Almira is one of many millions of immigrants who every year cross borders in search of a better life. A year ago, she left her home village in Croatia to find work in Helsingborg, Sweden, and today she’s gone to Arbetsförmedlingen, a Swedish public employment agency, to find a job. “I worked as a cleaner for a hotel, but the work is tiresome,” she said. “I would want to work as a receptionist, but I don’t think my Swedish is good enough yet.”
Immigrants like Almira are often seen as having a negative impact on the host country, such as when they allegedly take jobs from the native-born. But as anti-immigration views have gained traction—even in government policy in some cases, as in the U.K.—an increasingly large body of work suggests that assumptions that immigrants are harmful to a country’s economy are unfounded.
“There is overwhelming evidence that migrants have a positive impact on the economy,” said Peter Sutherland, the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for migration and development. Sutherland was on the panel for the World Economic Forum’s Open Forum session titled “Immigration: Welcome or Not?”
Also on the panel was former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who agreed with Sutherland that immigrants often bring lots of advantages with them. To make his point, Annan referred to a poster showing Albert Einstein trying to cross the border into a country with a sack of clothes on his back. The caption read: “The sack of clothes is not the only thing that the immigrant brings.”
While many of the leaders speaking at the WEF appear convinced, the evidence that immigrants have a positive effect on their host countries’ economies has not yet had much impact on public perception.
In the U.K., recent immigration has raised gross domestic product per head for the non-immigrant population by about 0.15 percent yearly over 10 years. Studies of the impact of immigration on the German economy also suggest that immigrants have a positive fiscal impact. The trend is similar in the U.S., where the unemployment rate in 2012 was lower among immigrants than among the native-born.
Yet xenophobic parties are increasingly gaining votes in the U.K., France and Austria, among other countries. Sweden, Almira’s new home country, has often been praised for its immigration policies, and Sutherland refers to it as a “model country.” Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt chided the U.K. for its hardline stance on immigration during a WEF panel discussion that included European Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Irish politician Enda Kenny
“Europe ought to be open,” Reinfeldt said, noting that his country, unlike the U.K., has not insisted on additional restrictions on immigrants from Romania and Bulgaria, and that Sweden had not noticed any negative consequences.
Still, there is a rising anti-immigration movement in Sweden. The political party Sverigedemokraterna, which is against immigration, made it into the Swedish Parliament in the last election, in 2010, with 5.7 percent of the votes. If an election were held today, Sverigedemokraterna would get even more votes, about 9.3 percent.
At the end of the session, panel moderator Amy Rosen, president and CEO of the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, a global nonprofit, asked, “If we could wave a magic wand and have one policy adopted … what would that be?”
“I don’t think there is such a thing as one solution,” Annan answered. But, he added, “I want to refer to the role of the individuals, of you, because you can also play a role.
“As individuals, you have power, you can push back when politicians are playing political games. The demagogues who sometimes get 5 to 10 percent and disrupt the work of parliament, you should be able to stand up to them and speak back,” Annan said.
He continued: “Often we don’t. We think they are on the fringe, and before we know [it], they are in the center, and they’ve got votes in the parliament. If the leaders fail to lead on this issue or on any other issue, people can make them follow, so you do have power.”