The Economics of Migration

In the current debate surrounding refugee migration, most people seem to fall into one of two camps: those who favor hosting refugees, and those who oppose it. But many seem to have forgotten that human migration has supported human progress and contributed to global development for centuries.

For opponents of migration, the large influx of foreign born laborers seeking jobs, education, and security is something to be feared. They fear that refugees and other migrant groups are low skilled workers hoping only to benefit from social welfare programs and decrease the standard of living in their host country.  Evidence suggests, however, that on average over a third of migrants entering the workforce have completed post-secondary education, and that in most countries, migrants contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in individual benefits.

We must rise above this seemingly instinctual reaction and consider the benefits that migration has had in those countries that migrants and refugees leave behind. Not only does migration increase wages for workers that stay behind, but migrant workers often remit money to their families back home. This supplementary income is, in turn, invested in education and health care, important indicators of a country’s development that can lift people out of poverty. The Migration and Remittances Factbook 2016 suggests that total remittances were estimated to have reached $601 billion in 2015, of which $441 billion went to developing countries, a total that is almost three times larger than official development aid flows. These remittance flows to developing countries have grown significantly in recent years, from $325 billion in 2010, to $372 billion in 2011 and $401 billion in 2012.

Nevertheless, the high financial costs of international migration and the transmission of remittances are inhibiting the benefits of migration. The 2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) address these issues. Target 8.8 notes that labor rights, including those of migrant workers, should be protected, and Target 10.7 calls for the facilitation of the orderly, safe, regular and responsible migration of people through the implementation of planned and well-managed migration policies. In addition, Target 10.c strives to reduce the costs associated with remittances to 3% by 2030. Taken all together, these innovative targets would reduce the cost of remittances and encourage sustainable and profitable international migration.

As the Sustainable Development Goals suggest, we need to recognize what technology can do today and use it to redesign the world for a more inclusive and prosperous tomorrow. Modern technology requires specialized knowledge, and the easiest way to gather such knowledge is to recruit from outside of the system. It is easier to move brains than it is to move knowledge and expertise. As such, migration is key to the diffusion of knowledge and its long-term positive impact on worldwide development. In short, we cannot have global markets, trade, products, and services without global migration.

The European Migrant Crisis: A Silver-Lining for German Industry and Society?

As migrants flood into Europe from countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Kosovo, and especially Syria, European leaders and policymakers face a great challenge.  Coming on the heels of the Greek debt crisis, the recent influx of migrants is testing the European Union once again. The responses and policy proposals from EU member states vary greatly, but the majority are focused on securing borders rather than protecting the rights of migrants and refugees.  In the short run, the migrant crisis may be a burden on most of Europe, but in the long run, it could present an economic opportunity.

A Silver-Lining

Europe’s surging migrant population could be a valuable resource for sustained economic growth in those countries that possess the foresight to invest in them now.  Many European economies face demographic challenges as fertility rates fall to 1.3 – below the replacement rate of 2.1 – while the average age increases.  In 2014, 19 of the top 20 countries with percent of population ages 65 and above were European countries.  This dramatic demographic change poses a serious threat to future productivity.  Europe is in need of fresh young workers to counter its feeble birth rate and aging population.

Germanys Response

So far, Germany has led the humanitarian charge, unveiling some of the most generous asylum policies in the EU.  One week ago, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel pledged to spend $6.6 billion to cope with the roughly 800,000 migrants and refugees expected to enter the country this year.  Unfortunately, without similar refugee support from nearby countries—most notably Hungary—Germany was overwhelmed by the flow of asylum seekers and decided to temporarily close its border with Austria.

Refugees arrive at the train station in Saalfeld, Germany (Source: Jens Meyer)
Refugees arrive at the train station in Saalfeld, Germany (Source: Jens Meyer)

In spite of the border closure, the continued acceptance of refugees is economically sensible.  As of 2014, Germany had the world’s third highest percentage of individuals 65 years and older (21%), coupled with the world’s fourth lowest percent of population between the ages of 0 and 14 (13%).  According to the German government’s Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development, if this trend continues, the number of working age people in Germany (about 45 million) will shrink by 8.5 million by 2030 and another 8.7 million by 2050. Put another way, Germany will lose over 37 percent of its working age population in just 35 years.  The largest economy in Europe cannot be sustained without more workers.

Industry as a Catalyst for Integration

As migrants and refugees enter a host country, one of the main issues that they face is integration with and acceptance by the native population.  A successful way to avoid this problem is to provide opportunities for migrants and refugees to quickly contribute to the workforce and the country’s overall welfare.  Private-sector investment is crucial in this process.  Fortunately, several corporations have already started to make an impact on the refugee and migrant populations in Germany.

Ulrich Grillo, Head of the Federation of German Industries (BDI), said last week: “If we can integrate [refugees] quickly into the jobs market, we’ll be helping the refugees, but also helping ourselves.” In addition to speaking about the economic benefits of refugees, BDI has proposed changes to Germany’s labor laws and regulations and even sought assurances that migrants who do find employment will not be deported.

Corporate leaders in the automobile industry, one of the largest sources of employment in the country, have been the most outspoken in their support of migrant and refugee employment programs.  Dieter Zetsche, the CEO of Daimler-Benz and a global leader in corporate philanthropy and human capital investment, said that his company would take steps to recruit new employees from the incoming pool of refugees.  In addition to investing in refugee capital, the famous automobile maker also joined in the relief effort.  A few months ago, Daimler Trucks, in collaboration with the Frankfurt-based aid organization “Wings of Help”, initiated a mobile relief effort in the Turkey-Syria border region. A fleet of eight Actros semitrailer trucks, provided by Daimler-Benz, carried some 120 tons of relief supplies to those in need.

More recently, Matthias Müller, the CEO of Porsche AG, called for industry leaders to “take a clear stand against xenophobia and extremism.” Muller’s statement is especially important in light of the recent attacks on refugee residences. VW’s Porsche luxury-car division will also provide language training and counseling to refugees. The impact of language instruction, in particular, cannot be understated.  The ability to communicate in German is a necessary step towards successful societal and workforce integration.

Europe’s refugee crisis may be viewed as a political problem, but it can be an economic and social opportunity. The actions of corporations like Porsche and Daimler, as well as organizations like BDI, demonstrate that refugees can be invaluable contributors to economic and social development. Moreover, by encouraging private-sector investment in refugees governments can transform the current migrant crisis into an economic and social turning point for both Germany and the European Union.