It’s remarkable how little research is available comparing the success of different countries’ immigration policies. This is partly because it is such a delicate topic, and partly because there are so many different criteria to judge what makes a successful policy. If the criterion is simply to keep people out, North Korea has the best policies. If it’s to let the most people in, well, some countries in the poorer parts of Africa have no border controls at all!
Despite what some tabloid newspapers might think, it is generally good news if you live in a place where immigrants keep turning up. Affluent countries that have attracted high numbers of immigrants tend to be socially successful countries. The best countries for immigration are not only welcoming to immigrants but are also worth staying in, in that they have affordable housing and transport, good public education and healthcare, and jobs that are well paid.
"If you are an immigrant in a low-paid job such as washing dishes, you will be paid three times as much as somebody washing dishes in Britain. Even cleaners in Switzerland can earn the equivalent of €30 per hour."
For large European countries, the most successful vis-à-vis immigration is Switzerland, where 25 percent of the population are immigrants. This is partly because it’s a really strangely shaped country. The most elongated a country is, the more immigrants it will have because more people live right next to it and can easily move in. If Switzerland were a circular shape, its immigration rate would be lower.
However, the real secret of Switzerland’s success is that it is very, very economically successful, which attracts migrants and creates work. It’s also pretty equitable, which makes it a good place to be an immigrant. If you are an immigrant in a low-paid job such as washing dishes, you will be paid three times as much as somebody washing dishes in Britain. Even cleaners in Switzerland can earn the equivalent of €30 per hour.
Switzerland allows the free movement of Europeans and it occasionally worries about that, but mostly the people there don’t complain about immigrants. Again, this is down to the low levels of economic inequality. If people are all being paid similar amounts of money, they don’t resent incomers so much – just look at Iceland. Iceland was traditionally a slave society, in that Vikings brought Celtic slaves to the country, but now those two populations have completely integrated. Nobody in Iceland describes themself as a Viking or a Celt!
That’s another important measure of successful immigration – how immigrants have fitted in with locals. Historically there have been catastrophic mass immigrations in terms of their effect on the indigenous population – look at America, where the Native Americans were largely wiped out by the germs of the immigrants, or Australia, where the Aborigines were treated incredibly badly. At least in New Zealand the white immigrants signed a treaty with the Maoris
In the Americas the most successful country for immigration is Canada. It has been more welcoming to immigrants in recent years than has America because Canadians are better at realising that immigrants are very innovative. They tend to have more get-up-and-go than most people and their children do better at school. In Germany, adult Syrians get exploited and do pretty poor jobs the Germans don’t want to do but their kids do well in school and go on to achieve a lot.
The highest percentage of immigrants in the world is in Gulf states such as Qatar, but they are not examples of successful immigration because they are just cheap labour. Immigrants to the Middle East are given very few rights and mortality rates for foreign workers on construction sites are very high.
"Occasionally far right parties will use immigration as a weapon to try to gain political support but across Europe in recent years support for far right parties has fallen."
Occasionally far right parties will use immigration as a weapon to try to gain political support but across Europe in recent years support for far right parties has fallen. There are no far right parties worth talking about at all in Spain and Portugal, which is remarkable, as Spain has had huge amounts of immigrants from North Africa. The media make the far right problem sound far worse than it is. Nobody ever writes a story about support for the far right falling!
The immigration debate can be toxic because it is rooted in ideas about territory and tribe, about invaders coming in and taking over –1066, and all that. Politicians tell people that problems are caused by invaders, but really there are no armies of invaders coming in. It is just people moving across the world, as we always have and we always will.
It is extremely difficult to define "success" in the sphere of migration policy. It is also difficult to compare any one measure of success across various countries due to different modes of social organization and different migration histories across the globe. In my answer to this question, I will first review two basic policy approaches to migration, and then I will review one policy case that is currently regarded by social scientists as relatively successful - the case of Sweden.
Assimilation and Multiculturalism
Many social scientists today have come to an agreement that a central part of successful policy is something called integration of migrants in society. This word has a number of different definitions in different contexts, but for migration scholars this usually refers to the adaptation of migrants in their new society combined with the adaptation of society to incoming migrants. So integration is a complex two-way process. Its desired outcome is usually inscribed in policy as one of two things: (1) assimilation, or (2) multicultural society.
Assimilation means that migrants give up their own patterns of social behaviour and take on the patterns prevalent in their new societies, so the result is a more homogenous society (this policy is said to be followed in France, for example). A “multicultural society,” on the other hand, generally refers to the coexistence of different patterns of social and cultural behaviors within one society, resulting in a “patchwork” of diverse cultures side by side (Canada and Australia have proclaimed this as their official approach to migrant integration). While some countries openly proclaim either assimilationism or multiculturalism as the main goal of their policies, in practice many fall somewhere in between, implementing some assimilationist policies, while also trying to be open to the prospect of a multicultural society.
So if assimilationist policies, broadly speaking, aim to make migrants “dissolve” socially and culturally in the societies they move to, then we would measure assimilation by how far migrants reflect the employment levels, education levels, income, and political behaviours of the receiving society. The problem with this approach is that the society of any country is incredibly complex, diverse, and varied, so it is unclear which groups in society the migrants should be “assimilating” into and which groups policymakers should be comparing migrants with. Assimilationism is also based on the underlying logic of a zero-sum game: the paradigm implies that if migrants do not assimilate, then other members of society somehow lose out. This assumes a fundamental conflict of interest between migrants’ interests and those of the rest of society. In my view, however, there is no empirically proven basis for this. Moreover, I do not believe that difference between people inherently leads to conflict.
If multiculturalist policies aim to provide an environment that is friendly towards the coexistence of various cultures that retain their specificities side by side, then measuring the success of multiculturalism would involve assessing levels of conflict between groups, attitudes towards difference in society, access of various groups to various services and opportunities for development and growth, levels of political participation and representation at different levels of government.* Multiculturalism has come to mean many things: a set of concrete policies that uphold a diverse society; a political-normative term that refers to the preference for diversity in society over homogeneity; and an analytical term sociologists use to describe the state of a given society. Below I will describe a country case where multiculturalism was embodied in a set of working migration policies.
One major study from 2011, conducted by the British Council and the independent European non-profit "Migration Policy Group," ranked 31 countries in Europe and North America on their migration policies using a variety of different criteria (employment opportunities, access to education and anti-discrimination legislation). Sweden ranked number 1, with Portugal, Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands following close behind. The bottom five were Lithuania, Malta, Slovakia, Cyprus and Latvia. The UK came in at number 12, tying with Germany. The US ranked 9th. In more recent studies, Sweden has remained at the top of such rankings. For this reason, below I will consider the case of Sweden, a state that follows the multiculturalism paradigm.
The Case of Sweden
In Sweden, about 15% of the population is foreign-born, and about 100,000 new migrants come to live there every year. Below I outline the main characteristics of Sweden’s policy, based on information from the Migrant Integration Policy Index (MIPEX):
- Data-driven policies: Swedish integration policies are evidence-based and responsive to new data. Mainstream services, such as healthcare, are developed and continuously scrutinized to serve a diverse population. Working groups target “hard-to-reach groups” in society to make sure that these groups also have access to the same services as citizens.
- Relatively easy family unification: importantly, immigrant families face fewer obstacles in Sweden than in many other countries to reunite with family members. Policies allow family members of immigrants already residing in Sweden to join them and take up residence there.
- Relatively easy, clear path to citizenship and acceptance of dual citizenship: Sweden offers a clear path to citizenship: permanent residents are legally entitled to secure citizenship after 5 years of residence in Sweden, and those who obtain Swedish citizenship are allowed to keep their other citizenships as well.
- Opportunities for political participation: immigrants without citizenship can vote in local and regional elections and can form and join associations, political parties, media organizations. Civil society organizations work to inform immigrants of these rights and opportunities.
- Access to healthcare: healthcare entitlements are the same for Swedish citizens and immigrants.
- Equality legislation that protects migrants from discrimination: migrants in Sweden have better access than migrants in many other countries to the judicial system and to protection against discrimination. There are many laws and regulations in place in Sweden that forbid discrimination against people on the grounds of race, ethnicity, religion, nationality. Victims seeking justice have relatively good access to mechanisms for enforcing these laws.
- Inclusive schools: While there is still room for improvement, Sweden boasts a relatively inclusive school system in which children of various backgrounds have the chance to be educated side by side. Sweden has also funded bilingual education and mother tongue instruction in schools to support the needs of children with various linguistic backgrounds, giving children opportunities to maintain and use their first language alongside Swedish.
- Public opinion: there is a general consensus among the public in Sweden that immigrants should benefit from the same rights as citizens.
Based on this information about Sweden and on other sociological studies about migrant integration, we can conclude that migrants “integrate” better in societies that have targeted employment policies for migrants and low employment discrimination. In addition, securing residence, securing family life, and granting citizenship help achieve better employment outcomes for migrants. Studies have also shown that children with a migration background succeed in school systems are inclusive and educational programs are targeted towards the needs of migrant students. Several studies also indicate that a clear path to citizenship is important for the success of migrants.
Over the past two decades, elements of multiculturalist policies have been strengthening in Western European countries. Despite recent rhetoric about the “failure of multiculturalism,” we have not seen any actual significant retreat from multiculturalist policies in those countries where they have already been implemented.
As we can see from the discussion above, relative success of a migration policy is very contextual and depends largely on the paradigm a country follows with regard to its migrant population. Moreover, it is important to note that migration and integration policies today are mostly state-based, i.e. carried out by governments of nation-states. But the processes of migration and integration are very complex, multifaceted, as each migrant crosses many borders and lives across different societies, sometimes splitting time between countries or retaining very close ties with people across the globe. We also should not lose sight of the vast global inequalities that shape migration patterns, feed prejudice and racism, and result in the structural inequalities that migrants come into contact with when arriving in a new place of residence.
Moreover, even when we try to analyze what a successful migration policy could look like within nation-states, we should still try to stretch our imaginations and keep in mind the complex life stories and social structures that resulted in migrations across the globe, and by imagining these experiences we can envision a world where integration into a simplified and imagined “host” society is supplemented by networks of transnational solidarity across different societies and different social groups.
* To complicate things further, some migration scholars use the words “integration” and “multiculturalism” interchangeably (in which case the two policy outcomes would be either assimilation on one end of the spectrum, and integration on the other), but for my purposes in this answer I have viewed assimilationism and multiculturalism as two “ideal types” of policy sets, with a common goal of some form of migrant “integration.”