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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Monday, May 26, 2008

Immigration seems to be making more headlines in recent years. As the world globalizes in terms of nations’ economies, trade and investment, borders are opened up more easily for freer flow of goods and products. People are supposedly freer to move around the world, too.

On this page:

  1. Introduction—Worldwide Immigrants Statistics
  2. Why do people emigrate?
  3. Effects of Immigration
  4. United States
  5. United Kingdom
    1. Media Coverage
    2. Opinions reflect hype — especially during election time
  6. United Europe
  7. Economics, Poverty and Immigrant Scapegoats

Introduction—Worldwide Immigrants Statistics

Consider the following:

  • Worldwide, there is an estimated 191 million immigrants;
  • The last 50 years has seen an almost doubling of immigration;
  • 115 million immigrants live in developed countries;
  • 20% (approximately 38 million) live in the US alone, making up 13% of its population;
  • 33% of all immigrants live in Europe;
  • 75% live in just 28 countries;
  • Women constitute approximately half of all migrants at around 95 million;
  • Between 1990 and 2005
    • There were 36 million migrations (an average of approximately 2.4 million per year);
    • 33 million wound up in industrialized countries;
    • 75% of the increases occurred in just 17 countries;
    • Immigration decreased in 72 countries in the same period;


  • A Passage to Hope; Women and International Migration1; UNFPA State of the World Population 2006, September 2006, Introduction and Chapter 1 in particular
  • Pros and Cons of International Migration2, by Thalif Deen, Inter Press Service (IPS), September 15, 2006

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Why do people emigrate?

People emigrate from one country to another for a variety of complex reasons. Some are forced to move, due to conflict or to escape persecution and prejudices, while others may voluntarily emigrate. Although such a move may be necessary, it can be quite traumatic on top of the challenges experienced so far.

From another perspective, immigration can also represent an act of courage. For example,

  • Moving to a different country with different culture and norms can be quite daunting;
  • The potential loneliness to be suffered is not always easy to overcome;
  • There may be the additional pressure to earn enough to live (in a more expensive-to-live-in country) and send back meager savings.

An economic migrant, a person searching for work, or better opportunities, will be stepping into the unknown—an exciting prospect if the person is already well-to-do, or daunting at least, if out of desperation.

As Inter Press Service (IPS) reported, the European Union has recently acknowledged a concern about immigration that has not received much media attention. That is, a large number of people are attempting to leave the devastation of their own country caused by the current form of globalization3 and other political and economic policies, which, as well as creating winners, is creating a large number of losers, and increasing inequality. Tackling poverty and addressing issues of development and opportunity are important aspects of tackling this type of immigration.

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Effects of Immigration

Immigration can have positive and negative impacts on both the host (recipient) country, and the original country.

The recipient country is usually an industrialized country in Western Europe, or the United States. For these countries, immigrants offer various benefits such as the following:

  • Immigrants will often do jobs that people in the host country will not, or cannot do;
  • Migrant workers often work longer hours and for lower salaries, and while that is controversial, sometimes exploitive, it benefits the host country;
  • Immigrants, when made to feel welcome in the host society, can contribute to the diversity of that society, which can help with tolerance and understanding;
  • For the host country’s economy, immigrants offer an increased talent pool, if they have been well educated in their original country.

But there are also numerous drawbacks:

  • Immigrants can be exploited for their cheap labor;
  • Developing countries may suffer brain drain4 as the limited resources they spend in educating their students amount to very little if that talent is enticed to another country. (The UK for example is often accused of actively hiring medical staff from developing countries. The previous link details this issue further.)
  • Immigration can also attract criminal elements, from trafficking in drugs and people to other forms of crime and corruption;
  • Immigration can become a social/political issue, where racism can be used to exploit feelings or as an excuse for current woes of local population;
  • Where there is a perception that immigrants and refugees appear to get more benefits than local poor people, tensions and hostilities can also rise;
  • Concerns about illegal immigration can spill over to ill-feelings towards the majority of immigrants who are law-abiding and contributing to the economy;
  • Many die trying to flee their predicament, and this can often make sensational headlines giving the appearance that immigration is largely illegal and out of control.

Despite what appears to be large population movements, Gary Younge, from the Guardian noted some time ago that people still are not able to move as freely as commodities5. In some places around the world, there are additional restrictions being put up on people’s movements.

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United States

New York-based Human Rights Watch reports on how the US Immigration and Naturalization Service treat immigration detainees as though they were criminals by putting these otherwise innocent people in jail, indefinitely 6.

US immigration policies, (especially noticeable during the economic boom at the end of the 1990s) are interesting in that they are really designed to bring in immigrants with a certain level and type of education to help enhance the nation, economically. While at first thought this seems reasonable, there are a few ramifications:

  • A disproportionate representation of that ethnic population becomes part of the American culture;
  • As a result it affects the stereotypical image of such minorities seemingly in a positive way as always being hard-working but also as only interested in the pursuit of financial gains, for example.
  • However, a strange twist occurs:
    • Some politicians use such stereotyped groups to show how other immigrant populations in the US who have been around longer should follow newer immigrant’s examples
    • Some even using that as a basis to argue for a further cut in social welfare subsidies for example, unfairly blaming such people solely for their economic problems.
    • So, as an unfortunate example, South Asian Americans are inadvertently looked upon negatively by many in the Black and Latino communities, and vice versa.

For more details on this aspect, see for example, Vijay Prashad’s books, The Karma of Brown Folk (University of Minesota Press, 2000) and Everybody was Kung Fu Fighting, (Beacon Press, 2001).

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United Kingdom

In 1998, various human rights groups such as Amnesty International UK, expressed concerns7 at plans to improve the immigration process8.

Fears and concerns cited included the following:

  • This plan would allow immigration officers more power than before to detain and increase the number of asylum seekers whose appeals have been refused.
  • Having more checks by liaison officers at the ports and airports of the countries that the asylum seekers are leaving would prevent genuine asylum seekers being able to flee their country where human rights violations may be taking place.

Even though the number of people seeking asylum in UK is not as large as some other countries in Europe, Amnesty International, for example, raises the concern that UK’s current process means that the prison-like asylum centers house people who may be waiting up to seven years before their case can be heard.

It would seem that some of these concerns have come true while the media plays to the hype that politicians raise of immigration being out of control:

Media Coverage

Media portrayal of immigration and asylum issues was quite mainstream in 2003, for example. However, a look at how three mainstream British papers, the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent, respectively from the political right, left and center, reveals a common set of problems and similar levels of bias, as Matthew Randall summarizes:

As a rule, UK parliamentary debate on asylum and immigration is both selective and power serving. While the actual demographic and economic effects of immigration on the UK are rarely discussed, the causes of immigration — global inequality, conflict and human rights abuses — are ignored.

Irrespective of party, leading politicians repeatedly highlight issues of exclusion — fears of invasion, alleged threats and actual prejudices — ensuring a very negative image of immigrants despite their statistically small impact on society.... Concerns over crime, disease, terrorism, detention and surveillance are consistently pushed well to the fore.

This lack of balance can be attributed to a number of factors, including the existence of a covert racist ideology and the political expediency of the race card — factors that repeatedly compromise the welfare of refugees and immigrants.

Honest consideration of asylum and immigration issues should involve a far more diverse range of topics, reflecting the complexity of contemporary national and global relations. These include issues of nationalism, sovereignty, racism, demography, human rights, arms sales, war, refugee health, economic policy and moral responsibility.

Matthew Randall, Asylum and Immigration; Comparing the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent9, Media Lens, December 8, 2003

Often asked in England is why everyone wants to come to England. Yet, Randall, in the same article also notes that wider context is ignored leading to various skewed perceptions:

Is appropriate coverage given, for example, to the fact that in 2001 the UK had only 169,370 officially recognized refugees living within its borders compared to Germany’s 988,500, Iran’s 1.9 million or Pakistan’s 2.2 million? Are we made sufficiently aware that during the same year the UK received 71,365 applicants for asylum, granting this status to just 11,180 individuals — 0.02% of the UK population? Or that Pakistan received a single influx of 199,900 Afghan refugees? Or that the ten largest refugee movements in 2001 were, with the exception of Yugoslavia, all made between countries in the Third World?

How many of us learn from our press that UK population growth is slowing down to the extent that it has actually become a cause for concern? How many are aware that a 2002 UN report recommended replacement immigration as a solution to this problem, or that the recommendation was rejected by the European Commission on the grounds that the impact of immigration on population was insignificant?

What do the media have to say about the fact that the UK has recently sold arms to all five countries of origin topping the UK list of asylum applicants in 2001? This, despite the fact that, in each case, violent military conflict remains the dominant root cause of refugee flight. More generally, what emphasis is placed on adverse conditions in countries of origin — poverty, human rights abuses, global income disparity, conflict and torture — in articles concerned with asylum and immigration?

Matthew Randall, Asylum and Immigration; Comparing the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian and The Independent10, Media Lens, December 8, 2003

Randall also notes that, The issue of asylum and immigration is reported in terms of a threat and invasion despite a lack of statistical evidence supporting such dramatic claims. (Emphasis added). For example, the huge number of crimes committed against immigrants — from torture, forced eviction and illegal detention in their countries of origin, to property abuse and physical violence in the UK — is given far less attention than the much smaller proportion of crimes committed by immigrants themselves.

In terms of global context and wider coverage, the study noted:

  • Comparative analyses of immigration and asylum worldwide are barely referenced at all.
    • When this does briefly emerge, the issue in all cases involves a positive commentary on the strict exclusion policies of other European countries, and not, as might be expected, any analysis of the UK’s comparatively low