What is the problem with economic migration?

For a number of years now, migration has been one of the most prominent topics in the media – with local peaks in some countries, often caused by upcoming elections, as it has become quite obvious that it is a topic that has the ability to move voters, in one way or the other. In the Western (a.k.a. ‘developed’ or even ‘civilized’) countries, generally speaking a clear majority of the population agrees that, in the context of the migration which is covered so abundantly in the media, refugees fleeing for war should be allowed to migrate to those countries for humanitarian reasons.

But if it comes to migration for economic reasons, the willingness to allow access to the territory is dramatically lower – even amongst large parts of the population that would never even consider voting for extreme right and/or populist parties, traditionally the loudest anti-migration voices. I am wondering why this is the case. As I see it, large scale economic migration has existed for centuries without outbursts of Western protest, so what is causing this change of attitude? Perhaps I should attempt to figure out what is different now from the way it was happening before…

Let’s try breaking it down into separate elements, by looking at factors such as the areas that have been source and destination, the objects migrating, the consideration of who took the decision, the beneficiaries of the outcome, etc. For centuries the economic migration from mainly Africa and South America to the Western world consisted of minerals, raw materials and other resources (some of them human, but only in form, not in the way they were (mis)treated – yes, I’m referring to slavery). And hardly any objection to this in those ‘developed’ countries. In fact this very process was one of the main reasons why exactly these nations have become known as the developed countries. Admittedly, over the centuries the way in which this was (and still is) happening has become more civilized: the initial plundering by means of force and weapons has been replaced by plundering by means of lawyers and lobbyists – as if some official looking paperwork with a corrupt local regime makes it any more acceptable.

But hang on… if you start looking at who takes the decision and who profits, there is indeed a difference. In the recent type of economic migration that causes the protest, the resources – human resources to be more specific – take the decision to migrate with the intention of finding a better future. As universal access to internet allows humans all over the globe to see that living standards and living conditions are very much unequally distributed, some of them decide to follow the path that a lot of the resources from their countries have been forced onto. And that is being met in the ‘civilized’ Western countries with fences and (plans for) walls. From a historic perspective I find it very difficult to understand it, let alone consider it to be justified.


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