Controlled circular migration as a compromise

Migration has been the subject of debate for centuries. Old as humanity itself, migration has always remained one of the most discussed topics worldwide. In 2021, this is not an exception. Even in a world immersed in a pandemic and its economic and political consequences, migration remains one of the most debated subjects.

While developing countries are encouraging emigration, host countries are trying to repel it. As a solution, some economists and political scientists have proposed intermediate solutions, in which both groups would have to make a compromise.

Thousands of people come to Europe every year. Source: Aris Messinis

Among these economist and political scientists, there is the Serbian economist Branko Milanovic. In his most recent book, “Capitalism, Alone” (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2019), Milanovic unveils a proposal that he has been developing for the past two decades (“Globalization and goals: does soccer show the way?”, 2005). Milanovic’s intermediate proposal consists of a controlled circular migration in which, after a determinate period (e.g., four or five years), migrants would have to go back to their countries of origin. They could also migrate in intervals, that is, moving periodically from one country to another.

Circular migration has existed for centuries, so what makes Milanovic’s proposal different? Circular migration is extremely common for low-skilled jobs (like agriculture in Spain, for example), but Milanovic proposes it for high-skilled jobs. That is, for Milanovic, circular migration should also be applied to high-skilled and high-educated workers.

For Milanovic, such policy is not ideal, but he considers that it is a better compromise that the current migration policies. He is however aware of a very delicate disadvantage of his proposal: the creation of a new class. With Milanovic’s proposal, long-term circular migrants would become an almost permanent reality and such migrants would be residents with lesser rights than the country’s citizens. Even if they were granted with rights to healthcare or even education, temporary migrants would never obtain the same rights as permanent citizens, especially when it comes to political rights. The path to citizenship would be almost impossible.

Migration of high-skilled individuals if ofter overlooked. Source: Lena Mucha (New York Times)

Milanovic himself is concerned by this possible creation of an “underclass” under his proposal. Nevertheless, Milanovic’s argument is understandable: is there a better short-term solution for the migration problem? Milanovic considers his proposal to be a “realistic solution that takes the world and people’s opinions as they are and, within such constraints, develops a viable solution” (Capitalism and Freedom, 2019, 145).

There is however a very delicate issue that remains present even with Milanovic’s proposal. Milanovic affirms that “[f]or the system of circular migration to function, legal channels of migration have to be kept open. But at the same time, all illegal channels of migration have to be closed off” (Capitalism and Freedom, 2019, 146). This statement, in Europe, is currently unrealistic. Only in 2019, 627.900 people were found to be in Europe illegally (650.175 if the United Kingdom is included). During the migration crisis of 2015, over two million people were found to be illegally in Europe.

Preventing illegal immigration from happening is almost impossible. The geographic proximity of Europe with northern Africa and the Middle East allows thousands of people to come to Europe every year. Therefore, the policies should also be focused towards preventing that immigrants (illegal or not) are not harmed or even killed in their journey towards Europe. Organizations like Asociación Elín in Spain or Footprint to Freedom in the Netherlands work towards raising awareness on the perils that the paths that many migrants are forced to undertake.

There is not a single solution to deal with the issue of migration. The movement of people remains an extremely delicate issue and it is difficult to contemplate that effective solutions will be implemented without the agreement of a significant number of the population from both sending and receiving countries. Their interests and motivations are extremely different, even sometimes the opposite. This extremely important issue is what makes Milanovic’s proposal interesting: a middle ground position has to be found to achieve a temporary optimal solution. Nevertheless, the issue of migration goes beyond the duration of the stay of the migrants, it also concerns how migrants arrive and in which condition they find themselves in when they arrive to their destination. Measures must be taken everywhere.


Branko Milanovic. Capitalism, Alone (2019). The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (first edition). Branko Milanovic. Global Inequality: a New Approach for the Age of Globalization (2016). The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (third edition). Branko Milanovic. Globalization and goals: does soccer show the way?. In: Review of International Political Economy, vol. 12, no. 5, 2005, pages 829-850.

Eurostat. Third country nationals found to be illegally present [migr_eipre]:

Eurostat. Immigration law enforcement in the EU – figures for 2019: Asociación Elín: Footprint to Freedom: