Immigration as a politico-economic issue has been debated for long by countries around the world; it is a sensitive issue as it affects the domestic policies of nations. Immigrants today comprise political refugees, environmental refugees, ethnic communities who are discriminated against in their home countries, as well as people voluntarily immigrating to developed countries in search of better education and employment opportunities. Different countries have different policies regarding immigration which becomes very relevant to study in today’s globalised world.
Open border immigration over the years
Open border immigration refers to the free movement of people across borders, almost without restrictions of any sort. This sort of immigration is not very common in practice. It can happen under two circumstances, one legal and the other illegal. One is when there are international legislations in place allowing for free immigration between international borders. A classic example of this would be the Schengen agreement between nations in the European Economic Area. This agreement which was signed in 1985 now includes around 26 member countries of Europe who have agreed to eliminate any form of border controls between them and have implemented a common visa policy. The other kind of open border immigration takes place due to lack of proper legal controls at the border, enabling people to immigrate illegally across borders. The India-Bangladesh border would be one such example. Historically, India has seen a lot of foreign nationals enter India through its shared borders, although the level of border controls has increased substantially over time.
Surprisingly, open borders were quite popular in the past. In the International Emigration Conference held in Rome in May 1924, it was declared that anybody had the right to immigrate to a different country if they wanted to. During the First World War, it got easier for individuals to migrate from their home country to other countries. After the Second World War, countries were searching for some new workers, and Germany gave a guest work program to draw in more individuals to work. Later, during the 1970s to 1980s, severe restrictions on movements across borders were restored in the advanced and industrialized countries.
Currently, immigration is increasingly confined and harder for individuals with low-skills and low-wages.
Immigration is an economic virtue
While there’s still a lot of debate around whether immigration is beneficial for the economy, most economists seem to agree that the net effect of immigration is indeed good. Advocates of free-market economy, like the noted economist John Kennan, believe that a free market helps to ensure a fair and balanced economic system. Immigration prevents economic inequality and reduces world poverty, bringing about overall benefits to both the migrants and the host country. In a free market characterised by healthy competition, any negative impacts of immigration felt in the short run are often offset by its long run prospects.
When immigration is made illegal and migrant workers are not provided adequate employment opportunities, they often end up being employed in the shadow economy. This has a negative impact on the economy since a lot of money goes unaccounted and these workers do not even pay taxes. Once immigration is made legal, migrant workers get better job opportunities wherein they can utilise their skills best and earn fair wages, which can improve their overall standard of living. These workers now have a greater purchasing power which boosts the demand for goods and services, leading to an increase in consumption and the country’ s GDP. Moreover, migrant workers often offer cheap labour, which brings down the cost of production of domestic industries and helps increase their efficiency.
Regardless, some economists remain wary of the costs of immigration. In their opinion, when migrant workers offer cheap labour, it brings down the overall wages in the economy, displacing the existing workforce and leads to increased unemployment. These workers also make use of government provided schemes of social security, putting a greater strain on the government.
But it must be noted that these costs are often short-lived and can be explained by the concept of Lump of Labour fallacy, propounded by the economist David Frederick Schloss. According to this theory, people often presume the volume of jobs in an economy to be fixed. As discussed earlier, once migrant workers settle in an economy, they drive the demand up, which eventually leads to more employment generation and rise of wages in the long run. The migrant workers also end up paying taxes to the government which offsets the costs of providing them with social security.
The economist Michael Clemens carried out a statistical study in which he claimed that immigration and economic development go hand in hand. According to his median estimate, world GDP could become double of its current levels if immigration were made open to all. When workers move to an advanced country, it increases their productivity. These workers also send money back to their home countries, usually poor developing countries, in the form of remittances which help boost the economies of the developing countries as well.
Ethical and cultural aspects
According to Article 13 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right of freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state. Furthermore, everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own and to return to his country. On grounds of these basic human rights, it can be argued that banning immigration is unethical in essence.
American bioethicist Jacob M. Appel opined that providing differential treatment to people simply because they were born in some other country is unethical and serves no useful or meaningful social purpose. Economist Phillippe Legrain also supported immigration as a means to foster global trade and prevent regional wars. As long as immigrants do not cause any substantial harm to the host country, it’s unreasonable to put a blanket ban on immigration.
Many countries are increasingly adopting strict immigration in an attempt to protect the cultural identity of its native population. An influx of immigrants from other nationalities can alter the homogenous demographic composition of a place, threatening the ethnic communities of losing their unique identity. A similar situation has been prevailing in the North Eastern states of India, where an influx of Bangladeshi immigrants has affected the ethnic composition of the region.
How legitimate are ‘security concerns’?
Many countries are against immigration due to security concerns. They believe that opening up their borders to all could expose the country to terrorist groups who would be a threat to national security. Apprehensions of this sort, while logical, tend to tarnish the image of immigrants in the eyes of the natives and often strip them off their basic human rights. Furthermore, it has often been observed that sealing a nation’s borders to legal immigration has never really acted as a deterrent for immigrants; migrants, when denied access to legal passageways, resort to illegal and dangerous routes to enter other countries. It is not uncommon for immigrants to have lost their lives in this process, for instance, while crossing the Mediterranean Sea.
While immigration has its benefits and costs, there is no right and wrong policy here. Different countries need to consider their own subjective positions while formulating policies on immigration. Developing countries that are already under a lot of stress due to a huge population and limited opportunities might not be able afford to take in more immigrants. In such cases, the economic costs of allowing immigration tends to outweigh the benefits that immigration brings. Developed nations, on the other hand, can definitely take on more immigrants with a set of reasonable regulations to set off its costs. There is no one-policy-fits-all solution here — all countries must deliberate and form their position on the subject for themselves.
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