Given that only 3.2% of the world’s population live outside their country of birth it is remarkable that migration has become such a topic of public debate. Even in those regions where groups of states have granted their citizens freedom to move, like in the EU, the number of people that actually do so remains at the same 3% of the total population. Contrary to popular belief, most people (around 97%) do not move: migration is an exception rather than the rule.
This issue of numbers is fertile ground for misconceptions. Usually, the general population vastly overestimates the figures. For example, in 2013, respondents to a survey in the UK guessed the percentage of migrants living in Britain to be 31% when it was in fact 13%. Despite the fact that moving between states is certainly easier in the modern era, the figures of global migration have remained roughly the same during the last 50 years when taken as a percentage of the world’s entire population. Most people still do not move.
The direction of travel undertaken by those that do move is another area full of misconceptions. The stories that are told would seem to indicate a mass invasion from global south to global north. However, almost half of international migration is from global south to global south.
A significant number also move from global north to global north. For example, according to official data from the European Commission in 2012, out of the 2.1 million non-EU nationals who migrated to the European Union, the largest number, 200,000, were US citizens. Even more interesting is the movement of those from the global north to the global south. The experience of European migrants living in non-European countries seems very similar to those non-European migrants residing in Europe.
Reframing the debate
Dr Blanchette, a US anthropologist working in Brazil, depicts the daily lives of irregular migrants (those who lack legal status) living in Rio de Janeiro. These individuals, in similar ways to those irregular migrants living in Europe, use a number of strategies to deal with not having a residence permit. They rely on networks of others from their home country for support and information; work under the radar when needed; accelerate their marriage plans with their partners to obtain a residence permit; or simply wait until a new regularization procedure takes place that will give them legal status in their host country. Perhaps shockingly to some, the migrants in this irregular situation in Brazil who Blanchette describes, come from the US and the UK. Indeed more than 7000 EU nationals have benefitted from a regularization procedure in Brazil. Leaving aside South American nationals, who by now have a right to reside in Brazil by means of the Mercosur Residence Agreement, EU citizens constitute the second largest group, after Chinese nationals, to have regularized via these procedures. Accepting that EU citizens live in many parts of the world without legal status could help to reframe the whole debate around undocumented migrants within EU countries.
In general, however, Europeans don’t consider themselves as migrants, let alone irregular migrants – rather they are “expats” or “Europeans abroad”. This different language that surrounds the policy debate about European migration to the rest of the world leaves European governments struggling to recognize new or ongoing realities. For example, one finds little discussion about the more than 5 million British nationals residing abroad – a much higher number than the approximately 1.6 million French nationals in the same situation, France having a similar population to that of the UK. Or the impact of social and economic crises on European migration. For example, Spain, at the beginning of the 21st century was the second largest recipient country of migrants in the world after the USA. However, due to the economic crisis of 2008, Spain has suffered net negative migration since 2010 – meaning more people are now leaving Spain than entering it.
More often than not, these emigrants from Spain, Britain, France, suffer the same difficulties and challenges as those from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Perhaps the time has come to change the discourse. Rather than calling European nationals expats, free to try their luck anywhere in the world, and labelling everybody else immigrants, we should recognise the common experience of those who move, the challenges they face, and the responses that are required.
In a new three-volume edited collection, 40 scholars across 8 disciplines tackle some of the main misconceptions and myths surrounding migration. Truly global in scope, these volumes explore issues on all 5 continents, discussing examples from more than 50 countries. Three crucial matters arise out of the whole collection: despite its historical prevalence migration continues to be an exceptional fact with movements being both multi-directional and cyclical. Download the first chapter for free here.
Diego Acosta Arcarazo and Anja Wiesbrock (eds.) Global Migration: Old Assumptions, New Dynamics (Praeger, Santa Barbara, 2015, 791 pp).