Why Europe needs to make immigration easier


Picture of William Lacy Swing
William Lacy Swing

Former Director General of the International Organization for Migration

The time has come for a “high-road scenario” based on facilitating migration, not restricting it. It’s a scenario that must be driven by a vision of migration as a process to be managed rather than a problem to be solved – a means to expand people’s development. For a globalised world we will handicap ourselves if we continue developing barriers instead of linkages that connect countries, communities and individuals across borders.

The number of people on the move is at an all-time high: at least one billion of the planet’s seven billion population. Migration fuels growth, innovation and entrepreneurship in both the countries people come from and in those they move to.  When governed humanely to promote safety, order and dignity, migration has endless advantages. It provides opportunities, raises incomes and living standards and allows people to both pursue their educational or career ambitions.

Europe’s population meanwhile is ageing, and the EU is predicting a massive shortage of workers as the working age population will drop by 45m in the next 50 years. In many countries, migration has either slowed or even reversed the ageing trend and its slide towards untenable ratios between the working and non-working populations. Migration offers the means to keep key sectors of national economies afloat, whether in the care professions, the hospitality industry or the high-tech sector.

In many countries, migration has either slowed or even reversed the ageing trend and its slide towards untenable ratios between the working and non-working populations

Last year, migrants from developing countries sent an estimated $414bn back to their families – three times the amount provided by official international development assistance (ODA). More than a billion people rely on these remittances to help pay for their education, healthcare, water and sanitation. A recent study of six European cities  – Barcelona, Dublin, Hamburg, Lille, Prague and Turin  –shows how beneficial labour migration is to the host communities. In Turin, for example, tax revenues from foreigners brought a net benefit of €1.5bn to public finances. The same study also showed how migrants help to fill gaps in the labour market and so contribute to growth in new sectors. Their presence does much to help offset the impact of ageing.

Yet the cruel irony is that this new era of unprecedented human mobility is often the source of anti-migrant sentiments. Misconceptions so distort reality that in some European countries ordinary citizens have been known to estimate the number of immigrants at three times more than there really are. Another commonly held prejudice is that migration is always poverty-driven, from poor to rich countries. The latest World Migration Report of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) shows that only about 40% of migrants move from the global South to the global North, and that in the North 5% of people are emigrants, compared with 2.5% in the South. People from wealthy countries are actually twice as likely to be migrants.

In all this, the EU is the only region of the world in which citizens can freely travel, live and work in other countries of Europe. It’s an admirable achievement, but Europe nevertheless faces major challenges when it comes to immigrants and attracting newcomers from countries from outside the European Union  and even from within it. Intolerance, xenophobia, protectionism and the scapegoating of immigrants have featured prominently in the public discourse of many European countries. Europe will not attract the migrants it needs unless it learns to promote greater tolerance and an understanding of the value that diversity brings.

Migration offers opportunities, but we should also be aware of the challenges facing people who seek a better life. Too many of those suffer gross human rights abuses, too many are obliged to take work that falls far short of their qualifications and too much of their earnings are taken by extortionate recruitment and remittance transfer fees. We at the IOM have estimated that last year more than 2,400 migrants around the world died attempting to reach a frontier. And then there is the people trafficking danger; in 2012, the IOM gave protection and help to 6,499 trafficked persons of 89 different nationalities. Yet these figures say little of the full extent of human trafficking and the smuggling and exploitation of migrants which remains a largely hidden crime.

We must act to put a stop to the tragic losses of life, often at the EU’s Mediterranean land and sea borders. This will demand a concerted effort by the relevant EU governments to ensure a balanced, rights-based and protection-sensitive approach to managing their borders. Europe also needs practical policies and programmes that will facilitate more avenues for safe migration at all skills levels.

The high-road scenario for migration has to start with a fundamental shift in perceptions; we need to correct the myths and misconceptions that surround migration, and so restore public confidence in governments’ ability to manage migration effectively. That means we need to reaffirm that discrimination and violence against migrants is intolerable. Above all, perhaps, we must create recognition of the overwhelmingly positive contribution migrants have made throughout history by launching an open dialogue about the role of migration in contemporary societies.

We need to correct the myths and misconceptions that surround migration, and so restore public confidence in governments’ ability to manage migration effectively

In Europe, the future strategic guidelines for Justice and Home Affairs policies should set out an ambitious vision for EU action in the coming years and pave a high road towards the achievement of a common migration policy. Only a balanced and comprehensive approach, that addresses legal channels for migration and mobility and promotes the rights and well-being of migrants, in partnership with countries of origin and transit, can be effective in the long term for underpinning the EU’s internal security and its economic growth.

In the IOM’s vision for the future, migration is given its rightful place in the post-2015 global development agenda. The new global development consensus should move beyond the traditional polarisation between North and South and instead subscribe to the view that migration is relevant to all countries’ growth. A new global development partnership therefore needs a target for more co-operative human mobility agreements to enable safe, lawful and less costly migration.

Ensuring that migration should enhance development outcomes means lowering the human and financial costs by reducing recruitment and remittance transfer costs. We must eliminate the terrible abuses and indebtedness that are now endemic to international recruitment. Another positive approach is to recognise foreign qualifications and avoid “brain waste” or de-skilling – forms of vulnerability that particularly affect migrant women.

Global development policies must not be at the expense of migrants’ rights. In taking the high road, migrant’s human rights must become integral to our policies, not the present mere ornament. Genuine measures of progress along the “high road” include more contracts for migrant workers that conform to human rights and labour standards and more national laws that guarantees education for migrants’ children irrespective of legal status. The decriminalisation of irregular migrants in law and in practice would represent a major step towards improving millions of people’s lives. Pathways to legal status, access to justice options for dignified return and alternatives to detention are among the measures needed to address the legal limbo and vulnerability that paralyses so many migrants’ lives.

Few would contest that there’s a clear link between humanitarian crises and migration, but this has rarely been integrated into policies and operations. The conflicts in Libya and Syria have turned into humanitarian disasters, for the nationals of those countries, but also for hundreds of thousands of migrants who live and work there. The IOM’s new Migration Crisis Operational Framework (MCOF) does just that by linking risk reduction, humanitarian action, migration management and development. It’s a holistic approach that will improve the way migration, diasporas and remittances can facilitate post-crisis recovery. It’s an approach that requires partnerships, so we strongly believe that the international community must come together to devise more systematic ways to protect stranded migrants caught up in conflicts.

The countering of misinformation to make the case for migration requires facts. In a high-road approach, we want to push for reliable data and research on migration as well as systematic evaluations of migration policies. We need to analyse the effect of migration policies on trade, development, health and employment. This approach would promote greater coherence between different policy domains and would acknowledge the need to integrate the world’s one billion migrants into the international frameworks of multiple entry visas, portable social security and welfare benefits, measures to promote family unity and laws permitting multiple nationalities. This would help drive the transnational links that promote trade, and would also reduce irregular migration and the criminal networks that prey on migrants.

In a high-road approach, we want to push for reliable data and research on migration as well as systematic evaluations of migration policies

We should briefly consider the alternative – the “low road” way of thinking and the risks inherent in it. If we fly in the face of economic and demographic evidence and deny that migration is needed, tighten our visa regimes and say “stay home”, we would be spending fortunes on barriers to mobility – barriers that make criminal rings of labour-brokers and smugglers rich at immense human cost while undermining states’ ability to govern effectively.

Completely free mobility may be far away. But in the meantime, the most pragmatic approach is to accept that we need migrants, and that we should govern migration not just by border control but by facilitating the movement of people to the jobs waiting for them. In short, migration is inevitable, because of demographic, economic and environmental realities. It is desirable for the vibrancy of our economies and as a path to opportunity. What is missing is a realistic global agenda for migration governance.

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