It is often difficult to get a grasp of the facts about international migration. Statistics are inaccurate and interpretation of figures and facts are tilted. Different sub-groups of migrants are lumped together, be it voluntary, forced and trafficked people; be it children, adults, men and women, skilled and professional people, literate and illiterate, handicapped, poor and rich, and so on. Negative and positive causes and consequences of migration for the sending and receiving countries are equally blurred. After several decades of relatively high migration as compared to the preceding decades, we have not defined the concepts and policies of sending, receiving and integrating migrants. In the West, we to talk much about the issues, but at a superficial level, with too little facts and knowledge. Some are xenophobic, not out of ill will, but simply out of ignorance, misunderstanding and prejudice.

On 20 June 2018, when the World Refugee Day was marked, the head of UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, Filippo Grandi, said that there are more than 68 million refugees in the world, and he asked solidarity and understanding. In addition, it is estimated that there are tens of millions of other forced migrants, plus ordinary economic and other migrants, over two hundred and sixty million in all. According to the Migration Agency (IOM), 3.3 percent of the world’s population fall in this category. USA and the European Union (EU) countries are the main recipients, plus Australia, Canada and some other countries.

In Europe, we termed 2015, with unprecedented high influx of people, a migration crisis. But the actual figures were not as extreme as we said, well over a million in a continent of about half a billion. The magnitude has flattened since, but it still remains higher than earlier. In USA, it is estimated that there are more than 11-12 million undocumented migrants. Yet, both Europe and USA need migrants.

It is likely that there will be new waves of influxes of refugees and other migrants to Europe, and that high numbers of illegal and undocumented migrants will become a common feature, like it is in USA. This week, the EU holds discussions in Brussels about migration issues and it wants all countries to share the burden, or rather, the costs and benefits. Fair rules are needed.

Many EU migrants move within the twenty-seven EU countries and the four EFTA countries cooperating closely with EU. Many move from the east and south to the west of Europe. Over the years, many also return home after having saved up some money, taken degrees, gained work experiences, and improved language skills, especially in English.

As for refugees, neighbouring countries always become the main host countries; Pakistan has hosted up to 7 million Afghan refugees over the close to four decades after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, followed by Taliban rule and other internal and external issues leading to people being uprooted at home and many going abroad. Most Afghans have now returned from Pakistan and Iran, and some have also returned from hosting countries further away.

When quantifying people movements in our part of the world, it is important to note that Pakistan is a major sending country of foreign workers and emigrants, somewhere close to 10 million people. Since the overseas Pakistanis send home huge amounts of remittances, the Pakistani authorities encourage citizens to work abroad, in spite of the drain of professionals and skilled workers, including high cost of initial training. Pakistan loses innovative people, including labourers and ordinary people, and there is a lack of well-developed systems to encourage overseas Pakistanis to return home, and also maintain professional networks while abroad. In the longer run, fewer Pakistanis should look across the fence for greener pastures. That also goes for other countries sending high numbers of emigrants. We should indeed realize that only a small percentage would burn bridges and leave home for good if the living conditions and opportunities were acceptable and hopeful for better lives at home – and that goes for most categories of migrants everywhere.

Yet, I believe people must also be free to migrate if they want to. In Europe, Pakistan and the region, we must simply find new, liberal ways of regulating migration, including helping desperate people and finding sound ways for temporary or permanent economic migrants. Today, Europe and the Middle East are popular destinations, but that will probably change over time. Let us just recall that it is just some 150 years since Europe was a huge exporter of people, mainly to USA. Since North America was sparsely populated – and since the indigenous Americans, the Red Indians as they were termed that time, were not asked, the situation was not described from their side, notably as the disaster it was for them.

In our time, many non-European migrants come from the continent’s outskirts, from countries at war or conflict, indeed from the Middle East, recently especially Syria. Many are stopped on the way, and remain in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey, or they reach Italy, Greece or the border of Hungary, but have difficulties continuing to their dream destinations in Northern Europe, such as Germany, France, and UK.

Others, refugees and forced/semi-forced migrants, come from countries with deep poverty, unequal development and few hopes for a better life at home. They come mainly from Africa, but also from the Middle East and elsewhere in Asia and beyond. It should be noted that the recipient countries have often caused the crises in the sending countries, today or in the recent or earlier past. In Africa, the former colonial power must take responsibility; and the current capitalist world order, supported by the World Trade Organization (WTO), harness inequality, which leads to high migration. Especially young, single men risk all they have (which may be little) to realize their dream of a better life in the West, so they can send money home, create a better life for themselves and their children. When they leave their loved ones at home, it is sink or swim. How often do we take time to think about their situation?

In today’s article, I have mostly presented some quantitative data about the current global migration trends. But the qualitative aspects, our attitudes and opinions, are as important as statistics. And let me again stress that all of us have superficial knowledge and we rarely have any thought-through understanding neither of the magnitude and causes for migration, nor solutions and what kind of fair regulations and systems that can be established.

The migration field resembles the field of socio-economic class differences as for lack of knowledge among people in general and also experts. We would probably like change to take place; we would like to see upward social mobility and free people movements. At the same time, we don’t want to do what it takes. We seem not even to want to understand the facts, causes and solutions. In many ways we are like ostriches, hiding our head in the sand.

There are many reasons for this, among them, we should realize that there are forces in society, nationally and internationally, that want us to stay ignorant and be controlled. Yes, the capitalists don’t want us to know too much about social change, and they only want migration to take place when it is in their own interest, for example to keep salaries down. Free trade of goods and capital under the WTO rules is in the interest of the capitalists in our world order. But well-regulated migration systems have not been included in WTO’s worldview; besides, free flow of thinking people can be more cumbersome than free flow of goods and capital.

Political analysis and understanding of migration issues, including integration in their new lands – and of class differences and social mobility – are not given priority in our education and public debate. We lack what is today often termed evidence-based knowledge, which I’d rather call research-based, empirical knowledge. In addition, we somehow seem to lack empathy for, and interest in, those who have less than we have – we who rule the lands and the world; this in spite of people generally being good, as I choose to believe. It is the systems that must be improved. Better, fairer and more realistic migration systems, including regulations, are certainly needed in our time – based on proper knowledge and understanding where we use both heart and mind.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid.