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International flow of people: Brazil in the portrait of current world politics. Eiiti Sato

Eiiti Sato is Master in International Relations (University of Cambridge, U.K.) and PhD. in Sociology (University of São Paulo - Brazil)

International flow of people: Brazil in the portrait of current world politics.

Eiiti Sato


The issue of international migration has being remarkably present in the news in Europe and in the U.S. Debates among politicians, specially when there is an election at stake, the issue in most countries become quite central and journalists, pundits, and specially activists use it to divide politicians, authorities, and political parties into two distinct groups: those who are frankly in favor of a more liberal and generous public policies regarding refugees and immigrants, and those who are in favor of public policies more focused on control and on more restrictions regarding immigrants. Nevertheless, in Brazil the issue is irrelevant. Presidential elections are already in the media but immigration has not been an issue in the debates. Figures show that Brazil despite having turbulences in neighboring countries like Venezuela and Colombia, and despite having loose mechanisms of immigration control, during the past years the country did not receive a significant amount of immigrants.  Perhaps a better understanding of the phenomenon of international flow of migrants by the public and by the authorities might bring about an improvement regarding the quality of the debate, and even for the migrants it seems that a better understanding of the migration process could throw some light on the perspectives of success for themselves.

Changing patterns in the international flow of people

The French demographer and sociologist Alfred Sauvy (1898-1990) who introduced the term Third World in international politics (Tiers Monde, 1952) was particularly interested in the phenomenon of international migration under the perspective of development of backward economies. He used to start his explanation of the migration phenomenon by stating that there are two basic forces underpinning the process: the forces to expel people, and the forces to attract people. Perhaps it would be worth revisiting his conceptual background to throw some light on current debates on the issue.

The forces to expel people as well as to attract immigration continue to act orienting the whole migration process. War, political insecurity, and poverty continue to be the main forces to produce migrants and refugees running away from turbulences which endanger their life and steal their hopes to leave poverty. On the other hand forces to attract people have changed substantially over time since the 19th century. Indeed along the 19th century (1) the successive waves of migration from Europe and Asia to new lands in the Americas, Africa and Australia, have shaped the main composition of the population of the modern nation-states.

Nevertheless there are many differences in the conditions underpinning the forces of attraction of immigrants in the 19th century in relation to current days. Among such differences perhaps the most significant is the fact that in the 19th century lands were abundant in the new continents and most countries of these regions were willing to receive immigrants. Countries like the United States and Brazil produced public policies driven to attract immigrants. For example, in the case of Brazil such a policy with Japan included formal agreements, official visits, preparation of reports on conditions facing immigrants in Brazil. The policy included also lectures on Brazilian habits and traditions, and even basic language training. Now conditions are substantially different. There is hardly any spare land left anywhere, and urbanization became a dominant social structure in most countries. As a consequence immigrants inevitably compete with locals for employment specially in countries where the level o unemployment is high.

Another significant change in the phenomenon of international migration has occurred in the direction of the migration flows. In the 19th century, no matter what the kind of expelling forces were, the migrants used to go basically from old, traditional, and well established political and economic centers to peripheral and recently established poorly populated countries, most of them just after cutting their colonial ties with some European power. Today the main pressures of the international migration flows are put on traditional and well established nations. Due to the proximity to turbulent and unstable regions as the Middle East and Northern Africa the European countries are envisaged as destination to most refugees and migrants. In the Americas the United States has been the main destination of the flows of migrants coming mainly from Latin American countries, but due to the travelling facilities in current days, a great number of people coming from other continents also have put the U.S. as a major destination for them. Available figures show that the U.S., Germany, and the U.K. have been the countries receiving the biggest contingent of immigrants. In 2015 around 1.2 million immigrants entered the U.S. and Germany, while the U.K. has received about 600.000 refugees and immigrants of all kinds. On the other side, some countries are remarkably migrants “expellers”. The following list presents the top ten countries which present a negative net balance between incoming and outgoing migrants accumulated along the 2005-2010 period. (2)

India:              (- 2.94) million

Bangladesh :  (- 2.90) million

Pakistan:        (-1.90) million

China:            (-1.89) million

Mexico:           (- 1.82) million

Indonesia:      (- 1.27) million

Philippines:    (- 1.23) million

Zimbabwe:     (- 900) thousand

Peru:               (- 725) thousand

Morocco:         (- 675) thousand


Why in Brazil immigration has not been an issue?

