elites” while ensuring the rights of irregular migrants. It is simply astonishing the degree to which we have ignored the patterns of international migration, despite their deep links with human welfare and political stability everywhere.
We urgently need a global set of rules for migration. Certainly, the incentives for it have never been clearer, as awful human tragedies occur off the coast of Europe, and right-wing nastiness spreads across the continent.
Pankaj Mishra, author of “From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. This is the second of two essays about brain drain in Asia.