Forget not the temporary migrants

There are many different ways to think about migration; when we discuss the subject, often people’s vision seems to be of someone moving with intentions of permanently settling and acquiring citizenship in their new country. Occasionally, they might give some passing thought to explicitly temporary guest workers on the side. The popular “permanent migrant” characterisation might accurately describe a lot of people, but I am skeptical that it captures the full picture. Here are some other broadly-painted immigration stories that don’t often come to mind:

  • The tourist who falls in love with a country she visits. One day while browsing job postings, she finds and applies for a job in that country.
  • The student who decides to apply for a university abroad on a whim. He finds he enjoys life there, and seeks to work afterward there.
  • The manual labourer who decides to look for construction work in a country with a better economy than his own.

These people could all follow the typically-envisioned track, and stay permanently in their new country. But they could well not: perhaps the tourist finds life in her new country is not all it’s chalked up to be. She moves on to another country, or returns home. Maybe the student and manual labourer are happy to stay and work for years, or even a few decades, but later move home to take care of aging parents and raise a family.

Common discourse around migration tends to assume two paths. Either you are:

  1. A permanent migrant, and once your visa is approved, you are on a one-way path to citizenship
  2. A temporary migrant, and you should be a seasonal commuter (working in a foreign country for one or two seasons, returning home for the rest of the time)

(Less sophisticated discussions sometimes even forget the second category. More sophisticated ones might include in the second category guest workers whose seasonal commutes are a little longer, working for the span of a few years at a time.)

But this common discourse is incapable of fitting real human beings into its shoehorned categories. Realistically, new immigrants don’t know whether they want to commit to a new country, and if so, for how long they’ll want to make that commitment. Maybe they’ll commit to it for a career, but not for family. (Or maybe it’s the other way round: I know some people who have migrated primarily for family reasons, but maintain jobs or businesses in their home country.) Maybe you commit to one country for the harvest season, but not for the rest of the year. Maybe you commit to it for only as long as construction work is available, or only until you’ve saved enough to buy what you want at home.

You might consider these trivial or rare scenarios, but I would argue they’re more common than you think. I consider myself one of these amorphous immigrants: I am a Malaysian who is currently a permanent resident in the US, but I’m not sure how long I’ll live here. The range of possibilities for how long I live and work here in my opinion range from 5 years to 50 or more. They are contingent a great deal on my career path in the US, whether my significant other is allowed by the government to live and work in the US (she is also a Malaysian), the political and economic climate back home, and what opportunities I might find in other countries.

(Speaking of countries I’ve fallen in love with as a tourist, I’ve often thought it would be fun to work in London or in another Western European city. My girlfriend thinks it might be interesting to work in Hong Kong, where she studied for a few years. If we do migrate to one of these places, who’s to say whether we’ll live and work there for 1 year or 10? Or our lifetimes?)

If you prefer hard numbers, consider the polling data: over 1 billion people (over 25% of the world’s population) say they desire to temporarily move to another country in search of work. This is about double the number of people who say they desire to permanently move to another country. I find these numbers a bit dicey for two reasons:

  1. A lot of people might not even be bothered to think of moving, permanently or temporarily, when they know that our system of global apartheid makes it impossible for most people to live and work outside their country of birth — this would artificially depress these numbers.
  2. Some people might not be sure whether they want to move temporarily or permanently. If you ask me whether I am a temporary or permanent migrant, I would honestly answer that I don’t know.

But these numbers are definitely directional. If when you think of migration and when you think of open borders, you only think of permanent settlement, you’ve erased 2/3rds of all the people who would like to migrate. You’ve written off the hopes, dreams, and futures of over 1 billion people. Open borders is not just about the permanent settler. It’s about ensuring people with all kinds of goals and motivations can make the most of themselves and contribute as much as they can.

John Lee is an administrator of the Open Borders website. Liberal immigration laws are a personal passion for him. See all blog posts by John.


2 thoughts on “Forget not the temporary migrants”

  1. Excellent post. I would even argue that it is MORE likely that a migrant is “temporary” as opposed to seeking permanent settlement. Circular migration has been around for a very long time. One book I read claimed that even in the heyday of migration to the U.S. about a third made their money and went back home.

    Today all this is greatly facilitated because of the way some national pension plans work. A person who works in the US for a time can go back home without having become a US citizen and still receive US Social Security benefits when he retires in his home country. The EU is the same. If I decided to move to Morocco (a choice destination for French international retirement migrants) I could live in Casablanca and get my French pension there. Not a bad deal.

    What would be interesting to research is what would happen if a migrants passes through many countries in his migration journey (all of whom have some sort of state-supported pension scheme) and then returns home. What would be the end result? A better pension, perhaps?

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