Why economic migrants are heroes

President Emmanuel Macron of France like heroes. Mamadou Gassama saved a child’s life by scaling four floors “bare handed”. The President rewarded him by legalising his stay in France and inviting him to apply for naturalisation.

That decision provoked unexpected reactions. The far-right welcomed it on the grounds that French nationality has to be deserved, and that Gassama was deserving “unlike others”. On the left, some philosophers fear that heroism will become a condition for regularisation. While motivated by different beliefs, both reactions share the view that most migrants are not heroes.

But what is a hero? If President Macron really likes heroes, shouldn’t he revise his idea of what he calls “economic migrants”?

Ethically, a heroic act is defined as an act of high moral value, going beyond what is obligatory. Such an act is also called “supererogatory” from the medieval Latin super-erogatio, which means “giving more”, more than is required.

Gassama’s act clearly meets both criteria. What he did – saving a life – is of high moral value but not morally obligatory. While there is an obligation to assist a person in danger, it does not apply to passers-by who have no means of reaching the fourth floor from which the child was suspended.

The question of means is essential. Once Gassama joins the fire brigade, his acts will still be of high moral value, but will not be heroic. Not only will saving lives be his duty, but also he will have swivel ladders and other technologies to do the job. The fact that he was able to save a child “bare-handed” is important in the ethical classification of his action.

We understand why President Macron likes heroes. Doing a great deal of good with very little means cannot be compulsory, but remains highly praiseworthy. If Gassama is a hero, will there be more migrants who save lives “bare-handed”?

Battling poverty “bare-handed”

Mamoudou Gassama is one of those migrants from poor countries that President Macron calls “economic migrants”, and who have shown a form of collective heroism.

With very few resources from the outset, and facing numerous obstacles on the way, these migrants are contributing “bare-handed” to development and poverty reduction. According to World Bank data, money transfers by migrants to low and middle-income countries reached US$466 billion in 2017 and continues to rise.

The value of this US$466 billion is important. It is as if the migrants had collected more money in a year than the five richest entrepreneurs in the world (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Bernard Arnault and Mark Zuckerberg, according to Forbes) have amassed in their whole lives. Except that the migrants will repeat this achievement every year and will send these five big fortunes to low and middle-income countries.

The moral value of these money transfers has long been discredited by neo-marxist theories, under the pretext that the money would simply serve consumption. But we know today that migration and money transfers are a powerful lever for development and poverty reduction. Economists Richard Adams and John Page, for example, have shown that a ten per cent increase in migration reduces poverty by two per cent, i.e. the proportion of people living on less than a dollar a day.

On the question of heroism, it would be better to bear in mind two simple figures: less than three per cent of the world population is doing three times better than all the powerful governments of the North put together.

Migrants are responsible for the largest monetary flows into low and middle-income countries, with the exception of direct foreign investment. Since 1996, money transfers by migrants have exceeded public development aid. Migrants’ financial contributions are three times bigger than those of governments.

Are migrants’ financial contributions made “bare-handed”? Perhaps not, but the money is earned in conditions where discrimination, exploitation and over-qualification in employment is higher than amongst non-migrants. Moreover, migrants born in countries of the South have migrated, in the case of more than half of them, to other countries of the South where wages are lower than in the countries of the North.

Treating heroes as “the world’s needy”?

When their exploits are not being filmed, Emmanuel Macron calls poor migrants like Mamoudou Gassama “economic migrants” and says he cannot “take them in”. His stand echoes the words expressed 30 years ago by Michel Rocard [editor’s note: a former Prime Minister who served under President François Mitterrand from 1988 to 1991] who said that “we cannot take in all the world’s needy”. Since then, the word “needy” has been repeated by political leaders unhesitatingly. Publicly. In all media. As if migrants from poor countries could not understand or were too uncouth to feel offended. As if the world was divided into those born to “take people in” and those who are born uncouth. The expression “economic migrant” is less brutal, but it is unsuitable.

Usually, when we speak of “economic migration” we are referring to the type of residence permit (linked to work) not to the motivation of the permit holders. Whether those holding the permits came to work in France to be close to the Eiffel Tower or to feed their children is something that migration statistics don’t take into account.

What we do know is that work permits are hard to get in France. President Macron does not seem interested in statistical data and migration studies. He would have learnt however that migration is not a threat to world security but it is an opportunity to double world GDP.

On the other hand, putting the brakes on economic migration would mean turning away trillions of dollars, as [the development economist] Michael Clemens has shown. The gains from open borders would be about the same as the gains from a “growth miracle” to use John Kennan’s expression. Even the most pessimistic estimates confirm that if borders were to be opened, the worldwide average income per worker would rise by 12 per cent in the short term and by 52 per cent in the long term.

Mamoudou Gassama’s exploit clearly illustrates what can be gained from mobility. He managed to climb up bare-handed to save a child, without difficulty. With our migration policies, we have chosen to create difficulties every step of the way. Those who manage to overcome all the obstacles and still manage to save children are, when all is said and done, heroes.