"Zero immigration is pure fancy"

OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

Legal immigration may be desirable, but can illegal immigration be controlled or even eliminated? Jean-Pierre Garson, OECD's expert on international migration, responded to questions from Marc Semo for the French daily, Libération.*

Marc Semo: What is the scale of illegal immigration in Western countries?

Jean-Pierre Garson: By definition, it is impossible to give an exact figure, though some countries still make official estimates. The United States, for example, reckons that it has 5 to 6 million illegal immigrants. There are no comparable figures for the European Union (EU), but the number can be gauged from the results of the regularisation programmes implemented in recent years in several EU countries.

In Spain, the situation of 120 000 illegal immigrants has been regularised; in Italy, 250 000 applications have been made; and in France, 80 000 people had their situations regularised in June 1997. These figures need to be weighed against the criteria adopted by different governments, but it is clear that everywhere there are far fewer illegal immigrants than some of the fanciful estimates would have it. Illegal immigrants move around a lot, some simply pass through, others stay no more than a few months. And the fact that the unemployment rate for immigrants is two to three times higher than the national average is hardly an incentive for people to come into a country, even if there are labour shortages in some sectors.

MS: Who are the illegal immigrants?

JPG: Their profile varies according to where they want to go. Those choosing southern countries of the EU tend to fill unskilled jobs in agriculture and construction, or to work as domestics. Those in northern Europe are mainly asylum-seekers, as in Germany, though this category has fallen steeply, from 438 000 asylum-seekers nine years ago to 80 000 last year. In the United Kingdom, asylum applications peaked at nearly 100 000 last year. On average, the proportion of successful asylum requests is very low, and it sometimes takes two to three years, as in the United Kingdom, for an application to get through.

In the meantime, UK-based asylum-seekers receive state benefits and can take advantage of the opportunities that arise in what is, after all, a flexible and dynamic economy. Moreover, immigrants do not get stopped in the street and asked to show their identity papers, as they themselves would point out.

MS: How do illegal immigrants get into a country?

JPG: The public tends to focus on heroic stories (some ending tragically) or on spectacular beach landings. The truth is that many immigrants enter legally on tourist visas. This is the case both for the United States and Europe. Those with such visas scatter about the country and are not easy to locate, but they represent a major (if not the major) part of immigration flows. Immigrants may also find themselves in illegal situations for purely administrative reasons. Some may have a residence permit but no work permit; to make a living, they have no choice but to work illegally. There are others whose residence permit has not been renewed or who are caught out by changes in the law.

MS: Is there a link between legal immigration and illegal immigration?

JPG: Once a flow of emigration to a country starts, it encourages others back home to join in. These people may wait their turn patiently, but if the pressure or desire to go is strong, they may try their luck at illegal ways of getting into the country, especially if they have family or friends already there. But that apart there is no direct link between the two types of immigration.

MS: Is it possible to halt these flows?

JPG: It is absurd to talk about an impenetrable "Fortress Europe"”, as some people do. The figures tell us that. But while it is true that the EU has not taken in as many immigrants recently as in the thirty expansionary years after World War II, it has still allowed a lot in. France, for example, has taken in 80-100 000 a year over the past decade. Germany took in 1 million a year between 1989 and 1992, although these included many ethnic Germans from the ex-Soviet bloc. In a small country like Denmark, the foreign population now represents more than 5% of the total population, compared with only 1% as little as eight years ago. The countries of southern Europe, where emigration was the norm as recently as 15 years ago, have become countries of immigration. Some politicians shy away from these issues for fear of losing votes, but the facts speak for themselves: zero immigration is just pure fancy.

* This article appears courtesy of Libération newspaper, where it originally appeared in French as "L'immigration zéro est une pure utopie", on 26 February 2001. 


• OECD, Trends in International Migration 2000, 2001. 

©OECD Observer No 225, March 2001  

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