By Jan Lundius*
STOCKHOLM / ROME, Dec 6 2019 (IPS) – While opening a newspaper or watching a TV program we are every day made aware of the plights of irregular migrants. Some recent examples among many – on 24 October, 39 Chinese nationals were found dead in a lorry trailer in Essex. They had apparently frozen to death within a refrigerator container with temperatures as low as -25C (-13F). This while tragedies occur almost daily on the Mediterranean Sea. On 26 November, a rescue vessel found a boat almost completely sunken. It had three dead bodies aboard. Fifty-five migrants were saved. Three of them were in a critical condition, and one died after reaching Melilla in Spain, where the migrants were brought in. Three children were among the survivors, though a further ten individuals were reported missing. Nowadays, such news items pass by almost imperceptibly. Every day, thousands of unfortunate human beings are trafficked all over the world to suffer underpaid, hazardous work, or prostitution.
The general image of global migration tends to be gloomy. Populist parties convey the impression of an avalanche of unwanted foreigners inundating our beloved homelands. If I discuss policy issues with colleagues, friends, and relatives, negative perceptions of immigration tend to make their appearance. Polarized political and media debates on migration seldom allow much space for evidence, knowledge, strategic implications and historical insights.
It is easy to ignore that international migration is a complex phenomenon touching on a multiplicity of economic, social and security aspects. It is associated with geopolitics, trade and cultural exchange. Accordingly, migration provides opportunities for businesses and communities. In countries of origin and destination migration has improved people’s lives. However, acknowledging this does not imply that all migration takes place under positive circumstances. In recent years an increase in displacement has occurred, due to conflict, persecution, environmental degradation, and lack of human security and opportunity. The UN refugee agency UNHCR currently estimates that there are 25.9 million refugees worldwide, of which 80 percent live in places neigbouring their countries of origin.1
In 2019, the global number of international migrants reached an estimated 272 million, comprising 3.5 percent of the global population. 2 Actually a small minority since an overwhelming majority of people remain within their country of birth.
It cannot be denied that migration may generate benefits for migrants, their families, and countries of origin. Wages earned abroad tend to be considerably higher than those for similar jobs at home and migration tends to have a positive impact on human development, particularly in areas such as education and health. According to a World Bank report from 2016 migrants from the poorest countries, on average, experienced a 15-fold increase in income, a doubling of school enrolment rates, and a 16-fold reduction in child mortality after moving to a developed country.3
Globally, remittances are now more than three times the amount of official development assistance, at the same time as migration result in the transfer of skills, knowledge, and technology and thus foster economic and social development in origin countries.
Migration also generates economic and other benefits for destination countries. Among other results, immigration can have positive effects through an increased labour supply in sectors and occupations suffering from shortages of workers, not only evident in high-skilled sectors, but also in lower-skilled occupations. The immigration of young workers might also ease pressure on pension systems of high-income countries with rapidly aging populations.4 Contrary to popular perceptions, an OECD study found that the difference between the taxes migrants pay and the benefits and government services they receive generally is quite small and in most of the analyzed OECD countries immigrants paid more in taxes than they received through benefits.5
Accordingly, stories about hapless or deceitful migrants, ruthless human traffickers, and constant tragedies are not constituting the entire truth about international migration. Trafficking is a crime that has to be deterred and penalized. The United Nations defines human traficking as:
the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.6
I recently obtained an insight into immigration when I in Rome met a successful migrant who told me his life story. A tale of hard toil, stubborn determination and lifelong planning, with a happy ending.
Through a good friend of mine I had ended up as dinner guest with a man of a Bangladeshi origin and his family. He was proud owner of a car repair workshop. A steady income made it possible for him to support his family, invest in his business, afford a nice apartment and a car. He was even able to invest some of his income and support relatives back in Bangladesh. Over a sumptuous meal in a modern apartment, my generous host told me his life story.
He had been born to poor parents in Dhaka and orphaned already at the age of seven. His wife was also an orphan from a poor background. They married very early and had stayed true to one another ever since. Early on he judged that the only possible advance in life for a poor boy like him was to join the army. For twenty years he served in the armed forces and learned to be a driver and car mechanic. Experiences he later used after having been recruited as a migrant worker to the Gulf States, and most successfully in Singapore, where he finally had been able to save the money needed for realizing his ultimate goal – to migrate to Europe, make a living there and bring his family over for a better, more secure life.
In the neighbourhood of his home in Dhaka he had for many years been in contact with a ”travel- and job organizer” who had told him he would be able to bring him to Italy and that it would cost him approximately 30,000 euros. This became the driving force for all of my host´s endeavours. He experienced many setbacks, but never lost hope. Several years ago he was finally prepared to leave for Europe, putting all his trust in the men working for the ”travel organizer”. I asked him:
– How could you bring your entire life´s savings into the hands of this man? You could easily have been lost or killed along the perilous trail through Asia and Europe. What was the guarantee that you would be able to make a living in Europe? And … who was this guy? A human trafficker?
– No, he was not a Mafiosi. He was a businessman, well known by his clients. I knew he could not afford taking the risk of losing a client like me. If he had been a crook. If he had fooled his clients on their way to Europe and pocketed their money. If he had not planned and paid for every step of the journey and guaranteed the safe transfer of a client of his, he would have been lost. Everyone in my neighbourhood knew him and his business. He could neither overcharge me, nor lose me. It is an extremely risky business.
– Nevertheless, many are fooled, lost and killed.
– Quite true, but such unfortunate victims are generally desperate people. They have not planned and worked for the venture during so many years as I had. They had not inquired enough, neither about the risks involved, nor about the men they put their trust in.
It took more than half a year to reach Rome. We traveled by busses, lorries and on foot. Through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and Slovenia. It was worrisome and I was often scared, nervous and impatient. We were captured in Ukraine and it took almost three months to get us out of that country and we also encountered problems in Moldova. However, these mishaps had been taken into consideration beforehand and true to our original agreement the travel arranger succeeded in keeping his word.
I did not know anyone in Rome. The arrangement was that I began selling things in the street. Gradually, I advanced to selling fruits and finally found work in an auto repair shop. I am a skilled mechanic, my work was appreciated and words about my expertise spread among the customers. After some years I could open my own business. From then on life changed for the better. I could bring over my family. We found suitable husbands for my two daughters and finally a son was born to me. I´m a fortunate man.
It may be stated that my Bangladeshi acquaintance had been ”trafficked” since he migrated to Italy through irregular means provided by people who made a profit. However, he denied that he had been exploited. He assured me that he had made a carefully calculated business deal with people who guaranteed him passage to Italy and to a certain degree acclimatization to that country. It had been a win-win deal for the people who took him to Italy, for himself, his family, his country of origin and Italy as well.
3 Ratha, Dilip, Caglar Ozden and Sonia Plaza (2019) ”Migration and Development: A Role for the World Bank” https://blogs.worldbank.org/peoplemove/migration-and-development-role-world-bank-group
4 International Organization for Migration (IOM) (2017) World Migration Report 2018. Geneva: IOM, pp. 3-4.
5 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2013). “The fiscal impact of immigration in OECD countries,” in International Migration Outlook 2013. OECD: Paris.
*Jan Lundius holds a PhD. on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and advisor at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.