Migration Restrictions as a Barrier to Development

Living abroad is undoubtedly one of life’s most enjoyable, interesting, and eye-opening experiences. By stimulating economic growth and cultural exchange, it is also something that literally and figuratively enriches entire nations and the world as a whole. So, does placing restrictions on cross-border migration present a possible barrier to economic and human development?

My parents are originally from Hong Kong and emigrated to the U.K. during the 1960s, along with many thousands of other Hong Kong citizens. My mother arrived without knowing a word of English yet was welcomed warmly by the medical training school that she attended. She stayed in the U.K., working as a nurse for nearly 40 years, while others chose to return to Hong Kong, taking back with them the education, training and experience that they had acquired abroad.

Following in my parents’ international footsteps, for the past couple of years I have lived and worked in Spain. Aside from some logistical and social obstacles – such as finding a new house, making new friends, and learning a new language – the process of emigrating and starting a job there was pretty simple. For many people, however, emigrating abroad, permanently or temporarily, is much more difficult as many countries have strict immigration constraints against the inflow of citizens of certain nations.

The extent of this problem is illustrated by the results of a survey conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) and the French Agency for Development (AFD), who collected data from 146 countries between 2008 and 2010. They found that roughly 630 million adults, around 14 percent of all adults in the world, said that they would like to move to another country permanently if they had the opportunity. Findings from the Gallup World Poll also revealed that around 1.2 million people wanted to migrate temporarily for work purposes. However, only ten percent of the people who said they would like to migrate were actually planning to do so in the following year. Clearly, there is something preventing the other 90 percent from pursuing their dream of migrating.

While gaining permission to work in a foreign nation is difficult, for many, rigid domestic rules occasionally make it virtually impossible for some people to even legally leave their home country. In light of its recent major emigration reforms, Cuba provides an interesting example. (The policy changes are summarized in a 2012 report called ‘Migration Policy Reform: Cuba Gets Started, U.S. Should Follow‘, written by Philip Peters, Vice-President of the Lexington Institute whose mission it is to inform the public of the priorities necessary to ensure the future success of democracy).

Until recently, Cuba severely restricted the abilities of Cubans to leave the country: Cuban citizens had to purchase an exit visa costing around six months of a typical salary as well as present an official letter of invitation from someone in the destination country, regardless of the duration or purpose of the visit. Also, anyone who left the country could not return without first obtaining permission from the government. In summary, it was difficult and expensive to leave, and once you had, you ran the risk of not being allowed to return.

These restrictions were intended to prevent a ‘brain-drain’, whereby a large number of highly-educated and skilled workers leave in pursuit of better working conditions elsewhere, leaving only a few to provide vital services and to contribute to development in the home country. In spite of these restrictions, the number of Cubans who have travelled abroad since 2001 and not returned is more than 120,000, of whom over 15,000 are university graduates. Probably this number would have been considerably higher had the restrictions not been in place, but it wasn’t just highly-qualified professionals who were deterred from leaving – many people who wanted to visit relatives abroad, or who simply wanted to see and experience the world outside of Cuba, were unable to do so.

On 14 January 2013, major reforms took place. The need for an exit visa and a letter of invitation was abolished and most Cubans now only need a valid passport in order to leave the country. Some will still be subject to strict regulations if they are deemed to be necessary to the “economic, social, scientific, or technological development of the country” and other criteria and how this is to be implemented awaits to be seen. Additionally, restrictions on existing emigrants who wish to return to Cuba were lifted. In a reversal of policy logic, in a bid to stop their brain-drain, the Cuban government is hoping that if its citizens are allowed to travel more freely, then although more Cubans may opt to emigrate temporarily, many will later return, bringing with them the educational, wealth and knowledge benefits that they have acquired abroad.

Although the results of Cuba’s reforms will be not be seen for a few years, there is ample reason to be optimistic. The ‘Development on the Move‘ report, published in 2010 by the international Global Development Network (GDN) and the U.K.’s Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) found that “people who migrate from developing countries greatly increase their own income and bring many benefits to their families and communities back home,” positives that counteract negative effects such as brain-drain. A 2011 paper entitled ‘Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?‘ by economist Michael Clemens, a migration expert at the Washington DC-based think tank Center for Global Development, came to the conclusion that if all migration barriers were relaxed, enabling people to move freely and to work in any country, the world’s economy would increase by between 50-150 percent. In other words, the world’s wealth could more than double.

Aside from the potential economic gains, the numerous personal advantages of living abroad – experiencing a new culture and society, learning a new language, meeting people who have different values from those you are accustomed to, learning how different people solve the same problems – benefit society as a whole. A 1997 article by psychology Professor John W. Berry of Queen’s University, who is one of the main founders of the field of acculturation (explaining the process of cultural and psychological change resulting from the meeting of cultures) concludes that,

“from a social systems perspective, cultural diversity enhances society’s adaptability: alternative ways of living are available in the social system when attempting to meet changing circumstances.”

Whether they choose to settle abroad or to return to their home country, people who have traveled widely tend to have experienced and therefore be able to deal with situations beyond their familiar ones. They learn to understand why others may behave and think differently to themselves, making them open-minded and tolerant. They are therefore the ones who can drive society forward. In the words of Dr. Danny Sriskandarajan, director of the Development on the Move project:

“Migration offers one of the best routes to improving development prospects for individuals and countries alike.

Should cross-border migration be free and open? Please leave a reply below.

Tracey Li is a Research and Communications Intern with INESAD.

Like this article? Sign up at the top of this page for email updates.

For your reference:

Berry, JW 1997, ‘Immigration, Acculturation, and Adaptation’, Applied Psychology, Vol. 46, Issue 1, pp. 5-34. <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/store/10.1111/j.1464-0597.1997.tb01087.x/asset/j.1464-0597.1997.tb01087.x.pdf?v=1&t=he058ioz&s=428d22cca0280850768adca85ac88bda68b70b4e>

Clemens, MA 2011, ‘Economics and Emigration: Trillion-Dollar Bills on the Sidewalk?’, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 25, No. 3, pp. 83-106. <http://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/jep.25.3.83>

Esipova, J, Ray, J, Renard, A, The Gallup Blog, 19 October 2012, OECD Report Profiles the World’s 630 Million Potential Migrants. <http://thegallupblog.gallup.com/2012/10/oecd-report-profiles-worlds-630-million.html>

Peters, P, Lexington Institute December 2012, Migration Policy Reform: Cuba Gets Started, U.S. Should Follow. <http://www.lexingtoninstitute.org/library/resources/documents/Cuba/ResearchProducts/CubanMigration.pdf>

Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, 20 May 2010, International report: migration good for developing countries.<http://www.jcwi.org.uk/2010/05/20/international-report-migration-good-for-developing-countries>

OECD 5 October 2012, Connecting with Emigrants: A Global Profile of Diasporas. <http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/content/book/9789264177949-en>



Check Also

Dollar Street: A virtual trip around the world to fight xenophobia

By: Lykke E. Andersen* A phobia is an irrational fear of something. We all suffer …

One comment

  1. Yes, cross border migration should be free and open. What if passports are no longer required ? One Globe, One World !!! In fact we all are citizens of the globe, at least nature created us to be such.

    It is an interesting topic with as many points in favor and against. But I agree on free borders and immigration.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: