Maybe the most controversial debate in the last decades, economic inequality and oppression as a reason for migration is coming to the fore every time a country wants to control its borders, and in this way to “pick” the best human resources1 which will help boost its economy (as it now happens in the countries of the E.U.). History has demonstrated that people have always been migrating due to war, natural disasters, persecution and of course, in order to make a better living 

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In the beginning of the 20thcentury, 50 million people left Europe2, 1 in 8 Europeans (20-30% originating from Great Britain, Italy, Spain and Portugal) and immigrated to the US, Canada, Argentina, and South Africa. In 1950 50% of migrants in America were, in their vast majority, Western Europeans3. The severe labour shortage in Europe following the WW II made some European countries either to seek workforce in their ex-colonies (this is the example of Britain, France and the Netherlands) or sign recruitment agreements with other countries4, such as Germany (with Italy in ’55 and ’65, Greece and Spain in ’64, Yugoslavia in ’68 and others). In 1973, 10% of the official labour force in France and in Germany was migrants. The recession which followed led to austere measures against migration in the 80s.

This procedure: demand- selective acceptance- blockage is being applied at will by states whenever they are in need of labour force. The examples are plenty: from the Asian migratory wave towards America in the 1850s5 until these days. There are already studies from research institutes6 published in the international financial press, according to which there is need for human resources even in prosperous countries like Germany which will need, according to estimates, 2.4 million people by 20207. During the last years, both state and European mechanisms – not only in the periphery- but also at the core centre of the EU – have been acting more like trading slaves, rather than managing a humanitarian crisis.

When looking at the global picture, this attempt to underestimate the human need for movement for financial reasons, by coining terms like ‘clandestine’, ‘criminal’ etc., disregarding the fact that these are human beings and not statistics in spreadsheets or commodities, is at the very least narrow-minded and unrealistic–if not dangerous.
At a country level, we witness many countries of the South becoming indebted to the World Bank and the IMF8, with unsustainable loans. As a result, they privatize basic public utilities like electricity, or water, even though in more than 180 cities in 35 countries these services have returned to the public sector9, like in Paris or Berlin. This slow but steady trade off of all public commons to pay off loans is leading to the financial exploitation and entrapment of people, which is -in its turn- leading to poverty and eventually, quite often, to migration.

Some years ago, the International Labor Organization (ILO) predicted that 40-50% of the global population will be living below the poverty line of 2 dollars per day10 while in the same year, the statistics showed that every six seconds a child is dying from poverty10. The wealth ratio between the rich and the poor regions in the world is 19 to 1. This difference may not look big at first sight, but if we examine the data per country, the gap becomes more telling, the US has 267 times a bigger per capita income than Zimbabwe, Norway 184 times more than Liberia, the Netherlands 140 times more than Congo11 (these ratios are based on the purchasing power parity of each country). It is therefore expected that people will move towards more developed countries with higher income. As already said, this is exactly what happened with the Europeans, when they migrated in millions, during the first half of the 20thcentury, in search of a better life (at a time when the rich/ poor gap was nowhere close to what it is today).

An OECD research leads to the conclusion that migrants can have both the skills and the will to contribute to their host countries12, and their integration can be beneficial in many respects.

Another reason why someone may leave his/her country to migrate is well hidden from the public eye, although our actions can be behind it without us being aware:

Modern slavery is not as far from our lives as we think it is. It may hide inside our cell phone, our TV set, our P.C, or even in the clothes we wear. Globally, it is estimated that there are 21 to 36 million slaves- 26% being children13.  A network of forced labour, from local to state level, and from small “companies” to giant multinationals, lives and creates profit from exploiting people, keeping them in conditions of slavery, from where many struggle to find ways to escape.
In 2001, a UN research in Congo14, found that its internal armed conflicts are mainly about access to, control of and trade of the following five key mineral resources: coltan, cobalt, copper, diamonds and gold, most of which are used in high-tech products used in our everyday lives15, such as mobile phones, laptops and TV sets. In the mines, the army is forcing children to labour, using guns and in some cases even rape16 -reportedly 48 rapes occur per hour17 – while women and young girls often work in the worst conditions18. Profits from minerals are the key financing source of a war lasting almost 20 years, during which big high tech companies accumulate wealth from human slavery. Social corporate responsibility is losing sense in our civilized world. Companies such as HTC, Nokia, Samsung, and Apple cannot ensure consumers that no child labour is occurring at any stage of the production19. The responsibility thereafter lies on us, the consumers, when we support this type of commerce. There are alternatives available which we could and should explore.
Often, conditions of modern slavery are linked to statelessness, in other words to the absence of any official document proving these people are citizens of a certain state. In many occasions, children, women and men who find themselves in a situation of modern slavery, may lack the documents to prove their nationality. This basically means that they do not exist for any state in the world. Stateless people20, are estimated at around 10 million21,  with 700 thousand in Ivory Coast,  800 thousand in Myanmar, 500 thousand in Thailand, plus approximately 300 thousand in Latvia, within the EU. In many cases – maybe out of mere coincidence – human trafficking is a prosperous business in these countries. Only in Thailand, even though no one can be sure of the exact number, the people in the net of prostitution are estimated from 70.000 up to 2.8 million22. Human trafficking, in the form of a global net of modern slavery also extending into the EU, yields profits of roughly 28 billion Euro per year23, making every vulnerable social group a potential target.

Whoever manages to escape from this human exploitation network may simply be considered as an economic migrant and be locked in some prison cell, unless an accusation is filed against the oppressors, which is something victims rarely resort to, given the dangers involved considering the power of the violators and the time it takes for a case to be brought to trial.

Throughout the course of history and up until today, humans migrated in order to seek a better life: either, because they were directly forced to flee, fearing for their lives (due to war or natural phenomena) or because their country was economically devastated. No one can claim otherwise and we should all have the right to move safely around the world.

  1. What fundamentals drive world migration?, National Bureau Of Economic Research (University Of Essex + Harvard University), 2002 (link)
  2. Migration, migrant workers and capitalism, 2009 (link)
  3. What fundamentals drive world migration?, National Bureau Of Economic Research (University Of Essex + Harvard University), 2002 (link)
  4. Migration, migrant workers and capitalism, ISJ, 2009 (link)
  5. Labor Immigration Under Capitalism: Asian workers in the US before WWII, Lucie Cheng & Edna Bonacich, University of California Press, 1984
  6. The Global Workforce Crisis, Boston Consulting Group, 2014 (link)
  7. Germany faces shortage of skilled labour, Financial Times, 2014 (link)
  8. Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) (link)
  9. Water remunicipalisation as a global trend, Transnational Institute, 2015 (link)
  10. The Global Economic Crisis And Migration, Bimal Ghosh, Iom & The Hague Process, 2010 (link)
  11. International Migration and Development: A review in light of the crisis, UN Economic & Social Affairs, 2011 (link)
  12. Migration Policy Debates: Is migration good for the economy?, ΟΟΣΑ, 2014 (link)
  13. Slavery Is Everywhere (link)
  14. Illegal exploitation of natural resources and other forms of wealth of the Democratic Republic of Congo, UN Security Council, 2001 (link)
  15. Your cell phone, Congo’s misery, CNN, 2011 (link)
  16. Congo rape victims face slavery in gold and mineral mines, The Guardian, 2011, (link)
  17. Congo: 48 rapes every hour, US study finds, BBC, 2011, (link)
  18. Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor (Congo Factsheet), USA Department of Labor, 2014 (link)
  19. Children of the Congo who risk their lives to supply our mobile phones, The Guardian, 2012 (link)
  20. An introduction to statelessness, UNHCR (link)
  21. UNHCR’s annual Global Trends Report: World at War, UNHCR, 2015 (link)
  22. Prostitution in Thailand, World Outreach (link)
  23. Trafficking in Persons, UN Office on Drugs and Crime, 2009 (link)

Hawaii, homeless camp
by Audrey McAvoy (AP)

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