Mobility: Past, Present and Future – Inevitable and Desirable?

Exceptional People CoverExceptional People – How migration shaped our world and will define our future
Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron and Merra Balarajan, 2011, Princeton Press: Princeton. |

Exceptional People – How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future – the 2011 book by Economist and Professor Ian Goldin, Researcher Geoffrey Cameron and Dr Meera Balarajan can be read in many different ways. Ostensibly, it is an inter-disciplinary textbook on international migration in the vein of Stephen Castles and Mark Miller’s now famous The Age of Migration (2009) – however a closer look reveals a work that can be described more as a manifesto. The last part of the book is just called “Future” and here the authors draw on an impressive body of evidence to argue that future mass immigration is both inevitable and desirable. This argument is both the book’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness as I discuss further below. It is also a daring argument to make in the midst of high levels of anti-immigration sentiments and an economic crisis that has left 10.7% of the European workforce unemployed – including record levels of youth unemployed[1]. Nevertheless, the book dares to argue for the necessity, inevitability and desirability of continued mass immigration to the developed world, possibly even for the long-term viability of “open borders”.

Exceptional People” takes the long view: the book starts with our shared migrating past when our common Homo sapiens ancestors first wandered out of Africa to populate the rest of the world. About a 125,000 ago the first Homo sapiens entered what is now the Middle East and slowly but steadily spread over the entire globe and its furthest corners – including Easter Island and other small islands in the Pacific Ocean which were only settled about 1500 years ago. Today, Homo sapiens are the most widely spread mammal in the world. With that introduction Goldin, Cameron and Balarajan seek to counter what has often been called the “sedentary bias” in migration studies (Bakewell, 2007), i.e. the assumption that being sedentary is the human norm and movement is the exception. Instead the authors go on to show over the next 250 pages that migration and migrants are a fundamental part of human life, history and civilisation and that they have been for all of human history and that they will be for foreseeable future.

“Exceptional people” is split into three parts: Past, Present and Future. “Past” is a concise overview of human migrations through the ages, from pre-history to the present including the age of “gunpowder empires”, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and indentured labour migration from South Asia and other places during colonialism. It provides a short overview of the first “Age of Migration” (1820-1920) when millions of Europeans headed for the “New World” in the USA, Canada, Australia, Argentina and Brazil to escape poverty, famine and persecution. Historical estimates suggest that more than 60 million Europeans left during this period, and the scale of this movement was unprecedented in human history.  Currently, estimates suggest that there are 200 million migrants in the world; however, today’s migratory movements may outnumber the “Age of Migration” in absolute, but not in relative terms. The “Past” section concludes with the historical developments from 1914-1973, the impact of the two World Wars, the institutionalisation of the international refugee regime as well as labour migration schemes to Western Europe that came to a sudden stop  when oil prices quadrupled overnight in 1973.

This historical overview provides the starting point for an ambitious project. The second part, titled “Present” seeks to cover a mix of historical developments since 1973, the major political and economic discussions, in particular the asylum crisis as well as the current political obsession with “managed migration” and border controls. These are mainly discussed from the perspective of receiving states, partly, as is pointed out, because that is where most of the research has been done – due to funding and researchers primarily focusing on the developed world and less soon the developing world. Despite this, the book does cover issues pertaining to the developing world as well as non-European flows and developments in more detail than is (unfortunately) common for a textbook on migration.

The section also covers the main theoretical perspectives on migration: macro, meso and micro level explanations for movement are explained and discussed in a very accessible way. The chapter sensibly touches on the various issues surrounding one of the most polarising topics of immigration policy: border controls or the management of immigration. The discussion focuses on the apparent contradictions between ever increasing spending and capacity for border control – including the securitization of migration, the increases in biometric surveillance as well as the internalisation and outsourcing of border control – contradicting the continuous rise in migration levels and particularly, until the current crisis hit, the continuous rise in irregular migration.

The last part of the book entitled “Future” is undoubtedly the most controversial part. Unlike many academics, Goldin et al. are unafraid to engage in predictions and prescriptions for the future and they set out to argue that future immigration is necessary, desirable and inevitable. Based primarily on demographic forecasts for both the developing and developed world, the authors conclude that immigration is unlikely to subside in the 21st century. On the contrary, since sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are likely to go through a “population hump” where a large number of people enter the labour force at the same time, creating migratory pressures and migration is likely to increase[2]. Simultaneously, the developed world is experiencing declining fertility and an aging population, this will eventually result in a contraction of the labour force as well as an increase in the dependency ratio between those active in the labour market and those outside of it (children and the elderly). This will also create a need for labour in sectors that hard to automate or outsource such as elderly and social care. These developments combined are likely to make immigration and human mobility necessary and inevitable in the 21st century.

From a 2013 perspective these developments may seem unlikely and farfetched – the book does briefly touch upon the economic crisis but not in much detail, referring to it as the 2008-2009 Financial Crisis. Developments since then, i.e. the persistent EURO crisis, austerity measures and high levels of unemployment in the EU27 countries seem to have made some of the arguments for increased immigration irrelevant in the short term – although they are likely to re-emerge if and when the economy picks up again. Additionally, the crisis has also laid bare some of the less savoury aspects of immigration: there are increased anti-immigrant sentiments, xenophobia and a revival of nationalism across the EU, but particularly in the countries hardest hit by the crisis such as Greece. While these reactions are unlikely to surprise many observers, they are nevertheless frightening.

And this is one issue that I, personally, missed in this otherwise impressive book. The authors only deal with the persistent opposition to immigration in Western Europe (and elsewhere) in passing, acknowledging that there are sections of society who oppose immigration and who are likely to bear the cost of increased immigration – socially and economically. However, the strength of these sentiments and their prevalence seems to be somewhat glossed over. Instead the authors suggest that political leadership emphasising the benefits of and contributions made by migrants, and state intervention to remedy the cost of immigration can prevent or alleviate these sentiments. However, a quick look around Europe will reveal a number of (often very successful) political parties who are all too happy blaming immigration and immigrants for the social and economic ills of their countries often scapegoating these communities for the current crisis. (See for example: France, Netherlands, Denmark, and Greece)

The authors point to the unequal globalisation and liberalisation of trade, goods and finance on the one side and the increased restrictions and limitations put on the movement of people on the other. They pragmatically recognise that the creation of a World Migration Organization on par with the World Trade Organisation or the World Health Organization is unlikely to happen in the near future, noting the wide-spread state opposition to surrendering sovereignty on issues of immigration. However, they do provide a possible agenda for the creation of such an organization, emphasising that it took 80 years to establish the WHO and 50 years for the WTO to be fully realised. They argue that the already existing International Organization for Migration and the 14 different international agencies that are involved in the international management of mobility could be a fair starting point. Goldin et al. end the book with a call for more international leadership on migration as well as an agenda for migration in the 21st that should include a move towards greater liberalisation of immigration – something that might appear naïve or irrelevant in the current climate – but the book nevertheless does provide some of the arguments and leadership they, themselves call for.

Despite its minor flaws “Exceptional People” is in many ways an exceptional undertaking; a book I would whole-heartedly recommend for anybody who has even a passing interest in the issues surrounding migration. This book is a great starting point for migration novices, and for the migration nerds amongst us there are enough graphs, maps, references and notes to ensure that even the most well-informed will come away with something new. And hopefully there will be more of such readers as migration is an issue that affects us all, whether we live 10 minutes or 10,000 km away from where we were born and it is, undoubtedly, an issue that will shape our future – whether we like it or not.

Further Reading

Bakewell, 2007

Castles and Miller, 2009 – “The Age of Migration – International Population Movements in the Modern World” Palgrave: UK

Attitudes to immigrants:

Ipsos Mori


Human Rights Watch, 2012 – Hate on the Streets

Open Borders:

[1] Youth unemployment has reached an average of 23.7% in November 2012 in the EU27 with individual countries such as Spain (56.5%), Portugal (38.7%) and Italy (37.1%) hit much harder.

[2] This is likely to be compounded by rising living standards in the developing world as the poorest people are least likely to migrate for lack of resources. Thus rising living standards will enable more people to move as transport, communication and networks become more accessible.


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