Amid a global recession, catastrophic rates of unemployment in developed countries and a rising tide of xenophobia, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with TIME, speaks with Ian Goldin, director of the Oxford Martin School and a professor of globalization and development at the University of Oxford, about the likelihood of anti-immigrant policies coming to the fore. Goldin warns that such policies would not only harm communities the world over, but be counterproductive.
Are we in the throes of a global backlash against immigration?
We’re seeing an increasing focus on immigration in response to the severe economic crisis, rising unemployment and falling living standards. As has happened throughout history, there’s a tendency to blame immigrants for these problems. Politically, it’s an easy option, but it’s never worked out too well as a strategy.
And there are clear signs of this?
In the worst case, there has been a wave of physical attacks on immigrants in Greece this year, with people being beaten up or stabbed just because of the way they look. On the political level, there are also very real examples of anti-immigration policies. In the U.K., the government has put dramatic caps on migration, which are making it hard to hire skilled workers. It’s so difficult to get a visa now that I’m finding that people from, say, China or South Africa are no longer willing to come to academic conferences here. In Spain, immigrants are offered lump-sum payments to go home. In the recent French elections, the far-right National Front campaigned heavily against migration and won almost a fifth of the votes. In the U.S., immigration is a hot topic ahead of the elections, although what’s interesting there is that since Latinos are such a significant voting force it changes the dynamic.
What would have to happen for a government to really shut the door?
If rich countries were really going to shut the door on immigration, they would need to stop international flights, block their ports, end tourism and brace themselves for a rapid contraction in GDP. Far from seeing unemployment fall, it would rise: companies would fail as they lose staff and management, and demand would fall. Ironically, we would expect to see a higher number of illegal immigrants. In the U.S., whenever the government has taken a tougher line on immigration-law enforcement, the number of Mexicans living there illegally has actually risen. This makes sense when you consider that, if you know you’re not going to be allowed back into a country, you’re going to stay, rather than leave when the jobs dry up.
Who would feel the impact the most?
Migrants to start with: the legal ones before the illegal ones. Then everyone else. So many industries — from agriculture to health care to construction to technology to tourism — depend on migrant workers. Hospitals would close as they lose cleaners and heart surgeons alike. Women who depend on foreign nannies to go out to work would suffer. There would also be a very damaging impact on the migrants’ home countries: in many developing countries, it is striking that the financial support from expatriate remittances well exceeds foreign aid — yet this vital assistance would dry up.