Migration has become an election issue in SA and across the globe

Amidst rising populist sentiments worldwide, the reality of migration remains nuanced. Despite political rhetoric, UN estimates show international migrants are a minority. However, displacement drivers intensify, with geopolitics, tech, and climate change leading to irregular migration. Bloomberg writers delve into global examples: Peru, grappling with Venezuelan influx; South Africa’s xenophobia; New Zealand’s immigration overhaul; Ireland’s asylum seeker crisis; and Denver’s struggle to manage a humanitarian surge. As nations confront economic and political fallout, these examples illuminate the intricate dynamics shaping our world.

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By Alan Crawford

In a year of elections, populist leaders from Europe to the Americas are pushing a narrative that migration is out of control.

Yet for all the hysteria, the number of international migrants worldwide according to the latest United Nations estimate remains a small minority of the total population. Movement within national borders is still “overwhelmingly the norm,” it says.

The real change of recent years, says the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), is that the core drivers of displacement — geopolitics, technology and climate change — are intensifying, with a notable rise in irregular channels for migration as safe routes are closed off.

In the US, immigration at the southern border has risen up the agenda of voter concerns to become a totemic campaign issue for both main candidates in the presidential election. 

But Washington is far from alone in struggling to balance the needs of its citizens with the influx of humanity seeking a better life — a migration dynamic which helped to build modern America.

The case studies below, from South Africa, New Zealand, Peru, Ireland and Denver, Colorado, show how the modern-day reality is impacting national and municipal governments worldwide, often in surprising locations and in unpredictable ways.

What’s clear is that the fallout is not just political but economic.

Businesses concerned at restricted access to international talent are starting to speak out. In the Netherlands, where the anti-immigration Freedom Party placed first in a November vote, central bank Governor Klaas Knot made the case that the country as a whole and firms like chipmaking giant ASML Holding NV in particular need migrants to prosper.

The IOM points to the evidence being clear that the flow of people beyond borders drives human development globally and helps to meet critical labor demand, while also enriching societies. Education levels vary widely of course, but almost three-in-four international migrants are of working age (20 to 64).

A migrant offers to wash drivers windshields on Santa Fe Drive in Denver, Colorado, U.S., on Monday, Feb. 26, 2024. Migration is suddenly growing across the world. Since December 2022, more than 40,000 migrants have arrived in Denver. The local government has spent more than $50 million on housing, bus tickets, food and staffing. Photographer: Daniel Brenner/Bloomberg

So an upgrade in the UK’s demographic outlook issued in January on the back of high migration flows may mean a bigger pool of workers and hence a larger economy. 

Similarly, much of Australia’s recent economic performance is a function of surging population growth driven by inbound migration after the pandemic, according to James McIntyre of Bloomberg Economics. With arrivals there now peaking, underlying weaknesses will become more apparent, he says.

As migration dominates economic and political debate around the world, the following examples from five continents show how governments everywhere are grappling with an issue that is not going away. 

PERU: Where immigrants are better educated yet still shunned — Marcelo Rochabrun 

Liliana Angel used to teach math, physics and chemistry to high school students in her native Venezuela. She now sells candy on the streets of Peru’s capital while living in a shelter with three of her four children. 

“I feel sad because sometimes people humiliate me on the streets,” Angel, 34, said from her shelter, known as Sin Fronteras (Without Borders), where she cohabits with a dozen other recent arrivals. 

Angel’s experience is emblematic of a familiar reality for Venezuelan migrants: losing a middle-class life to hyperinflation, then being unable to regain that status after fleeing their home country’s economic collapse. It’s a fate that’s all the harder to take in Peru, where Venezuelan migrants tend to be better educated than their local counterparts; for example, they are almost twice as likely to have completed a university degree.

Liliana Angel sells sweets with her daughters on the streets of Lima. Photographer: Angela Ponce/Bloomberg

Venezuela’s economic and political turmoil over the past decade or so has resulted in the largest prolonged displacement event in the Americas, according to the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute. Of the more than 7 million Venezuelans who left their homeland from 2015 to 2023, Peru has received more than 1.5 million people, second only to Colombia, which straddles the two countries.

Peru has generally offered temporary work permits to Venezuelan migrants, although renewing them can sometimes leave employment gaps. Venezuelans now form the largest foreign group in Peru by far, representing 4.8% of the population and affecting the host country’s demographics in ways not experienced in decades.

