Thursday, May 17, 2012

Immigration Policy and Economic Migration

As most of you know Qatar has a strict immigration policy. Only citizens from a few countries, such as the GCC, can enter Qatar without a visa. And citizens of another 33 countries (pretty much the Western nations), can get a tourist visa on arrival. Everyone else needs to apply for a visa in advance and to get a work-visa/residence-permit you have to be sponsored by an employer. For a married couple the family can be sponsored by the person who has the residence permit but only if they earn above a certain level of income every month (I think QAR 10000 but I'm not 100% on that). If you lose your residence permit because you’ve lost your job you and everyone you're sponsoring have to leave the country. Also, there is pretty much no chance you'll ever become a citizen, no matter how long you've lived here.

It seems pretty strict but I'm not sure what choice Qatar has. It has the highest GDP per capita in the world and is close to India, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq and a number of other countries with large populations and issues with poverty. If Qatar wasn't so strict then hundreds of thousands of economic migrants would flood the country.

This got me thinking about poverty in other parts of the world and the rationales people come up with to explain it. Everyone points to Africa wondering why it continues to be mired in poverty despite its natural resources and aid from other countries. Similar things tend to be discussed about Central and South America, and some parts of Asia. People mention things like the possible after-effects of colonialism, or whether it's due to "cultural differences" compared to more successful countries, and a smattering of others have more racist views (“those” people will always have problems, they tend not to work hard, etc.). I remember an article a long time ago that pointed out that in the 1950s Kenya had a higher GDP per capita than South Korea, and now people ask why South Korea went on to be more successful than Kenya, implying cultural differences or work ethic may have been the key factor.

So when I looked at the countries we see as successful (i.e. “the West”, even though countries like Japan and South Korea are usually placed in this group) I noticed a trend that may also help explain part of their success -- isolation from massive economic migration when they were developing.

Part of the problem with aid to poor nations is that population growth and economic migration might swamp the initial benefit, essentially a macro version of "tragedy of the commons”. For example (on a small scale), if an aid group builds a well for a village of 500 people, but other nearby villages don't have clean water, then it is likely that people from the outlying villages, or migrants from farther away going to the area, will stay at the village with the well instead of the other villages. In a short period of time a well for 500 people might now be used by thousands of people. 10 years after the well was dug there is another appeal from the aid group for money to dig more wells because there's not enough clean water supplied by the first well for everyone. The initial improvement gained by the original 500 villagers is now depleted by the increase in people and so everyone is no better off than they were before.

On a macro-scale when a nation starts to become more prosperous it becomes a magnet for those who are less fortunate, who migrate to the country to try to improve their lives. We see this all the time now as illegal immigrants try to access Europe and North America. But when the “developed” nations were starting to grow and prosper it happened to coincide with circumstances that blocked being swamped by economic migration:

United States [early 20th century] – only one border for land migration by illegal immigrants (Mexico), a level of geographic isolation because of the desert between Mexico and the US, and the US was easily vast enough to absorb the migrants that did come.

Canada [anytime] -- surrounded by the United States, easier to reach the US and illegal migrants stopped in the US once they got there.

Australia and New Zealand [early 20th century] -- geographically isolated so difficult to reach

Japan [late 20th century] -- unique language, neighboring countries had tightly controlled borders preventing people from leaving (China, North Korea, Russia)

South Korea [late 20th century] -- neighboring countries had tightly controlled borders preventing people from leaving (China, North Korea, Russia)

South Africa [20th century] -- strict controls against economic migrants (the apartheid system)

Europe [19th century] -- fast modes of transportation from non-European countries had not really been developed. Prejudice against non-whites and geographically a challenge for an economic migrant to reach a country where he knows the language (if you think about it, with perhaps the exceptions of Algeria/Tunisia, countries in Africa close to Europe don't speak the language of the European country at the other side of the Mediterranean. England would've been too far for someone in Africa trekking by land.) The Sahara Desert also prevented a lot of migration.

Even within Europe I think language and cultural differences prevented a lot of cross-country migration. While the educated elite may have traveled around a lot I don't think poor farmers in Prussia were emigrating in droves to Paris or London, or thousands of Danes were sneaking into Italy for work.

Europe [post WWII] -- the Iron Curtain prevented migrants reaching Western Europe, with the exception of Africans, and for Africans the issues of prejudice, language and the Sahara Desert were still there (again I think Algeria/Tunisia were exceptions but France was large enough to absorb migration from there).

Hong Kong [20th century] – only one neighboring country, which had tightly controlled borders preventing people from leaving (China).

Now compare that to other countries that maybe 50 or 60 years ago had been highly regarded as eventually becoming wealthy, such as Kenya, Ivory Coast or Argentina. Easier to reach geographically for migrants and in many cases little to no challenge with language. Millions of economic migrants could pour into these countries the moment these countries started to be prosperous, causing a macro-scale tragedy of the commons and impeding the development (though it was less so with Argentina, perhaps due to its size and being on the southern edge of the continent). This will make it difficult for countries in these areas to be able to develop and improve without getting swamped by migrants seeking a better life as well. If Columbia opens a new mine, thousands of Peruvians will probably head over looking for work. Nigeria has lots of oil -- but also more than 100 million people, including lots of migration from nearby countries. Bolivians continue to go into Argentina and Brazil for work, and if things settle in South Sudan how long before people from Ethiopia or Chad head in to find opportunity amongst the oilfields? How many would head to Qatar if they could?

Now I find some aspects of this hypothesis disturbing as it would be supportive of a country implementing very strict border controls and immigration laws in order to allow the country to grow economically. Would South Africa have maintained its level of prosperity without the apartheid regime? Could Western Europe have maintained growth without the protection of the Iron Curtain? What if it'd been easier in the early 20th century for people in Central America to reach the US? It's an interesting thought experiment. I don't think Qatar has any choice but to continue with its strict policy.

Now strict immigration laws or border controls are of course not the only factor to becoming “developed” but I definitely see some correlation. It would be interesting to see how extensively this has been studied by sociologists or other academics.

No comments: