Few issues excite politicians’ and voters’ passions as much as immigration. For decades now, the world has been on the move: last year, according to the United Nations Population Fund, the number of people living outside their country of origin reached 232 million – 50% more than in 1990.
That may feel like a lot of people; in fact, it represents just 3.2% of the world’s population. They are, however, unevenly spread: 60% live in the developed world, including 72 million in Europe, 71 million in Asia and 53 million in North America. Nearly two-thirds of migrants currently living in the developed world came from a developing country.
Logically, the developed world is also where international immigrants represent a larger proportion of the total population: 10.8%, against just 1.6% in developing regions. Migrants, for example, now make up 9.8% of the total population in Europe, 14.9% in North America, and more than 20% in Oceania.
But it seems migration patterns are shifting. While more people still settle in developed countries than in developing, the growth rate is now higher in the latter: 1.8% against 1.5%. Also, overall migration is slowing. From 2000 to 2010, 4.6 million people left their home country each year; that number is now 3.6 million. But migration and its effects, real or perceived, remain one of the defining political and social issues of the day. In Britain and the US, the subject – anti-immigration; Ukip’s onward march; Barack Obama’s decision to give up to 5 million immigrants work permits – dominates national debate.
But what about elsewhere in the world? Is everyone as obsessed by immigration?
Population: 144 million
Net migration 2010-14: 1.1 million.
Hop on a metro train in Moscow or visit a market in any of Russia’s major cities and faces from Central Asia and the Caucasus will be everywhere. According to United Nations figures, Russia has more immigrants than any other country in the world, save the United States, with about 11 million foreigners living in the country at any one time and a large grey labour market.
Immigrants have been responsible for the lion’s share of the construction and other work that has taken place during Vladimir Putin’s presidency, when, at least until recently, high oil prices fuelled a building boom.
Much of the immigration to Russia is from countries that were once part of the Soviet Union and have suffered economic decline since its collapse. Whole villages in mountainous Tajikistan empty of their menfolk each summer as hundreds of thousands travel to Russia to work on construction sites and do other menial jobs.
Partly because many of the immigrant communities are transient and temporary, and partly because of active government policies to prevent it, Moscow’s enormous migrant population has never translated into ethnic districts. There is no Southall or Chinatown here; no part of the city to go to for Central Asian plov or Caucasian khinkali dumplings. Instead, the migrant populations are spread around the city; a small intellectual class that is more or less integrated into Russian life, and an underclass of labourers who live in makeshift housing on construction sites or in cheap hostels.
The low living standards and the bureaucratic hurdles that make it impossible for many migrants to work without paying bribes has led to tension and mistrust among Russians. A survey over the summer for the Levada polling agency found that 76% of Russians felt the number of immigrants should be restricted, and just 12% said they had a positive opinion of migrants from the south Caucasus.
Occasionally these latent tensions bubble over into violence, most notably last year in the Moscow suburb of Birulyovo, where riots broke out after a Russian football fan was killed by a migrant from Azerbaijan.
Even Alexei Navalny, the great hope of Moscow’s liberal classes, has disturbingly nationalist views. Navalny says he merely wants to see visas introduced for the former Soviet republics, but in his earlier years he appeared in videos comparing migrant workers to cockroaches.
The government has tried to tread a careful line between exploiting and reining in nationalist sentiment, but there are few conscious efforts to improve the lot of unskilled migrants. In 2005, nationalist politician Dmitry Rogozin released a campaign video with the slogan: “Let’s clean the rubbish away from Moscow.” It was clear that migrant workers were the rubbish, pictured speaking bad Russian and leering at a blonde Russian woman. Even in Russia, the video was controversial, but what might have been career-ending for a politician in another country, only boosted Rogozin’s ratings. He is now the deputy prime minister.
Sweden, Denmark and Norway
Population: 9.728 million
Net migration 2010-14:200,000 Of the record 26,000 asylum applications granted so far this year, 14,500 were to Syrians. The largest immigrant group in Sweden is, however, the Finns, followed by the Iraqis.
Population: 5.614 million
Net migration 2010-14:75,000Last quarter, Germans made up the largest group (accounted for by students arriving in September), with Syrians third, but Romanians followed by Poles have been the largest two groups for several years.
Population: 5.08 million
Net migration 2010-14:150,000. In 2013, Polish people accounted for the largest number: 10,502.
We tend to think of Denmark, Sweden and Norway, collectively, as liberal, progressive social democracies, but they have traditionally had quite different approaches to immigration. The region has more immediate and significant challenges to face – productivity stagnation and increased inequality (Denmark), a slumping oil price (Norway) and an ageing population (Sweden) – but anti-immigration parties across the region have skilfully exploited the concerns of predominantly lower-income groups to reap huge dividends in the polls. Thus immigration has been the most significant political issue in Scandinavia for more than a decade.
Norway is one of the world’s most generous donators of foreign aid, but is generally considered the least welcoming in the region towards immigrants. Actually, in 2013 Norway was second only to Sweden in the per capita number of refugees it welcomed (the largest number from Eritrea, followed by Somalia and Syria), but things have changed dramatically since the election that year, after which the rightwing Progress party – of which Anders Behring Breivik was a former member – was admitted into the ruling coalition for the first time. Its leader, Siv Jensen, a vocal Islamophobe, was appointed finance minister. Today, Norway is deporting people at a record rate: more than 7,000 this year.
In Denmark, next year’s election is expected to bring a record vote for the far right Danish People’s party (it won the highest number of votes in the recent European elections). This is not the first time the party has tasted success: it was the powerbroker in the right-leaning government for the first decade of the 21st century, and forced through numerous controversial immigration laws, largely to prevent family repatriation.
In Denmark, “immigrant” is often conflated with “Muslim”, while “freedom of speech” is commonly interpreted as “freedom to insult Islam and other visible minorities”. This we saw with the Muhammad cartoon crisis of 2005/6, and again just last month in the exhibition in Copenhagen of Swedish artist Dan Parks’s works depicting lynchings of local black leaders, which had been banned in his homeland.
Sweden has long accepted more immigrants than any other Scandinavian country, and continues to do so: last year it admitted roughly 20% of all EU asylum seekers. This year it is predicting a record number of refugees will apply for asylum, the majority from Syria. The Swedish ruling class has long been a curious mix of fiercely progressive social democrats and rather murky industrialists (usually the bad guys in Swedish crime fiction). The former approve the open-door policy on grounds of compassion, but both public and private sectors feast on the cheap labour: Sweden’s economy has consistently outperformed Denmark’s over the past decade. Meanwhile, a compliant media has sidelined anti-immigration voices, leading to accusations of self-censorship (mostly from the Danes who have grown tired of Swedish sanctimony regarding the prominence of the Danish People’s party). This kept the far-right out of the political mainstream for many years, but at the last general election in September, the Sweden Democrats – which has its origins in neo-nazism – won 13% of the vote, doubling its previous tally. The party’s support is predominantly among working-class voters in the south.
One final curiosity: all the Scandinavian rightwing parties offer what is to British eyes an improbable blend of xenophobia and an almost nostalgic social democratic affection for the welfare state. Imagine if, instead of wanting to privatise the NHS, Nigel Farage pledged to increase taxes to fund its expansion …
Population: 23.7 million
Net migration 2010-14: 750,000
People turning up on boats. Nothing has played a greater role in defining Australia, in shaping the country’s character, in directing its development. Nothing, now, is more controversial. Prime Minister Tony Abbott said earlier this year that the arrival of the First Fleet in Australia was the defining moment in the country’s history. Yet he won election on a platform of promising to “stop the boats” of all asylum seekers.
Australia has a curiously contradictory attitude towards migrants: at once welcoming and hostile, depending almost exclusively on mode of arrival. Fundamentally, Australia prides itself on being multicultural. It is a nation of immigrants. One in four Australians was born overseas, and in nearly 20% of households, a language other than English is the dominant tongue. Net migration is forecast by the government to increase each year to 2017, the last year of projections. India and the UK provided nearly a third of new Australian citizens last year.
The statistics are reflective of Australia’s human history, essentially one of successive waves of migration. The arrival of Indigenous Australians, from Africa via Asia, between 40,000 and 60,000 years ago; the First Fleet convicts in 1788; postwar generations of “populate or perish” sponsored migrants; the dismantling of the White Australia Policy; the first “unauthorised” boat arrivals in the 1970s: Australia has been shaped, and irrevocably altered, by its migrants.
But in 21st-century Australia, the vast bulk of the country’s migration programme is barely discussed. Periodically, there are debates about whether the driest inhabited continent on earth can support a “Big Australia” of 35 million, or discussions of guest worker programmes for Pacific Islanders. But essentially Australia talks only of asylum seekers and refugees.
Australia displays a divided attitude towards those seeking asylum. Those resettled in Australia through the government’s humanitarian programme are seen as “deserving” refugees, welcomed and supported. Those who arrive unannounced by boat are condemned as “illegals” and “queue jumpers”.
This is despite most boat arrivals coming from Burma, Afghanistan, Iran and Sri Lanka, countries where there are no refugee queues. And it is despite the fact that there are now fewer places in the queue: at the same time as stopping the boats, Australia has cut its refugee resettlement intake by almost a third, from 20,000 to 13,750 people a year.
The government says its self-proclaimed “hardline” policies against boat arrivals are based on a humanitarian rationale, designed to stop drownings at sea, to “break the people smugglers’ business model”, and to protect Australia from “threats to its national security”. But more than 90% of those arriving by boat are found to be genuine refugees, requiring Australia’s protection. And their numbers – save for a significant spike in 2012 and 2013 – have generally been fewer than 1% of Australia’s total migrant intake.
However, the policy on its most fundamental level is successful. Boats are no longer coming.
Australia is one of only five jurisdictions in the world known to forcibly push asylum-seekers’ boats back to sea. Those that reach Australia are taken out of the country, held in prison-like camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, where instances of self-harm, disease and violent physical and sexual assault are common. The average length of detention is 426 days. Australia also incarcerates asylum-seeker children without charge. Currently, more than 600 are in detention.
Population: 1.2 billion
Net migration 2010-14: -2.294 million
It was dusk in early November when the suicide bomber struck Wagah, the only land crossing between nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, killing at least 55 people. India’s orange-turbaned border guards and their black-clad Pakistani counterparts had already lowered both country’s flags in a display of goose-stepping nationalism attended daily by spectators.
Due to tight security, the bomber blew himself up a few hundred metres from the actual gate separating the two countries. But for India, it was close enough to serve as a potent reminder of how vulnerable it is to terrorist infiltration. Six years ago, Pakistani nationals carried out the Mumbai attacks in which more than 150 people were killed.
Terror and security issues have largely driven India’s immigration policy. India’s 2,300km border with Pakistan is fenced and so brightly floodlit it is visible from space. But increasingly, illegal migration and population pressures too are in play.
In the east, along India’s 3,360km border with Bangladesh, shoot on sight orders allow border guards to kill with impunity. Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 1,000 people, including many children, have been killed by Indian border guards since 2000. Most victims are poor, landless farmers seeking a marginally better life in India. Migration is overwhelmingly undocumented. While the World Bank’s official figures suggest a net outflow, estimates for the number of illegal immigrants run from 3 million to 20 million. And migration to the country is increasingly a potent religious and political issue.
During the election campaign earlier this year, India’s new Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, told a rally that “these Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed” when he came to power. Meanwhile, he said, India should make space for Hindu migrants left behind when the British carved up the subcontinent in 1947.
