Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Global Poverty Can’t Be Solved With Immigration

Economic migrants are distinct from refugees running for their lives. But the two are increasingly blurred.

Immigration activists think people living in affluent countries need to be more compassionate. Welcoming bona fide refugees – people whose lives are genuinely imperiled in their homeland – is no longer good enough.

These days activists think sanctuary should be given to those merely trying to escape poverty. When a 7,000-strong caravan of people from Honduras and other Latin American countries massed on America’s southern border in late 2018, the media emphasized the impoverished nature of their lives back home, studiously ignoring the elephant in the room.

To her credit, CBS reporter Adriana Diaz acknowledged that elephant at 43 seconds into this report. In her words: “Most tell us they’re fleeing extreme poverty. But that’s not a condition for asylum or refugee status in the US.”

Poverty can’t be solved via immigration. The math doesn’t work.

Extreme poverty has diminished dramatically in recent decades. We’re on the right track, headed in the right direction. But transformations of this magnitude take time.

An estimated 4 billion people – half the world’s population – still live on less than $10 a day. By Western standards, that’s dismal. Nevertheless, all of those people can’t move to America.

Despite being the largest country in the world by population after China and India, the US is currently home to only 327 million human beings. Its infrastructure couldn’t possibly support a population 12 times the size.

Nor is the US a slouch. For the past 30 years, it has generously granted citizenship to roughly 1 million new immigrants each year. (Back in 1980, the total was half that. In 1960, it was one quarter.)

Similarly, the world’s poor can’t all move to the EU – current population half a billion. EU nations likewise granted citizenship to a million people in 2016.

So let’s get serious. Even if every newly minted US and EU citizen came from the poorest regions of the globe, 1 million + 1 million each year doesn’t begin to make a dent. Solving poverty that way will take hundreds of years.

The video at the top of this post does a brilliant job of illustrating these ideas. Please note, however, that its numbers are wonky.

A recent World Bank publication says 1.9 billion people were living on less than $1.90 per day (its definition of extreme poverty) in 1990. It’s unclear when this video was recorded – perhaps as early as 1996.

Presenter Roy Beck’s claim that 3 billion people were living on less than $2 a day therefore appears to be an exaggeration. But in this instance, precise figures aren’t required. The big picture argument remains valid – and the visual presentation is powerful.


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  • News articles told us repeatedly that last year’s Central American migrant caravan was comprised of economic migrants rather than refugees (see here, here, here, here, and here).  In an article titled The Migrant Caravan, Explained, a Vox writer nevertheless insisted “but they’re not simply coming for a better job – they’re fleeing desperate poverty.”
  • CBS: Most Migrants Fleeing Poverty, ‘but That’s Not a Condition for Asylum or Refugee Status’
  • The Unicef USA website contains a headline about the caravan that reads: Help Migrant Children Fleeing Violence and Poverty. Under the heading Why are Families leaving home? we’re told they’re in search of “safety and a better life,” that their countries of origin offer “limited access to quality education and social services,” and that “the children are seeking safety and economic opportunity.”
  • Mary Robinson, who headed the UN’s refugee agency between 1997 and 2002, wrote an opinion piece for Time magazine last month, in which she calls critics of the UN’s Migration Pact unpleasant names. In that context, she refers to people “who migrate from their homes due to war, persecution and poverty,” explicitly comparing contemporary migrants to Irish individuals who historically fled “famine, poverty and political oppression” but presumably followed legitimate immigration protocols on arrival in host countries (bold added). Blurring the lines between refugees whose lives are threatened and economic migrants, she implies they all deserve sanctuary.
  • In January 2018, UN Deputy Secretary‑General Amina Mohammed similarly mentioned poverty as one of the reasons “migrants and asylum seekers” are currently on the move. In a speech urging religious organizations to “promote the social and economic inclusion of refugees and migrants,” she argued that these people deserve support because “Human beings have moved from place to place since the beginning of time, by choice and under duress…”
  • In April 2016, the UN’s then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a report titled In safety and dignity: addressing large movements of refugees and migrants. Its first paragraph talks about people drowning “in their attempts to escape violence and poverty.” Paragraph 3 tells us “large movements of people will continue” due to a list of conditions that includes “poverty, inequality, climate change,” before mentioning poverty as a cause once again in paragraph 9.
  • BS King over at critiques the video here and here.
  • Poverty data can be difficult to pin down. Hans Rosling’s website suggests that 4 billion people live on less than $8 per day. A 2015 Pew Research Center report found 71 percent of the global population living on under $10 a day in 2011 – closer to 5 billion.


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This entry was posted on January 7, 2019 by in ethical & philosophical, media and tagged , .