NEW YORK — Ever since national frontiers were invented, people have been crossing them — not just to visit foreign countries, but to live and work there. In doing so, they have almost always taken risks, driven by a determination to overcome adversity and to live a better life.
Those aspirations have always been the motors of human progress. Historically, migration has improved the well-being not only of individual migrants but of humanity as a whole.
And that is still true. In a report that I presented last week to the U.N. General Assembly, I summarize research showing that migration, at least in the best cases, benefits not only the migrants themselves but also the countries that receive them, and even the countries they have left. How so?
In receiving countries, incoming migrants do essential jobs that a country’s established residents are reluctant to undertake. They provide many of the personal services on which societies depend. They care for children, the sick and the elderly, bring in the harvest, prepare the food, and clean the homes and offices.
And they are not engaged only in menial activities. Nearly half the increase in the number of migrants aged 25 or over in industrialized countries in the 1990s was made up of highly skilled people. Skilled or unskilled, many are entrepreneurs who start new businesses — from round-the-clock corner shops to Google. Yet others are artists, performers and writers, who help to make their new hometowns centers of creativity and culture.
Migrants also expand demand for goods and services, add to national production, and generally pay more to the state in taxes than they take out in welfare and other benefits. And in regions like Europe, where populations are growing very slowly or not at all, younger workers arriving from abroad help to shore up under-funded pension systems.
All in all, countries that welcome migrants and succeed in integrating them into their societies are among the most dynamic — economically, socially and culturally — in the world.
Meanwhile, countries of origin benefit from the remittances that migrants send home, which totaled around $232 billion last year, $167 billion of which went to developing countries — greater in volume than current levels of official aid from all donor countries combined, though certainly not a substitute for it. Not only the immediate recipients benefit from these remittances, but also those who supply the goods and services on which the money is spent. The effect is to raise national income and stimulate investment.
Families with one or more members working abroad spend more on education and health care at home. If they are poor — like the family in the classic Senegalese film, Le Mandat — receiving remittances may introduce them to financial services, such as banks, credit unions and microfinance institutions.
Also, more and more governments understand that their citizens abroad can help development and are strengthening ties with them. By allowing dual citizenship, permitting overseas voting, expanding consular services and working with migrants to develop their home communities, governments are multiplying the benefits of migration. In some countries, migrant associations are transforming their communities of origin by sending collective remittances to support small-scale development projects.
Successful migrants often become investors in their countries of origin, and encourage others to follow. Through the skills they acquire, they also help transfer technology and knowledge. India’s software industry has emerged in large part from intensive networking among expatriates, returning migrants and Indian entrepreneurs both at home and abroad. After working in Greece, Albanians bring home new agricultural skills that allow them to increase production. And so on.
Yes, migration can have its downside — though ironically some of the worst effects arise from efforts to control it: It is irregular or undocumented migrants who are most vulnerable to smugglers, traffickers and other forms of exploitation. Yes, there are tensions when established residents and migrants are adjusting to each other, especially when their beliefs, customs or level of education are very different. And, yes, poor countries suffer when some of their people whose skills are most needed — for instance health-care workers from southern Africa — are “drained” away by higher salaries and better conditions abroad.
But countries are learning to manage those problems, and they can do so better if they work together and learn from each other’s experience. That is the object of the “high-level dialogue” on migration and development that the General Assembly is holding this September. No country will be asked or expected to yield control of its borders or its policies to anyone else. But all countries and all governments can gain from discussion and exchange of ideas. That’s why I hope the September dialogue will be a beginning, not an end.
As long as there are nations, there will be migrants. Much as some might wish it otherwise, migration is a fact of life. So it is not a question of stopping migration, but of managing it better, and with more cooperation and understanding on all sides. Far from being a zero-sum game, migration can be made to yield benefits for all.
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