The migration industry

by Chris Bertram on September 27, 2015

If you want to understand what’s going on in the world of migration, one thing you need to do is to read [Hein de Haas’s blog]( His [latest post]( is a sharp corrective to the people who believe that the smugglers are to blame, that inward migration threatens cost the taxpayers on wealthy nations billions, that the solution to the desperate people from the Middle East or Central America is to build bigger and higher fences and to militarize our borders. As he argues, increased border security simply generates a market for the services of smugglers to evade the new measures, and pushes desperate people to seek even more dangerous routes. This, in turn, leads politicians to pledge more border security, leading the cycle to repeat itself.

Who profits from this? Not migrants or refugees, certainly. The smugglers, a little. And the big contractors and militarized agencies who “defend” the borders, run the detention centres and other facilities a lot. And the people who are paying for all this financially are the citzens of wealthy nations who then get a “solution” that makes the problem worse.

We urgently need to explore alternatives, such as flying refugees to Europe, as [Alexander Betts argued in the New York Times]( the other day.



Ronan(rf) 09.27.15 at 1:06 pm

(this comment might be tangential to the linked post, but I think relevant. However just to be clear, I dont neccesarily disagree with the OP in any meangingful way)

My understanding of the chain of causation leading to strong restrictions on migration is that politicians respond to their constituents, rather than manipulate them. People object to ‘large scale’ migration not for empirically correct reasons, but due to reluctance towards change, in group solidarity (yes, and prejudice), fear, and gut feelings. My understanding is that what is ‘right or wrong’ in the debate on migration is contested. As a generalisation, X amount of migration raises national wealth, but can cut wages at the bottom. If we do A B and C to correct that distributional issue this might not matter. But then the assumption is that we do A B and C, which we probably wont.
But this also rests on a specific rate of migration, and a variety of not always correct assumption. If X increases rapidly, then a number of detrimental societal impacts could occur; undermining domestic institutions, cutting wages, increasing inequality etc. Even most economists except a variation on this claim:

The effects of emigration on poor countries is also more debatable. The problem of measuring the question of ‘brain drain’ is that researchers generally measure short term effects, not the long term consequences mass emigration can have on the structure of a countrys political and economic development. So the debate is one of obfuscation and strongly held opinions with quite weak evidence on all sides, afaict. Having said that, Im not a political scientist or economist, I have simply just recently read a book on causation, so this might be wrong and Im happy to stand corrected.

My preference is for a more open global migration regime, but I think we misunderstand why people object so strongly to immigration. It is not (neccesarily) because theyre ‘racist’, or their politics are reactionary or pathological, or even because they fear a cut in their wages. It’s because they value their communities and society as it is. They have emotional attachments to the people around them who come from the same cultural background, and moral commitments that tend not to extend too far beyond their domestic borders. They are sceptical of this ‘mass’ of people coming from countries they only think about when they see them on the news when there’s some awful atrocity.
Telling someone their wages wont be affected by X amount of migrants misses the point. Telling them that migrants generally work, or are less likely to engage in criminality, or that fears of terrorism are nonsense, or that the ‘native people’ living on the street will be living on the street regardless misses the point. If we want to convince people to accept more migrants then we shouldnt make (1) the negative case, you are prejudiced or wrong in your convictions, or (2) the empirical case, here is what the latest (caveated) research says on the topic of immigrants effect on wages. We should make the positive and moral case. Give people a buy in to the politics of salvation, so to speak.
All in all though, Ive come to think that migration is a really bad solution to the problems that ail the world. In the long term Id prefer to be looking towards other solutions, that mean most people can and will stay at home.


Omega Centauri 09.27.15 at 2:54 pm

The cost of contracting with these smugglers is creating a selective effect on who immigrates. Families without enough resources remain as IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). This with modest means can sell all the family wealth in order to be smuggled towards developed countries. So we find the most desperate are left behind to fend for themselves.


thelastbeatpoet 09.27.15 at 4:12 pm

Omega Centauri’s point about those with the least means being stuck closer to home because they cannot afford the smugglers’ prices, can be viewed in another, perhaps more cynical, way. The smugglers act as a filter to allow only those with means through the gauntlet (Hungary, the Mediterranean, Greece, Turkey, etc.). Maybe they are even abetting the unspoken wishes of the Germans to attract migrants who are most qualified to quickly assimilate into the German society and workforce.


Monte Davis 09.27.15 at 5:22 pm

more ‘security’-> risk premium -> market response -> more ‘security’

Good to see that the War on Drugs model fails in “push” as well as “pull” mode.


