Immigration is when people move from one country to another for more than just a short stay. People become migrants for all kinds of reasons, whether retirement, love, study, or fleeing war or persecution (we call these last people refugees). One of the biggest (and most controversial) groups are economic migrants.
Economic migration is when someone moves from one region to another in search of better living conditions or job opportunities. We usually talk about economic migration between countries—when people immigrate from one country to another. But moving around within a country can also be considered economic migration; moving from the countryside to a city is a particularly big trend.
Economic migration causes all kinds of big debates. Some people argue that people should be able to take jobs anywhere, regardless of where they were born (this is sometimes called the ‘free movement of labor’). Other people think that’s a bad idea, either for the place the migrants are going or the place they are leaving.
When asked if the average American citizen would be better off if the US let in more low-skilled immigrants, only 10% of the economists polled in a 2013 survey said no.¹ But 89% of those same economists said there was a chance that more immigration would leave many low-skilled American workers substantially worse off. Obviously, that’s not everyone’s opinion, but it seems a lot of economists feel that economic migration boosts the overall economy for the place the migrants are going, but can cause problems for people already at the bottom of the economic ladder.
There’s a lot of research saying that economic migration boosts overall economic growth. According to the World Bank, international migration helps to increase world GDP, as it allows workers to move to where they are most productive.² For countries with low birth rates immigrants can be particularly important. According to the OECD, migrants have been responsible for 47% of the increase in the American workforce and 70% of the increase in the European workforce over the last 10 years .³
Migrants also tend to contribute more to the public purse in taxes than they take out because they are usually of working age, meaning they are less likely to depend on state resources, and more likely to be working and paying taxes.⁴
However, economic migrants are often blamed for increasing competition for jobs, which can put downward pressures on wages and employment prospects for some domestic workers. People also worry about the longer term effects of migration on government spending (especially when migrants bring their families who may not be working), as more people put a bigger strain on health, education, transportation and other state services.
There’s also a debate in some countries about how easy it should be for citizens to come and go. On one hand people worry that their best and brightest will leave the country in droves for higher salaries abroad, often after after receiving years of publicly funded education. That’s called brain drain, and it can be a big issue for countries trying to develop high skilled industries. But on the other hand, economic migrants usually send money back to their home country—these transfers are called remittances. Often, countries rely in large part on the money they get from remittances – worldwide the total coming in from remittances is about 3 times the amount sent as foreign aid.²
The question of whether economic migration is good or bad touches on a lot more than just economics. There are social, cultural, and moral arguments used to argue for and against migration, as well as security concerns raised by letting people move back and forth. So far, economic migration has been one of the biggest and most divisive political questions of 21st century, and it seems likely to be central part of our politics going forward.