Civil Society

Why it's time to celebrate migrants

Migrants gesture after boarding a train after crossing the Macedonian-Greek border near Gevgelija, Macedonia, September 5, 2015. A record 50,000 migrants hit Greek shores in July alone and were ferried from islands unable to cope to the mainland by a government already floundering in financial crisis and keen to dispatch them promptly north into Macedonia, whence they enter Serbia and then Hungary. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov       TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - GF10000194038

Migrants gesture after boarding a train after crossing the Macedonian-Greek border near Gevgelija, Macedonia Image: REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Ian Goldin
Professor of Globalization and Development; Director, Oxford Martin Programme on Technological and Economic Change, University of Oxford
Marie McAuliffe
Head of Migration Policy Research Division, International Organization for Migration
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  • Most migration benefits the countries receiving and sending migrants but this is often not accurately represented in discussions.
  • Cities with higher shares of migrants are often voted as the most desirable places to be, while hostility towards migrants is higher in places with lower migration.
  • Had immigration to the United Kingdom and Germany ceased in 1990, both countries’ real GDP in 2014 would have been $227.44 billion and $201.45 billion lower respectively.

On this International Migrants Day, we should celebrate the wide-ranging contributions migrants have made to all of our lives and societies. None of us would be where we are if our ancestors had not migrated, and yet, migrants are increasingly regarded as outsiders and blamed for a widening range of social ills. More accurate and balanced accounts of migration are desperately needed. In this era of disillusionment, of fake news and misinformation on migration, recognizing the contributions of international migrants worldwide and why we should celebrate them is more important than ever. Some of the facts about migrants may even surprise you.

In the face of often negatively skewed discussions on migration and migrants, one can lose sight of the fact that most migration today, as in the past, results in strongly beneficial impacts not only for the migrants themselves but also for the receiving and sending countries. It is also easy to forget that cross-border migration remains a relatively uncommon phenomenon, with a mere 3.5% of the world’s population being international migrants (and 96.5% remaining in their countries of birth).

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As has been shown, despite the creation of 100 new countries in the past 100 years, including 30 since the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago, the share of migrants in our societies is barely increasing and may well be lower than in previous centuries. There is also no correlation between the share of migration in our countries and cities and our attitudes. On the contrary, places with the lowest share of migrants – such as Poland or Hungary (both under 3%) display much more hostile attitudes toward migrants than countries with much higher shares. Meanwhile, cities with the highest share of migration (Singapore, Toronto, Vancouver all have more than 50% and London is around 1/3 migrant) are often voted as the most desirable places to be. They are also among the most dynamic, thanks, in part, to the contribution of migrants.

The many and varied contributions of international migrants are too often overlooked or ignored in current discussions on international migration. More disturbing are recent research findings showing that transnational political alliances have sought to deliberately distort the immigration discourse through social media platforms. This has become most pronounced when migration is particularly high-profile in the news media, such as during the 2015-16 mass migration to and through Europe or in the lead up to the US’ adoption of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration: how data helps us understand migration
The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration: how data helps us understand migration

Migration is not without challenges. Like other complex public policy issues, migration can pose major challenges to states as well as to migrants themselves. However, blaming migrants rather than explaining and addressing complex global realities only fuels further disillusionment, with potentially tragic consequences for the migrants and a severe cost to our economies and societies. It is critical, therefore, to recount how migrants contribute globally in the essential domains of socio-cultural life, civic-political engagement and economic prosperity.

Firstly, the socio-cultural contributions of migrants are felt by many of us in our daily lives, even though we may not be conscious of them. Simple activities, such as shopping for groceries, ordering takeaway food, visiting a place of worship, attending a musical performance or watching professional sport – are likely to have been enriched or made possible by migrants who have brought with them their customs, traditions, networks and skills. Immigration, mobility and trade links, for example, have helped facilitate the development of the modern food system. A study of crop origins has found that the migrants over centuries have contributed enormously to the diversity of food systems and greatly enriched our diets.

Secondly, in the civic-political domain migrants contribute positively both in origin and destination settings, including as advocates of tolerance, diversity and inclusion. In the US, for example, the November 2018 elections for the 116th Congress delivered the most racially and ethnically diverse Congress in the country’s history – 13% of its members are now first or second-generation migrants. Among the many other examples of migrants’ exceptional contributions is Ireland’s Prime Minister, whose father was born in Mumbai. Migrants, including refugees, can also be important agents of change in peace-building and reconstruction processes, bringing their experiences, skills and resources to the rebuilding of infrastructure, social cohesion and political processes in post-conflict settings.

International migrants as a percentage of total population
International migrants as a percentage of total population Image: UN

In economic terms, migrants are often a significant and essential source of labour enabling sustained growth of national economies, most especially of countries experiencing ageing populations and/or population decline. A recent report, for example, suggests that had immigration to the United Kingdom and Germany ceased in 1990, both countries’ real GDP in 2014 would have been lower by $227.44 billion and $201.45 billion, respectively.

On the other hand, international remittances typically help family members back home to meet basic household needs, such as food and shelter, and alleviate poverty. The money that migrants send home can be important buffers against unexpected costs, supporting household financial stability and resilience. We often think of international remittances occurring from developed to developing economies. However, World Bank data suggests that of the top 10 countries receiving remittances in the world, France is currently sixth ($26.4 billion) and Germany is ninth ($17.3 billion).


Migrants have long been drivers of entrepreneurship and innovation. They are overrepresented in innovation and patents, awards for arts and sciences, and start-ups and successful companies. Immigrants have significantly contributed to driving innovation and entrepreneurship in the US, perhaps more so than in any other country. While immigrants represented only 13% of the population in a country of more than 300 million people, they comprise nearly 30% of all entrepreneurs.

Despite evidence of the wide-ranging benefits of migration, anti-migrant sentiment and blaming foreigners for ills remain frequently used political tools. The rise in hate speech and xenophobia has in part been fuelled by political expediency as the tussle for the mainstream, the working-class vote takes on a heightened salience as the radical-right fights opportunistically for wider appeal based on unbalanced rhetoric.


The negative impact of the increase in misinformation on governance, especially for democratic societies, has been the focus of considerable analysis and discussion. While there is cause for significant concern, there are some small signs emerging that distortion through social media is becoming less acceptable. For transnational companies, discrimination against foreigners whose home markets offer significant potential could backfire, undermining their bottom line.

Ultimately, it won’t just be migrants who bear the brunt of negativity and exclusion. The age of anger will have a far more deleterious effect on human development and well-being globally. How we talk about and treat international migrants signals the extent to which we are prepared to uphold human rights more generally. There is much we can all do, starting with accurate depictions of migration and migrants.

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