Mobile internet access and the desire to emigrate

The mobile Internet has changed the way people live, work and exchange information. Fast broadband can increase household incomes and influence political consciousness. This column examines how the deployment of 3G mobile Internet affects people’s desire and plans to emigrate. Increased 3G coverage increases individuals’ desire and plans to emigrate, especially for those without a network abroad, while negatively affecting perceptions of relative financial well-being and trust in government. Internet access can stimulate the desire to emigrate while reducing the costs of finding information on opportunities abroad.

The Internet and cell phones have changed the way people live, work, connect and exchange information. The number of Internet users has increased from 410 million in 2000 to nearly 4.9 billion in 2021 worldwide and is expected to continue its double-digit growth (International Telecommunications Union 2021). A large majority of internet users access it via a mobile phone – there were over 3.5 billion mobile internet subscribers in 2019 (GSMA 2019).

In recent years, research has established that the Internet has a major economic and political impact. Hjort and Poulsen (2019) show that the arrival of broadband internet has had a positive effect on employment in Africa. Zuo (2021) shows that the employment probabilities of poor households in the United States and their income increased after gaining Internet access. Guriev et al. (2019) establish that the deployment of 3G mobile internet increases awareness of government corruption and reduces trust in political institutions when the internet is uncensored.

In Adema et al. (2022), we study how the deployment of 3G mobile internet causally affects people’s desire and plans to emigrate. We combine two unique datasets: Gallup World Polls and Collins Bartholomew’s Mobile Coverage Explorer. Combining this data gives us data on 617,402 people living in 2,120 subnational regions in 112 countries, collected over 11 years. To derive causal effects on desire and plans to emigrate, we exploit variation in subnational 3G mobile Internet coverage over time.

Desire and plans to emigrate are associated with migratory flows

We first check to what extent our outcome variables (i.e. desire and plans to emigrate) are significantly associated with actual migration flows. We use the fact that we observe the most desired destination of individuals as well as the destination country in which they plan to settle. We use this data to construct the number of people desiring and planning to migrate between any country of origin and destination. We then compare our matrix of desired and planned migration flows with data on actual migration flows to OECD countries between 2008 and 2018.

The results presented in Figure 1 confirm that our outcome variables are strongly associated with official data on migrant flows between 2008 and 2018. We find that the raw correlation at the origin-destination level between the log of actual migrant flows and the log of the number of people willing to migrate from a specific origin to a specific destination is 0.77. The correlation between the log of actual migration flows and the log of the number of people wishing to migrate from a specific origin to a specific destination is 0.68.

Figure 1 Correlation between migration intentions and actual migration flows

Increase in 3G coverage impacts desire and plans to emigrate

We find that increasing 3G coverage has a large impact on the desire and plans to emigrate and that the impact is approximately linear (Figure 2). A 10 percentage point increase in 3G mobile coverage leads to a 0.27 percentage point increase in the desire to emigrate permanently. Moreover, we find that such an increase leads to a 0.09 percentage point increase in permanent emigration plans over the next 12 months in our preferred specification.

When going from zero to full 3G coverage, the implicit aggregate effect is around 12% of the baseline average of desire and 33% of permanent emigration plans. Estimates imply that in a country of 10 million adult people, moving from no 3G coverage to full coverage would increase the number of people willing to emigrate from 56,000 to 486,000.

Using data at the municipal level in Spain, we also show that the expansion of 3G not only changes emigration desires, but also increases the actual emigration of nationals of the country of origin. Our estimates suggest that moving from no 3G coverage to full 3G coverage increased the annual emigration rate by 15% compared to the level before the extension of 3G coverage.

Figure 2 The non-parametric effect of 3G deployment on the desire to emigrate

Heterogeneity Analysis Using Causal Forest

We also look beyond mean effects to understand how causal effects vary across observable characteristics. We find the strongest treatment effects for high-income people in high-income regions, and the weakest effects for low-income people in low-income regions (Figure 3).

picture 3 Heatmap of conditional mean treatment effect (CATE)

By exploring the mechanisms underlying our results, we show that the effect of 3G coverage on the desire to emigrate is strong for individuals who were without a prior network abroad; we do not find a statistically significant effect for those who already have a network abroad. Moreover, as soon as they receive 3G coverage, the preferred destinations shift to destination countries where the stocks of migrants of the same origin are lower in 2005. This suggests that Internet access stimulates the desire for emigrate mainly by reducing the costs of finding information on opportunities abroad, replacing personal networks.

We also show that 3G coverage does not change respondents’ financial situation (eg household income) or their perception of the level of corruption in their country. Instead, 3G coverage has a negative effect on perceived relative financial well-being as well as trust in government, potentially shaping emigration desires.

Consequences

Our results highlight that access to mobile internet not only increases the overall desire to emigrate, but is also likely to redirect migration flows to less popular destinations. In the medium term, this can be expected to increase international trade and the transfer of knowledge to countries of origin (Parsons and Vezina 2018, Fackler et al. 2020) and could also stimulate innovation in countries. destination, as birthplace diversity has been found to be linked to economic prosperity (Alesina et al. 2013).

References

Adema, J, CG Aksoy and P Poutvaara (2022), “Mobile internet access and the desire to emigrate”, CESifo Working Paper n° 9758.

Alesina, A, J Harnoss and H Rapoport (2013), “Immigration, diversity and economic prosperity”, VoxEU.org, 22 August.

Fackler, T, Y Giesing and N Laurentsyeva (2020), “Knowledge transfers: does emigration foster innovation? », Research Policy 49(9): 103863.

GSMA (2019), The state of mobile Internet connectivity.

Guriev, S, N Melnikov and E Zhuravskaya (2019), “Knowledge is Power: Mobile Internet, Government Trust and Populism”, VoxEU.org, 31 October.

Hjort, J and J Poulsen (2019), “The arrival of fast internet and employment in Africa.” American Economic Review 109(3): 1032–79.

International Telecommunication Union (ITU) (2021), Measuring digital development: Facts and figures 2021, Geneva: ITU.

Parsons, C, and PL Vézina. (2018), “Migrant networks boost trade: Testimonies from Vietnamese boat people”, VoxEU.org, 15 August.

Zuo, GW (2021), “Wired and Hired: Employment Effects of Subsidized Broadband Internet for Low-Income Americans”, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy 13(3): 447–482.

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