Peru, which was then averaging almost 5% annual growth, banked on the country being able to absorb the numbers, and some economists even projected that the influx could deliver further momentum. But then came the pandemic, followed by a recession last year from which Peru is only slowly emerging. In social terms, the reality is that whatever acceptance of the newcomers there was among Peruvians is vanishing. 

Even five years ago, 73% of Peruvians told think tank IEP that they disagreed with Venezuelan immigration. Another IEP poll in 2022 found that a third of Peruvians said they would be “very bothered” if their child married a Venezuelan. 

Polling also shows that rising crime is near the top of Peruvians’ concerns —  and that a majority say the Venezuelan population is to blame, a charge taken up by successive governments. 

An elite squad was created within the police in 2020 to combat crimes committed by “foreigners,” who are overwhelmingly Venezuelan. In November, President Dina Boluarte sent migration authorities to a football World Cup qualifying match in the capital between Peru and Venezuela to check the papers of all foreigners. 

Politics in Peru is volatile, and Boluarte may struggle to escape the fate of her recent predecessors, most of whom have been impeached or imprisoned.

Liliana Angel walks with her daughter through the San Juan de Lurigancho neighborhood in Lima. Photographer: Angela Ponce/Bloomberg

That precarious backdrop to policymaking doesn’t help Angel, who arrived in Peru at the turn of the year after spells living in Colombia and Ecuador. She said she knows she is unlikely to find a teaching job, at least in the short term, and so she’s focusing her efforts elsewhere. With the proceeds from selling candy, she’s been saving to buy a cart to sell empanadas and arepas, a traditional Venezuelan pastry. 

“I’ve seen Venezuelans who come to do wrong, but there are also many people who are honorable,” she said. “Not all Venezuelans are the same.”

SOUTH AFRICA: The Rainbow Nation turns xenophobic  — Antony Sguazzin 

In downtown Johannesburg, the director of the Consortium for Refugees and Migrants in South Africa cautiously unlocks the door to his fifth-floor office.

He has good reason to be circumspect.

In November four men pounded on the door and forced their way past a receptionist, showing them pictures of the 43-year-old director, Thifulufheli Sinthumule, on their mobile phones. They told him they were from anti-migrant organizations and unless he stopped advocating for migrant rights he’d face consequences. They followed up with a post on X after the meeting saying nonprofits that support migrants were “declaring a war” on South Africans. 

“If we as civil society organizations are now on the receiving end, you can imagine the life of an ordinary migrant,” Sinthumule said, pointing out the biometric recognition and cameras his organization has since installed.  “I’m a South African and I am receiving such attacks.”

The opportunity of work and a constitution that safeguards their rights has drawn migrants to the continent’s most developed economy from elsewhere in Africa, but also from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now, with the ruling African National Congress facing the possibility of losing its majority for the first time in May elections, they’re being scapegoated for government failings such as poor health care, high unemployment and rampant crime. Just 4% of the 62 million population are foreign, according to state statistics.

While incidents peaked during widespread riots in 2008, the number of people displaced this year to date is already double that for all of 2023, according to the African Centre for Migration & Society.     

The ANC, brought to power with the support of African nations opposed to apartheid, has previously condemned xenophobic violence in which hundreds of migrants have been killed and tens of thousands made homeless. 

But having lost ground in 2021 municipal elections to rivals who want undocumented foreigners deported, the party has ratcheted up anti-migrant rhetoric. It’s done little to discourage vigilante groups such as Operation Dudula, which means “to force out” in Zulu, that’ve attacked migrants and destroyed their property.  While it’s not contesting the national election on May 29, Operation Dudula will field single-issue candidates in this year’s provincial voting in several provinces for the first time.

Last year the government fought and lost a series of court cases as it tried to strip about 180,000 Zimbabweans who’ve been in the country legally since before 2009 of their right to stay.

In November it proposed overhauling immigration laws, proposals which, if enacted, would see South Africa withdraw from international refugee treaties, repatriate foreigners and hold those crossing its borders in camps. Currently migrants are allowed to live within communities while their applications to stay are processed.

The approaching election is causing Sinthumule concern.

There will be “scapegoating and electioneering at the expense of migrants,” he said.

NEW ZEALAND: A traditionally open destination considers clamping down — Tracy Withers

French university graduate Eloise Gondré moved to New Zealand early last year for its natural beauty and unique Māori culture.

