The effects of emigration should be given more attention

What we hear about migration is the destination’s side of the story – saturated with immigration and displacement issues, talk in the dehumanising language of “swarms” and “waves” and “hordes” at our borders. In light of new data showing that net migration in the UK was up in 2015, many decided to lose their head before realising the rise was unsubstantial and mostly linked to a drop in emigration.

If immigrants are not health tourists, then they are incompatible with British culture, and if refugees are not a risk to our nation’s women, then they are a drain on the economy and a risk to Britons’ jobs. But what of the countries of origin for immigrants entering the UK?

The effects of emigration on a country are rarely spoken of, and while these repercussions can be beneficial, they are often harmful and debilitating. It is foolish to assume all individuals who have left a nation – whatever their reasoning – would like to return.  Nonetheless, migrants might benefit from a positive climate to return to and fewer reasons to emigrate in the first place. Our focus on the home country is understandable yet short-sighted, and we must try to understand the circumstances immigrants have exited, which their friends and family might still live in and to which they may hope to return.

Emigration is often driven by economic motives, with a handful of financial benefits to a migrant’s home: reduced pressure on jobs and resources, for instance, and the remittances sent back to support loved ones. Meanwhile, the disadvantages can be steep. The native population begins to lose its youth, its working-age people, and sometimes its highly skilled and educated citizens – the infamous “brain drain.”

The social and cultural consequences of emigration are neither fully understood nor generalisable. The division of families is a harsh experience, particularly when families are aware “import” nations do not await their relatives with open arms.

For countries losing numbers through emigration, there is no promise a lighter burden means those left behind are better off. Mass unemployment remains high, debts remain unpaid and inflation remains low. Research also indicates that the emigration of highly skilled, educated citizens from OECD countries can often lead to a decline in wages and job opportunities for less educated workers in those countries.

Countries like Greece, Poland and Italy possess ageing populations with little chance of a turnaround, which bodes poorly for a country’s population growth but also for the elderly residents who remain. Some older individuals cannot or choose not to leave, but face strained pensions at home. Growing age dependency is not a problem unique to EU countries with plentiful emigration, but a challenge faced by most European countries and punctuated mostly by question marks.

In war-torn countries of origin like Syria, emigrants’ families and friends are left picking up the pieces if not actively in danger. For those who had a choice to emigrate and build a life elsewhere, they do so with the knowledge that their loved ones may be living in deprivation, surrounded by land mines, bullied and beaten by law enforcement, fearful to make missteps and unable to move out of the country. At times those who stay in one place lose their country just as much as those who manage to leave.

The emigration experience is complex for individuals and for their countries of origin, but further attention paid to emigration in the media and in research is necessary to understand migrants’ reasons for leaving and hopefully, what would allow them to return if they so wish. With few economic and political incentives to go back, particularly when conflict has driven individuals away, these individuals require understanding rather than stereotyping and rejection.

Image credit: Duncan Hull

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