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Migration myths debunked

Migrants and asylum seekers, mostly Syrian Kurds, sit in the yard outside a schoolhouse-turned-reception center, known as Vrazhdebna, on the outskirts of the Bulgarian capital Sofia. A massive increase in Syrian new arrivals in recent months has overwhelm
Migrants and asylum seekers, mostly Syrian Kurds, sit in the yard outside a schoolhouse-turned-reception center, known as Vrazhdebna, on the outskirts of the Bulgarian capital Sofia. (Jodi Hilton/IRIN)

Widespread negative public opinion about migration and migrants is often driven less by facts, such as the actual number of migrants arriving in a particular country, than by a raft of misperceptions: migrants are stealing jobs from locals, driving up crime rates and burdening public services.

Numerous studies by academics and researchers have produced evidence disproving many of these fallacies. IRIN takes a look at some of the most common myths surrounding migration and presents some of the evidence that challenges them.

1. MYTH: The majority of migrants come from the poorer South and move to the richer North
FACT: Less than half (40 percent) of all migrants worldwide move from the developing countries of the South to the developed countries of the North. According to Gallup Poll data published in the International Organization for Migration’s 2013 World Migration Report, at least one-third of migrants move from one developing country to another (South to South) and 22 percent migrate from one developed country to another (North to North). A small but growing number of migrants (5 percent) move from North to South.

2. MYTH: Migration is on the increase
FACT: The number of international migrants has grown to 232 million in 2013 (from 175 million in 2000 and154 million in 1990), but this is mainly the result of population growth. Migrants as a share of the world’s population have remained fairly steady at between 2.5 and 3 percent. A number of studies have found that people in migrant-receiving countries consistently overestimate the size of their migrant population, which contributes to the perception that there are “too many” migrants.

3. MYTH: Tackling poverty and lack of development in migrant-sending countries would reduce migration to wealthier countries
FACT: Social and economic development in poor countries leads to more migration, not less, at least in the short- to medium-term. While migrants are often portrayed as poor and desperate, it takes significant resources to migrate over long distances. Hein de Hass, co-director of the International Migration Institute at the University of Oxford has pointed out that it also takes an awareness of opportunities elsewhere, which usually only comes with a certain level of education and access to modern media. Increased development produces a larger section of the population with the aspiration and resources to migrate.

4. MYTH: Stricter border controls and regulations reduce irregular migration
FACT: Migrants and asylum seekers are more likely to resort to entering a country irregularly when there are no legal alternatives. This often means relying on smugglers and using routes that expose them to numerous dangers and even death. Tragedies like the recent shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa, in which more than 350 migrants lost their lives trying to reach Europe, tend to result in calls for yet more border controls that often deflect irregular migration flows rather than significantly reducing them. Ironically, studies have shown that stricter border controls prevent short-term and circular migration whereby migrants return home regularly before returning to host countries and force them to stay put in destination countries for longer due to the difficulty and expense of re-entry.

5. MYTH: Migrants take jobs that would otherwise go to natives
FACT: The effects of immigration on labour markets are complex and varied, depending on time and place. In developed countries, especially during periods of economic growth, migrant workers often hold low-skilled, low-paid jobs that natives are unwilling to do. Although competition for such jobs may become fiercer during an economic downturn, immigration can also create jobs by stimulating economic growth, and because migrant-run businesses often employ locals. There is a strong correlation between immigration rates and economic growth rates. When growth and job opportunities slow, so does immigration.

6. MYTH: Migrants are a drain on social services and public resources
FACT: In many countries, migrants – particularly irregular migrants – have no access to social services such as public healthcare and housing. Where they can access the welfare system, they are much less likely to do so than locals, partly because a larger proportion of them are young adults with fewer health and educational needs. A study by University College London found that recent migrants to the UK were 45 percent less likely to receive state benefits or tax credits than natives. The same study found that migrants contributed significantly more in taxes than they received in social benefits.

7. MYTH: Individuals who enter a country irregularly are illegal immigrants

FACT: While crossing a border without documents may constitute an infringement of immigration laws, it does not make an individual “illegal”, particularly if that individual is an asylum seeker. The UN Refugee Convention recognizes the right of people fleeing persecution to enter a country for the purposes of seeking asylum, regardless of whether they hold valid travel documents. Even for non-asylum seekers, violations of immigration laws are usually considered civil rather than criminal offences. In the past year, a number of media outlets have stopped using the term “illegal immigrant” and replaced it with undocumented or irregular migrant.

8. MYTH: Most migrants are “illegal”
FACT: Although, for obvious reasons, it is very difficult to count numbers of irregular migrants, they represent a fraction of the total number of international migrants. In the United States, for example, about 25 percent of all migrants are undocumented. In Europe, the proportion is much lower, with only between seven and 12 percent of the “foreign population” consisting of undocumented migrants in 2008. As mentioned in the previous point, people fleeing persecution and conflict in countries such as Somalia, Syria and Afghanistan are often forced to cross borders without documents, and may even travel with and use the same smugglers as economic migrants, but once they have applied for asylum, they are subject to refugee legislation rather than immigration laws.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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