“I still find New Zealand welcoming, even more now that I’m working and living in a place with many locals,” she says of her new country and its citizens.

Even here, that welcome is being stretched.

Gondré is one of a record 226,000 foreigners who flocked to New Zealand legally in the 12 months through February. After adjusting for departures, the population swelled by 2.8% in 2023 — the biggest jump since World War II. 

New Zealand has long been thought of as a relatively open nation, but the volume of arrivals is now raising concerns about pressure on infrastructure, rising house prices and the ability of the economy to meet the extra demand for goods and services. That could in turn fan inflation, compounding the strains. 

Houses in Wellington, New Zealand. Photographer: Mark Coote/Bloomberg

“Very strong population pressures will continue to stress the economy,” said Kelly Eckhold, chief New Zealand economist at Westpac Banking Corp. in Auckland.

The nation’s central bank has picked up on the trend, citing the impacts of high immigration on house prices and rents. That may see it hold its benchmark rate at 5.5% until the end of this year or into 2025, even as global peers begin to lower theirs.

The development has also spilled into the political arena. Prime Minister Christopher Luxon won office last year by focusing on cost of living issues and called for a revamp of the immigration system. He described the record influx as unsustainable. 

On April 7, Immigration Minister Erica Stanford tightened rules for low-skilled workers seeking entry to include a minimum skills and work experience threshold, a shorter allowable stay of three years, and an English language requirement. She wants to curb arrivals to avoid overstretching key services such as health and education, while swinging the balance of immigration back toward those with essential skills who will boost productivity and economic growth.

In an increasingly globalized workforce — which intensified in the wake of Covid-19 as nations looked to fill acute worker shortages — New Zealand is a desirable destination. It was ranked the most attractive nation in the OECD for skilled migrants, according to a 2023 report by the Paris-based organization, which rated the country highly in categories such future prospects, family environment and inclusiveness. 

But the immediate challenge for many immigrants is finding an affordable house or rental accommodation.

Across the country, rents rose 5.1% in March from a year earlier. House prices have increased 3.9% in the past nine months, recovering from a prolonged slump sooner than many expected as demand began to outpace the number of homes being offered for sale.

Gondré, 25, has combined traveling around New Zealand with a mix of jobs in hospitality and agriculture. She’s been able to defray some rental costs by staying with friends and sharing rooms, and at one stage considered sleeping in her van at the vineyard where she was working.  

But trying to earn enough to enjoy the scenery and adventure tourism that the South Pacific nation offers has become a struggle. “I can’t save so much money because of the rent,” she says. 

IRELAND: A country shaped by emigration turns on immigrants — Jennifer Duggan

Outside the International Protection Office in downtown Dublin, a line of small tents snakes along the pavement and down a lane. Covered with sheets of tarpaulin to keep out the rain, the tents house men who have arrived in Ireland in recent months seeking asylum. But with no accommodation available, they’re forced to sleep on the street outside the government office meant to help them.

Aubrey McCarthy, who runs the Light House homeless cafe on Dublin’s Pearse Street, providing hot meals, clothes and tents to the homeless, says even more bed down in parks around the city. The cafe had just run out of sleeping bags, he said in late February. Some people have since been offered accommodation at a tented site on the city outskirts but many remain outside the office, and their numbers are growing each week.

Tents belonging to asylum seekers pitched outside the International Protection Office building in central Dublin on Feb. 22. Photographer: Paulo Nunes dos Santos/Bloomberg

Ireland’s economic rise and more recent allure as a low-tax European base to companies like Apple Inc. helped turned a nation of emigrants for much of the past 200 years into a 21st century success story and a pull factor for migrants. Yet the reality of more than 1,600 asylum seekers without accommodation shows an acute crisis in Ireland’s immigration system — a situation that’s alienating locals while failing those arriving.

Eddie, who came from Nigeria and asked only to give his first name, was one of a small group standing huddled together as a volunteer from a homeless charity handed out tea and coffee, clean socks and gloves. He’d been sleeping outside the office since the end of January. “New people are arriving every day,” he said. As he spoke, two passers by shouted racist taunts.

The lack of spaces for those seeking “international protection” has led the government to find housing solutions in hotels and vacant buildings around the country, prompting tensions with local communities. Protests have broken out in a number of towns and suburbs, and buildings earmarked for or rumored to be allotted to house asylum seekers have suffered arson attacks. 

