02 Aug 2018

The various discourses surrounding the ethics of migration are reflected in the diversity in immigration policies worldwide, and here is how.

A United Nations report states that the number of international migrants reached 244 million in 2015, with an estimated 20 million being refugees and the rest being economic migrants. The term migrant' refers to anyone living or working outside their home countries, from low-wage labourers to high net-worth expatriates.

Although migrant workers are vital to a country's economy, many of them, especially low-wage labourers, have limited rights in their receiving countries and are vulnerable to discrimination and abuse. Countries in the Gulf region, for example, have frequently come under fire for failing to enforce penalties for the mistreatment of migrant workers.

With greater awareness around the plight of migrant workers, there has been increased debate on who should be allowed access to political, economic and social space in host countries. This contest is reflected in the diversity of immigration policies worldwide.

The challenges of formulating immigration policy

The challenge that governments face when formulating immigration policy is how to equally weigh the views of all parties involved, namely local citizens, employers, governments, migrant workers and their home countries.

With so many stakeholders involved, there are multiple kinds of rights to be considered, not only migrant workers' access to social security and free movement. There can also be conflict between individual and collective rights when local citizens exercise their democratic rights to limit those of migrant workers. Ethical debates on migration therefore revolve around how stakeholders' rights should be ranked.

There are three main schools of thought that argue in favour of free migration. The libertarian view supports open borders, on the condition that migrant workers do not threaten the freedom or safety of local citizens. The cosmopolitan perspective is associated with socially liberal traditions of individual rights, and is of the idea that migrants should not be excluded if a state believes in equality. The economic argument states that freer migration and economic openness in global labour markets would allow for utility maximisation, thus benefitting everyone, especially the poor.

The practicalities of migration ethics

In reality, however, it is a challenge to address and coherently rank all the stakeholders' rights. Hence there exists a spectrum of potential policy systems, as can be seen in the following examples.


Singapore is an example of a country with a nationalist immigration policy. Immigrants consist 42.9 percent of the population, and the government encourages immigration as a means to economic growth. There is a high dependence on foreign labour to fill the low-skilled jobs that citizens are unwilling to undertake.

However, immigrants are unable to participate in the social security system unless they have obtained permanent resident status. Unskilled workers have even fewer rights than skilled workers and cannot convert their short-term visa to permanent residency or citizenship.


The U.S. has been a country of immigrants since its inception, and has a more rights-based nationalist policy. It allows for both worker-rights-based nationalism whereby citizens have priority access to employment and employer-rights-based nationalism, which allows local employers to hire whom they wish.

Increasing hostility towards further migration led governments prior to the current Trump administration to tacitly tolerate illegal immigrants, as long as they took on jobs that locals refused to do. This made it seem like immigration rules were not weakened, while still fulfilling employer demands.


Canada is becoming increasingly popular as a destination for migrants due to the unusual circumstance of both the government and its citizens agreeing that more immigration is necessary. Although its points-based admission system tends to favour skilled workers, it is perceived as the symbol of social and political freedom due to its liberal ideologies in areas such as education and healthcare.

Diverse immigration policy proposals

A rights-based cosmopolitan system that preserves the rights of all stakeholders seems ideal, but may be difficult to apply unilaterally, as immigration remains a difficult idea to sell to voters. Additionally, some migrant workers may be willing to accept fewer rights in return for working in a country with better economic prospects than theirs.

How then can the rights of those born in less privileged countries be preserved in an era when states are increasingly prioritising border policing and exclusionary immigration policies? A number of authors have provided possible policy solutions.

Ha-Joon Chang and Martin Ruhs, in their article The Ethics of Labor Immigration Policy, propose a solution whereby migrant workers could be restricted to a particular sector instead of being bound to one particular employer, as the latter makes them vulnerable to exploitation. Additionally, there should be greater efforts made at penalising employers that deceive workers into accepting unsatisfactory conditions.

On the other hand, Philip Martin, in his paper Managing Labor Migration: Temporary Worker Programmes for the 21st Century, suggested that migrants should contribute to social security systems but receive a refund when their contract is over, so that they are encouraged to return home. Combining this with employer levies would encourage employers to prioritise locals.

Furthermore, Tim Reeskens and Wim van Oorschot, in their article Disentangling the New Liberal Dilemma': On the relation between general welfare redistribution preferences and welfare chauvinism, state that surveys have shown that populations are agreeable to allowing migrants access to welfare on a reciprocal basis. Therefore, as Martin's proposal suggests, a better way to encourage citizens to accept migration may be to allow migrants or their employers to contribute to existing welfare systems.

The implementation of the various ethical arguments would entail radical changes in government priorities and international relations. However, given the recent rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the West, there is now a greater need to consider practical solutions such as those suggested by the authors above.

The full white paper The Ethics of Migrationis available for download at our pop up box.

* For a more in-depth look at the different arguments, read the full case study, The Ethics of Migration, by Jennifer Dodgson, in collaboration with Hawyee Auyong of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.