The Untold Migration Story – How Improved Policies Can Benefit Both Receiving And Sending Societies

From the U.S. travel ban to the rise of anti-immigrant populists in Europe, politicians often decry migration in times of moral and economic crisis. Controversies can easily preclude a balanced understanding of what migration means – not only for immigrants and their new societies, but also for the places migrants leave behind.

Recent waves of migration from Africa and the Middle East are related not only to civil wars but also to unprecedented changes in climate and the environments where people live. Migrants often risk their lives when they step into a boat or take their first step into a desert in search of opportunity. Their stories spark heated debates in the media and in the public arena about who these people are and what the future holds for them. Politicians use them as bargaining chips in domestic negotiations and international collaborations. But for every immigrant who makes it to the Mediterranean Sea or to the tightening borders of Europe, there are hundreds who do not make it and will stay behind. Their stories are never told, and their struggles are often forgotten amid discussions about those who actually can migrate.

Migration and Climate Change

When people migrate as respond to climate change, it is generally assumed that things go even worse for the people who stay behind. In most cases this is true. People who stay behind face major changes in their livelihood — when agricultural yields go down, sea-levels go up, and severe weather threatens the life and health of all those who cannot afford to leave.

Sometimes, however, there are delightful twists to this doomsday scenario. When climate changes, skilled and educated people are usually the ones who can afford to migrate. The economies they leave behind are in increasingly dire need of skilled labor. In my research, I show that migration can actually help those remaining behind by creating strong incentives for them to develop skills. Unfortunately, this narrative is often left out of the immigration debate. Migration may not only be beneficial for those who leave, but more so for those who stay behind.

When more fortunate people leave a community to migrate in search of opportunities, others often look up to them in search of better life – for their children, even if they cannot afford it for themselves.

Modeling Migration

To study the impact of climate change on migration and population dynamics, I develop an overlapping generations model that considers two economic sectors: agriculture and industry. I also model two types of individuals: high skilled and low skilled. This allows me to study the impact of climate change not only on each sector but also on the parental decisions about the number of children to have and the quality of education provided to them. My results shed light on several aspects of climate change migration that are usually overlooked in migration debates and academic studies:

  • High-skilled labor migration can create greater demand for higher education in the origin society.
  • High-skilled labor migration can induce a rise in low-skilled wages and therefore help close the inequality gap in communities that remain.
  • To maximize benefits at both ends of a migration stream, merit-based policies on the receiving end that favor skilled immigrants should be coupled with improved educational program at the sending end.

Migration is a powerful adaptation mechanism but it has its limitations. The impacts of climate change on the origin country can be only moderately alleviated – not abolished – when people choose to leave. Therefore, migration policies need to be carefully designed to bring most benefits for both sending and receiving countries.

Toward Improved Migration Policies in an Era of Climate Change

My work shows that migration has possible benefits for migrants’ origin countries, including by encouraging more people to strive for education. But motivations alone are not enough to break the “trap” and free local communities from suffering the severe impact of climate change. The international community, and host countries in particular, have moral obligations to climate-affected communities where many people will remain who cannot afford to migrate.

  • Migration policies should be eased for skilled and educated immigrants – for instance, with more student visas and work permits. But even when it becomes easier for skilled people to migrate, only a small fraction of those who could migrate will actually do so. Of course, sending communities can face problems even when just a fraction of their most skilled people leave. But at the same time, those communities can gain by encouraging education and drawing new people into jobs that require knowledge and skill.
  • The perspective I offer here implies that migration policies should be discussed and coordinated between sending and receiving countries. Unilateral polices do not work; often, for example, restrictions at the receiving end simply lead to the rise of human smuggling networks. Receiving societies could do better by facilitating the migration of qualified applicants – and at the same time working with the sending countries to improve investments in education and economic wellbeing for those who do not migrate.

Read more in Soheil Shayegh, “Outward Migration May Alter Population Dynamics and Income Inequality” Nature Climate Change 7 (October 2017): 828–832

How Should Social Work Respond To The United States Leaving The Paris Agreement?

“Logic clearly dictates the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” – Dr. Spock (Star Trek)

This quote is at the heart of a complex political debate; Dr. Spock doesn’t think it’s that complex.  Social justice is one of the tenants of social work practice. This often places social work on the wrong side of Dr. Spocks quote.

Frequently, social workers are providing for or advocating for the needs of the few. Dr. Spock had some help in posing this quote. The question originates from the philosophy of Utilitarianism. John Stewart Mill argued that society is a collection of individuals and that what was good for individuals would make society happy.

You can see this gets messy… and quick. This philosophy was recently put to the test with President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords. A 195 country agreement to reduce carbon emissions and offer assistance to developing nations to do so as well. Mr. Trump makes a case for economic justice that our involvement in the Paris Accord forces us to over-regulate businesses. He also argues it places an unfair burden on The United States contribution to developing nations. Trump asserts both factors create undue pressure on some of the most economically vulnerable areas in the country. Taking a strict stance stating he “Does not represent Paris…I represent Pittsburgh”. He believes the needs of local Americans outweigh the need to cost-share climate change with the globe.

Should the United States share in the cost of global warming at the cost of our local economies? The economic impact is up for significant debate. The best analysis of this complex issue is provided by FactCheck.org. I’ll let you read it but the economic rationale for leaving the Paris Accord seems questionable. The report he cited on the economic impact ignores many factors including the growth in the renewable sector.

From the social work perspective, this creates an interesting dilemma. The virtues of Globalism versus the “America First” Populism will remain a challenge. How do the local needs of the “Rust Belt” and “coal country” interact with the global energy economy impacted the Paris Accords?

The issue of Global Warming challenges social work to think about where our “systems thinking” begins and ends. Is our profession concerned for the global good or just the area’s they serve? In a recent speech, the UN Secretary-General argued the poor and vulnerable will be hit by climate change first.

Also, what is not in question is the economic impact in the Rust Belt and Coal Country of the United States. This also depends on where you are placing “The needs of the many”. The loss of manufacturing and energy jobs has had a significant impact on services in these areas.  These voters were activated by a hope of a potential change in their economic future. These parts of the country who rely on manufacturing and energy have been economically depressed. There is fear further government regulation and lack of money in these areas will make this worse.

Even if the move out of the Paris Climate Accords does fix local economies, it creates another complex systemic problem. Again thinking about where does our “systems” thinking end? I touched on this in my post about Facebook’s global vision for the world. The debate on globalism is a complex one, but The United States leadership on climate change is not.  Have we put ourselves at disadvantage by not being a leader willing to partner in climate change?

Are countries going to want to “make a deal” with us about innovation and technology in the energy sector? How will the impact on the global economy affect our local economy? Seems like this blog post has more questions than answers.

To attempt to answer this, I again consult the National Association of Social Workers Code of Ethics.  Section 6.04 in social action says…

(c) Social workers should promote conditions that encourage respect for cultural and social diversity within the United States and globally. Social workers should promote policies and practices that demonstrate respect for difference, support the expansion of cultural knowledge and resources, advocate for programs and institutions that demonstrate cultural competence, and promote policies that safeguard the rights of and confirm equity and social justice for all people.

No easy answers when thinking about dedicating United States funds which may help globally but detract from the local action. This also brings about thoughts of our core value of competence. That whatever we do to help the most vulnerable citizens in the Rust Belt, I hope it based on sound evidence.

Those policies are based on science and evidence-based practices to try to help these local economies. Whatever we do globally it places the people we serve in the healthiest and most prosperous situation.  It’s not just social workers who are thinking about the impact but physicians are weighing in as well …

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