In the village of Jaripo, in a hilly northern part of the Mexican state of Michoacán, there are two types of houses. The first are tiny adobe shacks with clay-brick walls, dirt floors and makeshift latrines out back. These are simple and spartan homes that buzz with the activity of daily life – women cooking, chicken’s clucking, children toddling from room to room. Standing alongside these are Jaripo’s “mansions” – single-family homes with multiple bedrooms, working bathrooms, courtyard fountains and satellite dishes on the roofs. These are, ironically, mostly empty, built by those who grew up in the village but who could only earn the money to build them working in the US.
“In almost every village in rural Mexico you find a kind of ghost town,” says Sam Quinones, a Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream, a new book on Mexican migration to the US. “You walk around these gorgeous houses with sliding patio doors and wrought-iron fencing but no one is around. [They] are emigrants’ promises to return for good one day and, though few keep this promise, the dream lives on; billions of dollars cascade into the most isolated villages each year, surreally filling [the country] with empty houses.”
The phenomenon is not limited to Mexico. Around the world, residents of impoverished villages leave to earn money abroad, return to build homes that showcase their new wealth, leave again to keep the cash coming in and, as a result, implicitly encourage neighbours to break out of their shacks and follow. Quinones calls this a “cycle of departure”, which can be seen from Peru to Tunisia to the Philippines, especially where poor countries fringe wealthier ones. The home – that basic symbol of roots, solidity and steadfast community – serves as the greatest impetus to exodus.
According to World Bank estimates, emigrants sent $165.2bn back to their home countries in 2006, exceeding the amount given in development aid and, in some cases, direct foreign investment. Asia receives the lion’s share, followed by Latin America and, far behind, Africa.
Much of the money goes into property, which is seen as a safe investment by those who don’t trust their country’s government or banks or don’t have the financial savvy to put their money into stocks and bonds, says Jean-Pierre Garson, head of the international migration division at the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD). “Across the globe migrant workers invest in building houses back home,” he says, “but it takes on a different character in different countries.” And it has varied effects – both positive and negative.
Kryztof Borkowski, an electrician from Krakow, Poland, decided to move to London in 2004 after coveting the house that an old school friend built with money earned on UK construction sites. “This kid was not the brightest in the class but three years after he went to London he came back and built himself a great big house that looked down on everyone else in the village,” Borkowski says. “In Poland people work all of their life and can’t even afford a house like that. So I figured if this guy can do it, then I should be able to make enough money in London to build myself a palace.”
Ovidiu Mateson, who moved from Transylvania in Romania to the UK in 2005, confirms that the “migrant mansion” effect has spread to his country too. “In many parts of Romania, you see huge houses built by people working in Britain,” he says. “The town of Recas, in the west, is dominated by Scottish-style castles with lions on the gateposts, turrets on the roofs and white marble dwarfs in the gardens. Weirdly, a lot of them also have mules tied up outside.”
Though Mateson has no desire to build something similar he is interested in investing in Romanian real estate. “I couldn’t live there any more but I do think Romania is a property hotspot,” he says. “I have friends who are building property portfolios in Romania and I’d certainly invest if I had the money, as a future asset.”
In north Africa, mainly Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, there’s a long history of investment in housing by people working overseas. Governments have created special investment plans and even extend loans to would-be homebuyers and builders, according to Garson. But sub-Saharan Africa is a rather different story. Migrant houses, built by people working in Europe, often in healthcare, can be found in countries such as Mali. But elsewhere property is not as much of a priority, says Peter Stalker, author of several books on migration. “If the families do get remittances, the only thing they would spend it on after food is education,” he explains.
Asian countries, by contrast, provide some of the best examples of the trend. The Philippines alone has almost 8m people living abroad, sending about $7bn home annually. In Thailand, they have a name for the ostentatious two-storey houses built by those working abroad – “Ban San-U” or “Saudi Arabian houses”.
But, according to Stalker, the dynamic is slightly different than the one observed by Quinones in Latin America. “Migration in Asia is often on short-term contracts – male labourers to the Gulf states and young women to the Middle East, Hong Kong and Singapore to work as maids – so migrants are much likelier to return home and eventually occupy the nice houses they’re building,” he explains.
The remote Indonesian island of Bawean, 120km north-east of Java, is something of a case in point. About 85 per cent of those who grow up there spend at least several years of their adult lives working overseas, mostly in Malaysia and Singapore. Many invest the proceeds in “smart” one- and two-storey houses with brick walls, tiled roofs and porches, balconies and gardens, which stand incongruously amid a very basic island infrastructure, consisting of only a few paved roads and electricity that works only a few hours each day. They are occupied by wives, children and other relatives and visited only once or twice during holidays by the owners. But all are seen as full-time residences for retirement.
“People build for themselves and their families,” says Muhammad Roesidi, who left Bawean 18 years ago and still lives for most of the year in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he works as a canteen supervisor. He built his own home on the island in 1998 for Rp60m ($6,500) and visits regularly. “People believe in the value of property and so they build smart places as soon as they can. I was recently offered Rp300m but I turned it down because I don’t want to sell.”
There is great debate over whether migrant mansions are good or bad for poor towns and villages. Quinones thinks it is “a disaster” for Mexico, where remittances totalled $23bn in 2006 (though they have slowed this year as a result of a downturn in the US construction sector, which employs many Mexican men). “When the immigrant workers return driving fancy trucks and wearing fancy clothes and adding a bit to the houses they only live in for a week each year, it has an intoxicating effect on those left behind. The most resourceful men and women whom Mexico most needs will leave,” he says.
But others see benefits. Stalker and Garson argue that individual investment in housing improves the living conditions of the owner’s family, even if he or she is absentee; stimulates the local economy by providing construction jobs; and encourages public officials to work on improving infrastructure and services. Both also point to Mexico’s “three-for-one” scheme, whereby each dollar sent back to the country from the US is matched by one from the national government and one from the migrant’s local authority and then spent on development programmes, including low-income housing. Colombia has a similar scheme.
Not all economic refugees invest in their home towns, of course. “A whole new generation of migrant worker doesn’t want to return to villages where amenities are few and housing poor,” Garson says. “Throughout south-east Asia, the young are increasingly attracted to the big cities and invest in housing there. They want better amenities, especially good schools for their children. Living abroad also raises lifestyle expectations.”
In Europe, “the trend is not so much to invest in their village of origin but in an apartment by the seaside, which will make more sense for family holidays and as an asset for possible future resale,” adds Nicholas Bray, also of the OECD. For example Turkish migrants to Germany are as likely to invest in holiday homes on the coast near Bodrum as in the remote towns where they grew up.
Nevertheless, the migrant mansion trend looks set to continue. “Migration flows are driven by push-and-pull factors,” Garson says. “Developed countries need more migrants and in developing countries it’s seen as one way to improve living conditions, reduce unemployment and acquire hard currency.”
Additional reporting by John Aglionby