Migration and Human Rights (17): Immigration is Caused by Oppression and Dictatorship

John Rawls

John Rawls


There are numerous causes of immigration. I mention several and suggest that they would disappear in the Society of liberal and decent Peoples. One is the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities, the denial of their human rights. Another is political oppression … Often people are simply fleeing from starvation … Yet famines are often themselves in large part caused by political failures and the absence of decent government. The last cause I mention is population pressure in the home territory, and among its complex of causes is the inequality and subjection of women. Once that inequality and subjection are overcome, and women are granted equal political participation with men and assured education, these problems can be resolved … The problem of immigration is not, then, simply left aside, but is eliminated as a serious problem in a realistic utopia. John Rawls (source, source)

Of course, Rawls doesn’t mean to say that immigration will cease once all countries respect human rights and are governed more or less democratically. There will always be migration. Our globalized economy seems to require it. But migration will be a rational choice for the benefit of all parties. It will be neither a life and death necessity for those who move, nor a major or minor inconvenience for those who receive migrants.

More on migration here.

citizenship, globalization, poverty, statistics, work

Migration and Human Rights (15): Growing Support for Amnesty for Illegal Immigrants

The graph below shows that a large majority of U.S. citizens, and an even larger majority of young citizens (73%) is now in favor of some kind of amnesty measure for illegal immigrants:

amnesty for illegal immigrants


Even despite the recession, support has grown considerably (one would assume that a recession pushes down support, and even leads to xenophobia, see here).

Part of this is altruism, but voters have clearly come to understand the benefits of immigration. Many of course still believe in certain myths about migration:

and oppose immigration (legal or illegal) because of these myths. So it’s important to debunk them. For example, rather than importing poverty, immigration often means importing wealth. Take this graph for example:

immigrant founded us companies


Some data on illegal immigrants in the U.S. And here is a post explaining why migration is a human rights issue.

citizenship, poverty, work

Migration and Human Rights (13): Immigration and Unemployment

People go to other countries to escape the – often combined – horrors of war, oppression, persecution and poverty. Wealthy and peaceful states that protect human rights within their borders, usually accept a number of the people looking for a more peaceful and just society. However, people looking merely for a more prosperous society and for opportunities to have a better life, are often not allowed to immigrate. Personally, I think this is wrong and unjust, because poverty is a human rights violation that is not essentially different from for example persecution on religious grounds. The reason governments give for refusing this kind of immigration are varied but mainly focus on the dangers of “importing poverty“.

One piece of evidence to substantiate this fear is the level of unemployment in migrant communities:

unemployment rate among immigrants and among natives in the oecd

(source; solid line: unemployment among immigrants equal to unemployment among natives)

unemployment rate among immigrants and natives in the us


These data are not surprising because immigrants usually lack certain essential skills necessary to find their place in the labor market: language, networking, adequate education etc. Moreover, they often come to places that already have strained labor markets.

The following graph shows the hopeful fact that, in Australia at least, unemployment levels of immigrants drastically decrease after a number of years in the country, suggesting that once they have acquired some new skills and have learned the language, they integrate into the host society and economy. Instead of being a burden they can even contribute. (I didn’t find any similar data for other countries).

immigration unemployment rate by years after arrival


Some numbers on immigration can be found here.


Migration and Human Rights (12): Public Opposition to Immigration

public opposition to immigration


Just a short follow-up on my previous post on the subject. For those anxious about immigration and about the burdens it places on the host-economy and on the welfare state (“importing poverty“), here’s a graph comparing immigration and unemployment numbers in Spain:

unemployment and immigration in spain


This shows that high levels of immigration do not necessarily lead to economic ruin. Granted, some of the immigrants in Spain are wealthy pensioners from colder regions of Europe, but they are only a small fraction of the total.


Migration and Human Rights (11): Public Opposition to Immigration

I’ve often discussed migration here on this blog. For example:

  • There’s this post on public fears that migration means importing poverty and putting the social security system in danger.
  • There’s this one on xenophobia.
  • There’s this one on the “criminal immigrant” stereotype.
  • There’s this one on migration and education.
  • And there’s this one on public opposition to migration.

I want to come back to this last one because there’s now a new study showing some interesting results:





A reminder of why migration is a human rights issue can be found here.

citizenship, education, poverty

Migration and Human Rights (10): Immigration and Poverty

fuck off we're full


It’s a widely shared opinion, especially among those on the right of the political spectrum, that immigration means importing poverty and burdening economic growth. Immigrants are said to cause an unbearable strain on social security systems, thereby endangering the fight against native poverty and possibly leading to the collapse of the entire system if their numbers aren’t limited.

