South-South migration and the “natural state”

This blog post builds upon an Open Borders Action Group post of mine and the comments on it.

In an earlier post on what open borders advocates and scholars of migration and development can learn from each other, one of the things I had said open borders advocates can learn from scholars of migration and development was the importance to give to forms of migration that currently exist, as opposed to what might exist in a hypothetical open borders world:

More focus on intranational migration, migration between low-income countries, and migration from low-income to middle-income countries: […] [I]t might be worth looking at the huge amount of migration that already exists and understanding its implications. While still arguing morally for open borders worldwide, we can focus on understanding what already exists and making changes to it. Often, there is little reliable data and little interest among readers in such matters (such as Nepal and India, or North Korean refugees), simply because blog readers are highly likely to be in First World countries and are more aware of First World issues. But I think that pushing more in the direction of better understanding migration as it’s actually happening is worthwhile, even if it doesn’t make us popular. We can be inspired here by migration scholars, who have worked very hard to compile data and collect anecdotes to further the world’s understanding of migration.

World Press 2014 Signals from DjiboutiWorld Press 2014 photo: Signal from Djibouti, source National Geographic. The photo shows people from Somalia living in Ethiopia trying to catch Somali cellphone networks at the border of the country so as to talk cheaply with their families.

This post can be considered a partial attempt to put that learning in practice. Here are some examples of “South-South migration” that I have in mind when listing my general observations. Each of these should deserve its own post. For those that don’t already have posts I link to a relevant news article or paper:

Some of the salient features of much of this South-South migration:

  1. In most of the cases, the destination countries of migration are large and somewhat heterogeneous economically. The average GDP per capita in the destination may be somewhere between 2 and 5 times that in the source country (with the exception of the somewhat special case of migration from North Korea to China, the range is more like 2 to 3 times). However, this hides a large degree of intranational variation in the destination country. The destination countries, despite their poverty and Third World status, generally have greater scope for people to become rich and successful. They have bigger cities with more opportunities. Compare, for instance, Afghanistan with Pakistan. Pakistan scores pretty poorly in terms of GDP per capita or HDI. But it has cities like Karachi and Lahore, that are (relatively speaking) thriving centers of commerce. Similarly, Indian cities offer opportunities that most Bangladeshis can’t access in their home countries. Even if the migrants don’t initially move to cities, the promise is there.
  2. Large parts of the destination country are rural, and the rural-urban gap on many development indicators is huge. Moreover, the rural areas may not really have much affiliation with or integration into the national identity. Many people in rural areas may not even have any form of documentation establishing citizenship or national membership. Thus, many natives are also “undocumented” and in some ways indistinguishable from migrants. The role of ethnicity as betrayed by appearance and accent is therefore greater than the role of formal citizenship.
  3. Migrants tend to move to border towns and to some large cities, generally those with pre-existing diasporas (cf. diaspora dynamics). These are the places where the issue of migration has the greatest salience, and anti-migration sentiment may be more common, and expressed more openly and virulently than in most developed countries.
  4. There is usually no pro-migration or pro-migrant movement per se, though there may be NGOs focused on providing services for migrants.
  5. If anything, intranational migration might be more salient in many parts of the country. In fact, intranational migration may also quantitatively swamp international migration, as is the case in China and India (here’s a blog post on intranational migration within India and a blog post discussing large-scale migration within India and China). But insofar as there are no real constitutional ways of restricting intranational migration, it might never become a politically important issue at the national level. In many regions, on the other hand, intranational migration may take on more significance than international migration in political rhetoric, even if politicians have little power or little interest in actually curbing such migration.
  6. At the national level, the importance of migration is minimal. This is partly because the destination countries have many more pressing problems. Anti-migration movements are relatively localized, and pro-migration movements are negligible.
  7. For many people in such countries, the issue of open borders and migration restrictions is a largely theoretical one, and their answers to it might represent generic ideas of human fairness untainted by personal interest, so to speak. This might explain why India, despite not being known for having a high degree of tolerance and welcome for foreigners of different races and ethnicities, had a roughly 25-25-25-25 split in the World Values Survey question of how open migration policy should be.

In some ways, the current nature of South-South migration as well as the social and political attitudes to it closely resemble 18th and 19th century migration worldwide. People moved from very poor countries to less poor countries with more vibrant cities and growth opportunities. Natives weren’t exactly thrilled, but strong anti-migration sentiment, while often virulent by modern standards, was relatively localized and took a fair amount of time to translate to successful national movements to curb migration. I’m not aware of survey data similar to the World Values Survey for the 19th century, but my guess is we’d see a similar 25-25-25-25 split about migration despite more overtly prejudicial attitudes among the people (similar to the situation in India today).

This connects with my very first post on the Open Borders site, where I blegged readers on why immigration was freer to the 19th century USA. I had listed three potential reasons in that post: (1) wisdom/desirability, (2) technological/financial feasibility, and (3) moral permissibility. At the time, I had written that (1) was unlikely, and the likely truth was a mutually reinforcing loop of (2) and (3) (that did eventually get broken in the United States with the Chinese Exclusion Act). I think the same dynamic is at play in South-South migration, with the difference that South-South migration today has at least some nominal level of border controls, and there’s enough of a global precedent of strict border controls that the learning curve towards very strict border enforcement can be (and in many cases, is being) traversed a lot faster.

In many ways, both current South-South migration and historical migration are closer to the “natural state” of migration and the responses it engenders. All is not hunky-dory with this natural state. The occasional outbreak of riots against immigrants, while quantitatively negligible, as well as the more frequent displays of overt private prejudice, are disconcerting. But for all that, the system is still a bigger win-win for migrants and natives than the strict border controls that much of the developed world has successfully implemented, and that the developing world is rapidly building out.

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