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How emigration affects migrant households

As most migration decisions are taken within the household, the immediate and most direct impact of emigration is that it alters labour decisions within the migrant household. This implies two observable circumstances that must be dealt with: a loss of labour contribution from the departed migrant followed by an inflow of economic resources in the form of remittances.

The trade-off between lost labour and remittances

Emigration reduces the available labour force within the household, but also aggregate labour capacity in communities. In certain cases it can be detrimental, as when it entails a decline in absolute production and generates issues related to food security. On the other hand, the income from remittances has an effect on the decision to work within the household: it frees up economic constraints and consequently time, the need to exert labour and opportunities of investment.

The lost-labour effect

At the household level, emigration directly reduces the overall labour force, forcing the remaining members to change their practices or making it necessary for them to supply labour. For a similar level of living standard to be maintained, the forgone production of the departed member must be replaced. The greater the migrants' previous contribution to the household, the more costly the loss of their labour becomes for the unit. For instance, if the primary breadwinner emigrates, the household faces the challenge of producing without the central component of its production unit.

Unsurprisingly, in households already living at subsistence levels, there are critical consequences. Household members, both men and women, young and old, exert more or less effort than they would have if the member had not left. In areas where labour markets are incomplete, in particular in rural regions, the effect is even more considerable. It may, in fact, be impossible to replace the forgone labour either internally or on the labour market; welfare in this case drops.

This is inevitably a gross generalisation, as many other factors come into play. First, the extent and even the direction of the change will depend on the departed member. What was their production level before leaving, what are their intentions, how long will they be gone, how much money will they send back? There are multiple contributions the emigrant may have made to the household before leaving, many of which are not measurable.

Analysis of this is largely missing in the literature, however, where research typically analyses migration at higher levels (between countries, at the national level, migrant vs. non-migrant households in the same community) rather than within the household. This usually yields results on the average migrant's characteristics, but not on the mechanisms that govern emigration decisions and the impact on those taking the decision to emigrate. Measurement is indeed difficult, because most migration decisions are made at the household level, requiring reliable and extensive data collection.

The impact of emigration is also related to the household's composition: the number of its members, its gender and dependency ratios (adult-child ratio) and its average educational level. If there are many members in the household, the opportunity cost of one departed member might be minimal. But if there are many more female members, and the departed member is male, a drop in productivity may ensue if the household had relied on this ratio for optimal production (Wouterse, 2008). If there are many children in the household, for instance, it may simply not be possible to work more, since time must also be spent in child-rearing.

The conditions in which the household finds itself will also define the impact of emigration. That is, either through the type of economic activities the members were undertaking before the emigration episode, its location (rural vs. urban, seasonality) or the general economic or legal climate (availability of work, administrative barriers). Depending on these factors, the impact may reach well beyond migrant households. As indicated above, in rural settings, where activities are based on agriculture, the impact may lead to food insecurity (see Box 4.1).

Box 4.1. Emigration and food security

The rural vs. urban dichotomy is fundamental in any labour market analysis as the challenges differ in each region. Rural areas represent a dual challenge for the households and communities left behind. First, because those who leave, owing to the self-selected nature of migration, are amongst the highest- valued human capital in these communities. As an example, since agricultural work is physically demanding, losing young males can entail a critical drop in production to the household. Second, because the forgone labour contribution cannot easily be replaced as well-functioning labour markets are seldom found in rural areas.

Further complicating the matter is the fact that the lack of complete labour markets is one of the primary determinants of emigration. Rural households heavily rely on labour to produce at least enough food for their personal consumption. A badly functioning labour market means that households living at subsistence levels must cope with the loss by either working more (i.e. more hours) or reshuffling labour roles within the household, since they do not have the option of hiring outside labour - even if that is financially feasible.

Damon (2009) offers a panel data study differentiating between the pure lost- labour effect and the remittances effect in rural El Salvador. El Salvador is an interesting case study because even the most conservative estimates based on US census data indicate that over 800 000 Salvadorans, equivalent to 12% of the country's population, currently live in the United States. The analysis shows that the lost-labour effect in fact increases on-farm labour hours for all family members and significantly decreases male off-farm labour hours - a general shift towards agricultural labour.

But beyond the household lost-labour effect, entire communities may also suffer. When many workers from the same rural community leave, those left behind face a mutual problem: an aggregate lack of labour to produce food. While emigration improves the personal food security of the migrant and perhaps their household, it is not clear what happens to agricultural communities in general. Research has investigated how internal migration has impacted on food chains and rural-urban linkages, but less so on how the loss in labour affects overall productivity. Does migration facilitate or hinder overall food security? Anecdotal evidence in Burkina Faso (Wouterse, 2011), Mali (Cisse and Daum, 2010) and Zimbabwe (Tsiko, 2009) shows that emigration can actually be the cause of food insecurity in some communities.

Food security is often argued in the opposite sense: that is, that environmental fluctuations and climate change push individuals and households to emigrate or because high international prices for non-food crops crowd out the value of food crops. But migration can also be the source of food insecurity. When enough young able-bodied men leave communities primarily based on agriculture, for instance, those remaining are often left with less productive capacity. While the negative impact first hits the immediate community concerned, in the aggregate it can encompass an entire country and drive food prices up.

There are several reasons that make the situation difficult to manage; for instance, the lack of a functioning labour market, poor infrastructure linking rural and urban areas, and the lack of access to land and the security of land tenure (ECA, 2004). But two aspects of migration make the situation less dire than it seems. First, absent migrants are not food consumers and so exert no pressure on food consumption. Second, remittances help alleviate consumption pressures and can be invested in better agricultural practices (Crush et al., 2006).

Migrant households typically see emigration as an investment. If the household deliberately decides to suffer the loss of labour, it is usually because there is an economic incentive to do so: the receipt of remittances. In their own way, remittances also manage to impact on labour behaviour in the household - and beyond.

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