Counterproductive effects of non-cooperative policies

The current governance of international migration flows, characterised by the lack of international co-operation and the restrictive nature of policies, is the result of a political trade-off between voters' preferences and interest group pressures. It is, however, striking that the main beneficiaries of a more open migration-policy regime, the migrants themselves, are not part of the political process in the countries of immigration, at least ex an te (Hatton, 2007). This does not mean that they are the only losers in the current system. In fact, migration protectionism is not intrinsically different from trade protectionism: it is a noncooperative strategy resulting in a sub-optimal equilibrium. But what exactly are the adverse effects of restrictive migration measures?

Financial and human cost of restrictive migration policies

The costs of restrictive immigration policies are less evident than those of trade protectionism, the adverse effects of which have long been identified.13 Yet non-cooperative migration policies generate negative externalities, not only for the countries of origin, but also for those of destination (Fernandez-Huertas Moraga, 2008).

Figure 2.2 illustrates these negative externalities. Countries of origin incur a welfare loss arising from the fact that emigration cannot act as a safety valve for the labour market and that the economy receives a relatively small amount of remittances (see Chapter 4). In turn, countries of emigration have few incentives to co-operate to restrict emigration and irregular immigration tends to increase. As a result, countries of destination face high costs in enforcing immigration laws, which are eventually assumed by taxpayers.

Figure 2.2. The negative externalities of non-cooperative migration policies

Welfare loss

The strengthening of border controls requires a growing number of officials in charge of issuing visas, controlling entries, enforcing laws, patrolling borders, or deporting undocumented immigrants. Martin (2004) estimates that in 2002

five industrialised countries alone (Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States) spent around USD 17 billion enforcing migration restrictions. Salant and Weeks (2007) argue that law enforcement activities involving unauthorised immigrants in the 24 US counties along the US-Mexico border cost around USD 192 million in 2006 (USD 1.23 billion in total between 1999 and 2006). San Diego County, by spending USD 77 million, incurred almost half of all these costs (USD 565 million over the 1999-2006 period.)

Altogether, the US spent around USD 15 billion in 2009 on border enforcement: USD 9.5 billion for US Customs and Border Protection, and USD 5.4 billion for US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Hanson, 2009). These costs do not include deportations of immigrants to their home country. In France, a 2008 Senate Report estimated that the annual cost of expelling undocumented foreigners was about EUR 415.2 million, implying EUR 20 970 per individual (Bernard-Reymond, 2008).

In addition, several countries around the world have taken the radical decision to erect walls, not only for security-related reasons (Israel and the West Bank, India and Pakistan, South and North Korea, for example), but also, and increasingly, to control unwanted border crossings. The two most notorious cases concern the border between the United States and Mexico, and between Spain and Morocco. But they are not the only ones:

  • • Botswana, one of Africa's wealthiest nations, has been constructing a 500 km electrical fence at the Zimbabwean border to combat irregular immigration;
  • • Saudi Arabia has been doing the same at the border with Yemen to protect against the smuggling of drugs, weapons and migrants;
  • • India has also been fencing its entire 4 000 km border with B angladesh, where the pressure of environmental refugees has increased.
  • • In Costa Rica, authorities built a 1.5 kilometre-long, 2.5 metre-high wall to try to discourage immigrants coming from Nicaragua. Federal police patrol the border in pickup trucks and boats.

And China may soon start worrying about the lack of fencing or barrier along its roughly 22 000 kilometre boundary as immigrants from poorer countries in the South begin pouring in.14 The result is a significant rise in public expenditure arising from the construction process itself, but also from the maintenance and surveillance, sometimes with very sophisticated equipment, of these barriers (Mergier, 2009).

Restrictive immigration policies also have indirect costs, one of them being the adverse impact of migration restrictions on the tourism sector, which is affected by the policy of caution that tends to characterise visa-issuing procedures. Besides, the fight against immigration may encourage national firms to move their activities off-shore to low-wage countries, thus creating even more unemployment problems for low-skilled workers than immigration itself (Bhagwati and Blinder, 2009).

Finally, the fight against unauthorised immigration poses serious human rights issues, illustrated by the growing number of migrant deaths in the Saharan and Sonoran deserts, drownings in the Rio Grande river, or shipwrecks along the African and Mediterranean coasts. Massey (2007), for instance, shows that the death rate from suffocation, drowning, heat exhaustion or exposure during undocumented crossing of the US-Mexico border tripled between 1992 and 2002. UNITED, a European network supporting migrants and refugees, has documented more than 15 000 deaths related to the protectionist measures of a so-called "Fortress Europe" between January 1993 and October 2011.15 Every country holds sovereignty over its own territory and has the right to deny entry to unwanted immigrants. But there is an argument that sovereign states should take into account the repercussions of their policies.

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