’The role of social benefits for migration is overestimated’

What factors determine which countries people migrate to? Tim Müller from the Berlin Institute for Empirical Integration and Migration Research (BIM) has analysed this in a study of 160 countries. According to the study, important pull factors for migration are not so much social benefits, but rather good job opportunities, democratic conditions and the national language.

In your "Junior Research Group Migration and the Welfare State", you analysed the hypothesis that refugees prefer to migrate to countries with good welfare systems. Why is that?

Tim Müller: The argument has played a major role in the political and public discourse on migration - usually with populist intentions - since the 1990s. I’m not sure whether the thesis is relevant in the everyday lives of individual people. In our study, which is currently still in the peer review process, we analysed the influx of migrants in general - not that of specific groups such as the low or highly educated or humanitarian migration in acute crises.

To what extent has the question of whether social benefits and immigration are linked been researched so far?

Müller: There is some research, but the findings vary greatly. Some have found correlations between countries with good social systems and migration, for example in the USA. According to one study, states that pay high social benefits attract more people than those where this is not the case. Another frequently cited Danish study found that as soon as social benefits for non-EU migrants were drastically cut, net immigration fell sharply. And vice versa.

Are you not convinced by these studies?

Müller: Previous research has been limited to migration to EU or OECD countries, i.e. to wealthier regions. If we ignore migration in other parts of the world, we get a false picture of the factors that attract migration. Our study therefore analyses migration movements between 160 countries.

How did you proceed methodically?

Müller: We looked at the UN data on the so-called "migration stock", i.e. the number of migrants on a certain date, and calculated the emigration rate, i.e. the proportion of people who were outside their countries of origin at that time. We concentrated on global migration above a certain level and analysed a variety of factors. For example, how high are social spending and gross national product in the country of origin and the country of immigration? How far apart are the two, how strict are the visa regulations? How strong is the democracy? So what criteria make migration between the sending and receiving countries likely?

What did this show?

Müller: Our statistical models show: How much a country spends on social welfare and health is not enough to explain migration. As we were able to establish using the USA as an example, other variables such as economic performance or the size of a country, which is linked to many job opportunities, play a more important role. The question of whether a political system is democratic and whether a similar language is spoken is also decisive.

You use the term "status maintenance" in your study. What do you mean by this?

Müller: I use the term status to refer to the level of social security. When I migrate, I don’t want to be worse off than in my country of origin. Migration therefore occurs more frequently between countries with similar levels of social spending - for example between Germany and other European countries. The majority of global migration takes place between wealthy countries.

It’s actually the other way round: Migration should serve to improve one’s own status.

Müller: But migration is associated with high costs. People are therefore most likely to migrate to countries that are close by - and generally not over long distances. Migration within Africa or Asia, for example, is often not on our radar. At the same time, the proportion of people who migrate within Europe is much higher than the proportion of those who come from Africa.

Did you expect these results?

Müller: The study confirms our assumption that social benefits only encourage people to move to a country to a very small extent - if at all. For example, we found no effect at all for social spending and only a very small effect for healthcare spending. This is what distinguishes the debates in research and in public. We may find these effects statistically, but they are not necessarily relevant in practice. For example, if a government introduces payment cards, i.e. people only receive benefits in kind instead of cash, this will probably have no effect. People who migrate lack precise knowledge about the destination countries. They tend not to know about the social benefits.

To what extent is your research socially relevant?

Müller: If a government cuts social benefits in order to control migration, that would not be an adequate means. On the contrary, it can lead to negative effects. When social spending was drastically cut in Denmark, it drove people who were already living there into poverty.
The debate about migration is highly topical. Where do you want to continue your research?
Müller: We want to use data from 160 countries to find out which factors tend to attract certain forms of migration. For example, what causes skilled labour to migrate? But we also want to look at different forms of legal immigration and the question of how countries allow or discourage migration.

Interview: Isabel Fannrich-Lautenschläger   Translated via DeepL.



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