Home Overview Sojourning for migrant truth 

Sojourning for migrant truth 

by Thomas Schellen

The Pournara Emergency Reception Center has a bureaucratically correct name, a politically correct security fence, a totemic gate arch, a well managed access and information procedure for visiting delegations, and daily fluctuations of migrants. Located in a Cypriot plain near the capital Nicosia, the camp is where a diversity of refugees and asylum seekers take their first official whiff of European air. 

Prominent among them have recently been migrants coming by boat directly from Syria or via Lebanon. With arrivals of 1,100 refugees and migrants in Cyprus in April, (a minor monthly decrease but a year-on-year tripling of Syrian refugee arrivals on the island according to data by refugee agency UNHCR), increasing numbers of Syrians have been widely reported as having decided to leave Lebanon after sheltering there for up to 13 years. 

They have been portrayed in frequent media reports as a growing group that have embarked on the Eastern Mediterranean clandestine migration route to Europe because they are faced with new reprisals and hostility in Lebanon. When compared with the up to two million displaced persons that are assumed to hang on anywhere between Akkar and Marjaouni in the far north and south of the small country, the count of boat people is moderate. 

According to the UNHCR data sheet on the Mediterranean situation, by a June 9 update time, Cyprus saw 4,363 arrivals of refugees and migrants, out of 66,369 sea arrivals to EU shores by the same groups. The bulk of almost 70,000 sea and land arrivals of refugees and migrants to Europe for the year to date were recorded in Spain, Italy, and Greece (see map for refugee clusters in MENA countries and migration routes in the Eastern Mediterranean).

Migrants have nonetheless featured heavily in Cypriot concerns – just ahead of EU parliamentary elections in which one of Cyprus’ six seats in the assembly was won by an anti-migration party. In recent months, concerns have focused specifically on Syrians arriving by sea because of the high proportions of Cyprus’ asylum applicants to citizens and because of an assumed high escalation risk of Syrian inflows. From the perspective of witnessing the management of arrivals at the Pournara intake center, Syrian refugees are a group whose asylum applications are not accepted on account of their nationality, in this way standing out among other Middle Eastern, Asian and Africans who made their way to the gates of the camp, are medically checked, processed in accordance with their statues, and in regular cases stay for a short period. 

From inquiries with senior camp administrators, Executive learned that unaccompanied minors are the longest stayers in the facility. Expectations of migrants vary when they come into the camp, with many arrivals from sub-Saharan countries falsely believing themselves to be “in Europe” and taken onward, whereas Syrians and other Middle Easterners have a far better comprehension of Cyprus. Some who arrive here already have social networks in the Greek part of the divided island and will move quickly into private environments after a 5-day mandatory stay in Pournara.

The dusty and often smelly camp (sewage systems are being upgraded in the context of an overall €25 million camp expansion and improvement effort) is the busiest and only migrant entry processing facility on the premier European landing point in the Eastern Mediterranean, and steppingstone to dreams. But to evoke associations of the arid Pournara setting with another island-based immigration center is an incredible stretch, even if that other center also had a gate function – a century ago – to a realm of perceived great opportunities for mainly European emigrants: the United States. Of course this particular old immigration center, which also saw war refugees and persecuted individuals enter its halls, today hosts a museum and constitutes, together with neighboring Liberty Island, a US National Monument that draws in history buffs and tourists (3 – 4 million annual visitors, a multiple of the immigrants that were processed there at the start of 20th century). 

Looking into the container and tent accommodations at Pournara in 2024, it feels unfathomable that this, and/or other refugee processing centers and asylum seeker camps in the Mediterranean region will ever be converted into museums where well-heeled family members and descendants re-imagine the hardships and sacrifices that their forebears underwent on their journeys into a socioeconomically advanced life. 

Yet two other impressions assert themselves immediately: compared to tent camps in Lebanon where displaced Syrians are informally kept and residing chaotically on the strength of their hosts’ kindness, the “dilapidated” (according to the media) Pournara facility represents organized, regulated, justiciable and never anarchic Europe (in good and also in less adorable ways). 

It is equally clear that Cyprus is a natural way point in one or more of the three migration corridors leading into Europe on this side of the Middle East – and that no barrier and revision of regulations will solve the problems of migration and refugee pressures rolling against and sometimes over choke points on the illicit routes from the Middle East to Europe. As long as the disparity in human liberties and opportunities between the two geographic and cultural regions is high, migrants’ hopes will be directed at comfort zones as unlikely as the Pournara Emergency Reception Center.

