E.g., 06/10/2023
E.g., 06/10/2023
How Are the Costs and Impacts of Migration Policies Evaluated?

How Are the Costs and Impacts of Migration Policies Evaluated?

International migration has ascended the policy agenda of a growing number of countries around the world. These countries, which include traditional destination countries like Canada and the United States and new destinations like Ireland and Spain, are devoting an ever-rising level of financial and human resources to migration management in policy areas such as border management, immigrant integration, labor migration, and counter-trafficking measures.

At the same time, since the late 1990s, various stakeholders have increased their demand for evidence that migration policies work and that they provide sufficient value for public money. This demand has been fostered, in particular, by the need to boost public confidence and accountability of government initiatives on migrants and migration.

The impact and costs of migration policy measures are often unknown, and performance indicators may be very rudimentary. Several studies, especially in the United States, have tried to measure the costs and benefits of immigration. However, there have been few cross-national attempts to assess how countries evaluate their migration policies and programs and what procedures and mechanisms they use to conduct those evaluations.

For example, although public spending on immigration is rising in many countries that belong to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), there is very little comparative data on migration policy spending.

We do not know, for example, whether, on a per capita basis, the United Kingdom spends more on managing migration than Germany. We also do not know the efficiency of public spending and to what extent, from a comparative perspective, certain programs and policies may be considered "value for money."

Part of the problem is that migration policies tend to cut across many government departments and may not always be clearly defined. Therefore, it is often extremely difficult to devise performance indicators, especially when policy goals are not clear.

For example, many countries seek to adequately integrate immigrants. A common indicator of economic integration is the immigrant unemployment level, but cultural and social integration, which are important but are more difficult to measure in any country, do not have standard indicators.

Against this background, this article explores some key issues, at a policy and practical level, relating to the design, implementation, benefits, and challenges of public evaluation policies in the migration field. The article draws on the findings of a book recently published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Eurasylum, Assessing the Costs and Impacts of Migration Policy: An International Comparison.

Institutional Settings

The institutional settings of migration policy evaluation still vary greatly by country or regional/international organization. Such variations can relate to

  • the policy areas that are evaluated;
  • the stage(s) of the policy cycle at which evaluations are conducted;
  • the frequency of evaluations;
  • the status of evaluators (internal or external, academics or consultants);
  • the processing of evaluation findings, particularly the ways in which they are used — or not used — to feed into policy formation, and the extent to which they are made public and contribute to public debate on migration policy.

Furthermore, most countries are faced with the challenge of coordinating both policy and the evaluation of policy across different government departments, given that few governments collect all their migration-related policies in one single department.

In many countries, no specific regulations mandate evaluation, nor is evaluation compulsory (with the exception of the United States and, to a large extent, the European Commission). More often than not, evaluations focus on the implementation and operational aspects of program interventions, rather than on policy justification, relevance, and impacts.

Moreover, ex post evaluations tend to be much more common within national administrations, the European Commission, and international organizations, and made publicly available more often than ex ante evaluations, which entail a closer examination of the policy construct and rationale.

This is reflected, in particular, in some of the findings of the IOM/Eurasylum book, which show that

  • many public administrations tend to hire evaluation experts, rather than migration experts, to conduct evaluations of policy implementation;
  • there is usually limited interaction between public administrations and migration researchers, and limited mobility between civil service and academia;
  • nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are rarely involved in conducting evaluations or, with the exception of the United Kingdom, in formal government-appointed independent advice bodies;
  • evaluation reports are published selectively, without any explicit criteria guiding the publication policy;
  • there are no systematic rules and mechanisms to ensure that evaluation findings can feed into policy formation or revision.

Measuring Public Spending on Migration Policy

Public expenditure depends largely on a country's immigration system, namely the underlying demand for and supply of legal migrants, the volume of asylum claims, and the incidence of illegal migration. Immigration systems can target either skilled or unskilled labor, or they can focus more heavily on family reunion or asylum migration.

Systemic differences underpin expenditure differences because the systems determine how immigrants are processed and the number and proportion of different types of immigrants allowed to settle.

Therefore, systemic differences determine both upfront administrative costs and the ongoing costs of integration. Integration costs include measures relating specifically to the social, economic, and cultural integration of immigrants, with the exception of public health care, education, or welfare funding for immigrants that is also available to the population as a whole.

There are three key dimensions in evaluating public spending on migration and asylum.

First, evaluation is required to estimate the impact of policy on individual immigrants as well as on natives.

Second, policy should be examined from a macroeconomic perspective to assess the extent to which it yields net social gains.

Finally, from a cost-benefit perspective, it is necessary to assess whether the best possible outcome has been achieved relative to the cost of each policy. This analysis includes taking due account of each country's specific immigration system — that is, whether it is labor-market driven or focuses more heavily on family reunion or asylum migration.

Applying these techniques to immigration policy is not always straightforward at a national level, let alone at a cross-national, comparative level. This is largely due to issues of data comparability. For example, migration statistics in most countries are defined on the basis of national systems and are not generally oriented toward international comparability.

Nevertheless, as discussed in the IOM/Eurasylum book, one way of comparing public spending, and of conducting a partial cost-benefit analysis on migration internationally, is by measuring the fiscal cost of a country's current immigration policy.

