Immigrants Are Starting to Head Back Home

With few job prospects in even the wealthiest countries, and a marked increase in anti-immigrant policy, would-be Third World emigrants have scrapped their plans to move "north" to industrial nations. Migration experts are projecting a 30 percent drop in new migrants from the South to the North this year. Perhaps even more significantly, waves of foreign workers are starting to head back home. Joseph Chamie, the former head of the United Nations population division, says several nations are reporting net outflows of migrants including Spain, the Czech Republic, the United Arab Emirates and the United States. "We may soon be seeing a tsunami of migrants returning home," he says. How many? "My conservative guess: millions."

The about-face in migration patterns may be the most visible symbol of an end of an era: the free flow of goods, services, money and people that defined globalization and shepherded an extraordinary period of global growth since the late 1970s is shutting down. Banks are sitting on money, trade is slowing and migration is under attack. Indeed, in many places, the return trip has already started. The Economic Social Research Institute in Britain estimates that 30,000 workers, mostly foreigners, could leave economically depressed Ireland in the first quarter of this year. Hundreds of thousands of jobless guest workers from the former Soviet and Soviet bloc countries are also returning home, with little more than what they can stuff in a suitcase. And though Malaysia routinely sucks in and expels hordes of foreign laborers, some 200,000 Indonesian nationals were sent home in 2008 from shuttered Malaysian factories.

As the global economy worsens, the trend is likely to pick up speed. The International Labor Organization projects the slump will destroy 52 million jobs worldwide this year, and demand has collapsed in the energy sector, light manufacturing, construction and the health and hospitality services industry—all magnets for migrant workers both foreign and domestic. Result: up to half of the 13 million guest workers in the oil fields and service industries of the Gulf states may be sacked in the coming months, forcing them to hit the road. In Japan, where giants like Toyota are stumbling, 10,000 of the 317,000 Brazilian temporary workers living there have lost their jobs in the last four months. Because housing is usually linked to work contracts, many are now leaving.

Over the last several months in Brazil, hundreds of former guest workers have straggled off the plane from Japan at São Paulo's international airport every week. Other former guest workers are homeless in Japan's big cities. "People are sleeping in churches and in parks," says Yoshico Mori, a Roman Catholic nun who works with the Brazilian workers in Japan. "More people might be going home if they had the money for the return fare."

Meantime, some 20 million Chinese peasants who flocked to the cities to stoke the mainland's booming economy are now shipping back to the countryside as assembly lines and blast furnaces go silent in Shandong, Dongguan and Shanghai. A similar phenomenon is playing out in India, as urban factories are shuttered. Worse, there is no relief in sight. "This is the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, and for migrants it is probably going to get a lot nastier," says Demetrios Papademetriou, head of the Migration Policy Institute, a U.S. think tank.

Many natives are happy to see migrants go home. A November survey by the U.S.-German Marshall Fund found that at least 80 percent of those polled in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, Poland and the Netherlands want stronger border controls, and at least 73 percent are demanding tougher sanctions for hiring illegal immigrants.

The Young Guard, the youth wing of Vladimir Putin's United Russia party, is now stumping to oust "unwanted" alien workers, and is doing so, its members say, on behalf of the government itself. "We don't think it's right to feed foreign economies and send money abroad by paying migrant workers," Young Guard lieutenant Andrei Tatarinov recently declared. The Czech Republic is handing out $649 and a one-way plane ticket to any unemployed immigrant who agrees to leave the country. Spain is offering $14,000 per person to 100,000 eligible foreigners willing to leave for at least three years. Only around 1,400 have signed, but with one in six of Spain's 5.2 million immigrants out of work, Madrid expects some 20,000 to take the buyout this year.

If these trends continue, demographics experts say it could hasten the end of one of the most dramatic chapters of global migration in history. As the global economy took off over the past four decades, the more industrious among the poor looked to free themselves from what scholars call the poverty trap, and began to dream of a life in a foreign land. At the same time, populations in the developing economies boomed and "the swarm of babies became a swarm of young adults," says Harvard economist Jeffrey Williamson, "exactly those who are most responsive to migration incentives." Waved on by technological advances that made it easier to find jobs in faraway places and send cash home, tens of millions set out by sea, or crossed mountains and deserts, more than doubling the stock of migrants since 1975 in what Papademetriou calls "one of the most spectacular eras of human migration in peacetime."

For the most part, industrialized nations welcomed them, and by the end of the '90s, the migrant share of the world population hit 3 percent, a record, and stayed around that rate for the past decade. But now, even as the global population grows (though at a slower rate than in the past), the percentage of migrants is dwindling. Increased urbanization and ever-larger numbers of women in the job market helped lower Third World fertility rates, easing the demographic pressure cooker that sent millions packing. Improved conditions in emerging markets persuaded more people to stay home. Today, the widening slump in the most affluent nations is a decisive factor in many people's decisions to stick out the recession at home. For instance, between 2000 and 2006, 1 million Mexicans crossed into the United States every year. But with the retrenchment of the U.S. jobs market, and nearly 1 percent growth projected for Mexico this year, experts predict that the rate of Mexicans heading north in 2009 will be 39 percent lower. Similarly, as hundreds of thousands of Indians return jobless from the crisis-stricken Gulf states, few others back home will be eager to take their place.

The consequences of a stay-at-home trend are likely to be severe for the developing world. Much of what migrants earn abroad gets sent back home as remittances, providing a crucial source of cash for families and helping support recipient nations' economies. Over the last decade remittances have soared from $73 billion to a record $283 billion last year, surpassing the volume of foreign aid to many of the poorest nations. Remittances now account for 45 percent of Tajikistan's economy, 38 percent of Moldova's and a quarter of Honduras's. But what happens when the money flow dries up? Kyrgyzstan's economy minister recently warned that a plunge in remittances could tip the country into financial collapse. Mexico is also bracing for the fallout from a drop in remittances. The $23 billion it received from migrants abroad last year represented the second-largest source of foreign currency, after oil, and was key to financing one in five small-business startups.

Rich countries will also be affected by the change in migration patterns. Declining birth rates in the wealthiest nations will mean labor shortages in the years to come, and migrants have historically been willing to perform the kinds of tasks that natives won't, often at lower pay. What's more, economists say immigrants typically spend 80 percent of what they earn on food, clothing and housing (remitting the rest), so they help buoy sagging consumer demand. More important, they are often the last to be hired and first to be fired in a downturn, making them the biggest targets when job markets tank. "People forget that migrants often soften the blow in a crisis," says Harvard's Williamson. Indeed, a period of economic retrenchment may be precisely the wrong time for wealthy countries to go into a crouch. Building barriers to migrants deprives countries of a potentially revitalizing resource by shrinking the labor pool. And because foreign workers are often highly mobile, they can kick-start stalled economies by pulling up stakes more readily than native workers and moving to labor-scarce regions.

Still, population scholars caution that it's too soon to tell how intense the blowback of global labor will be. Certainly no one is predicting that the 13 million Mexicans who built lives in the United States will suddenly rush back over the Rio Grande. And if opportunities in the rich countries are narrowing, many poor world migrants might be willing to try their luck in the emerging market next door—one reason why migration within the developing world has nearly equaled the flows from south to north. But the global slowdown has clearly slammed the brakes on cross-border migration flows, and the era of massive global migration is slowly coming to a close.