Ze K 09.27.15 at 5:47 pm

About the same number of Syrian asylum seekers is expected to arrive in the EU (500 million population) this year that already has arrived in Jordan (6 million population). And the EU is all panicking and falling apart.

It’s as if the westerners are a different species or something. Every pimple on their ass is a horrible trauma that lesser species are simply unable to fully appreciate.

Indeed, it would be best if they built a wall around their habitat – and cut all the communications with the barbaric outside world. Alas, they can’t stop meddling.


Matt 09.27.15 at 7:16 pm

Thanks for the link to the blog – interesting stuff there. The basic dynamic was shown more than 10 years ago by Massey, Durand, and Malone in their excellent book, _Beyond Smoke and Mirrors_. Massey et. al. focus on Mexican migration to the US, but it’s clear that many of the basic lessons are essentially the same. It’s a great book, highly readable, that anyone interested in understanding international migration should read.


sillybill 09.28.15 at 1:48 am

Maybe there’s something wrong with me but when I think of this type of situation I always think of Sam Kinison’s ‘world hunger’ routine. Google it. Hit play.
Everyone, even RWNJs will laugh and agree. There must be some way to get from shared laughter to agreement on international funding and political asylum.


Ciarán 09.28.15 at 8:59 am

I suppose one other ‘side’-effect of this cycle is that, once here, migrants are going to be very reluctant to head home. They’ve already incurred huge costs in making the trip and so presumably it’s a one-off commitment.

Which leads to all sorts of opportunities for exploitation of desperate people in rich-country labour-markets, given the impossibility of voice or exit. And as this Channel 4 News report from last April suggests, when the capacity to work for even a pittance fades, outright destitution follows.


Mario 09.28.15 at 2:25 pm

As an analogue or complement, we saw this same dynamic in the (formal) politics of the U.S. last year, with the sharp increase in children migrating across the Texas-Tamualipas border.

That particular flow was largely Central Americans, especially Hondurans. The political response in the U.S. was to make several bogus assertions as to causes. One was that the whole crisis was being orchestrated by cartels as a profit-making scheme. This is not how the smuggling “industry” in Mexico works, which is via informal networks of trust. Cartels exploit smugglers, they don’t control them.) A second was that migrants were coming because “rumors” circulated that said they could get visas on arrival. (Seriously, what parent would ever send a pre-teen or teen overland 2000 km based on a rumor? Kidnappings are rife along the route. And 50,000 parents? There was some crypto-racism behind this one, in addition to the desire for mono-causal explanations.) So a big CBP policy push was to go after financial movements that they claimed were those of smuggling networks. And to put out pop songs telling kids not to migrate.

But making smugglers worse off, while it might feel good, doesn’t actually affect migration. Instead, it just makes the journeys cost more, take longer, and be more dangerous. And while there’s a huge tendency for people to assume that marginal increases in “costs” drive down migration, when you look to empirics rather than models that. is. not. what. happens. Rather, migrants (at least form Latin America toward the U.S.) simply bear the higher costs.

All of which has the perverse effect of keeping them in the U.S. longer if/when they are successfully in entering, since now (a) they need more money to pay off higher loans, medical bills for violence suffered, etc etc; and (b) they probably won’t try to cross again, so have to work as long as possible at the higher wages on the U.S. side.


L2P 09.28.15 at 9:29 pm

“A second was that migrants were coming because “rumors” circulated that said they could get visas on arrival. ”

I never heard THAT. No, what Americans thought migrants believed was that upon being captured by ICE they would be given a court day with an order to appear and released, and that then they could disappear. And that actually WAS a common belief among migrants with children, probably because it was largely true. At the time parents with children generally were not detained by ICE.

Which is why Obama then changed immigration policy so that all immigrants were detained, with or without children. This then led to all sorts of human rights issues because ICE didn’t really have facilities for families. And here we are.


Mario 09.29.15 at 1:02 am

Actually, “rumors” were a key talking point, and they got echoed through the media. I’m going to give you several examples, but I’d point out that just because they’re all saying the same things (permisos, etc.) doesn’t make that actually, you know, true.

So, on the rumors point:

New York Times, June 16, 2014:

“Migrants have sent word back home they received a “permit” to remain at least temporarily in the United States, feeding rumors along migrant routes and spurring others to embark on the long journey.”

DHS Sec. Jeh Johnson in the Latin American Herald Tribune, June 28, 2014:

“To the parents of these children I have one simple message: Sending your child to travel illegally into the United States is not the solution.

It is dangerous to send a child on the long journey from Central America to the United States. The criminal smuggling networks that you pay to deliver your child to the United States have no regard for his or her safety and well-being – to them, your child is a commodity to be exchanged for a payment. In the hands of smugglers, many children are traumatized and psychologically abused by their journey, or worse, beaten, starved, sexually assaulted or sold into the sex trade; they are exposed to psychological abuse at the hands of criminals. Conditions for an attempt to cross our southern border illegally will become much worse as it gets hotter in July and August.

The long journey is not only dangerous; there are no “permisos,” “permits,” or free passes at the end.”

Los Angeles Times, July 14, 2015:

“President Obama and his aides have repeatedly sought to dispel the rumors driving thousands of children and teens from Central America to cross the U.S. border each month with the expectation they will be given a permiso and allowed to stay.”

USA Today, July 24, 2014:

“The smugglers have a word for this process: permiso, or free pass. That’s an exaggeration, but it does convey the simple truth that Central American children who reach U.S. soil won’t be sent home any time soon. And that has led to big business for child smugglers.”

LA Times, September 28, 2014:

“The fact that so many parents with children have been freed to travel within the U.S. has sent rumors flying through Central American nations that parents will not be detained in the U.S. if they arrive with a child — spurring even more families to launch the journey, according to immigrant advocates and Guatemalan consular officials in Phoenix who have been working to help find shelter for families stranded at bus stations.”


magistra 09.29.15 at 9:24 am

The thing that interests me most in Haas’ article is him talking about North Africans in Italy and Spain before 1991 and the Schengen visas stopping their previous free travel into Spain and Italy. The Schengen agreement, after all, was also about free travel, but free travel within Europe for EU citizens. And I think that points out one of the key issues about open borders. The porous borders/free movement policies that have historically existed, such as North Africans into Spain/Italy, Irish and British Empire/Commonwealth citizens into the UK before the mid-twentieth century, the historic Mexican/US border crossing etc have usually been about short distance travel and/or by relatively familiar types of outsiders. In other words, known quantities. In contrast, many of the current fears about the need to close borders seem to me to be highlighted by people a long way from the borders being crossed (but within the same political unit) and towards unfamiliar groups e.g. people in Wisconsin worrying about Mexicans more than people in California; or Germans and the British worrying more about North Africans than Italians/Spanish do. I think any effective policy to increase the openness of borders has to take that unfamiliarity effect seriously and think of effective ways to deal with it, rather than just condemning anyone who raises the issue as an enemy of justice.


Pam DeLargy 09.29.15 at 11:52 am

For an in-depth picture of the ‘securitization’ of border control and its’ counterproductive results in terms of actually managing migration, I found Ruben Andersen’s book Illegalities, Inc to be an eye-opener. It is a compelling read by an anthropologist who spent years with both West African migrants and the NGOS, border guards, and security forces who are part of the apparatus which is supposed to keep those migrants out of Europe.

As someone who has worked with refugees and studied the migration dynamics of Eritreans from the Horn of Africa through to both Europe and North America, I am struck by how much more dangerous the journey has become over the past five years. Earlier travels were managed by Eritrean ‘middlemen’ themselves and involved flights to Central America and escorts to the US, safe transit to Egypt or Libya and safe crossing of the Med, and even South Africa-Brazil routes. As Libya has deteriorated and the smuggling business has changed, it has become a very risky journey from Sudan to Libya and a dangerous transit in Libya even before boarding unseaworthy vessels. Yet young Eritreans continue the trek ‘simply’ because they cannot work of study in Sudan and after years there in limbo they will risk anything just to have the possibility of a future. This is exactly the same rationale that the Syrians coming to Europe are responding to – after years of limbo and no hope of resolution in sight, they just want to be able to get on with their lives. It is astounding to me that this rather simple and universally human reasoning is so misunderstood by politicians, the media and the xenophobes.


Chris Bertram 09.29.15 at 12:56 pm

That’s a great recommendation Pam.


Map Maker 09.29.15 at 2:57 pm

“they just want to be able to get on with their lives. It is astounding to me that this rather simple and universally human reasoning is so misunderstood by politicians, the media and the xenophobes.”

I don’t think it is misunderstood. It is just voters (i.e. the government) have concerns that taking X million immigrants who have limited ability /willingness to integrate / be integrated into their society will prevent them from getting on with their lives. That these costs will be not be borne by the people making these decisions just breeds cynicism in government.

Why the “left” has been totally taken over by the libertarian right on immigration is an interesting historical accident. None of this is an issue for the 1% as Switzerland is always willing to take billionaires of all ethnic, religious, or geographic backgrounds.

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