Hindus fled to India and Muslims to East and West Pakistan, with up to a million slaughtered. East Pakistan – now Bangladesh – gained its independence in 1971 in another bloody conflict. Ever since those partitions, migration within the region has remained a thorny emotional issue.
But even garden-variety visitors to India hardly find a red carpet welcome. Despite Modi’s economic charm offensive and encouragement for businesses to “Make in India”, the regime for both business and tourist visas remains Kafkaesque. In the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rating, India has actually fallen eight places to 139 out of 189 economies surveyed in 2014.
Perhaps the most bizarre legacy of India’s failure to forge a humane, coherent immigration policy, free from the hangovers of colonialism, lies in a tiny parcel of land called Dahala Khagrabari #51. It’s a Bangladeshi jute field, completely encircled by an Indian village, which is itself entirely surrounded by Bangladeshi territory. Its inhabitants and those of a staggering 161 other such “enclaves”, created in the chaotic aftermath of independence, are stateless and confined to their islands of terrain.
India has ignored the problem for six decades, possibly on the assumption that the problem may eventually go away. Its immigration policy suffers from the same wilful blindness. Fencing people out might solve some problems. But the twin regional factors of poverty and climate change could see millions of people, particularly from Bangladesh, seeking sanctuary in India. At that point, New Delhi may have to look beyond barbed wire and bullets.
Population: 182.1 million
Net migration 2010-14: 1.63 million
Pakistan is home to one of the largest refugee populations in the world. The majority are Afghan refugees who began arriving after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and have continued in waves through the following decades of war. The UN says there are currently about 1.6 million refugees living in Pakistan, and in total they have helped repatriate 3.8 million Afghan refugees. The government, meanwhile, says there are another million Afghan refugees who are undocumented, while some experts place the total number of Afghan refugees closer to 4 million.
In the sixth most populous country in the world, accurate figures are hard to come by. Junaid Arshad Khan from the International Organisation of Migration says the government only publishes daily figures for border crossings between the two countries – around 40,000 to 50,000 each day – but points out that many are daily migrants.
Yet despite the high number of refugees, there is currently little national debate about immigration, according to Haris Gazdar from the Collective for Social Science Research: “There have been similar debates to those in the west – with migrants linked to crime, and a draw-down on resources. But at the moment that has died down and there is not a serious debate about repatriation or immigration policy in general.”
The lack of debate is partly because many Afghan refugees live in areas where they have strong ethnic and cultural links to the local population. But Sanaa Alimia, an academic who researches Afghan refugees, says there has been a growing hostility in recent years – and this normally comes from people at government level. She says she has come across mass arrests and harassment of refugees as a way to “encourage” them to be repatriated. And she points out that only Afghan refugees who are registered can access services – from education and housing to healthcare – and have protection against repatriation or arrest. Although many refugees arrived decades ago, few become citizens unless they marry into the local population.
The more than a million people who are internally displaced by military operations against militants and natural disasters are part of the debate about immigration, says Alimia. But other smaller populations of migrants from elsewhere in south Asia – or skilled workers from China – are seldom mentioned. Meanwhile more than 4 million Pakistanis are migrants to countries including India, Saudi Arabia and the UK – and remittances from abroad make up 5.7% of the country’s GDP.
Net migration 2010-14: -1.5m
“Immigration is not an issue in China,” declared Wang Huiyao, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a Beijing thinktank. In fact, he said, the urgent issue facing China is not an excess of arrivals – but of departures. China’s immigration deficit, as measured from the early 80s, has reached nearly 8.5m. The leadership is now seeking to address that, Wang added: “China now sees recruiting talents as more important than attracting investments.”
