The coming migration crisis – Latin America is vulnerable as food prices soar

Tomorrow evening I’m flying to Dublin which I’m looking forward to (Cork would be better though). It’s the return trip that scares me. Dublin Airport has had passengers queuing for six hours to board planes due to poor management, the latest example of logistics chains gone awry due to labor shortages and a general lack of foresight. Travel is also proving problematic in other parts of Europe, the UK and the US, leading many to think even more carefully about how and when to travel.

It’s probably more discouraging for people moving to new countries. In general, the climate for migrants has become harsh over the past four years, the most recent example being the extension of the Johnson administration’s “asylum” border to Rwanda.

Where will migrants go?

Migration is one of the unanswered mysteries in the globalization debate – other indicators point to an end to globalization as we know it and a trend towards a more limited world. Cross-border investments are becoming more regional and so is trade, the flow of ideas around the world is being restricted and polarized in many countries. At the institutional level, coordination between countries has become more problematic.

However, due to the restrictions of COVID (over 120,000 movement restrictions have been imposed worldwide since the start of COVID up to this February) we do not have a clear picture of what patterns in migration data look like – most data show a significant lag. However, some estimates put the decline in cross-border family migration at almost 35% and, in general, cross-border migration in 2020/21 was at its lowest level since 2003. Student migration (to the US and UK) has fallen by around 50%. Of even greater concern was the fact that migrants in countries like Saudi Arabia have been hardest hit by COVID and unemployment.

To that end, the role of migration as a factor that confirms or refutes the end of globalization is still hypothetical – but there are factors to watch out for.

First of all, the countries most frequently ‘visited’ by migrants are the US, Germany and the UK in developed countries and Saudi Arabia and Russia in emerging countries. Cities are typically where most immigrants live – 25% of workers in German cities are ‘foreign-born’. As such, a revival in migrant flows should result in more workers from Spain, Portugal, Algeria and Morocco coming to Paris and Bordeaux, and more South Americans to Dallas and Miami, for example.

Cities in particular are magnets for elites. German scholar Max Schich has traced centuries of data to show how Europe’s cultural elite gravitated to and from major cities – Rome, Paris, Amsterdam and London. Today, perhaps the most interesting trends in this regard are the movement of entrepreneurs from California to Texas and Dubai’s role as a hub for Russian and Indian businessmen.

There are some important disruptions, with Brexit being a case in point where the number of EU citizens working in the UK has fallen sharply (147,000 remained in 2020), with this being replaced by migrants from non-EU countries like India, although there was net migration to the UK Britain is at its lowest level in over a decade. The hostility of policymakers towards migrants and refugees is one of the uglier faces of the post-Brexit UK political landscape, although it is not exclusively a British phenomenon. Eric Zemmour’s catcalls are an example.

end of globalization

In the context of globalization, I have a rough rule of thumb that integration becomes a crucial factor when a country’s (foreign-born) migrant population reaches say 15% of the population. There aren’t many countries that manage to smoothly integrate more “foreign-born” (Switzerland is one of them), and it also seems to be a threshold that triggers a negative political reaction. The acid test for globalization, then, is whether developed countries have reached the political and economic limits of migration as the flow of people into them becomes more contentious, or whether cities in particular can continue to absorb people from overseas.

Refugee flows from Ukraine will play a major role in this debate and could displace flows from other countries (e.g. Iran, Syria) to some extent. As is now apparent, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has economic side effects that make life difficult in emerging markets (inflation in Turkey is 73%).

To this end, the question arises to what extent climate damage and food shortages lead to population displacements (e.g. from East Africa) and are accompanied by political instability (Venezuela is the prime example where millions have been displaced). The wild card here is Latin America, where polls (UN) show large numbers of people across Latin America declaring a willingness to migrate (with a focus on the US) due to corruption, high food prices and shortages, and political instability.

The onset of globalization triggered flows of people (with subsequent remittances of money) around the world, mainly to developed countries and their major cities. COVID and a political-economic backlash halted these flows, and the invasion of Ukraine introduced an entirely new variable into the equation. Where people move, where they are allowed to move, will shape the next phase of globalization.

So far, my impression is that migration is becoming more limited (particularly from Africa to Europe), more regional, and with a greater emphasis on cultural assimilation. We are likely to be entering a time when migration is more within countries and regions and less across borders – in that sense it is less ‘free’. At the same time, migration is becoming both more politicized (by Belarus and Russia) and forced (by climate change and inflation).

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