A local volunteer distributes clothing and food to asylum seekers in Dublin. Photographer: Paulo Nunes dos Santos/Bloomberg

Ireland, which has until now been largely immune to right-wing populism, is witnessing the beginnings of a political shift as a result. An emerging right is co-opting those tensions to further its agenda, according to Niamh McDonald, the Director of the Hope and Courage Collective, which works to counter hate and extremism. “There has been an increase in violent rhetoric and organization of the far right,” which has “pushed” immigration to the front of people’s minds, she said. “I don’t think people have come to that conclusion on their own.”

Immigration has not traditionally been high on the political agenda in Ireland. But according to a recent poll by the Irish Times, it now tops voter concerns. Then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was forced to respond while in Germany to plans to convert a hotel to house asylum seekers in Drogheda after about 200 people gathered to protest against the decision in February. His successor, Simon Harris, promised a shift to a “fair and firm” migration system in his augural speech as party leader.  

At root, the issue is not one of immigration, but of a chronic lack of affordable housing and other infrastructure, according to McDonald, who points out that Ireland is at full employment and there is a need for migrant workers to fill skills gaps. “People are getting distracted,” she says. 

Services like Light House are meanwhile working to fill the needs of those arriving. But with a sharp increase in the numbers seeking protection who are homeless, the strain is showing. “Several Fridays in a row we had to turn people away,” said McCarthy. “That is new territory for us.”

DENVER, COLORADO: A city at breaking point — Nadia Lopez

Lisbeth Torres and her husband William Garcia never intended to leave their home in Venezuela, but economic desperation forced them to set out on the journey north. They walked for two months across seven countries, passing through the treacherous Darien Gap carrying their two small children on their backs, before arriving at the southern US border in Texas in December.

There they were unknowingly put on a bus to Denver, Colorado. 

Denver never featured as a destination in the couple’s plans. Yet they find themselves among thousands of people who have flooded into the city in the past year, part of a humanitarian tide that Mayor Mike Johnston says is taking an immense social and fiscal toll on a city that’s home to some 700,000 residents. Nearly 40,000 newcomers fleeing poverty and authoritarian regimes have arrived in Denver since 2022 — more than 5% of the population, and the most per capita of any city in the US. 

Migrants play volleyball together with church members at Denver Friends Church on Feb. 26. Photographer: Daniel Brenner/Bloomberg

“Our capacity is very strained and we are really at the edges of what we can manage,” Johnston said in city hall, as volunteers outside distributed meals to migrants and homeless people waiting in line to be fed.

Denver has already spent more than $68 million to keep people off the streets. Those costs had been expected to triple with the city setting aside $120 million in 2024 – about 7% of its annual budget – to continue funding shelter efforts in the absence of federal support. That amount was reduced to $90 million amid frustration among Denver residents who are increasingly questioning the amount of public money being used to mitigate the crisis. 

Like the mayors of other Democratic cities that are managing an influx of arrivals, Johnston has pleaded with the federal government to step in. But his calls have largely been ignored, he said. The blow was compounded by the failure of a proposed immigration bill that could have provided much-needed aid, a victim of political posturing as the presidential election approaches. 

“We have to recalibrate now knowing that there isn’t any federal support coming,” Johnston said. 

When Torres, 42, and Garcia, 34, arrived in Denver they were sent to a run-down motel to avoid sleeping in an encampment during the freezing winter temperatures. 

William Garcia and Lisbeth Torres with their kids at Denver Friends Church. Photographer: Daniel Brenner/Bloomberg

To get by, Garcia joins fellow migrants who clean windshields at busy intersections. Like others, he is currently unauthorized to work due to federal restrictions preventing asylum seekers from obtaining legal employment. 

So they do whatever they can to make a buck: Weaving in between cars offering speedy washes, or roaming the streets selling flowers. Many congregate outside of Home Depot or Walmart offering to help load groceries into cars for tips, a service that riles as much as aids shoppers. 

The couple and their sons, ages four and six, were staying at an emergency shelter at Denver Friends Church that provided them with meals, a safe place to sleep, showers and clothing. It closed at the end of March and they moved to another makeshift facility, but were unsure how long they’d be allowed to stay there.

More than anything, they want to earn a living wage to provide a stable home for their children. But a better life has eluded them so far. In February, they were scammed out of $500 by a fake landlord advertising on Facebook who promised them a lease.

The stress is overwhelming for Torres. “But what choice am I left with?” she said in Spanish. “We must carry on.” 

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