Set against the size of the population, the number of foreigners is very low. The 2010 census found there were just less than 600,000 living on the mainland for more than three months (by 2012, that total had risen to 633,000, say Chinese media); three-fifths male, two-fifths female. Most of those were engaged in business, work or study. By far the largest number – around a fifth – came from South Korea, with the US and Japan also sending significant numbers and smaller groups coming from Burma, Vietnam, Canada, France, India, Germany and Australia.
Settling here long term is difficult. In 2010, just 1,448 foreigners gained Chinese citizenship. And fewer than 5,000 people had gained permanent residence by 2012, according to Chinese media; 1,300 of those gained their green cards through a drive to recruit foreign scientists. State news agency Xinhua reported this summer that the government was considering developing “more flexible and pragmatic” criteria for green cards.
“Compared with the UK or the US, Chinese society is very open-minded on immigration,” said Wang, suggesting it has welcomed new arrivals in part because most have been well-educated and highly skilled. But in places that have seen significant numbers of illegal migrants, the attitude can be less positive, he said. There have been immigration crackdowns in some areas; notably in parts of Guangzhou with large numbers of African residents. Traders and business people there have complained of police targeting them in random raids and of general social prejudice.
By far the most significant aspect of Chinese migration is internal: more than 160 million rural workers now live in cities, but their rights to basic services are restricted by the hukou or household registration system, which divides people into urban and rural dwellers and classifies rights accordingly. While the government has announced hukou reforms, experts say there is a long way to go. That reflects in part anxiety about how urban residents will react. Some are extremely hostile to the idea of extending more rights to rural workers and their rhetoric can echo comments about immigrants in the UK: complaining that schools will be overwhelmed and that migrants are changing the culture of neighbourhoods.
But Wang Zhenyao, president of the China Philanthropy Research Institute, said such views were in a minority. “Most people in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou understand that without migrant workers, the daily operation of the cities will come to a halt,” he said.
Additional research by Luna Lin
Population: 46.5 million
Net migration 2010-14: 600,000
In Spain, the discussion regarding migrants arriving in the country has been overshadowed by worries about the number of people leaving. Fifteen years ago, immigrants from Ecuador, Bolivia, Romania and Morocco drove the immigrant population in the country from less than 2% in 1999 to 12% in 2009, but today many of these same migrants are leaving. In the face of an unemployment rate that hovers around 24%, many of Spain’s migrants are heading home, joining the exodus of Spaniards hoping to find better job opportunities abroad.
Spain became a net exporter of people in 2010; last year some 550,000 people left while 250,680 migrated to the country, primarily from Morocco, Romania and the UK. The figures, from the National Statistics Institute, are not exact, only reflecting the number of people who have registered with local authorities in their municipality; many foreigners have taken their name off municipal rolls to avoid a new requirement to declare assets located abroad.
The economic crisis has led the number of Latin American migrants to drop off considerably in recent years, says Joaquín Arango, a professor of sociology at Madrid’s Complutense University. Increasingly taking their place are migrants from China, who see business opportunities in the crisis.
Compared with many other European countries, there has been less rejection of migration in Spain, says Arango. “Even after seven years of economic crisis, we haven’t seen any kind of generalised backlash.” The explanation, he says, lies in the country’s transition to democracy after more than three decades of dictatorship. “The values associated with democracy – anti-racism, equality – became entrenched.” He points to remarks by David Cameron in 2011 urging the British public to report illegal immigrants. “In Spain this would be unthinkable.”
Those who work with immigrants worry that this attitude is slowing eroding, says Mikel Araguás, of Andalucía Acoge (Welcome Andalusia), a non-profit group dedicated to helping immigrants integrate. As Spain suffers harsh austerity measures, migrants are increasingly being seen as competitors for the scarce social resources, says Araguás. “We’re starting to see a discourse that seeks to criminalise immigration, with some media asking whether these groups pay taxes or whether they’re scamming social services.” Food banks run by far-right groups and who serve only needy Spanish nationals have sprouted across the country, while in the Basque country, the mayor of Vitoria has railed against Algerians and Moroccans, accusing them of taking advantage of social benefits.
In September, Araguás’s group formalised its efforts to fight back, launching a project called Stop Rumours. Tackling the most commonly heard stereotypes, such as migrants being a burden on the country’s healthcare system or that they are taking all the jobs, the project’s website offers videos and statistics to dispel the myths. More than 300 people have signed up for the group’s workshops, intended to give people the tools to counter this discourse.
The stereotypes have rapidly gained strength in the absence of little public debate over immigration, says Araguás. Instead, he says, the conversation focuses on the borders at the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, where migrants spend months living rough in the hope of rushing the border fence that separates Morocco from Spain. “It’s an element that’s very visual but a perversion of migration in the country.”
Some 14,000 people rushed the fence last year, with 2,000 making it in; a minuscule drop in the bucket compared with Spain’s 4.6 million immigrants. Still, the border fences have become the flashpoint of the debate over migrants in Spain, with human rights groups, the European Union and United Nations expressing concerns about Spain’s actions, while the Spanish government pushes forward, fortifying the triple fence and covering it with anti-climbing mesh. It’s a futile debate in a country that has become a net exporter of people, says Araguás.
Net migration 2010-14: -100,000
South Africa is among the biggest recipients of refugees in the world. Yet the issue remains surprisingly marginal in political discourse. When President Jacob Zuma delivered his state-of-the-nation address to parliament in June, its more than 29,000 words did not mention immigration once.
This is despite an official unemployment rate of 25.4%, alleged mistreatment of asylum seekers in detention and frequent explosions of xenophobic violence, notably in 2008 when 62 people, including 21 South Africans, were killed and more than 150,000 displaced.
Immigration figures are notoriously imprecise. South Africa’s 2011 census says 3.3% – or about 1.7 million – of the country’s 51.8 million population are “non-South African” citizens. Data collated by the World Bank and the UN suggest a migrant population of about 1.86 million. But the number of undocumented or illegal migrants is unknown.
A total of 108,711 applications for temporary and permanent residence were approved by the government in 2013. Two-thirds of these were from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, China, India, Pakistan, the UK, Lesotho and Angola. “Most of these people bring skills into the country,” statistician-general Pali Lehohla said earlier this year.
There are also asylum seekers: media reports often describe South Africa as the world’s largest recipient. But an investigation by the Africa Check website found the evidence to be “flawed, inaccurate and sharply contradictory”, while Amnesty International has said it understands that nine out of 10 applications are rejected. Newspaper proprietor Trevor Ncube, harassed at an airport after a business trip in 2012, tweeted: “It’s time South African immigration stopped assuming every black African coming into the country is a desperate criminal.”
Neighbouring Zimbabwe is easily the biggest source after more than a decade of political and economic turmoil under President Robert Mugabe. Estimates of the number of Zimbabweans in South Africa vary wildly from 1.5 million to 3 million. Coming from a country with the highest literacy rate in Africa, they are often sought after by employers as nannies, security guards or waiters on low pay, prompting some South Africans to accuse them of “stealing jobs”.
Meanwhile, Somalis, fleeing 20 years of civil war, have carved a reputation as traders. A 2012 report by the City Press newspaper quoted residents of a township near Cape Town as saying Somali traders are cheaper, friendlier, trade from 5am to 10pm and extend small amounts of credit to regular customers. This has provoked a deadly backlash from local shop owners who feel their territory under threat.
But far from exploiting this anger for political gain, Zuma recently chided South Africans for failing to match immigrants’ entrepreneurial spirit. “Our people are waiting for government,” he told a media gathering in Pretoria last month. “Our people are not used to standing up and doing things. These ones [foreigners] are not expecting any government to do anything so they get here, see opportunities and exploit them. They have taken over your small businesses.”
If he were a journalist, Zuma added, he would write to South Africans to say “wake up”.
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