Journalists and analysts generally throw their lights on countries like the U.S., Germany, the U.K., and France which are typically destination countries for refugees and migrants of all sorts. Nevertheless little attention is paid to countries and regions which expel migrants and produce refugees. When one looks at the case of the U.S. it is very interesting to note that the borders with Canada are almost three times longer than the borders with Mexico even though there is no problem of controlling illegal immigration, smuggling, or drug trafficking from Canada as it happens with U.S.-Mexican borders. It sounds quite intriguing that analysts do not pay attention to that fact.

During the cold war many countries raised walls to prevent their citizens from leaving the country, now there are only few “prison-countries” remaining such as Cuba and North Korea (3). Nowadays building walls refers to initiatives to prevent people from entering not from leaving the country. Sometimes such a term means material walls made of iron and bricks, but most of the time it means creating legal and bureaucratic procedures to control and even to prevent immigrants from crossing borders and establishing residence in the country.

In the 19th century the economic theory used to say that trade was “the engine of growth” meaning that economic growth was pushed by trade which would pull capital (investment) and labor. Whether trade is really the engine of growth still remains controversial but what has been above any controversy is the fact that labor (migrants) followed the same direction of financial flows, trade, and growth. Most people moving from Europe or from Asia to countries like the U.S., Australia, and Brazil were looking for new opportunities to re-start their lives. Today the world economy has changed substantially but migrants continue to flow having as main destination countries where economies are more dynamic, and job opportunities are likely to be found. As in the 19th century the flow of migration continues to follow the capital. If we look at the financial risk ratings (S&P, Moody’s, and Fitch) the main destinations of refugees and migrants are mostly triple A economies.

Countries presenting poor economic performance are not chosen as destination by refugees and migrants. Even large countries with loose control over immigration process like Brazil are not included among the main destinations for refugees and migrants. Indeed along the period 2005-2010 Brazil expelled much more people than it received. The net balance over the period was negative by more than half a million people. (4) This is the main reason why differently from what happens in the U.S. and in the main European economies, immigration will not be an issue in the electoral process this coming October. Nevertheless the phenomenon of people moving in and out of the country should be part of a nationwide agenda of debates. Much more important than the net balance of migration is the fact that in the long run the qualitative aspect of the process is likely to be corrosive to Brazilian society and economy. Figures show that in the recent years while those who have immigrated to Brazil are mostly unqualified people, the majority of people who left Brazil to live in other countries are fairly well qualified. An engineer leaving the country takes with him at least around 20 years of investments in his education, and perhaps a promising future which will not be shared with his countrymen.

Eiiti Sato is Master in International Relations (University of Cambridge, U.K.) and PhD. in Sociology (University of São Paulo – Brazil), Professor of International Relations of the University of Brasilia (UnB) since 1984. From 2006 to 2014 was director of the Institute of International Relations (IREL) and was the first president of the Brazilian Association of International Relations (ABRI)

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(1)Generally the 19th century is considered as the period comprised the end of the Napoleonic wars to the outbreak of the first world war. In the case of the international migration flows the period can be extended to the interwar years.

(2) Global Migration Data Sheet, 2005-2010. Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital.

(3) C. Virgil Gheorghiu wrote several novels which became very popular in the 1960’s  such as “La 25eme Heure”, “La Cravache”, “La Seconde Chance”, and “La Tunique de Peau”, he used the term “prison-countries” referring to Romania (his homeland) and other Eastern European countries under the soviet domination.

(4) In the period 2005-2010 the total number of immigrants to Brazil was 5,000, while the Brazilians going outward numbered 506.000. In the last years (2015-2016) the number of people fleeing from turbulent countries like Venezuela and Haiti increased substantially attaining almost 100 thousand a year but still is less than 10% of those trying to get the citizenship in the U.S. every year.