Exceptional People: How Migration Shaped Our World and Will Define Our Future

Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron and Meera Balarajan
Princeton University Press
ISBN: 0691145725
A Review by Rasesh Mohan

The contemporary narrative on migration, with its negative impacts on society, is a dominant theme in politics and the media. Exceptional People is a comprehensive and objective study of migration that convincingly counters this narrative with research rather than bold rhetoric. Authors Ian Goldin, Geoffrey Cameron and Meera Balarajan combine academic expertise and pragmatic policy proposals to make a strong case for the benefits of migration. Motivating the authors is an assessment that “Public debates about migration are limited by a lack of perspective of its historical role, contemporary impacts, and future prospects.”  They address these gaps and set contemporary debates about policy in a broader context.

The book is split into three parts – the past, present, and future of migration. It begins by charting the history of unfettered migration since the beginning of time, then analyzes the contemporary period of managed migration, and lastly projects future trends. The first section on the history of migration conveys the message that the process of globalization, and with it migration, is a timeless force and a major driving factor behind global progress and development. The world would not be the way it is today had it not been for the social and economic impact of migration and migrants.

Since men and women moved from Africa’s Nile Valley to the Arabian Peninsula, the urge to seek new lands and opportunity, along with local resistance, has been in a consistent phenomenon in human history. The authors use numerous historical examples to illustrate these sweeping patterns.  Genghis Khan, in his conquest for territory, “relied upon Turkish soldiers, adapted Chinese military techniques, exploited local knowledge, and followed the historical routes of mounted warriors in the region.” Increasing global trade during the 11th and 15th centuries created “relatively uniform economic institutions and practices…across Eurasia, laying the foundations for a global market-based system of commerce.” One manifestation of this was the use of checks, a practice with its origins in Arabic sakk that “was carried from Roman Palestine to Byzantium, and then to Egypt.” Motivations varied, and the authors detail how trends over the centuries –  war, trade and commerce, then slavery and indentured labor, followed by open markets and free labor – dominated migration, etching out broad paths that countless others would follow. 

The years between 1840 and 1914 are described as “the golden years of free migration,” as migrants across Europe sought new opportunities to escape unemployment, poverty, famine or persecution. This was a time where passports were remnants of a feudal past, and nation-states were influenced by challenges of realistic enforcement and pioneers of international law, who argued that the state possessed a duty to allow transit and residence of migrants, and viewed free movement – at least for Europeans – as an intrinsic right.

However, this liberal period of migration came to a grinding halt during the First World War, with rising nationalism and “growth in the capacity of states to effectively police their borders.” For the purpose of national security, temporary ad hoc rules were put into place during the war, and it is on the basis of these rules that the current global migration regime is run, after the “failure of international negotiations after the war to reopen borders allowed piecemeal government regulation to become systematic and permanent.” This assertion is one of the book’s most forceful, demonstrating how the migration policies viewed as the status quo have their origins in stopgap arrangements. The authors’ criticism of these policies leads to the conclusion that a strong advancement of a uniform and comprehensive global migration agenda requires “an international organization with a clear mandate and the necessary resources at its disposal.”

In their analysis of the contemporary period of migration management, the authors stress the widening gap between the goals of national immigration policy and the actual outcomes in most countries. One reason is the failure to grasp the nature of the factors that go into migration decision-making. Most government policies “tend to view the migration process as a static and one-time decision that influences an individual’s decision to cross a border.” The reality is more complex. Migration decisions are based on more than just individual agency; political and economic structures as well as social networks also play a role.  Migration is often a strategy of risk mitigation, and the migration of an individual may represent a family’s response to community conditions. Thus, an approach analyzing the family as a primary unit for migration decisions can enhance understanding of multiple rationales, including the escape or pursuit of risk.

The authors recognize that a fundamental challenge in formulating migration policy is that costs are immediate and the benefits may not emerge for years, well “beyond the political time horizons of decision-makers.” Research suggests that a “small increase in migration would produce a much greater boon to the global economy and developing countries than free trade and development assistance combined.” Such calculations don’t account for migration’s intangible multiplier effects, including the creation of diasporas that promote trade, investment and other connections between sending and receiving nations.

Despite their steadfast support for migration, the authors present themselves as impartial and balanced judges. They acknowledge the costs of migration fall “narrowly and unevenly on particular people, sectors, and localities.” They urge that authorities, rather than concentrating on controlling borders, should seek to manage and compensate through innovative policies the burdens of such uneven costs. The authors also dedicate a section to the adverse impacts on family members left behind by migrants as well as the phenomenon of brain waste.

The last section of the book reviews demographic, environmental and social trends that will expand migration over the next 50 years. Although well researched and articulated, this section presents few new findings to the public discourse, instead discussing oft-repeated issues such as aging populations in the developed world, environmental stress and urbanization.

 The real value of the book lies in its countering the prevailing negative narrative on migration with evidence from history, economics and the social sciences, as well as its strong recommendation for the creation of an international organization that would supervise a uniform global migration agenda. Rather than being a problem that needs to be minimized, migration is an opportunity that needs to be optimized. The authors conclude with a lofty sentiment, “the earth is one country and all of humanity its citizens.” After reflecting on the vast history of migration and countless quests of our ancestors for a better life, few readers could argue. Even in the modern era, migrants, as well as the communities who receive them, really do deserve the tag “exceptional people,” as they readily adapt to change and spur innovation, improving humanity’s lot in the process.

Exceptional People is a comprehensive and objective study of migration that convincingly counters this narrative with research rather than bold rhetoric.
Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization