Listening to Migrants

Jeremy Harding

The Immigration Bill, introduced today, contains draconian provisions for rooting out unauthorised migrants and a proposal to charge foreigners using the NHS. Whatever message it sends to unauthorised migrants, it waves a dingy flag at migrants in general. Does it matter what they think or how they wave back? Listening to migrants is not a core priority for scholars and number-crunchers in Europe, where an array of statistical work is done on immigration. Economists and social planners want to know whether it’s harmful or handy, a strain on housing stock and public services or a boon to host countries. Development researchers want to know how much wealth it transfers to the global south. The examination is endless; in the process migrants undergo a full battery of tests, but they’re seldom asked to describe their own symptoms.

Published last month, the International Organisation for Migration's World Migration Report 2013 draws on findings by the Gallup World Poll to sketch what it calls ‘the experiential dimension’ of migration, ‘as opposed to the usual focus on disembodied socioeconomic dynamics’. Do migrants feel safer, more financially secure, healthier, happier, better housed, liable to enjoy better working conditions than they imagine they would have been if they’d stayed put? That depends on the direction they’ve taken, and the World Migration Report identifies four: south to north, south to south, north to north, and north to south. The Gallup sample includes 25,000 migrants and vastly more native-born residents in all countries canvased, which allows for subjective and fact-based comparisons between the two groups.

Most migrants move south to north; next come south-southers, followed by north-northers. Finally a small but growing number move from north to south. South-north migrants think of themselves as better off than they would have been in their countries of origin. Not so south-south migrants, who tell themselves they should have stayed at home. Respondents were asked to rate their general wellbeing on a scale of 0 to 10: south-north migrants give a lower score than native born. When asked to imagine life five years down the road, newcomers – less than five years’ standing – feel marginally more optimistic than the native born in host countries. Migrants of more than five years’ standing feel less confident than either. Fewer south-north migrants report problems with basic needs – food and shelter – than their compatriots who didn’t migrate. Nonetheless in their host countries they feature in far greater numbers than native-born in the lowest income bracket.

Fewer than 30 per cent of migrants in the north send money home. The global value of remittances in 2012 was roughly $500 billion, of which $100 billion went north-north or south-north, leaving $400 billion for the developing world – a figure that remains unmatched by official aid as a development tool. The report doesn’t say whether migrants ‘feel’ better or worse for remitting money, and it doesn’t repeat what the World Bank said last year: that in spite of the global economic downturn, remittances remain buoyant. The World Bank reckons $530 billion could be remitted to developing countries in 2015.

So what is migrant wellbeing, re-expressed as a harsher, down-to-earth description of movement and resettlement? In south-to-north terms it’s about being tougher and more longsuffering than the natives, sometimes feeling estranged and bleak, fed up with oneself and one’s reluctant hosts, delighted to be treated even-handedly, ready – in the case of remittance senders – to get a foothold in a volatile global economy for family back home.

A narrow tranche of migrants is excluded from the Gallup findings. In the words of the report, ‘there are many subgroups of the migrant population – stranded migrants, victims of trafficking, unaccompanied minors, migrants in an irregular situation – who are not identified in the data.' The total for irregular migrants worldwide could be around 25 million. And Britain could be hosting between half a million and a million. Hundreds of thousands of people are ministering to our needs in the grey economy. We don’t know how they rate themselves out of ten on the wellbeing ladder, but the government’s new bill aims to saw off the rungs and kick the stiles to the ground.