Modern communications not only drive the forces of globalisation but also ensure that awareness of widening global inequality is ever more intense. The dream of relocating from a poorer to a richer country is a natural and inevitable human response.

Accurate data on global migration is difficult to obtain because many migrant workers lack official status. There were 223 million international migrants in 2015, of which about two-thirds could be classed as workers. This figure excludes 21 million refugees, whose movement is regarded as forced rather than voluntary. This statistic for total migrants predates the 2016 European crisis, despite being published by the International Organization for Migration towards the end of 2017.

Demand for migrant labour is determined by the extent to which a domestic workforce is unable or unwilling to meet the needs of its national economy. There may be shortages of skills or, more typically, vacancies arise in jobs rejected by the local population, often described as “3D” (dirty, dangerous and difficult).

Globalisation has commoditised labour migration, notably in many Middle Eastern countries which are almost totally dependent on Asian migrants for 3D jobs rejected by nationals. The hosting of the 2022 football World Cup in Qatar has boosted this demand. Airlines construct their schedules to serve the routes taken by migrants; the receiving countries build infrastructure not just to house foreign labour but also to accommodate cultural needs.

However, these formal channels of migration can never provide an adequate match with the global supply of labour. Ideological passion for free movement of goods, capital and information is not extended to people. Many aspiring workers choose to take their chance as “undocumented” migrants, entering a country by overstaying a visa or by crossing an unprotected border.

Work is often to be found thanks to opportunist employers who ask no questions in return for a pliant labour force, unable to demand the protection of minimum standards of pay and conditions. The UN estimates that there are over 30 million undocumented global migrants, including 11.3 million in the US.

Many migrant workers have greatly improved their fortunes, especially in accessing higher standards of health and education for their children. However, too many experience the unacceptable face of international migration, the undercurrent of populist xenophobic rhetoric that springs from perception that migrants compete for scarce jobs and housing, whilst undermining national cultural identity.

The International Organization for Migration, the leading UN agency working in this field, has criticised politicians and media for their widespread failure to communicate either the benefits of migrant labour or the relevance of multicultural societies in the modern era of globalisation.

Nonetheless, many nation states tend to pursue policies which treat migrant labour as economic cannon fodder, often downgrading social protection and indulging discriminatory practices of unscrupulous employers. Immigration policy ebbs and flows in response to perceived signals from domestic labour markets, a far cry from altruistic concerns for individual rights or global poverty reduction.

International tensions over migration reached a crescendo in 2016 when mass movements from war-torn Middle East and poverty-stricken sub-Saharan Africa headed for European destinations. Amidst Europe’s failure to respond to the influx of over a million refugees and migrant workers, over 5,000 people met their deaths in that year whilst attempting sea crossings in conditions that echoed horrors of the slave trade.

The global political reverberations have not yet been resolved. Responses inspired by the Trump administration envisage the construction of border fences of unimaginable length and expense. The mainstream Europeans prefer to lavish unprecedented packages of foreign aid on countries in key locations who might be able to dissuade migrants from moving further; these EU Partnership Frameworks include €6 billion for Turkey, €1.9 billion for an Africa Trust Fund, the price of securing limits to migration.

However potent the influence of migration on the US Presidential election and on the UK vote to withdraw from the European Union, global leaders recognise the powerful long term drivers of supply of migrant labour – global inequality, climate change and the needs of ageing populations in richer countries. They have been persuaded by these contrasting realities to commit to a Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration by 2018. Preliminary negotiations have not yet yielded any significant breakthrough.


more Globalisation briefings (updated December 2017)
Global Governance
Winners and Losers
International Development Model
Globalisation and Environmental Limits
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