Migration by numbers

numbers immigration border

Today is International Migrants’ Day.  To mark it, I could easily write you a thousand words on the injustices suffered by refugees and asylum-seekers; on the fears that have seen anti-immigration parties rise across Europe; on the everyday struggles of the often undocumented, and nearly always low-paid migrant men and women who clean our houses and our streets.

Yet it seems to me that too often on both sides of the migration debate, appeals to our emotions are crowding out the evidence.  So instead, I want to talk numbers.  Because if we’re going to have a migration debate that’s dominated by facts and not by fear, the numbers are a good place to start.  Of course numbers offer no objective “truth” in and of themselves. If the last four years of sensationalist headlines about “net migration” can teach us anything, it’s that.  But I think careful scrutiny of the numbers can tell us a surprising story about migration, and offer a check against the worst distortions of politicians’ weasel words.

So, without further ado: here are 10 numbers we should all remember on International Migrants’ Day.

1.     3%. In 2013, according to the World Bank, there were 232 million people living outside the country of their birth. This is a significant number: but it isn’t overwhelming. It means that just 3% of the world’s 7 billion inhabitants are international migrants. The real puzzle about the age of global mobility is arguably not why so many people are moving across borders, but why so many are not.

2.     740 million.  Most of us, if we move at all, do so within the borders of our own country – from Manchester to London, or from New York to California. In fact, we are at least six times more likely to migrate across a country (from one region to another) than we are to move across a border. There are at least 740 million domestic migrants. Few today would suggest we should restrict these migrations – in fact, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights explicitly prohibits such restrictions. But however obvious this may seem to us, your right to move within the borders of your own is relatively recent. The US Supreme Court, for instance, only definitely confirmed US citizens’ ‘fundamental’ right to ‘move at will from place to place’ across state lines in 1920.

3.     5.6 million. Emigration is not a one-way flow: Western citizens leave their home countries too. Today, at least 5.6 million British citizens live permanently abroad. And while some of them may prefer to call themselves “expatriates”, 40% – an estimated 2.2 million UK citizens – are EU migrants by any other name.  That balances neatly with the 2.3 millions other EU migrants who have come to the UK.

4.     31.8%.  How many migrants live in the UK?  If you ask the public, 31.8%. Problem is, that’s a gross overestimate. The UK’s 2011 census suggests that the proportion of foreign-born British residents is closer to 13%: this is the same as in the US (where respondents guessed 37.8%). Across the West, the public consistently overestimate the number of immigrants in their country by a factor of nearly three. Poll after poll shows that the average Briton or American clearly thinks that there are too many migrants. But the same polls show that they also believe there to be almost three times the number of immigrants than are actually here.

5.     £18,600.  Fallen in love with a foreign passport holder? If you want to live in Britain, you better have a well-paying job. In July 2012 the British government introduced new family migration rules, requiring anyone wanting to sponsor their non-EEA spouse’s visa for the UK to show that their annual income exceeds £18,600. This rises to £22,400 for a spouse and a child, with an additional £2,400 asked for every further child. Those affected aren’t paupers, just average families. In fact, it has been estimated 47% of the British public – and 60% of women – would fail to meet the minimum income required to sponsor a foreign relative into the country.

6.     86%. Ten years ago, developing countries hosted 70% of refugees. Today in 2014, they are home to 86% of the world’s refugees. The 49 least-developed countries – places like Chad, Malawi, and Yemen – provide asylum to 2.4 million exiles. By whatever measure you choose, the idea that the West is under siege from would-be refugees flies in the face of statistical evidence. In Pakistan, there are 552 refugees for every dollar per capita GDP; that number is 303 in Ethiopia, and 301 in Kenya. For the US, UK and Australia, the equivalent numbers are 5.4, 4.7 and 0.9.

7.     21p. In 2012, Serco, G4S and Tascor were awarded contracts to supply housing for asylum-seekers across six regions worth up to £1.1 billion in revenue. The main objective of the outsourcing was ‘to reduce the cost of asylum support’, saving the Home Office £140 million. In 2013, Serco Chief Executive claimed that it made just 21p per asylum seeker accommodated per day, but had chosen to enter the space because for Serco ‘accommodation management [is] an important development area’. Such low financial margins, however, come with human costs. Within months of these companies taking on the accommodation contracts, charities and local government associations began raising concerns about the poor quality of housing offered – providing evidence that tenants were suffering from pest infestations, a lack of heating and hot water, windows and doors that could not be locked, and a failure to provide basic amenities like cookers or sinks.

8.     10.5%. Until 2008, Swedish labour migration was among the most restrictive system in the developed world: trade unions ‘had, and used, an informal veto on recruitment’. Today, its labour migration system is one of the most liberal. Employers – having first advertised the job to the local EU market for 10 days – can effectively recruit any worker, for any job, from anywhere. The result? Swedish workers working for firms recruiting labour migrants earn on average 10.5% more than those working in firms that don’t. The recent rise of the far-right Swedish Democrats risks pulling apart this liberal – and successful – immigration model

9.     45%. That’s the drop in violent crime that the US has experienced since 1990. During the same period, the number of unauthorised migrants climbed from 3.5 to 11 million, and the percentage of the population who were foreign born rose from 8 to 13%. Correlation, of course, is not causation.  But it is a good indication that more migration does not translate into more crime.  And in fact, researchers from the US have similarly concluded that ‘broad reductions in violent crime during recent years are partially attributable to increases in immigration’. In the UK, immigrant “enclaves” – defined as neighbourhoods where at least 30% of the residents are immigrants – have lower levels of crime and victimisation than similar socio-economic areas without a large immigrant presence.

10. 1 000 000 years.  We can all agree that the exploitation of migrant labour by unscrupulous employers should stop. But low-wage immigration is in part a reflection of broader societal inequalities and the consistent failure to adequately police exploitation. In one recent report on low-skilled immigration, for example, the Government’s own Migration Advisory Committee pointed out that ‘a firm can expect a visit from HMRC inspectors once in every 250 years and expect to be prosecuted once in a million years.  Such enforcement effort hardly provides an incentive to abide by the national minimum wages’.

Think the numbers suggest its time to rethink immigration politics?  Want more facts?  Then download my new book – The Huddled Masses: Immigration and Inequality.  In numbers: just £1.99 for 100 pages.  In words: why if we really want progressive politics, we need to think differently about migration.