Getting a Grip on Migration

What do Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Boris Johnson, and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi have in common? All are beneficiaries of the new wave of global migration. Whether demagogic, barbaric, or merely opportunistic, such leaders capitalize politically on migrants no less than human traffickers and makers of fences and razor wire capitalize on them economically. And for those whose fortunes depend on building mental and physical barriers, business is good.


Some 240 million people today are living outside their country of birth – enough to form the world’s fifth most populous country. The swelling number of migrants is shaping how people regard globalization, etching a new dividing line between cosmopolitan elites and nativist parties in the developed world, and calling into question the future of the European Union. As Project Syndicate’s commentators recognize, all of this is creating a new governance agenda. And yet, while few topics are more politically salient, international migration is – almost by definition – one of the most difficult issues for nation-states to address effectively.

Push and Pull

The reasons for the ongoing upsurge in global migration are complex. The current level of refugees – roughly 60 million – is at a post-World War II high and continues to rise. The push factors are well known. The international development expert Kevin Watkins sees a cocktail of conflict, political persecution, poverty, and economic pressure, exacerbated by the geopolitical tensions unleashed by the end of American hegemony in many regions. The former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer blames ongoing stagnation in the Western Balkans, turmoil in the Middle East, and civil war and conflict in Africa, all of which may be compounded by an intensification and expansion of fighting in Ukraine.

In addition to heightened refugee flows, there is the divide between the world’s richest and poorest. Migrants are often a critical economic lifeline to the countries they leave, with remittances adding up to “some $500 billion a year worldwide,” according to Harvard’s Ricardo Hausmann. “For countries such as Armenia, El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, Kyrgyzstan, Lesotho, Moldova, Nepal, and Tajikistan, expatriates remit the equivalent of more than one-sixth of national income – an amount that often exceeds exports.” As former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan puts it, “Migration will continue until we lift the poorest and most vulnerable out of the conditions they are currently fleeing.”

But making global inequality the sole culprit is facile. There was far more absolute privation a generation ago; since 1990, more than one billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. And yet, at the same time, the rapid emergence of the Internet – and especially smart phones – has raised expectations, by making everyone aware of the yawning gap between the life chances of the rich and poor worldwide.