Monday, September 11, 2006

migration: roads to nowhere

The world's poor are heading from one struggling nation to the next, as globalization rewrites the immigration map.
By Mac Margolis
Newsweek International

Sept. 11, 2006 issue - When he left Luanda six years ago, fleeing the draft and the ruins of Angola's civil war, José Paixão Afonso hoped to start over in a new land. Like thousands of his compatriots, he chose Brazil, a country that not only shared his mother tongue of Portuguese but also stoked imaginations all over Africa. "I thought it was going to be all love and brotherhood, like a Brazilian soap opera," he says. In a way it was. Afonso married and settled in Rio de Janeiro, where he began buying cheap

Brazilian clothing to resell back home. Then one night in July the pilgrim's idyll turned ugly. After collecting on a shipment to Angola from a courier at the Rio airport, he stuffed $6,000 into his underpants and caught a bus to town. Apparently, someone was watching. Minutes later, two armed men claiming to be police intercepted the bus and forced all the Angolans aboard to disembark. Afonso was robbed and beaten senseless. Another foreigner might have been on the next plane home. But Afonso is an immigrant not a tourist, and Brazil is home now. "I never expected this," he says, sighing, still nursing his injuries. "But what can you do?"

Afonso's tale is stark but hardly unfamiliar. The story of immigrants everywhere is one of hard luck, humiliation, occasional violence and stubborn survival against long odds. What's surprising is the venue. Developing countries like Brazil are best known as exporters of the huddled masses, not hosts. At best the Third World has traditionally been a way station to somewhere better. Who among the placeless and the poor, after all, would want to stake life and limb on an uncertain future in another struggling nation? The answer: plenty. Now Burmese women flock to Thailand to stitch designer wear for U.S. and European labels. Jobless families from Bangladesh wash up on the coastline of Mozambique, hoping to make their way to South Africa. Costa Rica has instituted tough new laws to shut down people smuggling—into the country, not out. For more and more of the world's roving poor, yesterday's way station has become tomorrow's final stop.

Not that the basic laws of immigration have been revoked. The flight from poverty and the lure of some golden shore are, even more than war and natural disaster, the twin forces that drive millions from their homelands every year. But globalization is redrawing the map of mass migration. Cheap international travel, tumbling trade barriers, surging growth in once sleeper economies and 24/7 media that spread word of opportunities everywhere are all multiplying the choices for those looking to improve their lot. Argentine job ads are published in Bolivian newspapers. Nigerians track events in South Africa on satellite television.

As anxieties over terrorism and an ever more competitive job market send the richest societies into a xenophobic crouch, more and more of today's migrants are willing to try their luck in other developing nations. Population scholars reckon that some 61 million people from developing nations—nations of the "south" in the argot of economists—now make their home in another developing country. That's nearly a third of the total 191 million global migrants, and virtually the same share as the 62 million who have moved from poor to wealthy nations, or south to north. (An additional 53 million moved between the developed nations, while 14 million went from rich to poor countries.) "There is a tendency to see immigration as an issue only for the U.S. and Western Europe. But it's worldwide," says José Antonio Ocampo, under-secretary-general for Economic and Social Affairs for the United Nations, which will host a summit on migration and development on Sept. 14-15. "The booming parts of the developing world are becoming magnets for migration."

Such population movements are not unprecedented. India and China sent 50 million indentured servants and contract laborers to the Pacific islands, Australia, South Asia and Africa in the mid-19th century—a human tide rivaling the European exodus to the New World a few decades later. A few other rising nations of the south, like South Korea, Pakistan and the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf, are also well-known destinations for itinerant laborers. But as globalization has spread investment around the world, the incomes of many other once poor nations have been steadily rising. After the late-'90s slump, Thailand's economy is on a roll again; this year, the Thai government reckons it will need 500,000 additional workers. On the rebound from its own financial meltdown early this decade, Argentina is taking in tens of thousands of Bolivians, Paraguayans and Uruguayans.

Unlike France, say, or the United States, these poor countries both ship out their own migrants and receive them from other nations. "When countries send people abroad they leave niches that are being filled by immigrants," says Donald Terry, who manages the Multilateral Investment Fund at the Inter-American Development Bank. While Mexicans are queuing up in droves at the U.S. border, for instance, plenty of less fortunate Central Americans settle for life just shy of the Rio Grande. In 2005, Mexican authorities detained 240,269 undocumented migrants, nearly double the figure for 2002. As the circle tightens on the northern escape route, Plan B is looking increasingly attractive. "I'm doing a bit better, thank God, and there is work in Tijuana," says Paulina Ibarra Salas, a 57-year-old Guatemalan widow and mother of nine, who slipped into Mexico in 2000 but ran out of money before she could cross over into California. "Life is very tough in Guatemala, and I like Tijuana."

Some southern nations have welcomed poor foreigners before but rarely in such numbers. South Africa has traditionally drawn laborers from surrounding states, but since the end of apartheid migrants have been streaming in from across the continent. Thailand, too, now attracts workers from all over the region. Even in Brazil, where foreigners have been scarce, Angolans and Koreans are arriving, while São Paulo has seen its Bolivian population increase more than sixfold in a decade.

What's worrisome is not just the volume of this migration but its implications. While life is no lark for immigrants anywhere, these newcomers are scratching out a living in lands with flimsy social safety nets and where the only consistent immigration policy is often mass deportation. The vast majority end up in the informal economy, where exploitation is the rule, and lodged in slums, so adding to urban decay. "South-to-south migration is one of the most challenging—and underrated—issues of our time," says Marcello Balbo, professor of urban planning at the University IUAV of Venice, and a specialist in developing-world migration.

Yet still they come. The going wages in the developing world are no prize, but often they're just high enough. Besides, many migrants find the language, climate and customs of southern nations far more comfortable than U.S. or European culture. "For today's migrants, neighborhood matters," says the United Nations' Ocampo. Though work in the United States may pay six times more, nearly half a million Haitians have settled next door in the Dominican Republic to earn $50 a month. By the books, Malaysia is a middle-income country and still pocked with poverty, but to millions of Indonesians and Bangladeshis, with a third and a tenth the per capita income respectively, it looks like a beacon of opportunity. Some 2 to 3 million migrants live alongside Malaysia's 25 million citizens. Thailand's surging economy has sucked in 2 million to 4 million workers from neighboring Burma, Laos and Cambodia, who gladly accept half the $4-a-day legal minimum wage for thankless factory and sweatshop jobs that many native Thais wouldn't touch.

Once, most migrants to the Third World headed to the countryside, to work the harvests, or to a few specific industries, such as mining or oil. Now they cluster in cities, where the jobs have also migrated and social networks smooth the way for newcomers. Though a modest 2.5 percent of South Africa's population is reckoned to be foreign born, immigrants now comprise 7 percent of Johannesburg's residents. Fully a third of those living in Abidjan were born outside the Ivory Coast. About half of the million or more Bolivians living outside their country reside in greater Buenos Aires. Tijuana harbors no fewer than 37 nationalities, including thousands of Chinese.

Not all cities open their arms to these strangers, however. Like outsiders everywhere, southern migrants are seen as intruders—stealing local jobs, depressing wages—or criminals. Mostly, they are victims. Labor rights are unheard-of, let alone access to public health or welfare. They know the law mostly by the blunt end of a nightstick. In Thailand, some employers have been known to keep undocumented workers "under lock and key at night," says Allan Dow, in the Bangkok office of the International Labor Organization.

Scores of São Paulo sweatshops now depend upon the labor of illegal immigrants from the Andes, who work slave's hours and bed down dozens to a room in airless tenements, which are hothouses for tuberculosis and other diseases. It took a deadly fire in a Buenos Aires garment factory, which claimed the lives of six undocumented Bolivian workers, to jump-start the Argentine government's plans to legalize some foreign workers. One of the harshest markets for migrants is surely Malaysia, where the government periodically orders crackdowns on illegal immigration. After a Kuala Lumpur raid in February by members of RELA, Malaysia's volunteer reserve, five bodies of Burmese workers were pulled from a lake. Eyewitnesses said they'd heard screams from the lake as volunteers had charged after the migrants. The government denied that the volunteers were responsible for the deaths.

No one knows the risks better than Femi Oshin, a Nigerian freelance journalist who moved to Johannesburg in 2003. When he failed to produce the proper paperwork at the airport, he landed in the notorious Lindela Repatriation Centre, once the guest quarters for itinerant gold miners near Johannesburg and now a holding tank for foreigners awaiting deportation. After a month of sharing a cramped cell with 19 other Nigerians, he was finally released and granted asylum, but not before—he and his cellmates claimed—they were badly beaten by 15 guards "for not obeying the rules."

In Hillbrow, a fading Johannesburg high-rise housing complex that has become Oshin's home and a haven for many of South Africa's estimated 1.2 million immigrants, everyone knows the rules. "Police are always on the prowl for illegal immigrants, and detain any foreigner who does not have his papers," he says. "If I see a cop in the distance, I take another route." The country's new Immigration Act, sanctioned in 2002, could help, but its implementation has been delayed by constant court battles. Meanwhile, South Africa has expelled more than a million migrants since 1994.

That is the lot of immigrants everywhere, of course—to be needed but not wanted, worked liked coolies yet condemned as parasites. Yet the benefits often outweigh the costs. "We'd like to say, 'These are ignorant people,' [but] it's not true," says Sashi Thatun, program manager for a U.N. project to combat human trafficking in the Mekong River region. "All these workers are taking calculated risks." What may be most surprising about the southern migrants is how well they fare in the face of adversity. The World Bank estimates that $70 billion to $90 billion—or 35 to 40 percent of all money sent home by migrants—flows between developing countries. Nearly a million Nepalese employed in India sent back some $500 million throughout the 1990s, according to one study. So vital is the lifeline of remittances from Buenos Aires to La Paz that the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2001 shaved 1 percent off Bolivia's GDP—perhaps one of the factors contributing to the social turmoil that saw two Bolivian presidents fall in three years.

The message to officials in the developing world couldn't be sharper. Immigrants of the south are not only among the most mistreated laborers anywhere, but perhaps one of the world's most squandered assets as well. Coaxing foreign workers from the shadows of the informal economy, where neither they nor their employers pay taxes, is not only a matter of justice but of sound economics. After all, in many southern cities, some industries—textiles in Argentina and Brazil, water supply in Abidjan, canneries in Bangkok—are dominated by immigrant labor. Yet the pundits and policy gurus, and all but a handful of world leaders, are strangely silent about the growing problem in the south's own backyard. "Officially, developing-world migrants are invisible," says Balbo. "There is simply no south-south immigration debate."

The blind spot could be tragic. South Asians will not soon forget India's nationalist campaign in 2003 to arrest hundreds of Bangladeshis and herd them onto trains for deportation. Because Dhaka and New Delhi have never seen eye to eye on illegal aliens, Bangladeshi border guards drove them back with clubs and gunfire. Hundreds were trapped in a deadly no man's land for days, and several were injured in the shooting. India is now at work on a 4,000-kilometer fence on the Bangladesh border—seven times longer than the wall the U.S. Senate voted to build between Texas and Mexico. Given the determination of today's migrants, neither project is likely to do much good.

With Joe Cochrane in Jakarta, Joseph Contreras in Tijuana, Karen Macgregor in Johannesburg, Jason Overdorf in New Delhi and Jonathan Kent in Kuala Lumpur