Migration was perhaps the all-important topic of the recent elections. However, the claim that it is the cause of all kinds of structural social problems is not based on facts, according to sociology professor Hein de Haas. He has written a book about it, How Migration Really Works, which he will present on Wednesday.
Explain, briefly, how does migration really work?
(Hein de Haas laughs). “Yes, good question, I tried to answer that in 500 pages. Let me start with the cause. The single most important cause of migration is not poverty or misery in countries of origin, but the demand for labor. The majority of global migrants are labor migrants. At the moment when a country has high labor shortages, as now in the Netherlands, it attracts a lot of migrants. In the Netherlands, these shortages are partly caused by the fact that the Dutch are increasingly more and better educated and no longer want to do all kinds of ‘lousy jobs.’”
How do you define migrants?
“A migrant is anyone who lives in a country other than where they were born. It’s as simple as that. And of course, it encompasses all kinds of people, including higher and less educated migrant workers, but also refugees, for example.”
“The relative level of migration has been stable globally for decades; about three percent of the world’s population are migrants. Immigration levels mainly move with a country’s economic growth and labor shortages. The long-term level of refugee migration is also stable at about 0.3 percent of the world’s population, but now it moves more in surges. When war breaks out, as it did a decade ago in Syria or recently in Ukraine, there is an occasional large influx of refugees. But in the long run, both globally and locally, there is no increase in refugee migration.”
Your book presents 22 “persistent” left and right-wing migration myths. Which one is the most persistent?
“Let me bust myth number one: There is no global mass migration. Political parties eagerly exploit the assumption that there is a global migration crisis. The political left often shouts, yes, you have to avoid conflict, provide development aid, and combat climate change. And the right shouts that we should close borders even further and control them more strictly. I say it’s different. Global migration rates have been relatively stable for decades; there is no migration crisis at all. Although migration to rich countries like the Netherlands has increased, that increase is mainly explained by growing labor shortages, not crises in countries of origin.
In addition, in an analysis of 6,500 policy changes, we found hardly any differences between right-wing and left-wing governments in immigration policy. Tough migration talk, as in past elections, is mostly for show.”
So don’t you foresee mass migration at all in the near future with global developments like wars, violence, oppression, income inequality, and climate change?
“No, not really. There are of course large numbers of migrants, currently about 280 million people worldwide. The vast majority of the world’s population is not international migrants, but people who migrate to a neighboring country.”
“Let me take the example of climate change. There has been research on the effect of drought on migration. It turns out that in dry years when people have less money and lower crop yields, migration often actually decreases. The poorest often cannot migrate at all. This creates a paradox in which migration decreases with increasing poverty. It’s when poor countries become richer and better educated that more people start migrating. This contrasts sharply with the common perception we have of migration in relation to poverty.”
The fourth cabinet of Mark Rutte collapsed over the topic of migration, and partly because of that, it became a major topic in the elections for the House of Representatives two weeks ago. How do you view the outcome of those elections?
“We observed many real problems in the Netherlands, such as the shortage of affordable housing. People are rightly concerned about that. This housing shortage has several causes, the main one being the ever-shrinking household size. We used to live with four or five people in an apartment, whereas now people often live alone or in pairs. Another major factor is the reduction of the social housing sector by the political center. I am talking about the VVD, PvdA, CDA, and D66 who wanted to privatize and ‘market’ the housing market during the last decade. Of course, people are not happy that they are now spending time endlessly on waiting lists and cannot get affordable housing.”
“During an election campaign, it is naturally attractive for politicians to start pointing fingers and claim that the housing crisis is due to migration in classic scapegoat politics. But migrants and asylum seekers have, of course, not caused this housing crisis. In addition, research by my UvA colleague Cody Hochstenbach shows that if we had continued to build social housing as consistently as we did in the 1980s, we would have about one and a half million additional social rental units by now. You’re not going to solve these kinds of problems by magically making all migrants disappear. That’s misleading and just an illusion.”