The tectonic shift in global migration?

Tim Kane
Tim Kane
Sep 10 · 3 min read

The past century must take lessons from history with caution because things are different now. A millennium of lessons from the wars and diplomacies of nation-states may, or may not, be relevant in this era when the nation-state is evolving, when technologies have erupted to transform communication and transport, when human capital is orders of magnitude higher. The masses are literate now, for starters. In my mind, these are the tectonic forces, and they are a helpful light on policy debates.

Immigration policy is being shaken by tectonic forces. In this new world, awareness of opportunities elsewhere is much more salient than a century ago. International transportation costs have fallen dramatically, whereas communication costs have simply collapsed to nothing in just twenty years. Diasporas are buzzing, beckoning. Right?

Paul Collier, in his book EXODUS, puts forth a theory that global migration is accelerating. I believed this theory before I’d seen Collier’s book, but he makes a very convincing case that strengthens my confidence. The arguments behind the theory are very insightful, but what I’d like to do here is to examine the empirics more thoroughly than he did. I want to make sure we’re both right. Let me start where Collier left off with this set of quotes:

“Migrants are essentially escaping from countries with dysfunctional social models.” You might quibble about the broad brush here because most migration is internal, or say between similar countries in the same region, or that “inferior” is a more accurate word than “dysfunctional” — but his sentiment is one that advocates for refugees would want you to accept. Syria. Cuba. Even China. These migrants are escaping. Even the so-called “economic migrant” is voting with their feet for a culture with better opportunities.

“Migration is an investment.” Pithy but valuable framework recognizing that costs precede benefits for the migrant.

“The implication is that migration from poor countries to rich is set to accelerate. For the foreseeable future, international migration will not reach equilibrium: we have been observing the beginnings of disequilibrium of epic proportions.” (emphasis original)

“What took off, from under 20 million [in 1960] to over 60 million [in 2000], was migration from poor countries to rich ones. Further, the increase accelerated decade by decade.” He notes then that the global data as of the book’s writing ends at the year 2000.

Reviewing the Evidence

The UN offers data & graphics from 1990 to 2017 that documents the raw numbers of migrations among regions. The data source for the UN has a clearer infographic & datasheet for 2005–10, and the bottom line is that inflows to North America over 5-year periods stopped accelerating after the year 2000. Stabilized, but with interesting sub-patterns:

1990–95: 6.5m total, of which 800,000 from East Asia, 400,000 from South Asia, etc.

1995–2000: 9.5m total, of which 1m from East Asia, 1m from South Asia.

2000–05: 8.8m total, 1.5m EA, 1.1m SA

2005–10: 8.0m, 1.0m EA, 1.5m SA

A hasty interpretation is that Collier is wrong because migrant flows have not increased after the year 2000, but it is also true that the flow remains historically high. Gross inflows to Europe rose from 8m during the first half of the 90s to 10.5m during 2005–10, but net inflows doubled from 4m to 8m. Meanwhile, net outflows from South Asia went from 500,000 to 8.4m. Africa’s net outflow doubled while East Asia’s net outflow tripled.

My interpretation is that push factors are strong and still growing. Wealthier societies are clearly raising barriers to stem the flows, which is perhaps what Collier foresaw as a consequence. Interesting times.

Tim Kane

Written by

Tim Kane

Economist, entrepreneur, US Air Force veteran, and co-author of BALANCE: The Economics of Great Powers

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