Timeless motives

Away from political consideration and fears over surging refugee numbers, migration is an eternal phenomenon of our human species. As such, in the long run it might be a natural (and over centuries growing) threat to a global civilization that defines itself as a community of competing market societies. Migration is the democratic movement that votes with its feet for rebalancing global economic justice. 

Migration stands for a complex cycle of social, economic, and political changes. The concepts of this cycle have been birthed by the European invention of the nation state and this particular construct’s territorial sovereignty – and whose wandering actors have, through their very existence, challenged artificial claims of authority by the nation state’s progenitors. In a nutshell, migration, as perceived in our 21st century societies, is a strange and economically productive story but self-defeating narrative. 

For all the value that migration had for humanity’s survival and territorial expansions, it has been blanketed in myths and faulty assumptions. Today, migration is quantifiable both in terms of numbers of people on the move and in terms of some of its economic importance, as well as in qualitative terms and cultural value. 

This measurability is quite opposite to historic assumptions on alleged mass migrations such as the European Die Völkerwanderung/ Les invasions barbares in the fourth to seventh centuries. Those pivotal migrations around and into European territories probably, and contrary to earlier assumptions, witnessed no tribes or ethnicities-to-be on the move but saw culturally and biologically heterogeneous groups limited in size by military logistics, undertake military-economic migrations. 

Estimates of these barbarian change agents’ numbers are both varying and uncertain, but minuscule – some assessments spoke of headcounts representing cumulatively 3 to 4 percent over a 100-year period – in comparison to the late Roman Empire’s estimated 20 plus million population in its West Rome part in the middle of the fourth century. Yet popular and scientific European perceptions from the 17th to the mid-20th century imagined that entire ethnicities of chieftain-led barbarian males and their entourages moved in on West-Rome from the north, east, and south, including Huns, Bulgars, Slavs, and various Germanic tribes, such as Goths and Vandals, who to this day are associated in vernacular with external threats and destruction.   

Contrasting to those speculations of migratory peaks and troughs, we read in the 2024 World Migration Report (WMR) by the International Office of Migration (IOM, another concerned UN agency) that the percentages of humans on the big move are amazingly constant in the long run. “The current United Nations estimate is that there are about 281 million international migrants in the world, which equates to 3.6 per cent of the global population,” the biennial WMR says.  

A 50 plus-year table in the WMR shows percentages of migration to the world population in the 2 to 2.5 percent range between 1970 and 85, just under 3 percent in the 15-year period after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the associated globalized outbreak of optimism for political and economic rapprochements, and 3.2 to 3.6 percent in the 2010s, the same level as seen after the slowing of global life due to the Covid19 pandemic. It seems that 3.6 percent of the world population being on the move in the 2020s is not a terrifying crisis but consistent with gradual and small percentage-wise upticks over more than half a century.

The lens of geoeconomic disparity

The image of surprisingly slow increases in migration sharpens further when viewed together with technological innovations and headline demographic developments. The accelerations in the speed and physical ease of travel and migration do not need to be elaborated on. Let it just be remembered that the aviation industry broke through the barrier of 50 million annual passengers in the early 1950s and this year expects to break the barrier of 5 billion annual passengers. Compared to the increases in tourism, leisure and business travel that according to some estimates is the domain of a global minority of 2 billion people, it seems almost surprisingly low that in absolute numbers, the number of global migrants has swelled by a factor of about 3.5 between 81 million people in 1995 and today. 

When correlated with population growth, the number of people on the move lets one recall that change makers do not at all need to be majorities. Instead of more than tripling as it did in absolute numbers, the share of migrants in the world has increased by about 57 percent, from 2.3 percent of the global population to the percentage seen today. As the IOM notes, growth trends have not been uniform, but strongly favored some “migration corridors linked to geographic proximity as much as geoeconomic disparity”. Migration flows oriented themselves in south-north directions from the Caribbean into North America, from Africa into Europe, and from Western Asia into Europe.

The long term secular migration trend is consistent with economic observations on the value of migrant work. Thus, some growth in positive international awareness of overall migration benefits in business communities in developed and advanced developing countries derives from successful quantification and financialization of the real economy contributions of migrants. 

According to a migration brief research paper by McKinsey Global Institute from a few years ago, migrants (just before the corona epidemic and its dampening effect on free move of people) contributed $6.7 trillion or about 9.4 percent to global GDP. McKinsey emphasized that those migrants would have contributed only 55 percent, or about $3.7 trillion, if they had stayed put where they were under the status quo ante. 