Some politicians even propose to pay immigrants a fee when they return – a so-called “fuck-off bonus” or “get lost check” – on the assumption that this will be less costly than having them on welfare. “The taxes they pay are greatly outweighed by the costs of the government benefits they consume” (source). When one points to the fact that not all immigrants are poor and on welfare, one gets the reply that on balance immigration still means importing poverty because the taxes paid by the “few” high-skilled and high-earning immigrants don’t compensate for the benefits taken by the rest. Hence the repeated call to encourage high-skill immigration and strictly limit or even undo low-skill immigration.

However, this study

reveals that poverty rates would have been only slightly lower and median income only slightly higher between 1994 and 2000 if immigration rates had remained constant.

It’s true that immigrant families, and even their descendants, are in general more at risk of being poor, and that’s a scandal.

immigrant poverty in the us


The obvious cause is the relatively lower education and skill level of most migrants (see here). But that’s nothing a good education can’t undo.

Moreover, we see, at least in the U.S., that poverty rates of immigrants fall faster than for natives, and that’s a hopeful sign:

evolution of poverty among immigrants and natives in the us


Given the responsibility of the people in West for reducing worldwide poverty (see here and here), one could call immigration a kind of development aid for the “huddled masses“.

More on migration.

discrimination and hate, hate

Hate (2): Hate Crime and Xenophobia in Russia

In Russia, street gangs that hunt foreigners – especially darker-skinned migrants from former Soviet republics in Central Asia and the Caucasus, but also Jews and blacks – are a common phenomenon.

Ultranationalist groups including an estimated 50,000 violence-prone skinheads and several neo-Nazi groups, are promoting xenophobia. They feed on and exacerbate latent anti-immigrant sentiments in the wider population. “Chyorni”, the Russian word for black, is used by many Russians in various forms to refer to all people with darker skin. As is happening in many other countries, there’s some paranoia about a rising tide of migrant labor and immigrants. Combined with a drop in Russia’s Slavic population, this threatens to polarize Russian society and to undermine the basis of Russia as a multiethnic state.

Here’s a graph on xenophobia in Russia:

russian xenophobia

And here are some data on violent hate crimes:

russia hate crime deaths

(source; data to be taken with a pinch of salt since official statistics are notoriously unreliable; many attacks are classified as “hooliganism” and statistics therefore underestimate the real extent of the problem)

Some even speak of “Weimar Russia“, a fledgling democracy sinking into the hell of right-wing extremism. That’s probably paranoia as well, but there is a real danger of growing anti-immigrant violence.

“Fitness clubs” or youth centers, often affiliated with nationalist groups, teach young Russians close-quarters combat skills, sometimes even military and explosives techniques. Many of these people have close ties with security forces. Even Putin is playing with xenophobia, claiming that “foreign agents” are destabilizing the country.

russian neonazis

After years of inaction, the Russian government is taking the problem more seriously but still fails to prosecute in many cases. As a result, there’s a sense of impunity which is likely to promote more violence. Some of the inaction can be explained by the mistaken belief, held by many Russian leaders, that the World War II victory of the USSR over Nazi Germany immunized them from the threat of neo-Nazism.

More on hate crime and intolerance in Russia here.

More on migration here.

discrimination and hate, human rights quote

Human Rights Quote (57): Unfavorable Views of Jews on the Increase in Europe

negative views of jews in europe


Growing numbers of people in several major European countries say they have an unfavorable opinion of Jews. Pew Global Attitudes Project

An old demon on the come-back. I was trying to figure out the reasons, but I couldn’t think of anything better than the increasing weight of Muslim opinion in Europe’s public opinion. I don’t mean to say that Muslims are by definition more anti-semitic than other folks, but the Palestinian issue obviously colors their point of view.

citizenship, education

Migration and Human Rights (9): Immigrants and Education Levels

immigrants us statue of liberty


Immigrant children typically do worse at school than their fellow pupils. There are many reasons for this difference in performance and in test scores:

  • Immigrant families are often poor
  • Immigrant children’s parents are often undereducated: immigrants are attracted to low-paid, low-skilled jobs because that’s where the opportunities are; and even though many immigrants work below their level of education, the labor market may exert a downward pressure on the levels of education of the entrants, and hence also of their children
  • Immigrant families often do not know the language as well as the locals (or their children start school without any knowledge of the language at all)
  • etc.

