Can Migration Facilitate Democratization?

Migration and Democracy

Migration and Democracy

Those who say immigration has become a prominent political issue likely understate its importance. Its difficulty involves multiple dimensions surrounding economic, political, and cultural concerns. However, most consider it purely as a domestic political issue. Americans consider its effects on America. Australians consider its effects on Australia. In the rare moments when the issue turns to the immigrants, the issue narrows into a humanitarian issue. Very few scholars consider the multidimensional effects of migration even though we live in an era of globalization. The true effects of migration go beyond domestic concerns with significant implications for transnational politics.

Abel Escribà-Folch, Covadonga Meseguer, and Joseph Wright add an important insight to a complicated conversation about migration and its effects. They show how migrant workers provide the economic support in their countries of origin that provide the means to stand up to autocratic rulers. In other words, migration contributes to the global promotion of democracy and good governance. Indeed, it’s yet another dimension for policymakers to consider when they construct immigration policy. 

Moreover, their argument does not depend on the political values of the migrants or their ideological agenda. Rather they explain how financial remittances produce natural economic outcomes that undermine clientelistic relationships in authoritarian regimes. Obviously, many migrants do learn political lessons from their host countries that they share with their families and neighbors back home. But it’s the financial contributions that they provide that allow their communities to stand up to repression and poor governance. Indeed, the size of remittances and their beneficial impacts makes them the single most powerful tool available for democracy promotion. And yet, very few scholars consider the beneficial effects of migration when they formulate ways to promote democracy around the world.


Let me begin with the concept of remittances. Immigrants frequently send money they earn back to their families or even their communities in their country of origin. We call these financial transfers remittances. They do not involve trade or investments, but involve the transfer of financial resources from one country into another. In 2017, migrants sent $600 billion in remittances to their home countries “with over 75 percent flowing to low- and middle-income countries.” For many low-income countries, remittances make up a substantial part of their capital inflow. It can even dwarf foreign direct investment or foreign aid. 

Despite the seismic impact of economic remittances, most scholars view them as a source of stability for authoritarian governments. Alexander Libman and Anastassia V. Obydenkova write in the Journal Democracy, “Migration generates a flow of remittances, which improves the quality of life for those who stay home and prevents popular grievances from growing into a reason for mass uprising.” Libman and Obydenkova do not refer to any study or evidence, but rather consider this point self-evident. Of course, they are not alone. Most scholars take it for granted that emigration stabilizes dictatorial regimes. 

However, scholars do debate about the role of political remittances on autocratic regimes. In other words, migrants learn about democracy in their host country and share those ideas with their communities back home. Some scholars believe migration accelerates the exchange of political ideas and plays a disproportionate role in repressive regimes that try to control information domestically. On the other hand, migration allows political dissidents to leave the country so they cannot lead protests or other political action from inside the country. 

Remittances and Democracy Promotion

Escribà-Folch, Meseguer, and Wright turn the common conceptions about financial remittances upside down. They argue remittances fuel protests even when that’s not their intent, because remittances provide an independent source of income detached from the state. This independence empowers communities to say no to their rulers. They can refuse to attend state supportive rallies. They might refuse to participate in fraudulent elections. Indeed, they may even participate in protests against the state. Obviously, some migrants likely send remittances with conditions or maybe encourage dissent. However, the economic independence alone generated by remittances also provides the ability for some to stand up to oppression. 

Their key insight is the source of income has political implications. It echoes an argument from Bryn Rosenfeld from her book The Autocratic Middle Class. She argued the rise of the middle class in many autocratic countries did not bring about democracy because they were state dependent. In other words, she makes a similar argument from the opposite direction. Escribà-Folch, Meseguer, and Wright argue remittances decouple communities from their dependence on the state. They write, “By decreasing voters’ dependence on government patronage, income-boosting remittances sever the clientelistic ties between electoral autocracies and the low-income voters they mobilize.”

In contrast, foreign aid too often filters through the hands of the state. In this manner, it binds communities to the state through economic dependence. Remittances, on the other hand, provide resources directly to people. The recipients have greater flexibility to use the income in the areas where they need it most. Moreover, the income does more than simply reduce poverty. It even provides the capital to start new businesses, pay for education, and builds public infrastructure for the community. So, remittances can provide meaningful investments for the future. 

Final Thoughts

Despite the positive global effects of remittances to accomplish important American foreign policy goals, immigration is viewed as more of a domestic political issue. Economists debate the positive and negative effects of immigration on the wider economy and its impact on workers. Migration and Democracy does not argue immigration is good or bad for developed economies like the United States or Europe. Instead, Escribà-Folch, Meseguer, and Wright emphasize, “Immigration policy have for the most part ignored how remittances shape political outcomes in migrant origin countries.”

At the same time, their research leaves many unanswered questions. For starters, migration and remittances have dramatically increased over the past twenty years, but the pace of democratization has slowed. Instead, many scholars such as Larry Diamond refer to a democracy recession globally. Nonetheless, democratization involves multiple variables. Still, the authors provide more than just bold assertions. They back up their claims with quantitative and qualitative analysis. It’s a refreshing argument with important conclusions for policymakers, scholars, and democracy activists. 

Abel Escribà-Folch and Joseph Wright join tomorrow’s podcast to discuss their cutting-edge research on the role of migration on democratization. 

Further Reading

Thomas Carothers (2015) Democracy Aid at 25 Time to Choose,” Journal of Democracy

Abel Escribà-Folch, Joseph Wright, and Covadonga Meseguer (2022) Migration and Democracy: How Remittances Undermine Dictatorships

Marlies Glasius (2017) “Extraterritorial Authoritarian Practices: A Framework,” Globalizations

Jack A. Goldstone and Larry Diamond (2020) “Demography and the Future of Democracy,” Perspectives on Politics

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Erica Frantz, and Joseph Wright (2017) “The Global Rise of Personalized Politics: It’s Not Just Dictators Anymore,” Washington Quarterly

Ivan Krastev (2020) The Fear of Shrinking Numbers,” Journal of Democracy

Félix Krawatzek and Lea Müller-Funk (2021) “Two centuries of flows between ‘here’ and ‘there’: political remittances and their transformative potential,Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies

Alexander Libman and Anastassia V. Obydenkova (2016) “Understanding Authoritarian Regionalism,” Journal of Democracy

Sergi Pardos-Prado (2015) How Can Mainstream Parties Prevent Niche Party Success Center-Right Parties and the Immigration Issue,” The Journal of Politics

Bryn Rosenfeld (2020), The Autocratic Middle Class: How State Dependency Reduces the Demand for Democracy

Democracy Paradox Podcast

Joseph Wright and Abel Escribà-Folch on Migration’s Potential to Topple Dictatorships

Jonathan Pinckney on Civil Resistance Transitions

More Episodes from the Podcast

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