Migrants – seen in context of the geoeconomic disparity alluded to by the WMR – were especially good for their favorite developed destination countries as they accounted for 40 to 60 percent labor force growth in those countries and did not harm long-term employment or wages for the native workforce. Economically, migrants helped high-labor-cost destination countries’ (or, presumably, all countries with local pay scales that are better for workers than their countries of origin) competitiveness by accepting wage gaps of 20 to 30 percent when compared with native workers. Better integration of migrants into their new economic environments could improve the contribution to the global economy by up to one cool trillion dollars, the McKinsey migration brief proposed.

Neither illicit nor criminal

It is further to be recognized that migration is to vast proportions neither illicit nor criminal, and most migrants are both legal and voluntary economic actors in the societies that they immerse in. Migrants who move into economies with higher productivity than their source countries contribute more to destination countries competitiveness and to global GDP. They dramatically contribute to the balancing of global inequality scales, although the measurements of these unintended or partly unintended public goods that migrants deliver, are only proxy indicators. 

Remittances as indicator for the migrant economy’s importance have grown from nominally $128 billion in 2000 to $831 billion in 2022 and “now far outstrip official development assistance to developing countries and foreign direct investment” says the IOM. According to its latest data, total remittance flows amount to $831 billion in 2022, of which 78 percent are attributed as inflows to low and middle-income countries. 

Of the top ten countries receiving remittance inflows when quantified in absolute numbers, eight are low and middle income economies. Their share of remittance flows is reported as $361 billion, or 43.5 percent of global remittance flows. In those ten countries, shares of remittances in GDP range widely – because of their very great differences in population and GDP which is also the reason why Lebanon is not one of the top countries by this metric despite of the exorbitant importance of remittances for national GDP. It is a share which according to IOM amounts to less than 0.5 percent in China, between 3 and 5 percent in India, Mexico, and Nigeria, 6 percent in Egypt, almost 8 percent in Pakistan, and 9.4 percent in the Philippines. In order to achieve higher economic potentials of migration and avoid shortfalls in global equity, it is necessary to normalize the global migration narrative away from negative and hostile perceptions. 

Everything and its flipside

The flipside of this rosy calculation rises into sight when one starts to consider transaction costs of migration and where to price them into profit calculations and corporate governance requirements. The capitalist, one-sidedly benign impression of migration is sharply set off against the fact that cost burdens of migration, let alone cost burdens of hosting and aiding refugees and forcibly displaced persons, are among the main bones of contention in politics of developed nations. Cost of social expenditures within societies and their territorial bounds do not compare at all to costs that are willingly shouldered, or reluctantly accepted, in integrating migrants, providing official development assistance (ODA), or caring for refugees, asylum seekers, and people in need of protection. 

For example, to correlate the EU’s external action commitment to the Eastern Mediterranean with the bloc’s overall finances, it can be noted that the EU’s current multi-annual financial framework (MFF) for 2021 to 2027 has set a ceiling of €11.57 billion for “civil protection and humanitarian aid operations”, with the precise annual allocations in the neighborhood of €1.65 billion being each year determined through the bloc’s budgetary process. Out of the total €189.4 billion EU budget set last November for 2024, this assistance budget for humanitarian aid outside of the EU is €1.8 billion (0.95 percent), of which €470 million are destined to reach the Middle East and North Africa region. 

Notably, the bloc’s 2024 budget for managing migration and controlling its borders is more than twice as hefty, at €3.89 billion (2.05 percent).

Cutting through the jungle of numbers and commitments is, for example, Concord, a European NGO Association. It notes that substantial chunks of official development assistance have been channeled in the past two years from ODA budgets into refugee care within donor countries. The organization cites the concerned OECD member countries’ 2023 ODA of 0.37 percent in gross national income to document that donor countries are yet again failing to meet the objectives of ODA.

On a side note illustrating the accumulation of conflict-induced burdens to the EU – as well as the bloc’s enduring priorities – in recent years, a media report by Turkey’s Anadolu Agency at the end of March detailed that the EU and its member states have allocated $88.3 billion to humanitarian aid for the Ukraine and $18.5 billion to care for refugees who were displaced from Ukraine since the conflict began in February 2022.

The weak fundamentals in the story of external care 

The gigantic fly in this ointment is the probable instability not of migration itself but of forced displacements as sub-sector of migration. This is where in the WMR’s description, “increasing numbers of people are being displaced, within and out of their country of origin, because of conflict, violence, political or economic instability as well as climate change and other disasters”. 

