From emigration to return migration: New ball game?

Imtiaz A. Hussain   | Published: April 25, 2019 21:59:41

In a new study using a new measurement methodology (called "pseudo Bayes"), James Urton-Washington reported how just under half of all global migrants between 1990 and 2015 have returned home (World Economic Forum, Newsletter, January 08, 2019). Differentiating "emigration," "return migration," and "transit migration" from each other, the "pseudo-Bayes" method goes beyond the typically collected information at immigration entry-ports. Such information documents country of origin, birth date, and port of new-country entry-date. Left out of the calculations are all the dynamics between departure and arrival dates. As contemporary refugees illustrate, a lot can happen in between.

Of course, the 45 per cent return-rate mentioned is consistent with the massive refugee flows during that time: genocide in Rwanda involved huge movements both ways once peace was established, as was roughly the case for Afghanistan, Iraq, and, more recently Syria, among others. No wonder the migration rates they report for that time-period are the highest: between 1.1 and 1.3 per cent of the world population. That meant, they say, a minimum of 34-46 million and a maximum of 67-87 million people moved every five-years since 1990. One can imagine why a gargantuan movement like this was possible in a neo-liberal age (even the Cold War human flows do not add up to so much, in part, because there were more hurdles to border-crossings than later). One can also deduce how and why these recent developments snowballed into the populist, nativist, and protectionist mindsets today.

The author does not talk about these, but clearly current-day moods have also played an enormous part in "return migration". He notes now 2.1 million Mexicans entered the United States during 2010-15, but also how 1.3 million of them returned to Mexico. That was before President Donald J. Trump's border-wall threat (but exposes how his border wall campaign argument was built upon flawed facts, a tactic often employed by populists). Before him, the affable President Barack Obama is known to have taken the hardest stand against Mexicans, which the author's data convey. If the populism-driven current Trump data is fitted in, anecdotal evidence suggests more Mexicans returning to Mexico from the United States than leaving for that country: a vast majority of migrants using Mexico-US borders are Central Americans.

Yet, this illustration opens a can of worms. Imagine the infrastructures that must be in place to cater to these new arrivals. If they just happen to be there for independent prior reasons, then finding a job solves the immigrant's immediate concerns: with their new income, they can find/fund housing, food, clothing, transportation media, and market transactions. The United States had these until inflows reached a tipping-point this century (hence rolling today's populist ball in slow motion from then). This may also have been behind Great Britain's desire to leave the European Union: triggered not just against European inflows, but in one fell swoop inflows from many other parts of the world from long before, suggesting how deep the populism strain really goes.

Now imagine return migration. Quite likely, if the infrastructures were there in the first place, and foremost in terms of security, the migratory outflows might not have become an issue. Yet, when they return, they face either an infrastructure deficit from what they just experienced, or a steady-state atmosphere as a welcoming mat. Mexicans might fall in both categories: the undocumented returnees in the former, the well-established returnees in the latter. Of course, the 1990-2015 era is also known for the relative decline of the US economy globally, being matched by the relatively (and resilient) growth in the Chinese, Indian, and other migrant home-countries. They were ready for both types of returnees: the low-waged to make their machines work, and the high-skilled who will also bring fresh capital (even if just his/her savings), for uncharted investments.

One might now consider Bangladesh's case. It has, over the 1990-2015 period, sent out many migrants, both low-wage workers and high-skilled emigrants, incrementally: in the 1990-95 span roughly 1.2 million went abroad to work, but by 2010-15, twice that number were leaving. Half of the over 6.0 million migrants abroad by 2015 were in India, which along with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, accounted for over four-fifth of our migrants. Yet, upscale migrants also expanded, albeit on a smaller scale, and headed to the Atlantic or Southeast Asian seaboards.

Like the Mexicans, many have also gone illegally, as newspaper reports from India, Malaysia, and Thailand inform us constantly (among other countries). When our low-waged return migrants arrive, they face a steady-state interim: no gain, but no immediate pain unless they can find a job quickly. Bangladesh's low unemployment figures show this has not been a problematic arena. With the high-waged returnees, new frontiers open up and opportunities expand. From purchasing property to initiating business, they add to the economy notably; and particularly those who come from the Atlantic seaboard. One might keep in mind Bangladesh's immigrants in the United States have a far higher initial income threshold and fewer transitional problems than many non-European migrants. We stand to gain when they come back.

Our benefit is enhanced if they carry dual citizenship: they can help both countries they belong to, particularly if their elevated status is converted into some enterprising venture. This is the group likely to spur Bangladesh's current growth: our admirably, even envious, sustainable economic growth has increasingly enticed expatriates to keep at least one foot here, though Trump-like developments in other countries might make that two.

This is one way protectionism can be thawed in countries like the United States: through investments of a bulging dual citizenship population sample. By producing in the United States, they create jobs when jobs have been disappearing, as the likes of Wayfair CEO Indo-American Niraj Shah, or Rakesh Gangwal, have done; and similarly for the United Kingdom, like the British Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Niwas Mittal has shown. Birth-country markets for foreign entrepreneurs may be a positive approach to dissolving today's emergent nationalism, populism, and protectionism.

Of course, reality is not as clean, simple, or straight as that; but at least it exposes how today's emotional quagmire in inter-country relations can be given a better chance and pushed towards more attractive destinations. In short, the more transitive our time, thereby constantly throwing new challenges at us before the previous ones get sorted out, the growth of opportunities also open doors should we care to explore them further. Migration is a double-edge idea whose constructive side needs more attention. It might be our last, but most determined effort to bring rampant populism to heel.

Bangladesh's worry is not about populist constraints as much. It is more how we can efficiently utilise our productive migrants and expatriates beyond the remittance: just as those remittances have been our "golden fleece" throughout this entire century, if not more, the real pot of gold would be ours if central planning directs migrant contributions into investments. Whether public or private, the demand is high, and the welcome eagerly expectant.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.



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