Myths of Migration: Much of What We Think We Know Is Wrong

The debate over migration is plagued by a variety of inaccuracies and misunderstandings — on both the right and the left. Here is what the research really shows.

By Hein de Haas

Migrants at the Greece-Macedonia border in March 2016


Migrants at the Greece-Macedonia border in March 2016

March 21, 2017  

Migration was the issue of the year in 2016 and it will likely remain important in 2017. The topic is, however, just as hotly debated as it is poorly understood. The so-called “refugee crisis” in Europe and the omnipresent images of overfilled boats arriving on Mediterranean shores give the impression that migration is threatening to spin out of control and that radical action is needed to curtail the uncontrollable influx of migrants. The fear of mass migration has fueled the rise of extreme nationalist parties throughout Europe and helped Donald Trump win the presidential election in the U.S.

This call for tougher migration policies is juxtaposed by another, albeit somewhat weaker, opinion voiced by the business sector, human rights and religious organizations and left-liberal parties. They argue that migration tends to be beneficial for both origin and destination societies, and that we should not see refugees as a burden but as a potential resource.

But in this polarized debate, the rather more sobering facts unfortunately get lost. Both the left-wing and right-wing narratives on migration are rooted in a series of myths that reveal a striking lack of knowledge about the nature, causes and consequences of migration processes. This text examines eight of the myths that I have often encountered in my research.

1. No, closed borders do not automatically lead to less migration.

It isn’t quite as easy as simply slamming the door shut. Migration restrictions can have several unintended side-effects which may undermine their effectiveness. First, restrictions can compel migrants to find other legal or illegal channels – the use of family reunification channels by de facto economic migrants, for example. Second, strict border controls often divert migration flows through other terrestrial and maritime routes, thereby increasing the market for smugglers. Third, restrictions can lead to surges of “now-or-never” migration. When Suriname became independent from the Netherlands in 1975, for example, about 40 percent of its population migrated to Holland before visas were introduced.

Finally, restrictions tend to interrupt circulation and push migrants into permanent settlement. This is what happened, for instance, with the so-called “guest-workers” in the 1970s and ’80s. Fearful that they would not be able to re-immigrate after a temporary return home, many opted for permanent settlement. Prior to 1991, when movement was free, many Moroccans travelled back-and-forth to Spain as seasonal and temporary workers, but the introduction of visa requirements in 1991, as a consequence of the Schengen Agreement, set in motion the phenomenon of illegal boat migration and triggered permanent settlement of Moroccan laborers in Spain. They, in turn, brought over their families, leading to the rapid growth of the Moroccan population in the country to over 700,000.

This does not mean that governments cannot or should not control migration. It rather shows that liberal immigration policies do not necessarily lead to mass migration and that ill-conceived migration policies can be counterproductive. Free migration is often strongly circulatory, as we see with migration within the EU. The more restrictive entry policies are, the more migrants want to stay. Such unintended effects create fundamental dilemmas for policymakers.

2. No, migration policies have not failed.

Significant media attention on persistent boat migration and irregular border crossings have created a distorted and misleading image that migration policies are “broken” and borders are beyond control. The intense focus on the “refugee crisis” has hidden the fact that most migration policies are, in fact, quite effective. After all, the large majority of migrants – according to best available estimates, at least nine out of 10 – enter Europe legally, defying the idea of that migration is “out of control.” As such, illegal migration is a relatively limited phenomenon. Periods of extremely high refugee migration, such as in 2015 or in the 1990s during the Balkan conflicts, are more the exception than the rule and tend not to last.

Immigration is not a flow that can be turned on and off like a tap. Modern immigration policies aim to influence the selection and timing of migration rather than volumes of migration. We do, however, often overestimate what migration policies can achieve. This is because migration is driven by processes of economic development and social change – both in origin and destination societies – that lie beyond the reach of migration policies.


In most European countries, for instance, immigration levels tend to strongly correlate with business cycles. In times of strong economic growth, more migrants are likely to find jobs and thus obtain work permits. Economic migration is strongly driven by labor demand, defying popular ideas that it is an uncontrolled phenomenon largely driven by poverty and violence in origin countries.


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