According to accounts of IOM and UNHCR, the global count of displaced persons reached 117 million at the end of 2022, inclusive of 71.2 million internally displaced people, 35.3 million refugees, 5.4 million asylum seekers and 5.2 million otherwise displaced (not refugees or IDPs) who are in need of protection. Over just the two-year period from 2020 to 2022, the number of asylum-seekers has risen by approximately one third from 4.1 million to 5.4 million, the WMR highlights. 

The picture gets only worse if rates of increase are calculated. In the pages of specifically refugee-themed data sheets, this century’s alarming rise in totals and subtotals of displaced groups sums up as near-110 percent per-decade increase from 22.17 million individuals in 2004 to 46.12 million persons in 2013, followed by another decade of increase by 153 percent to the above cited 117 million reported across seven categories for the end of 2023 (IDPs being consistently the largest, followed by displaced persons classified as refugees).  

In this context, the popular climate risk and climate change adaptation angle that has in recent years been added to the catalog of conflicts and disasters, is in the view of some scholars a less verifiable and less prevalent direct migration driver than disasters such as droughts and floods that are ingrained in cultural memories. 

Regardless of any intellectual interpretations, however, simply seeking to comprehend the growing tides of human conflicts and abject misery, including the aggregate impacts of disasters, sting the mind extra painfully and mentally affect any information consumer. Which does not mean that they unleash strategy-making capacities. 

The perils of sympathy

We as human beings are prone to imagine the impacts of wars and the pains of individuals and families as stories – they appear daily and almost formulaically in advocacy and information media contexts. That we easily “derive sorrow from the sorrow of others”, as Adam Smith phrased it in his opening chapter of the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), seems indeed to be something that “even the greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the rules of society”, and possibly even the most populist of modern political demagogues, is not altogether without. 

But that sympathy, walking in the other’s slippers for a minute, does not make for an “impartial spectator”, as Smith named that inner voice on individual level, nor does it capacitate us to orchestrate an economically just and effective strategy for addressing and hopefully preventing forced displacements around the world. In conclusion of observation in the first half of 2024, as reported from debates over migration and refugees in diverse cultures and political institutions, there is over-rich evidence that “a better world doesn’t start with more empathy” (to use a formulation in the book Humankind by Dutch writer Rutger Bregman). 

That does not mean that economic man wins but rather suggests that efforts by economically literate “social maternalists” (development economist Paul Collier) are more needed than ever. Devising and actually implementing such strategies for addressing the forced displacements challenge is morally and economically imperative. Conflict, violence and disasters incur societal and economic cost burdens that can no longer be externalized and forgotten. In this fatedness, the imperative for addressing the outcomes of forced displacements scales many degrees up from the economic need for holistic management of migration. The latter can be engineered when the political and business mindsets of decision makers switch from serving “shareholders” to meeting “stakeholder” interests, or any concept of similar orientation, such as the conscientious capitalism approach.


It is not only the rise in refugee numbers but also the horrifying “stickiness” (using a term of management consultants and other economic men) of forced displacement that makes a case for an urgent rethinking of disaster assistance, humanitarian interventions, and targeted ODA actions. 

The argument resides in hard-core stats. Out of the total refugee count of 38 million in 2022, some 340,000 persons enter the statistics as returnees to their country of origin. An even much smaller number is reported as naturalized in the countries where they were residing: 51,000 persons. The latter number befuddles the imagination – if you meet a naturalized refugee in the country they have fled to, you meet not a billionaire one-percenter but a member of a 0.00064 percent global royalty. 

Moreover, this astonishingly small number of first-country naturalized refugees has been decreasing in 2023. Likewise, third-country resettlements of refugees – which local politicians and opinion makers have been increasingly fond of touting as their favored answer the presence of displaced Syrians in Lebanon – is globally as unimpressive as can be. 

According to the IOM, more than 114,000 refugees were resettled in third countries in 2022, but this slightly larger number also is nothing to cheer about. Citing resettlement numbers of 81,000 in 2005 versus merely 57,000 in 2021, the WMR declares that “The number of resettled refugees has fluctuated over the years… Overall, resettlement has not kept up with the significant increase in need”.

Against fluctuating, single-digit third-country resettlement ratios, the WMR further elaborates that resettlement needs are on the rise due to “various refugee crises and new displacement situations”. The race seems to be on a no-win trajectory for returns and third-country resettlements the report declares: “There were 16 new refugees for each refugee that was returned or resettled in 2022”. The IOM is projecting a 20 percent year-on-year increase in resettlement needs to 2.4 million refugees in 2024.

