Robots or migrants?

6th Dec 2016
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The desire to find a better life is a great trigger for migration. The wildebeest herds of the Serengeti migrate across the arid regions in search of fodder. They risk getting killed by the big cats on land when they rest. Even when they are on the move they are not safe. Their young ones get trampled during stampedes. The crocodiles grab them while they cross the rivers.

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However, despite the challenges of being on the move, to be able to survive, these migrants have to keep going. When the war for independence began in 1983, South Sudan had as many as 80,000 elephants; today the figure has plummeted to about 2,000. The sedentary species risk dying. In comparison, the antelope population has remained stable. They are always on the move. Migrants survive because they move out of their comfort zones.

Conflict zones have produced migrants in every region. There are now 4.8 million Syrians scattered throughout the world, making them the world's largest refugee population. Two decades ago, when Rwanda experienced genocides, waves of migrants braved death to save their loved ones. India is no stranger to refugees. A year after the partition, more than 15 million people had been uprooted and between one and two million were dead. The war of 1971 triggered a wave of refugees from the newly-born Bangladesh into India. We know a thing or two about migrants and refugees.

Every migrant bears scars of poverty and death as he/she makes the journey across a border. While they may escape political conflict, they struggle to integrate with the locals in the new country. All things unacceptable are pinned on to immigrants and refugees. Politicians fan the flames of discontent by telling the unemployed that it is migrants who have taken their jobs.

Do countries miss out on innovation when they don’t have enough immigrants? China and India, who make up 45 percent of the world’s population, are home to less than 1 percent of migrant workers. By contrast, migrants make up 75 percent of their population in the UAE, Qatar, and Kuwait. Blue-collared workers perform the jobs locals do not wish to be seen doing. Knowledge workers bring in the domain knowledge and leadership skills needed to run enterprises. They drive innovation. Look at the US, where immigrants make up 20 percent of the population and have founded 51 percent of the billion-dollar startups. (Indians form the largest number of these).

The host countries don’t make things easy for immigrants. When they come in as students, they pay a higher fee. The foreign workers face long hours, get lower wages, and face social isolation. The locals resent having to put up with their festivals and religious practices. The migrants’ children struggle to cope with their education. They have to learn new languages and deal with new subjects, teachers, and hostile peer groups. Integration remains a challenge for every migrant. When they succeed, their relatives back home claim them as their own. But during the days of struggle, the migrants face the jeers of the clan for chasing money.

It is the working population between 18 and 65 years that keeps the wheels of any economy moving. Thanks to the one-child policy, China’s labour force is both aging and depleting. They will lose one million workers each year for the foreseeable future. Japan’s greying population will need to be supported by migrants, or maybe by robots. Japan has 305 robots per 10,000 employees. China has 49 robots for every 10,000 human workers. It is now home to the fastest growing robot population. Maybe they have made a choice to vote for technology.

Countries will have to choose between migrants and robots. Both come with their share of challenges. While all choices are tough, this may be the toughest.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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