What If Rich Countries Shut the Door on Immigration?

They would start to look like North Korea, says an Oxford professor

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Migrants who arrived in the port of the Italian island of Lampedusa wait to be transferred by the military to a reception center inland. Italy and France agreed in April of 2011 to carry out joint patrols along Tunisia's coast to block migrants headed for Europe, with the French interior minister saying there was no duty to take in so-called boat people.

This is a “what if” interview from the World Economic Forum’s Risk Response Network. To view the rest of the series, click here.

Amid a global recession, catastrophic rates of unemployment in developed countries and a rising tide of xenophobia, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with TIME, speaks with Ian Goldin, director of the Oxford Martin School and a professor of globalization and development at the University of Oxford, about the likelihood of anti-immigrant policies coming to the fore. Goldin warns that such policies would not only harm communities the world over, but be counterproductive.

Are we in the throes of a global backlash against immigration?
We’re seeing an increasing focus on immigration in response to the severe economic crisis, rising unemployment and falling living standards. As has happened throughout history, there’s a tendency to blame immigrants for these problems. Politically, it’s an easy option, but it’s never worked out too well as a strategy.

And there are clear signs of this?
In the worst case, there has been a wave of physical attacks on immigrants in Greece this year, with people being beaten up or stabbed just because of the way they look. On the political level, there are also very real examples of anti-immigration policies. In the U.K., the government has put dramatic caps on migration, which are making it hard to hire skilled workers. It’s so difficult to get a visa now that I’m finding that people from, say, China or South Africa are no longer willing to come to academic conferences here. In Spain, immigrants are offered lump-sum payments to go home. In the recent French elections, the far-right National Front campaigned heavily against migration and won almost a fifth of the votes. In the U.S., immigration is a hot topic ahead of the elections, although what’s interesting there is that since Latinos are such a significant voting force it changes the dynamic.

What would have to happen for a government to really shut the door?
If rich countries were really going to shut the door on immigration, they would need to stop international flights, block their ports, end tourism and brace themselves for a rapid contraction in GDP. Far from seeing unemployment fall, it would rise: companies would fail as they lose staff and management, and demand would fall. Ironically, we would expect to see a higher number of illegal immigrants. In the U.S., whenever the government has taken a tougher line on immigration-law enforcement, the number of Mexicans living there illegally has actually risen. This makes sense when you consider that, if you know you’re not going to be allowed back into a country, you’re going to stay, rather than leave when the jobs dry up.

Who would feel the impact the most?
Migrants to start with: the legal ones before the illegal ones. Then everyone else. So many industries — from agriculture to health care to construction to technology to tourism — depend on migrant workers. Hospitals would close as they lose cleaners and heart surgeons alike. Women who depend on foreign nannies to go out to work would suffer. There would also be a very damaging impact on the migrants’ home countries: in many developing countries, it is striking that the financial support from expatriate remittances well exceeds foreign aid — yet this vital assistance would dry up.

What would the broader consequences be?
As well as the ethical implications and the loss of cultural diversity, locking out immigrants would fundamentally undermine the competitiveness of developed economies. Immigrants are a self-selecting group: they’re the risk takers, the ones who are ready to make a massive sacrifice. It takes a lot of bravery to become an outsider, which makes migrants a great source of dynamism. If you look at the U.S., more than half the start-ups in Silicon Valley are founded by migrants, as well as many of the most iconic firms — Apple, Google, Yahoo, PayPal. Migrants account for more than three times as many Nobel laureates and Academy Award film directors as native-born Americans. Developed countries can’t afford to lose them.

What would a society without immigration feel like?
It would be like living in North Korea.

What’s the best way to prevent a backlash against migration?
I’m not politically naive. I’m not recommending open borders, though that might be an ideal to work toward, just as we have with free-trade negotiations over a period of around 50 years. For now, the first thing is to recognize that migration has not been managed well enough. Migrants bring with them short-term, local costs, whereas the benefits are society-wide and long term, so there is a mismatch. Whether we’re talking about Lampedusa, the island off the coast of Italy that is the first port of call for refugees from Tunisia, or Slough, a British town with a large migrant population, local people understandably feel that immigration is a burden. It’s a national issue that needs to be managed on the national level. Second, leaders need to be more honest. What’s depressing about the current status quo is that there’s no empirical evidence to support this view that immigrants take people’s jobs, swallow up resources and are a drag on the economy. But the myth is propagated, despite the fact that, depending on how far you go back, we’re all immigrants. In Britain, Queen Victoria grew up speaking German, and somehow she still came to be seen as this symbol of Britishness. We create huge myths all the time, instead of focusing on the facts. For example, if rich countries were to admit enough migrants from poor countries to expand their own labor forces by just 3%, the world would be richer, according to one estimate, by $356 billion a year. Toronto is made up of 50% immigrants, and it’s consistently ranked as one of the best cities to live in the world. We need more data, and less hearsay.

Is this something that’s important to you personally?
Migration has always been a way to escape famine, poverty and persecution. Without migration, I wouldn’t be here, both in the specific sense, as a South African living in England, and in the most literal one. If they hadn’t been able to leave Austria, my family would have been killed by the Nazis.

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