An alternative viewing angle on the displacement challenge

For a secondary viewpoint on the controversial need to address not only the humanitarian needs of refugees and internally displaced persons but also commit much more – more funding and more than funding – to burden sharing and innovative thinking on conflict reduction, the newly published 18th edition of the Global Peace Index (GPI) by an Australian think tank, the Institute of Economy and Peace (IEP), says a number of things on the economic cost of violence, numbers and ratios with intuitive relevance for migrantonomics. 

The GPI 2024 baseline is an increase in the number of conflicts. “There are currently 56 active conflicts, the most since the end of Second World War, and with fewer conflicts being resolved, either militarily or through peace agreements.” Moreover, the index points out that the involvement of at least 100 countries in at least partial involvement of external conflict has almost doubled when compared with 2008. The GPI adds that the number of 92 countries involved in active conflicts beyond their borders, the number of engaged participants is the highest in its 16-year existence. 

And to ask more questions

Is this reason to assume a straight line of causality from the increasing number of conflicts in the past decade to this century’s explosive increases in reported refugee counts? As IEP observes that its measured categories of “conflict deaths, GDP losses, refugees and IDPs, and terrorism have increased by at least 100 per cent in the last 15 years”, it certainly is not an impossible question to ask. 

What does all that worrying news mean for the bottom line of migrantonomics?  

“The global economic impact of violence was $19.1 trillion in 2023, equivalent to 13.5 per cent of global GDP, or $2,380 per person”, with a year-on-year 0.8 percent increase from 2022, the key findings list in the GPI says. At another place, the report reiterates in slightly different wording that $19.1 trillion in purchasing power parity (PPP) terms are “equivalent to 13.5 per cent of the world’s economic activity (gross world product) or $2,380 per person”.  

It is to note here that the PPP methodology can distort economic perceptions. In this sense, the difference between the implied size of gross world product in PPP terms (north of $138 trillion) versus the nominal global GDP estimate of around $101 trillion by the World Bank is already requiring a tenuous leap of the mind.  Within the MENA region, which by the index’s data is world’s “least peaceful” and location of four in the world’s ten least peaceful countries, the GPI attributes a low worsening of peacefulness to Lebanon, showing it in 135th place out of 163 countries with a peacefulness score of 2.693 (lower scores indicate more peacefulness), slightly worse than its 2.581 score in the previous year. 

For the economic cost of violence, Lebanon is noted as having suffered an economic impact (inclusive a multiplier) from violence at $8.36 billion in 2023, and corresponding economic cost of $4.55 billion. The latter, according to the GPI methodology, is $1,561 per capita cost and representing of 6.55 percent of GDP. However, and very counter-intuitively, in the – less violent for Lebanon – year of 2022, the economic impact of violence on the country is given as $11.16 billion and the cost as $5.92 billion, which the index describes as $2033 per capita cost of violence in PPP terms and representing 8 percent of GDP. 

The estimates are calculated in purchase power parity terms and serious further questions need to be asked on these numbers, especially when noting that cost of conflict deaths and other direct and indirect costs in 2023 were escalating and that the 2024 GPI publication at least in its text portion is cognizant of the regional repercussions of the Gaza conflict, saying that it has thrown the entire Middle East region, including Lebanon, into crisis, and that “the risk of open warfare remains high.”

In its general observations of the GPI, military expenditures and internal security expenditures are the two top items that sustain the economic impact of violence and together account for almost $14 trillion dollars, or 74 percent of the overall economic impact of violence. The message that can be taken from such data mining and index building exercises seems to be one of dubitable details. 

On the side of long trends and risks, however, observations of the GPI and the observations of UNHCR and IOM on refugee waves and the risks of conflicts behind them, strengthen each other. The local message that correlates with the need for new global inquiries into solutions for peace, refugees, migrants, and external risks is that the Lebanese experiment of the 2000s and 2010s has tested the hypothesis of an economy’s survivability. Its research question was if a country can survive in economic peace when competing economic minority interests are only controlled by the polity’s de-facto stockholding chieftains and by fiefdom-type, corrupted sub-contracts with only the faintest commitments to common purpose, shared belonging, and mutual obligations. The hypothesis that this country can, has crashed spectacularly. There is no peace and globalization story of sustainable market economies without improved migration management and there is no economic peace without addressing the problem of refugees.   

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Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years. Send mail

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