Political drivers of international migration: does government ideology matter?

New research shows that a shift towards more left-leaning positions in receiving country governments relative to the sending country governments is associated with increased immigration.

Which countries do immigrants move to? Migration patterns have long been a fertile area of research in social sciences, but the determinants of migration flows have become of particular interest in recent years due to a rapid increase in transnational population movements. By one estimate, the number of international migrants reached 272 million in 2019 (a 23% increase since 2010), with 54% of them residing in OECD countries. While the extant research on international migration has incorporated a wide range of economic considerations, political and ideological factors have been largely absent from the debate on where immigrants decide to settle.

In a recently published study in The Scandinavian Journal of Economics, Vincenzo Bove, Harry Pickard and I undertake a comprehensive analysis of the effect of government ideology (left-right political leaning) on migration patterns in OECD countries. More precisely, we investigate whether the ideology differential between the government of the destination country and the government of the origin country shapes their migration flows; i.e., how many immigrants move from the origin to the destination in a given year.

Why does government ideology matter? We discuss and evaluate a number of potential explanations, which are grounded on the policies and attitudes generally associated with left-wing and right-wing parties. First, left-wing governments tend to favour a generous welfare state and are more likely to push for increased social spending than right-wing governments, in line with the interests and preferences of their core political constituencies. This can act as a magnet for prospective immigrants, particularly for low-skilled immigrants who, under a free migration regime, are the net beneficiaries rather than net contributors to the welfare state.

Second, the agenda of left-wing parties often favours common cultural heritages and values, and left-wing politicians are more likely than their counterpart to respond to their constituencies’ preferences by committing to protect and promote minority interests, such as combating discrimination and xenophobia. Former US president Donald Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric, and the introduction of a travel ban in 2017 – which placed restrictions on travel to the US for citizens of seven countries – created an unwelcoming image of the country also for foreign citizens not directly targeted by the ban. This stands in sharp contrast to the rhetoric of his predecessor, Barack Obama, who argued in favour of a more comprehensive approach to immigration, including a more clear-cut pathway to citizenship. As such, in absence of first-hand experience of the receiving context, the ideology of the incumbent in the destination country can provide an important signal about the level of tolerance towards out-groups and whether the host society has a more welcoming civic culture than the home society.

Third, the ideological orientation of governing parties can determine the restrictiveness of migration policies, which, in turn, can affect immigrants’ location choices. On the one side of the political spectrum, conservative incumbents have more pronounced anti-immigrant positions and often go into coalitions with radical right parties; the latter have at times demanded new measures impeding naturalization of immigrants and sometimes their deportation. On the other side of the political spectrum, left-wing parties use more universal frames when addressing issues of immigration and are often associated with measures to open access to citizenship for new immigrants and to allow membership apart from ethnic elements.

We leverage variations in governments’ left-right political leaning that is derived from the incumbent parties’ manifesto at the time of general elections, and combine this information with annual data on migration flows at the bilateral (origin-destination country pair) level from the OECD’s International Migration Database over the period 1990-2016. This results in a very large dataset consisting of about 14K country-pair-year observations on government ideology and migration flows across 33 OECD countries. Our estimation strategy is designed to address ‘endogeneity concerns’; for instance, the possibility that governing parties’ left-right ideological positions are partly determined by past migration flows, or the possibility of unobserved factors affecting our results.

Our analysis confirms that population movements increase when the government in the destination country becomes more left-wing relative to the government in the origin country. We also show that the effects are stronger when the receiving countries have a relatively more generous welfare state compared to the sending countries and when they display relatively lower values of traditional morality (support for religious institutions and the maintenance of the traditional family as a value); with the latter serving as a proxy for the degree of social (in)tolerance towards out-groups. Finally, we demonstrate that our results are mostly driven by member states of the European Economic Area (EEA). This is because, under a free migration regime, prospective migrants are more responsive to short-run fluctuations, and can react quickly to changes in the current political climate when making emigration and immigration decisions. Furthermore, the presence of institutional and cultural similarities across EEA countries can increase citizens’ information about the political environment of other societies and make government ideology more likely to act as a pull (and push) migration factor.

Taken together, our findings shed new light on the determinants of migration flows and highlight how governments’ policy positions and their rhetoric around issues of tolerance can contribute to shaping the composition of contemporary societies, even in the absence of actual changes in states’ migration policies. As the size of transnational population movements continues to grow rapidly worldwide, more attention should be paid to how host societies’ social and political landscapes determine where immigrants decide to settle. By espousing anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, ruling parties can worsen the context of reception in the country of destination, and thus forgo the economic benefits of having an increased range of skills, ideas, and innovative solutions that immigrants provide.