However, even when we correct for these disadvantages, as the OECD does in its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), not all of the gap is closed. See this graph:

education performance of immigrants compared to host-country mean score


Apart from some exceptions – notably the Chinese immigrants – there is still a gap and immigrants are underperforming in schools.

The interesting thing about this graph, as pointed out by The Economist, is that it allows us to compare the results of one type of immigrant community in different host countries. Turkish immigrants, for example, do much better in Belgium or Switzerland than in Austria or Denmark. If children do differently depending on where they end up, then it’s possible to conclude that the schooling systems in the host countries play a part in the performance of the pupils. Or, if not the schooling system as such, then the way in which the system deals with immigrant children (does it treat them fairly, or does it automatically side-track them in low-level schools or disciplines?).

Of course, we should be careful not to put all the blame on schools, poverty, language etc. Immigrants are to a certain extent responsible for their own behavior and accomplishments.

Some more data, specifically for the US this time:

high school dropouts immigrants


socio-economic status of natives and mexican immigrants in the us

citizenship, discrimination and hate

Migration and Human Rights (8): The “Criminal Immigrant” Stereotype

immigrant bring more crime daily express

The debate on immigration is an angry one, filled with anxiety, prejudice and extreme positions. Immigration is said to lead to an increase in crime rates, because the immigrants are often poor, undereducated and not well adjusted to their host community. Illegal immigrants, especially, are believed to be overrepresented in crime statistics because they are hard to track down, have no official residence, and can easily escape across the border.

However, none of this stands the test of critical examination of facts, at least when we limit ourselves to the situation in the US.

A study by Kristin F. Butcher and Anne Morrison Piehl – Crime, Corrections and California: What Does Immigration Have to Do With It? – concludes that immigrants in California, including “undocumented” persons, are far less likely than their native-born counterparts to commit crime. Additionally, to test for the possibility that immigrants might be simply avoiding incarceration by leaving the country, the study looked at crime rates in California cities with the largest influx of immigrants, including Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sacramento. The study found that on average, the crime rates in those cities dropped between 2000 and 2005.  (source)

california institutionalization rate of us-born and non-citizen foreign-born men


immigrant crime in numbers


homicides and immigration


These numbers are very convincing, even if we accept some dubious caveats (illegal immigrants, when committing a crime, are perhaps more likely to flee abroad and hence not end up in incarceration statistics, and immigrant communities perhaps underreport crime). Politicians should therefore stop exploiting irrational fears about immigrant crime.

More on immigration.

citizenship, globalization

Migration and Human Rights (7): Overview



This post is kind of a summary of the stuff I’ve written about international migration and how it is relevant to human rights. I’ve tried to put it all in a simple drawing:

immigration and human rights

The darker the kind of grey, the more precarious is the rights situation of the people involved. Citizens typically enjoy the best human rights protection of anyone in the territory of a country, relatively speaking. Even in badly governed states or dictatorships they are better off than immigrants, legal or illegal. And also in perfect democracies do citizens enjoy more rights than legal immigrants: the former have political rights, the latter do not. See this post for more information about this difference.

However, in a perfect democracy, legal immigrants and citizens enjoy the same level of protection with regard to all other types of rights, non-political rights such as freedom rights. This is called the principle of constitutional universality which is explained here.

Illegal immigrants of course have a much harder time, even in perfect democracies. As they live in the “dark” they will find it difficult to come forward to complain about rights violations or to go to the police or the judge. Doing so will reveal their illegal status and will result in forcible return to their country of origin.

Asylum seekers or refugees have an even harder time because they are usually imprisoned for the duration of their asylum application. And as they are imprisoned, they usually find it difficult to escape into illegality when their application is denied. Compared to normal illegal immigrants, the government knows where they are – in prison – and hence can easily return them to their own country. Here’s a post on asylum seekers. And here’s one on refugees.

The worst off are the modern slaves. Many of them end up in slavery as a consequence of migration, but not all. Many modern slaves are normal citizens.

Here’s a more general post on migration (numbers, trends, types, causes, consequences…). And here’s a post on the public’s opposition to migration.

A related topic is overpopulation.

A word about the arrows in the drawing: since citizens enjoy the best protection, it is a good strategy for non-citizens to try to become citizens. Traditionally, only legal immigrants can apply for citizenship (when some conditions are fulfilled). Asylum seekers, when their application is accepted, become legal immigrants and then they can, in the next step, try to apply for citizenship. If their asylum application is rejected, they are either send back or disappear into illegality. Together with other illegal immigrants, they first have to become legal immigrants (for example through some kind of amnesty measure) before they can hope to apply for citizenship.

human rights poem

Human Rights Poem (47): Refugee



Refugee (2), F. Spagnoli

I’m a stranger, like hope in a world that doesn’t change
or change in a world that doesn’t hope.
And like all strangers I wash my hands separately,
and I scratch my own back,
and I no longer wonder ’bout the double meaning of “asylum”
‘cos there is none:
you have to be a lunatic to try it.

More on asylum, refugees or migration.


Migration and Human Rights (5): Public Opposition to Migration

restricting migration


The public in most developed countries (or rich countries) is often opposed to immigration:

restricting immigration pew


There are two main reasons for this opposition. Opinions about immigration are closely linked to perceptions about threats to a country’s culture, for example the language. We see a lot of anxiety in the US about English as the first language and the only official language of the country.

Another perceived problem is employment: some fear that the immigrants will take away jobs from local people. Immigrants are relatively poor and accept lower wages and less developed labor regulations, which gives them an “unfair advantage”. Especially illegal immigrants are tough competition. On the other hand, some state that migrants do the jobs local people are unwilling to do.

In any case, the discussions often border on xenophobia and almost always exclude the point of view of the migrants. For migrants, migration can mean the difference between oppression, suffering or poverty on the one hand, and freedom and wealth on the other.

When asked why people leave their country to live in another country, solid majorities in a Pew survey say it is for job opportunities. This is probably a correct assessment. But even if most migrants do not flee persecution, genocide, war etc., they still try to escape violations of their human rights, namely their economic rights and their right not to suffer poverty.

More on migration here.

citizenship, human rights poem

Human Rights Poem (36): Statue of Liberty

statue of liberty

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Emma Lazarus, inscription on the Statue of Liberty (or rather the Statue of Liberty Enlightening the World)

More on asylum here.


Migration and Human Rights (3): Refugees

angelina jolie unhcr

Angelina Jolie

In countries where people have to flee their homes because of persecution and violence, political solutions must be found, peace and tolerance restored, so that refugees can return home. In my experience, going home is the deepest wish of most refugees. Angelina Jolie

In a previous post, I talked a bit on the problem of migration and how it’s linked to human rights. I also tried to give a classification of types of migrants. One type is the refugee, and according to the classification the refugee is an involuntary migrant and a “push-migrant”. It’s the situation in the home country – usually war, famine or persecution or a combination – which forces or pushes him or her to migrate abroad, usually to one of the neighboring countries. The refugee is different from other types of migrants, such as the people who feel the “pull” of economic opportunity which, voluntarily or involuntarily (in the case of extreme poverty), drives them abroad.

Refugees who flee war, famine or oppression but do not leaev their home country are called internally displaced persons.


According to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (HCR), there were roughly 20 million refugees in the world in 2005, and 33 million in 2006. This is an underestimate because the numbers don’t include the Palestinians refugees, many of the Afghan refugees etc. Amnesty International place the number of worldwide refugees last year at just over 36 million. Three quarter of these come from Asia and Africa. The top refugee producing countries are:

refugee producing countries


The country with the largest number of internally displaced persons is Sudan, with over 5 million. Pakistan is the top host country in the world for refugees:

refugee receiving countries

And these are 2007 data, with an interesting breakdown between international refugees and internally displaced persons:

refugees top receiving countries


Countries’ responses

Countries have an obligation to accept refugee on their territory. Article 14 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that

1. Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. 2. This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

However, this obligation is often rejected by countries. Countries often subject

“refugees to arbitrary arrest, detention, denial of social and economic rights and closed borders. In the worst cases, the most fundamental principle of refugee protection, non-refoulement, is violated, and refugees are forcibly returned to countries where they face persecution.” Human Rights Watch (,2)

The states that create the refugee problem also have obligations. Article 13 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights states that

Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.

Therefore, countries have an obligation to create or restore the circumstances which make it possible for people to return home. It’s up to these countries, with the assistance of the international community, to address the root causes that force people to flee.

refugees under the protection of the hcr

refugees under the protection of the hcr


Migration and Human Rights (2): A Few Facts and Numbers

1. Numbers of migrants and trends

The Center for Global Development (CGD) estimates that around 200 million people – one in 33 – do not live in the country where they were born. Not surprisingly, the richest countries receive the largest number of migrants:

countries with largest number of migrants

countries with largest number of migrants as share of total population


It is believed that the number of migrants will grow as a result of the demography in rich countries. These countries have a relatively low birth rate, good health care systems, and hence an aging population. They will require more migration to replenish their workforce and keep their benefit system intact.

Another reason to believe that migration will increase in the future, is the relative ease and low cost of travel in a globalized world. This is already obvious when one takes a look at the main migration routes today:

migration routes

2. Types of migration

  • Voluntary migration, including economic migration (although some types of economic migration are not voluntary and caused by poverty) and nomadism
  • Involuntary or forced migration, including slave trade, human trafficking, refugees from war or oppression, asylum seekers, ethnic cleansing, eviction or expulsion, the forced resettlement by Stalin in the former USSR etc.
  • Internal migration, including rural to urban migration, vs international migration
  • Local migration, including border-migration, vs international-intercontinental migration
  • Legal migration vs illegal migration, i.e. with or without the consent of the receiving country
  • Permanent migration vs temporary migration (e.g. seasonal migration in agriculture)
  • Cultural migration (nomadism)
  • Organized migration, including migration of military personnel within military cooperation schemes, migration of aid workers etc.
  • “Push” migration: people are pushed out of their countries because of local reasons; push migration tends to be involuntary
  • “Pull” migration: people are pulled out of their countries by opportunities elsewhere; pull migration tends to be voluntary

3. Causes of migration

  • poverty, the need to find a (better) job
  • the need for education
  • persecution or oppression
  • war including civil war
  • ethnic cleansing
  • slave trade
  • human trafficking including the sex industry
  • refugees and asylum seekers
  • job opportunities
  • family reunion
  • natural disasters including desertification
  • urbanization and industrialization
  • government population policies, e.g. the One Child Policy in China leading to imbalances between the sexes
  • government resettlement policies
  • etc.

4. Consequences of migration

Migration can be beneficial for the migrants. It can mean the difference between oppression, suffering or poverty on the one hand, and freedom and wealth on the other. Wealthy migrants can also help their home country in different ways. The money sent back home by migrant workers (so-called remittances) already surpasses foreign aid. See this graph:

financial flows to developing countries

This money is of course a welcome contribution to the home economy, but the brain drain inherent in migration is the other side of the coin. Whereas some of the migrants return home and take with them valuable education and skills which can be used for the development of their home country, others stay away and are a permanent loss. Of course, one should be careful not to blame all the problems of the developing world on brain drain.

Migrants often find themselves in situations which are not better or even worse than the ones they were fleeing. They can end up in the black labor market, exploited by ruthless entrepreneurs, or in the sex industry, or, when they are “illegal”, in constant uncertainty because of the fear of being evicted. Even when they are legal, many countries will not offer them full citizenship or equality. Their human rights may not be adequately protected and they cannot participate in politics.

For the receiving countries, the benefits are also obvious. These countries often need the workforce offered by the migrants. The mixing of different cultures and races is also generally beneficial, although it can lead to negative social behaviors such as xenophobia. Xenophobia can also be caused by non-optimal economic migration. People do not always migrate to the places where their skills are scarce, and hence they often find themselves in competition with local workers who do not welcome this competition. Migrants are often less demanding and therefore more popular with employers, and when these migrants are illegal they end up in the black market which is even more beneficial for employers because less costly. This competition, coupled with cultural or religious practices and beliefs which are different and sometimes difficult to understand and accept, causes xenophobia.

More on migration.


Migration and Human Rights (1): Illegal Immigration

illegal immigration assimilation


The concept of “illegal alien” is meaningless. A person can never be illegal, only certain acts can be. I suspect that the use of this concept betrays certain prejudices and perhaps even racism.

Of course, people settling in a country without this country’s permission act illegally and commit a crime. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that they are criminals. Not everyone breaking the law is a criminal (when you get a speeding ticket, you have broken the law but no one would call you a criminal).

Countries have a right to determine the rules by which they grant citizenship or entry into their territory. International human rights law only obliges countries to accept asylum seekers who flee persecution.

This means that countries have a right to expel those people who violate these rules. However, other than legal considerations may play a role in government policy. Economic and moral considerations for example. A country facing economic difficulties may react differently to the inflow of refugees or migrants than a wealthy country where there may even be an economic need for migrant labor.

In the latter case, however, it seems that the migrants should not be forced into the black market. Some recognition should be offered so that they can be normal parts of the community, pay taxes etc.