However, this type of analysis does not measure the net economic impact of migrants in the receiving society; doing so would require analyzing the total impact of immigration on the labor market, product markets, the welfare system, public revenues, and the capital stock. Yet measuring fiscal costs does provide valuable insight into which elements of migration expenditure governments prioritize; how spending varies among countries, and the ways expenditures might shift in the future.

On that basis, it appears that in recent years, administrative expenses have accounted for a large proportion of migration spending in most countries. Administrative expenses consist of those incurred for assessing and processing legal migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers; administrating integration programs; and administrating border control and combating irregular migration. However, on a cross-national basis, such information is necessarily of limited value, since it does not reflect either the size of the respective immigration programs or of the economy.

On the other hand, integration spending varies significantly internationally, which can largely be explained by the different selection systems in each country.

For example, Canada uses a points system to select immigrants with the skills necessary to integrate. In contrast, historically, Sweden and Denmark have had much larger proportional inflows of asylum seekers and beneficiaries of family reunion programs and have not made "integration potential" a policy criterion.

Interestingly, however, as the composition of Denmark's immigration inflows changed in recent years due to tightened family reunion and asylum criteria and expanded skilled immigration programs, its integration spending has dropped by more than half.

However, it should be stressed again that any national differences identified through available data may largely reflect differences in reporting or the fact that available expenditure items may not allow the exact categorization of all migration-related expenditures.

Current Challenges

As the book concludes, the term "evaluation" can only be defined as a type of systematic policy research designed to help policymakers make the right choices about future programming.

More specifically, public policy evaluation is a relatively regulated and systemic exercise looking at the relevance, efficiency, effectiveness, internal and external coherence, synergies, impact, added value, and sustainability of policies or programs. Policymakers commission evaluations, and the results, which are directed at them, feed into the policy formation process.

Interviews and enquiries conducted for this book, with both public officials and academics, show that the term "evaluation" is generally used in a myriad of contexts, settings, and circumstances; the media, scholars, and others use it interchangeably with terms such as "study," "examination," "assessment," and "analysis."

But if we use the definition of evaluation above, we see that very little evaluation activity takes place among national and international public administrations active in the migration field.

Indeed, the research conducted for this book reveals the discrepancy between public official discourses on the need for more evidence-based migration policies and the limited state of evaluation systems.

Another interesting conclusion of this book is that cross-national analysis and evaluation of key migration policy initiatives rarely happens. In particular, policymakers do not identify best practices and state-of-the-art delivery mechanisms that could adequately be transposed to other national contexts. This is especially true of labor migration policies, including those at national and regional levels that target highly skilled foreign labor, temporary workers, and foreign students.

In relation to public expenditure on migration and asylum policy, this book also notes the lack of high-quality, publicly available data. For instance, the amount of government and private-sector funding on specific interventions cannot be measured with any accuracy in most countries.

Complicating cross-national comparisons are countries that outsource services to the private sector; these countries may show systematically different spending levels compared to countries where government provision is more common.

Looking Ahead

In many countries, migration is as important a policy area as education, health, and defense. Therefore, it has become critical that all major host countries and international organizations establish adequate evaluation systems to accompany all stages of policy formation and implementation.

Evaluation should not only focus on how resources are used and delivered, it should also question the relevance of public policy goals and strategies. However, this means host countries need to adequately articulate the fundamental goals of their migration policies. Do migration policies focus only on serving and protecting national interests, or do they also encompass regional "responsibility-sharing" objectives and international humanitarian and development concerns?

Another area that deserves additional work is evaluating the likely impact of migration policies on development. Many host countries do not view migration policy as a development instrument, and governments have conducted relatively few detailed assessments of migration policies' development implications.

But migration policies do affect development. For example, admission policies influence the extent to which people from low-income countries can migrate to wealthier countries. Return-migration policies may influence the scale and the manner of returns to a developing country.

However, as economist Robert Lucas has observed, "The migration policies of high-income countries have tended to be almost entirely determined in their own interest, and that is how they have been evaluated." How migration policies can enhance migration's development benefits, and which migration policies are most likely to achieve such benefits and in which circumstances, has not been well studied.

Moreover, national governments and the European Union cannot approach migration and asylum policies in isolation since they are intertwined with employment, education, foreign affairs, development, and other policies. Multisectoral approaches should be adopted by both national governments and international organizations as often as possible when examining major migration and asylum policy or legislative initiatives.

This article draws on the findings of a book recently published by IOM and Eurasylum, Assessing the Costs and Impacts of Migration Policy: An International Comparison (Geneva, 2008), which reviews the experience of several EU Member States, the United States, Canada, the European Commission, IOM, and UNHCR.

The book provides a range of recommendations for improving the design and implementation of evidence-based and accountable policies in the field of migration and asylum. Edited by S. Ardittis and F. Laczko, with contributions from Brunson McKinley, Antonio Vitorino, Joanne van Selm, Richard Lewis, Amir Naqvi, Holger Bonin, Rowan Roberts, and Klaus F. Zimmermann.

Additional Sources

Grieco, Elizabeth and Kimberly Hamilton. 2004. Realizing the Potential of Migrant "Earn, Learn and Return" Strategies: Does it Matter? Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute.

Lucas, Robert E. B. 2005. International migration and economic development: Lessons from low-income countries. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar.