IELTS Reading Academic 26

On the move

Economic analysis sheds light on the history of migration and on its future

A.  DURING successive waves of globalisation in the three centuries leading up to the first world war, migration of labour was consistently one of the biggest drivers of economic change. Since 1945 the world has experienced a new era of accelerating globalisation, and the international movement of labour is proving once again to be of the greatest economic and social significance. As a new study by Barry Chiswick of the University of Illinois at Chicago and Timothy Hatton of the University of Essex makes plain, it is economic factors that have been uppermost throughout the history of migration.

B.  For many years after the discovery of America, the flow of, free migrants from Europe was steady but quite small: transport costs were high, conditions harsh and the dangers of migration great. In 1650 a free migrant's passage to North America cost nearly half a year's wages for a farm labourer in southern England. Slavery predominated until the slave trade was stopped in the first half of the 19th century. By around 1800, North America and the Caribbean islands had received some 8m immigrants. Of these, about 7m were African slaves.

C.  The first era of mass voluntary migration was between 1850 and 1913. Over 1m people a year were drawn to the new world by the turn of the 20th century. Growing prosperity; falling transport costs and lower risk all pushed in the same direction. Between 1914 and 1945, war, global depression and government policy reduced migration. During some years in the 1930s, people returning to Europe from the United States, even though comparatively few, actually outnumbered immigrants going the other way. After the second world war the cost of travel fell steeply. But now the pattern changed. Before long Europe declined as a source of immigration and grew as a destination. Emigration from developing countries expanded rapidly: incomes there rose enough to make emigration feasible, but not enough to make it pointless. Many governments began trying to control immigration. Numbers, legal and illegal, surged nonetheless, as economics had its way.

D.  Migration, it is safe to assume, is in the interests of (voluntary) migrants: they would not move otherwise. The evidence suggests that it is also very much in the overall interests of the receiving countries. But, as Mr Chiswick and Mr Hatton point out, there are losers in those countries. The increase in the supply of labour means that the wages of competing workers may fall, at least to start with.

E.  The economic conditions now seem propitious for an enormous further expansion of migration. On the face of it, this will be much like that of a century ago. As before, the main expansionary pressures arc rising incomes in the rich countries and rising incomes in the poor ones. (This second point is often neglected: as poor countries get a little less poor, emigration tends to increase, because people acquire the means to move.) The study emphasises, however, two crucial differences between then and now.

F.  One is that, in the first decade of the 20th century, the receiving countries needed lots of unskilled workers in industry and farming. In the first decade of the 21st century, in contrast, opportunities for unskilled workers are dwindling. In the United States, wages of unskilled workers are falling. The fall is enough to hurt the workers concerned, but not to deter new immigrants.

G.  And the other big difference between now and a century ago? It is that the affected rich-country workers are in a stronger position to complain, and get something done. The most likely result is that a trend that is already well established will continue: countries will try to restrict the immigration of unskilled workers, giving preference to workers with skills.

H.  This does help, in one way, quite apart from narrowing the rich countries' shortage of skilled workers: it reduces the pressure to make low wages even lower. However, the idea has drawbacks too. It turns away many of the poorest people who want to migrate, which is hard to justify in humanitarian terms. Also, it pushes others from this group into illegal immigration, which exposes them to dangers, makes integration more difficult and may even make the wages of low-paid workers even lower than if the same migrants entered legally. On top of all this is the loss of skilled workers in the sending countries. Already some of the world's poorest nations lose almost all the doctors they train to jobs in Europe or North America. Money immigrants send home offsets some of that loss, but not all.

I.  Today's migration, much more than the migration of old, poses some insoluble dilemmas. Belief in individual freedom suggests that rich countries should adopt more liberal immigration rules, both for unskilled migrants and skilled ones. With or without such rules, more migrants are coming. And in either case, the question of compensation for the losers, in rich countries and poor countries alike, will demand some attention.