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The Political Economy of International Migration: Three Important

Mojbol Olufnk Okome
Brooklyn College, CUNY
The publication of this issue is foreshadowed by the tragic drowning of hundreds of
migrants, including Africans, in the Mediterranean Sea (BBC News 2015, Rosen 2015, Walsh,
Almasy and Botelho 2015, Traynor 2015, Fottrell 2015). The sheer size of these drownings have
once again caused popular horror and contemplation on causes and consequences of migration.
The projection by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that these deaths could
increase to over 30,000 just in 2015 is anxiety provoking and shocking (AlJazeera News 2015,
Brian and Laczko 2014). The drownings have also caused increased focus on the policies of
popular destination countries and regions and critiques of the harshness of these regimes as well
as calls for more humane migration policies, research and documentation of the root causes of
migration, and heartrending accounts of migrants motives and harrowing experiences (Clegg
2015, Barker 2014, Kassam 2014). As well, they have caused intensified media attention to the
circumstances that propel migration from various African countries and the choice of
destinations in Europe. These conditions and circumstances are hardly new. Neither are the tales
of woe that attend the serious decision to abandon familiar misery of migrants homelands in
hopes of somehow experiencing the miracle of success in unknown climes (Sy 2006, Ndege
2006, Morris 2005, Bailey 2005, Travis August, Kingsley 2015).
The plight of Ethiopian Jews in Israel have also grabbed the headlines (Connolly 2015).
The public brutal beating of an Ethiopian Jewish soldier by Israeli police and the protests by
Ethiopian Jews have not only brought the deep seated institutional and everyday bias toward

them to the worlds attention, it also evoked responses from the President and Prime Minister of
Israel that one hopes would generate meaningful corrective policies and lasting institutional
At the same time, news of xenophobic attacks in South Africa reveal the corrosive effects
of combined poverty, economic marginality, and stark inequality on populations in destination
countries and the manipulation of the anger thereby generated to encourage deadly and fatal
attacks on migrants from the Southern African region and other regions of the continent. These
attacks made many contemplate the interplay between economic marginality with the extent to
which South Africa is integrated into the African continent, and political machinations to
generate palpable anger and attacks that lash out at African migrants as the sources the problems
faced by poor black South Africans. Somali refugees and migrants have also been in the news,
both in South Africa, where they suffered from xenophobic attacks both in 2008 (Fihlani 2011)
and recently (Khumalo and Powell 201516); as well as due to the growing alienation among
some of the youth who have left the US for other countries, to join Al Shabab, Islamic State in
Syria (ISIS), and other Islamist militant insurgent groups (Temple-Raston 2015). These cases
have been subjected to sensationalized media coverage, some of which present these young
Somali as examples of failed integration into American society. These accounts tend to hew to
the line of America being a melting pot into which immigrants seek integration, rather than a
mosaic that accommodates cultural, religious and ethnic differences (Riddell 2015). Such
approaches do not illuminate the deep structural reasons that militate against Somali and other
refugee and asylee communitiesenduring trauma from the civil war back home, high levels of
unemployment, deep poverty, crowded and poor housing, very few opportunities to gain
admission and acceptance in existing social networks, inadequate social services, few

recreational opportunities for youth, and deep alienation arising from feeling that mainstream
American society cares nothing for themall of which make them vulnerable to recruiters from
Islamist groups (Glionna 2014).
The deaths of migrants both in the Mediterranean Sea and in South Africa have forced us
to consider the extent to which economic migration is volitional, the cumulative economic and
social implications of individual and group decisions to migrate, and bilateral as well as
multilateral responses to the crises generated. The resistance against attacks inflicted by agents
of the state on Ethiopian Jews in Israel call attention to the limits of shared religion as a
mediating factor against racism. The disillusionment of Somali youth who choose to leave the
US to become foot-soldiers in groups like Al-Shabab and ISIS is yet to be understood in a way
that yields policies which capture the imagination of vulnerable youth, although there is much
reportage and analysis, particularly by conservative organizations, security outfits and media.
Nonetheless, it is clear that given these developments, many more people than usual are now
focused on migration and its multidimensional significance to the ways in which we live our
The articles in this issue engage the ever dynamic issue of migration from some areas of
commonality. They also differ in significant respects. Of course it is oxymoronic to draw
attention to the common factor of migration, since this is the subject matter of this journal.
Besides this general concordance, the articles all consider the nexus between economic causes of
migration and decisions made by migrants to either move from their countries of birth, or from
one host community to another. They also provide some explanations on the economic and
social consequences of these migrations.

Elaine McDuffs article, Womens Voices from the Zimbabwean Diaspora: Migration
and Change considers the feminization of migration, an element of African migration that has
attracted inadequate scholarly attention, despite an increase in the number of studies and
publications on the phenomenon. Feminization of Zimbabwean migration is an outgrowth of
generalized increase in migration from 1990, and one of the destination countries, South Africa,
should generate serious questions about the incongruence between the embrace of economic
liberalism as one of the strongest norms in the post-world war two international system, and the
strong aversion to the free movement of people while goods and financial flows are virtually
unimpeded. It should also generate increased scrutiny of the political economy of migration and
its consequences for everyday life in host and origin countries. We should also be engaged in
serious analysis of xenophobia--its origins, various manifestations and consequences.
McDuff also considers feminized Zimbabwean migration to the UK, and the general
proliferation of Zimbabwean migration worldwide. Given that approximately 25 percent of
Zimbabwes twelve million strong population are migrants, a phenomenon generated over the
past twenty years by economic and political instability, what happens to the migrants should
interest us because of the sheer numbers involved, and the proportion of migrants vis a vis fellow
citizens who remain in the country. It is also important to focus on the significance of migrations
for women as a distinct group. Why are more women migrating? What motivates the choice of
host country? What changes occur over time? What are the consequences for women migrants,
their children and families? What does this mean for Zimbabwe and for host countries?
McDuffs paper provides some answers to these questions that contribute to filling some gaps in
our knowledge about female migration, Zimbabwean labor migration to South Africa and the
UK, African economic migration, and feminized labor migration in general. Some of her

findings presage the xenophobic animosity that generated the outbursts against foreigners in
South Africa in the recent past.
Jay L. Newberrys article, A Better Quality of Life: The Dimensions of Somali
Secondary Migration considers Somali secondary migration to Maine. The Somali unlike the
Zimbabweans in McDuffs paper, are accorded refugee status in the US, a designation that may
also be applicable to many Zimbabweans who are fleeing from political persecution, but is often
not available to them. Also, while some of McDuffs sample population may have undertaken
secondary migrations, this is not the focus of her paper. However, it is not out of place to
consider whether or not the Zimbabwean migrants are not refugees as well. In any case, the
Somali in Newberrys study have been given refugee status in the US and his paper explores
allegations mostly by conservatives that refugees move from state to state primarily to take
advantage of better welfare and other benefits (McGrath 2002, Corcoran 2009, Hohmann 2014).
Newberry subjects these suspicions to quantitative analysis and concludes that consideration of
welfare benefits may be one of the variables that spur Somalis to move but it has only minimal
relevance compared with other variables considered to improve quality of life.
While he concentrates on Somali refugees, his findings constitute a great contribution to
analysis and explication of the motivation behind secondary migration. It also challenges
xenophobic perspectives and the politics they influence and represents the best of evidence-based
research applied to one of the most important issues of our timemigration.
In their paper, Cultural Differences and the Economic Performance of Minorities and
Immigrants, Gil S. Epstein and Erez Siniver consider the economic effects of sociocultural
discrimination against Jewish Ethiopian immigrants in Israel. They consider settlement patterns
and the effects of enclaves and cultural differences and the relative size of minority populations

on workforce participation and economic outcomes. They also compare the incomes Jewish
Ethiopian immigrants with those of Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs and find taste-based
discrimination as a cause of the disparate earnings. Their paper bucks the trend of the tendency
to prefer statistical models of discrimination that claim that employers limited information on
job applicants skills lead them to focus on externally observable characteristics like skin color,
gender and race to reach conclusions about applicants prospective productivity. In essence, they
engage in profiling that ends up having a discriminatory result. Instead, Epstein and Siniver
show that the employers taste for discrimination (Baker 1957) leads to preferential hiring that
discriminates against ethnic minorities, lower wages for minority workers, and ramification of
segregation and segmentation in the labor market. Paradoxically, this discrimination may also
push minorities to increase their productivity in order to challenge preconceived negative notions
about their work ethics, and those with entrepreneurial instincts and the resource base are spurred
to establish their own enterprisesa factor that contributes to the development of ethnic
The papers in this issue have focused on matters of significant portent to migration
studies. They give us much food for thought, and constitute valuable contributions to scholarly
knowledge on human migration in our contemporary global system. There are many more
matters yet to be fully explored. There are dimensions to migration that unfold in manifold
complex ways that challenge what we already know. On a personal note, the ubiquity of
desperation induced migration was brought home to me in Lagos, Nigeria when an electrician
that came to fix the TV connection to DSTV so that my hosts could make it possible for me to
watch CNN (not my favorite station but Im appreciative of the consideration and hospitality).
The man recounted his experience trying to travel through the Sahara desert to go to Europe. He

turned back after experiencing manifold horrors and terrors, including the harshness of the
terrain, robbery, and the deaths of some co-travelers. I asked him why he decided to go and he
said that a friends brother had succeeded in making the trip and he told them what to do. I asked
what and how the friends brother was doingjob, conditions, prospects for the future. He was
unable to give me any specifics, other than the prospect of doing better. He is also thankful that
he did not die en route to the search for greener pastures, and did not suffer the fate of a cosojourner who came back home to Nigeria and died from the stress of the journey. In discussions
with my host, he gave what I see as the most rational response: the only hope is if African
countries create conditions that make it possible for people to live their lives in dignity, with a
hope for a better future for them and their children.
Why have African countries not risen to the challenge of giving their people the
wherewithal to live dignified lives that enable them to be hopeful about the prospects for the
future? Why have many countries from which the migrants originated, said and done nothing
about the tragic deaths in the Mediterranean? Its clear that the answers cannot be simple, but its
also clear that many developing country governments see immigrants as cash cows that would
remit funds back home to indigent and/or struggling family members. Immigration also lets out
steam from the economic and social pressure cookers that many developing countries have
become. Irregular migration is also driven by toxic government policies and environmental
disasters. The truth is if immigration were to be truly curtailed, many origin countries would be
in greater economic, social and even political turmoil. But is this kind of irregular migration that
causes unimaginable numbers of deaths a solution to turmoil? Is it acceptable as the cost
attached to accessing remittances from those who manage to survive? Is it right to see these
deaths as mere collateral damage? African governments must do better. They ought to have

shown empathy toward the migrants who died in the quest for greener pastures that may for
most, prove to be elusive. There should be a continent-wide focus by African governments on
migration that seeks to consider causes and consequences of migration and proffer solutions that
are fed into policies that address many of the egregious problems immediately. Longer term
problems must also be addressed. Theres need for international migration policy reform in the
African continent, a respect for the international obligations that states have undertaken, and the
African Union (AU) must do more than publicly mourn the deaths (a good symbolic gesture) and
engage the European Union (EU) to secure commitment that African migrants would be treated
with decency and offered humane responses when they float into European waters, or land on the
continents shores. Theres also need on the European side to respect international conventions
and obligations about non refoulement, and other key principles that protect refugees. As well,
given that we are supposed to live in a liberal international world, theres need to re-examine the
international regime on migration with a view to making it less restrictive. After all, the
liberalism is the order of the day when it comes to the movement of money, investments, and
financial instruments.
Migration like all social phenomena has differential effects. It could have both negative
and positive ramifications to sending and receiving countries. It is also impossible to prevent.
The countries of focus in this issue also have much work to do on understanding and making
policy that consider migration as a phenomenon that is inevitable, mostly beneficial and worth
encouraging. The treatment of migrants must comply with international standards that respect
their humanity, enables them to live in dignity and offers them support, particularly when under
such dire straits as we observe in the Mediterranean crossing to Europe from Africa. Within
national boundaries, xenophobia must be fought and defeated. There is cutting edge research

showing that extending economic opportunities and social welfare to migrants can also
contribute to enlarging such economic opportunities, giving governments increased capacity to
address the welfare needs of citizens as well as sojourners (Dustmann and Frattini 2014, Kugler
and Oakford 2013, Peri 2010, McDonald and Sampson 2012).

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