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Half the world’s citizens will be voting in national elections in 2024, and it looks like a big share of those campaign battles – in Britain, the United States, the European Parliament, Pakistan, even Canada if an election happens next year – will involve border security.

Candidates point to asylum seekers and illegal immigrants on the borders, and call for further crackdowns and security measures, walls and fences and policing. What is missing is any sense of the actual scope of the problem – the amount of human movement across borders, and the effect of policies upon it.

Which is why I welcome a new book by the world’s leading scholar of migration data. The Dutch geographer Hein de Haas, from his berth at the universities of Oxford and Amsterdam’s International Migration Institute, has spent the past 20 years managing the surprisingly difficult feat of measuring levels of human migration around the world – as well the motives that drive that movement – through his Determinants of International Migration project.

His new book How Migration Really Works draws on decades of impartial research by hundreds of researchers to upturn the assumptions of both open-borders advocates (he shows that restrictive immigration systems such as Canada’s are generally better for countries and immigrants) and of those who believe there’s a major migration crisis that requires drastic measures.

His headline conclusion is that there is not any sort of migration crisis. The amount of immigration in the world – about 3 per cent of humans live in a country they weren’t born in – has been largely unchanged for the past six decades. So has the level of refugee flight – it’s been steady at about 0.3 per cent of the population.

“The evidence clearly dispels the idea that we are living in times of an unprecedented migration or refugee crisis,” he concludes. “Migration is neither at an all-time high nor accelerating.”

What has changed over the past 20 years is the number of people who are on the road without any legitimate entry route to another country, and who therefore are taking dangerous and illegal land and sea crossings into countries that have jobs and safety to offer them. (I’ve been documenting these people and their routes this year in a series of articles).

This is where the work of Mr. de Haas and his colleagues is most revealing. The big rise in numbers of people attempting illegal or irregular immigration, in Mediterranean and English Channel and South Pacific boat crossings, in mass swims across the Rio Grande and treks through the forests of Eastern Europe and Turkey and Quebec, directly tracks with the rise in border-security spending in those destinations.

In fact, his data convincingly show, that shift to dangerous and unmonitored migration paths is directly caused by those security measures. By closing limited, controlled migration options that allow smaller numbers of people to enter for work or asylum – a change most Western countries made between the 1970s and 1990s – we forced millions to pay for more dangerous routes whose cost means they have to stay longer and evade legal authorities.

“Since the 1990s, persistent demand for migrant workers in agriculture, construction and services has not been matched by legal migration opportunities,” he concludes. “The growing mismatch between labour demand and border policies has prompted increasing numbers of workers to cross borders illegally.”

And the shift from labour-driven movement to border enforcement has created a thriving human-smuggling industry.

The overarching message in his work is that immigration is not a policy process, but an economic process – a response to levels of labour demand in receiving countries. That’s the reason why migration floods – even really big ones such as the 3.3 million Syrians who entered Turkey or the million migrants who entered Germany from 2015 to 2016 – have had little impact on employment or wages. And the occasions when immigration rates have declined, in any country, are when the economy is doing badly.

The way to limit and control immigration, and make it safer, more legal and less chaotic, is through limited immigration policies tied to economic needs – policies that must be known and accessible to migrants before they leave their home country and head to a border crossing.

If we wanted to reduce legal immigration numbers, as Mr. de Haas argues, we’d need to change the underlying economy: fund universities and colleges so they don’t rely on overseas student fees; incentivize farms to rely on technology rather than cheap labour (at the cost of higher food prices); make domestic housecleaners and child-minders a strictly upper-class thing again; and settle for lower levels of competitiveness and economic growth.

What doesn’t work is the entire false economy of border security – as years of expensive, dangerous experiments show, it actually amplifies the problem it’s meant to solve.

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