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In this week's edition of Pambazuka News, Jared Ficklin reviews Peter Stalker's book , which uses clearly structured facts and figures to dispel common myths and misperceptions about migrants and migration around the world.

It has been over forty years since Enoch Powell’s infamous ‘rivers of blood’ speech of 1968. The modern immigration debate has not come far. Misconceptions of who migrates and why are held by even those who should know better, as was strikingly illustrated recently by a crown court judge who, while sentencing a cannabis dealer, blustered about ‘hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people like you (who) come to these shores from foreign countries to avail themselves of the generous welfare benefits that exist here.’ The judge may be censured by the Lord Chancellor for his outburst on the grounds it amounted to unacceptable political comment. If only His Honour had read The No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration, by Peter Stalker, he might have saved himself the trouble.

Chapter one, ‘How many immigrants are there?’, categorises migrants by their motivation for travel. The various immigrant streams are often conflated with asylum seekers, though they are separate groups and governed by different legal frameworks. The folly of this course is exposed by Stalker’s tidy exposition of migrant numbers and their destinations.

The second and third chapters, titled ‘Why people migrate and choosing the destination’, respectively, could have assisted the aforementioned judge. He would be surprised to learn that ‘economic migrants’ do not tend to base their migratory decisions on primarily economic concerns. It is the social networks between source and host nations that are mainly responsible for the ebb and flow of migrants. In the 1950s the UK recruited thousands of workers from the West Indies, creating cultural and personal linkages that continue today. Our unfortunate judge, who was sentencing a Jamaican man when his outrage boiled over, should have included the governments of the 1950s in his barrage.

Chapter four, ‘The economic benefits of migration’, shows clearly that immigrants are both a sign of and a driver for a strong economy. Far from being a drag on economies by claiming benefits and taking locals’ jobs, migrant workers prop up entire industries and provide a flexible, cheap and practically disposable resource. The commonly held belief that large immigration flows hamper the economy is more a reflection of tabloid marketing and partisan point-scoring than of the facts.

Chapter five, ‘Emigrants as heroes’, provides insight into the various factors that push migrants abroad and pull them home again. Stalker discusses in detail the ‘brain drain’ effect and the contributions migrants make to their home economy as well as their local one. Perhaps surprisingly, the country with the highest number of university graduates working overseas is the UK with 1.5 million seeking their fortunes abroad, mostly in the US. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before US tabloids run sneering headlines complaining about ‘American jobs for British workers’.

Chapter six takes a different tone to the rest of the book. Titled ‘The shock absorbers for the global economy’, it explains the economic models that underpin globalisation and industrialisation. The politicians know that their economies need the workers because the businesses tell them so. But to admit that would require public engagement with the realities of migration that most politicians don’t dare risk. Stalker states on the last page that ‘The fact is that in almost all cases migration is good for both source and destination countries’. The value of migrants as an economic and human resource is undeniable. Unfortunately, their value as scapegoats for politicians and newspapers is equally high.

It is easy to forget the main conclusion to be drawn from the book, which is ineluctable if only mildly stated by the author on page 97. That conclusion is that the opposition to immigration we hear in the tabloids, from government ministers, from the right-wing politicians and even, shamefully, some ‘quality’ newspapers stems from a cultural unease with people who are different, people who are alien.

The debate gets couched in languages of economics and security, but those arguments are shaky even when taken at their highest. Stalker notes that people in developed countries tend to believe that historical immigration was good, and present immigration is bad. But this view moves almost unchanged through time, as the ‘bad’ immigration of a previous era becomes accepted in later years.

No tabloid headline or politician’s call for limits on immigration of the last ten years is substantially different than this statement, made a hundred years ago by Francis Walker, then the President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ‘The entrance into our political, social and industrial life of such vast masses of peasantry is a matter which no intelligent patriot can look upon without the greatest apprehension and alarm… They are beaten men from beaten races, representing the worst failures in the struggle for existence’.

We now know that those ‘peasants’ were the engine of development for the economic dominance of the United States in the 20th century. Walker expresses, with greater eloquence, the same sentiments heard today. A hundred years from now guides to the facts about migration may include a quote from a certain crown court judge.


* The No-Nonsense Guide to International Migration (2008) by Peter Stalker is published by The New Internationalist. (ISBN 978-1904456-94-0)
* Jared Ficklin works with the Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit in the UK.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.