Our success as a species is due to our migratory nature – Fellows’ seminar by Ian Goldin

7 February 2024

“Migration is the defining feature of our species, without which homo sapiens would not have thrived and populated our planet. Migrants are exceptional people who made our past and will define our future,” said Ian Goldin, Professor of Globalisation and Development at the University of Oxford. “Suggestions that migrants reduce wages, increase unemployment and undermine the prospects of the countries they leave are not borne out by the evidence.”

STIAS Fellow Ian Goldin

Goldin was presenting a seminar on his latest book project which he hopes to complete during his STIAS residency. The book is aimed at the public and is an economist’s historical perspective on migration – a subject he has been working on for a long time. “This is an ambitious book on migration that arises out of a book I wrote in 2012. At that time I was hoping to influence debates on migration positively – clearly that hasn’t happened. So, this is a second attempt to grapple with migration in a public way. It specifically looks at the historical impact of migration on economies – which, I believe, is a complicated but worthwhile topic.”

He pointed to various reasons for his interest – “I would not be here if migration hadn’t been central to my recent ancestors. I’m a refugee on both my mother’s and father’s sides. So, it’s very personal but also much bigger than that. I’ve come to recognise that we as a species wouldn’t be here had it not been for migration. I’ve become increasingly fascinated by that and it’s allowed me to dabble in many areas beyond economics. I also think it’s very germane to South Africa – which is currently winning the debates on where the cradle of humanity actually is. If the new evidence is right, people from this area were instrumental in the leapfrogging of our species.”

“I’m also fascinated by how development works, how it’s worked historically, why some countries and people are rich or poor, and how this changes over time. Why civilisations leapfrog and why you get discontinuities,” he continued. “The common thread is the role of migrants as catalysts for change and growth. Of course, the converse is also true – if you close off migration, you undermine your prospects.”

“We are at a crossroads in human history where the challenges are enormous across multiple dimensions. How we think about migration is tied up with the future of humanity.”

Changing evidence

Goldin pointed out that our understanding of the ancient past is changing quickly due to rapid technological advances in areas like DNA sequencing, carbon dating, AI and machine learning, and climate science.

“Our understanding of where we come from is quickly transforming due to our ability to extract, trace and map human origins in new ways,” he said. “It radically transforms what people thought were the origin dates. Huge puzzles in the human-migration story are being unravelled. I suspect some of it might be out of date by the time the book is published.”

“Another area I hadn’t absorbed before is the interbreeding between different species – early hominids and Neanderthals for example. This starts to explain things like differences in skin pigmentation, abilities to live at different altitudes and genetic dietary issues.”

“Black Africans are the least mixed up,” he added. “That we are all African in origin is indisputable, but that people elsewhere are more mixed up in their DNA is also indisputable.”

He also pointed to recent revelations of circular migration out of and back into Africa as well as massive migrations within Africa which add to the complexities in ascertaining the cradle of humankind.

“Movement was a survival strategy but also caused by curiosity and our desire to explore. This is probably why homo sapiens outlived the Neanderthals. Curiosity is the reason we are here today.”

From Africa humans mostly went East but by 10 000 years ago nearly all parts of the world were peopled. Goldin noted that a Western-dominated world is a recent invention – with most of the action around the Indian Ocean till about the 12th century. Europe leapfrogged with the development of Gutenberg’s Press in the early 1400s which made ideas and understanding of the world accessible to ordinary people.

The darker side

New technologies in navigation and sailing led to the voyages of discovery and destruction – particularly via the spreading of viruses and bacteria. “It’s estimated that 600 seafarers were able to kill two million local inhabitants through the introduction of diseases like smallpox.”

Some civilisations became more technologically advanced with differentiated power and abilities to trade but ongoing encounters between civilisations led to the rapid pollination of ideas and technologies and, unfortunately, also coercive and enforced migration in the form of slavery. “Migration shifted to the dark side – as opposed to a force for good – about 5000 years ago. By the time the Egyptians were building the pyramids there was mass slavery involving millions of people in the various Empires. Such forced migrations were the seeds of the industrialisation of slavery in 16th and 17th centuries.”

“Slavery was the darkest period of migration,” said Goldin. “Along with the Holocaust it’s the most disturbing part of human history.”

Although the numbers are contested, it’s believed that about 20 million people were captured and enslaved (largely initially by African rulers) of which six million never reached the Americas – dying due to resistance or the horrors of the voyage. Their life expectancy in the Americas was five or six years. However, Goldin pointed out that abolition didn’t end all the practices – with a complex spectrum of coercive labour that continues to this day.

The development of steam ships in the late 1800s coupled with terrible conditions in Europe due to wars, poverty and pogroms led to a massive wave of migration with an estimated three million people crossing the Atlantic annually.

“All of this was possible because there were no real borders to speak of and no passports or other ID documents. This only became more systematic after World War I,” explained Goldin. “About 100 countries have been created since the war with passports and protectionism only about 110 years old.”

He also highlighted that only about 3% of the world’s population migrates with this share remaining fairly constant since the 1920s some of which can be explained by rising xenophobia and anti-migration sentiments.

“Exclusion of people based on race, identity and skill is not a totally new idea – Darwin’s theories of racial hierarchies gave expression to this, and European governments developed hierarchies of people but it became more systematised with the development of documents.”

Impact of migration

“Of course, there are big discussions of what migrants do to economies,” said Goldin. “All the literature shows that there is no negative impact on wages. Migrants tend to fulfil jobs locals won’t do and generate growth. They also lead to greater labour-force participation – especially of women –allowing more skilled people to enter the workforce.”

“The most compelling evidence is around productivity. Typically, as a share of the population they bring three times more patents and contribute disproportionately to small business start-ups – about 40% of British small businesses are started by migrants, and very few of the iconic Silicon Valley firms are not migrant founded. They are also massive investors.”

“It’s often exceptional people who migrate – the risk takers. For example, amongst Nobel and Academy Award winners, migrants are four times more represented than you would expect for their share of the population. Cities with the biggest migrant share are the most dynamic but also have more capacity to transform and absorb.”

“Many of the most skilled people are the children of first-generation migrants,” he added. “Migrants are healthier, fitter and smarter initially, but revert to the mean over time.”

So, if migrant are so great, why are they so hated and why do anti-migration ideas lead populous politics? Why is there a disconnect between the mounting evidence and rising antipathy? Goldin believes it’s because the benefits are long-term and generalised, and the costs short-term and local. “Even if you know they are beneficial for the long-term in your country you feel threatened especially as increasingly strained public resources are shared by more people.”

“Where we should be heading is a migration bargain,” he continued. “More migrants with more rights, but also more responsibilities including being documented, taxed and abiding by the laws. The evidence is clear, it’s a question of how it translates into politics.”

And what about the countries they leave?

Goldin believes the evidence doesn’t suggest that the source countries are undermined in the medium term. Migrants support investment and human-capital development in their home countries. “There are an estimated $600 billion in remittances annually – with the biggest flow into developing countries – small countries like Lesotho receive nearly half of their GDP via remittances. But there must be policies to resolve some of the brain-drain issues.”

“Over the past century, the establishment of nation states, and with them borders and passports has changed the dynamics of migration. It has also increased the prospects of refugees being stranded,” he said. “Migrants have become a target of political parties who seek to capitalise on rising anti-immigrant sentiment. Increasing restrictions are not the answer, as these threaten to undermine economic growth, suppress innovation and impact negatively on the welfare of the migrants and their dependents. Policies that are supportive of migrants can lead to improved wages, increase employment, and improve the prospects of their source countries.”

“The World Bank estimates that increasing migration by 5% would do more to eliminate poverty than any other actions. The developmental consequences are enormous. Free migration in Europe has led to enormous transformation particularly in southern European countries.”

“Refugees are different, they are people with a legitimate fear for their lives and we need to abide by global conventions to ensure they are protected,” he continued. “It’s a legal, ethical and humanitarian obligation and requires burden sharing. But until we have safe passage we will continue to see the horrors that have happened in the Mediterranean and the English Channel. Also climate refugees are a massive looming issue that needs to be addressed.”

“A borderless world is a utopian idea at the moment, but we should have a vision to move towards over time.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Ignus Dreyer






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