The Future of Migration

Johannes C. van Nieuwkerk
9 min readDec 17, 2023

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(Shortened version of my Long Read)

Introduction

With Joe Biden adding to Trump’s wall, with Suella Braverman proposing to narrow the refugee convention’s definition, and with European politicians satisfactory looking back on the fact that their migration pact is shaping, 2023 has clearly been a year of attempting to stem irregular migration.

However, none of the above is addressing the ticking time bomb of the ever growing number of meanwhile almost 110 million forcibly displaced people in the world, up from 50 million a decade ago.

Instead, everyone in the rich western world seems to be concerned with managing the symptoms of a non-functional migration system rather than for example with modernizing and improving the refugee convention itself by starting to focus on the root causes of involuntary displacement.

Furthermore, also for voluntary migrants there are often too many obstacles, resulting in them using irregular instead of regular migration paths.

Yes, there are problems, but there are also sustainable solutions available as alternatives to raising fences and keeping people in need out. My following reflection is about this.

Three main issues

Irregularity

A first issue is that due to the lack of organized resettlements and legal pathways, migrants often have no other choice then to use smugglers. This leads to choosing their destination according to where they think that they will have the highest chance to win the migration lottery; fully overwhelming the few selected locations they arrive to.

Adaptation

A second issue is that the newcomers’ adaptation in their “host country” fails and that instead of finding reinclusion, people end up in parallel societies and that, due to a lack of interaction and cultural understanding, conflicts arise.

Matching

A third issue is that most rich countries are in a substantial need of migrants to fill the positions they can, due to their demographical ageing, not internally meet their labor market demand for. However, many of the currently arriving irregular migrants do not match qualifications-wise and will first need to be upskilled to enable their potential contribution.

Three sustainable solutions

Irregularity

For almost two years I have been advocating to change the definition of what a refugee is to “anyone in acute or foreseeable need of refuge” regardless of their location (IDPs, transit countries) or the reason for their displacement.

This definition follows a fundamentally different logic than the one we currently use because it includes people who are not able to cross a border in order to apply for asylum and those who have other reasons to flee than fear of persecution, such as for example people facing undignified living conditions due to climate change.

However, my definition clearly does not cover those migrants who are living a poor but dignified life in their home country, who are seeking for economic improvement elsewhere.

Fortunately, not everyone who is displaced needs refuge or our assistance, many do not, but those who do, must get it. What I therefore left out is the requirement to first cross a border. This enables the international community to become proactive and optimize individual solutions at the source of displacement or as soon as a refugee has reached safety.

Implementing my definition and approach would replace irregular border crossing by regular relocation and reinclusion. It would enable cultural and economic matchmaking and lead to a better international sharing of responsibilities or solidarity. This, in turn, could free-up more worldwide absorption capacity and reduce cost. It would relief refugees from dangerous journeys and would get human smugglers out of work. Finally it would also stop voluntary migrants from using the irregular paths of the involuntary migrants, since they would no longer have any chance to apply for asylum.

Adaptation

The basic problem with the newcomers’ adaptation is that most host countries do not or insufficiently differentiate between people’s backgrounds and consider everyone to be just a “migrant”, applying a single cultural immigration approach to all. However, the reality is that there are two clearly distinct categories with different requirements to culturally fit in, namely, people with a “voluntary” migration background, such as labor migrants and people with an “involuntary” migration background, such as refugees. Mostly, the “voluntary migration cultural adaptation logic” is also applied to this second involuntary category; causing friction.

The sustainable solution to reinclusion and diminishing friction is to have a closer look at the two-sidedness of the integration process. Most friction comes, in my opinion, from exclusion and not primarily from cultural differences as such. This means a required change in cultural attitude from both sides, something that can only be accomplished by mutual understanding through interaction. Key is a change in the balance between cultural divergence and convergence components. Less divergence and more convergence will result in people ultimately growing together.

For the social absorption of any type of migrants it is important for a society to change and widen the definition of what patriotism is in order to be able to not only economically but also socially fully accept and include newcomers. This is done by increasing the (convergent) sharing or solidarity component in a society.

For refugees there is another factor present on top of this, which relates to the attitude of the refugees themselves. In the beginning refugees will often be resilience- or survival-driven. However, there is a need for change here, which can only be achieved if people start looking at and agree on a voluntary (convergent) contribution they can and will have to make to their host society in order to adapt to it.

Notwithstanding, there also is another side to this above process, namely, the appreciation from the host required to accept this offer. Otherwise, newcomers will remain separated in and will contribute to a parallel society instead. A parallel society, which most likely will be closer positioned to the cultural values migrants brought from home, and which may be in conflict with the values of the host society.

Matching

As said earlier, a third issue is that most rich countries are in a big need of migrants to fill the positions their labor market demand cannot internally meet due to their demographical ageing. However, many of the currently arriving irregular migrants do not match qualifications-wise and will first need to be upskilled to enable their potential contribution.

The main question is whether a technologically rapidly developing society can keep relying on voluntary labor migrants and whether, over time, the required increased education levels and the aspect of brain-drain of the migrants’ home country are sufficiently being taken into account. However, this issue is dominantly market-mechanism-driven and also depends on the globalization of economies.

Still, it may be needed to invest in building a pool of educated people abroad, which, if required, can contribute at home as well as elsewhere. Since this topic is more impacting regular than irregular migration (which is currently mostly consisting of less educated labor), it is beyond the scope of this essay.

Using my changed refugee definition and assuming the international community becoming proactive in offering reinclusion possibilities to forcibly displaced people at the source of their displacement, there are actually three types of matching found.

The first type is that of displaced people who are already economically matching from the beginning or require minimal adaptation to become matching. This group of “low hanging fruit” is welcome almost anywhere because the people it consists of financially positively contribute to their host society almost from the beginning. However, if one takes an organized approach, there are still important questions to be answered and decisions to be made because the relocation of people should not be primarily driven by optimizing their individual financial interests. It implies that educated people should be relocated to places where their contribution primarily has the highest added value to the host society, and/or where their integration chances are optimal.

It should be avoided that all educated people are relocated to a few prosperous destinations. Two reasons are -1- that this group should not become privileged over educated labor migrants and -2- that if the situation at home changes for the better, they most likely will be required to contribute to their home country (which also previously invested in and educated them). Individual prosperity can hinder such return and should therefore not be the primary optimization target in relocation.

The second type is that of illiterate or poorly educated refugees. In this case, there is a substantial risk that people will face problems to be reincluded in a society which does not have matching labor opportunities available. This implies that people will become permanently dependent, which is not any issue if they are disabled or too old because relocating displaced people is primarily solidarity driven. However, in case of a non-match to labor and integration opportunities, it may be better to relocate people to destinations that are culturally as close as possible to their originating culture in order to optimize people’s adaptation.

The third type is that of people who possess a gap between their educational or vocational background and the requirements at the locations people are relocated to. In this case, the host society must be willing to offer chances for people’s reinclusion. This does not stop with offering the first job available at any level, but it implies investing in a match between the refugee’s potential and the society’s demand for labor skills. It further requires a maximization of cultural interaction with the population of the host country, something that is often hard to accomplish in urban areas where newcomers tend to cluster with compatriots. Therefore Refival proposes to relocate refugees to smaller rural communities for their adaptation.

Many aspects, such as learning a new language, receiving the education needed for upskilling in order to optimize people’s potential, and even working remotely, can be offered at such rural locations. The advantage is synergy, because smaller communities are mostly disproportionally hit by ageing and in great demand for newcomers in order to survive. The cost of reinclusion is also generally much lower in rural than in urban areas.

Finally, being a small community, there usually is a higher degree of daily interaction between its members and mostly people are not excluded. Once being reincluded and culturally adapted, there will be a pool of matching labor migrants created that can be employed anywhere, which, in case people decide to leave for urban destinations, can in turn lead to their replacement by fresh, forcibly displaced, newcomers. Still, such a rotation system is creating the desperately needed diversified economic activity in the rural areas participating and will sustainably revitalize them.

Conclusion

2023 has been a year of international political attempts to stem irregular migration. However, there is a ticking time bomb of an ever growing number of meanwhile almost 110 million forcibly displaced people in the world, up from 50 million a decade ago.

It means that humanity urgently needs to find structural answers to reduce the above number by relocation instead of the current measures of raising fences in order to keep people in need out.

My essay is addressing three major issues here, being: irregularity, adaptation and matching. It tries to propose sustainable solutions to improve the current difficult issues at their source.

Firstly, in respect to irregularity, it proposes to change the definition of a refugee to “anyone in acute or foreseeable need of refuge” regardless of their location or the reason for their displacement. This would allow mankind to address forced displacement at the root and handle proactively by regularly relocating people to destinations where their chances for a successful restart are optimal.

Secondly, in respect to adaptation, it proposes to apply more convergence and less divergence at both sides of the equation. This means to widen the norms of social acceptance of a host society and to remove ethnical or other discriminatory components. At the same time it means defining cultural interaction and adaptation criteria where newcomers are able and obliged to adapt to in order to become fully socially integrated.

Thirdly, in respect to matching, it proposes to invest in the upskilling of newcomers in order to exploit their potential and to avoid a short-term optimization in which the first available job automatically is a displaced person’s entry point. Further, it proposes to implement such upskilling in small communities with a high level of cultural interaction instead of in big urban clusters; this will lead to an improvement of mutual understanding and acceptation of each other. Finally, such implementation in rural settlements will be synergetic and address the need for newcomers in smaller communities in order for them to survive.

In my opinion, these three measures can lead to a far more structural and regular migration approach, where forced mobility is addressed in a much more humanitarian way, meaning with more empathy and solidarity and more respect for each other.

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