Expert Commentary

Impact of the economic crisis in international migration

2011 UCLA study published in Work, Employment and Society on the nature of migration trends across the world during the global recession.

In 2010, 216 million people lived outside their home countries, and most migration patterns were comprised of people moving from relatively poorer to richer countries, or the global South to the global North, according to the World Bank. In recent years, Mexico-United States has been the largest migration corridor in the world, with Russia-Ukraine and Bangladesh-India the next largest. Worldwide flows of money from immigrants back to their home countries in 2010 were estimated to have exceeded $440 billion, $325 billion of which went to the developing world.

The precise causes and effects of inter-country migration have long been matters of debate, and researchers have recently begun to publish research about how this phenomenon has been affected by the global economic crisis of 2008. A 2011 study from UCLA published in Work, Employment and Society, “The Impact of the Economic Crisis in International Migration,” explores the effects of the economic crisis on international migration in four areas: the relationship between migration and the economy of both sending and receiving countries; the underlying causes of migration; how changes in migration affect the economy of the receiving country and the status of migrants; and how economic changes affect the migration policies of governments. The study, published in Work, Employment and Society, reviews existing literature and analyzes supplementary data.

The study’s findings include:

  • During the global recession, migration flows to wealthier countries “dipped sharply,” the opposite of what some theories would predict. “Return migration to sending countries, however, appears to have only increased markedly where back-and-forth movement is relatively easy, as in the [European Union].”
  • No strong evidence was found that migrants as a whole were further marginalized by the recession, with marginalization measured by the rate of unemployment of migrant workers. However, this “differs by sending country: In the U.K. and the USA, migrants from poorer countries with darker-skinned populations have been punished far more by unemployment. Moreover, migrants may retain jobs during the downturn by accepting worse wages or working conditions.”
  • Flows of money from immigrants to their home countries did not decrease as sharply as was predicted after the economic crisis, falling 5.5% in 2009. (The World Bank notes that remittances rose again by 6% in 2010.)
  • While the reaction of receiving countries has varied, in general “destination countries have … imposed added restrictions on migration” after the crisis. The author cites Arizona’s recent anti-immigration laws and Italy’s “criminalization of unauthorized immigration” as two examples of such new immigration policy restrictions.
  • The recession data suggest there is no straightforward correlation between migration rates and the relative incomes of sending and receiving countries. In general, the rate of total inter-country migration grew as the income gap between sending and receiving countries increased. But an analysis of 50 large migration corridors shows that the number of migrants sometimes shrinks in receiving countries that are growing fast.

The author concludes that “economic incentives do matter, but factors other than income differences modulate migration flows in the short run. Principal among them are differing regulatory regimes, themselves undergoing change.”

Tags: financial crisis, development

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