Rising migration: from public disquiet to international oversight

OECD Observer

OECD Forum, 15th May, 2001: Migration Challenges in the 21st Century; moderator John Martin 

The image of hungry, sick refugees shipwrecked on the shores of developed nations may be the public’s impression of migration, but it represents just a sliver of a deeply complex and worsening problem that has far-reaching economic, social, and environmental implications for the entire planet.

How to manage the flows and prevent the kinds of human rights and other abuses that can happen to workers – particularly those who migrate illegally – was put to a panel of experts at the OECD’s 2001 Forum on Sustainable Development.

Moderator John Martin, director for Education, Employment, Labour and Social Affairs for OECD, started off by raising a key challenge — the brain drain. “If OECD countries attract skilled labour from the South, how does it impact these nations?”

Philippine undersecretary, Department of Labour and Employment, Arturo Brion, whose country has an estimated 7.2 million workers distributed around the world, knows this question well. “The experiences of many countries over the years show that while migration issues are difficult to manage, migration has persisted because it addresses real economic needs in receiving countries.” This is particularly true of many Western nations facing ageing populations. For developed countries, immigration can help solve some labour problems, and according to Mr Brion, this may also be true for the sending country, as migration can help ease labour market oversupply.

Developing nations will continue to look to offshore markets to employ their surplus labour and benefit from the remittances they can bring. Worker remittances can be a source of sorely needed capital to developing nations, said Riccardo Faini, executive director of the IMF and professor of economics, University of Brescia, Italy. In 1998, India received $9.5 million in remittances, Turkey $5.3 million, and Nigeria $1.5 million.

But even with these benefits, the social costs of immigration are high, leaving broken family and social networks behind. “Ideally, we could sustain development efforts that would generate adequate wage and self-employment opportunities locally as an alternative to overseas employment,” said Mr Brion. In the meantime, he said, the focus must be on protecting those people who do leave through bilateral/multilateral agreements with host countries to prescribe protection protocols for migrant workers.

Other countries are overwhelmed by migrants displaced by human rights abuses, armed conflict, and natural disasters. Georgia is a prime example. Its minister of Environment and Natural Resources Protection, Nino Chkobadze, reported that the country is now home to 300 000 internally displaced people, including 7 000 who fled armed conflict in Chechnya. “This burden to our natural resources is striking,” she said. “We are not in a position to supply the basic material needs, even providing drinking water is a problem.”

Ms Chkobadze believes that more than capital investments, Georgia needs jobs development to stabilise the country. She also appealed to the international community to do its part to prevent military conflict, which has created refugees in practically every nation of the former Soviet Union. A participant from the floor drew attention to a high-level meeting of OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) in April that approved guidelines on conflict prevention, bringing attention to small arms, a contributing factor in local conflict.

While much of the world’s migration happens between developing countries, where more than half of the world’s 150 million migrants live, migration is increasingly affecting the entire world. Mr Martin reported an upturn in immigration flows into OECD countries recently, increases that are needed to offset population and labour market declines. But the increased flows are politically thorny, with the perceived threat to locals in host countries fuelling discrimination and fear.

Not surprisingly, public opinion towards migration continues to be unfavourable, reported Mr Faini. Despite research showing very little correlation between immigration and low wages, and zero correlation between migration and unemployment, when asked if there are too many migrants, roughly half of those polled within OECD countries said, “Yes.”

One reason for this, said Michel Carron with the Confédération Francaise démocratique du travail (CFDT), France, is that people often see migrants only as “manpower.” This dehumanising perspective, he believes, threatens workers rights everywhere, no matter where they work. “We have to focus on the transferability of rights,” he continued, “and need the co-operation of trade unions throughout the world.” He cited a recent agreement with ClubMed, a tourism company, on the treatment of seasonal workers, many of whom are Moroccan.

Hassan Abougoub, Moroccan ambassador to France, agreed that while his country loses highly educated people to Northern countries (some 200 Moroccans each year are accepted to France’s high-level grandes écoles), Moroccan universities train roughly 11 000 non-Moroccan African students annually.

There is little doubt that bilateral, regional and international trade regimes are starting to have an effect on migration. An example of a good policy, said Brunson McKinley, director general of the International Organisation for Migration, is the EU’s evolution of a harmonised migration regime, as a counterpart to its customs unions. In the future, he said, programmes and policies will need to make special considerations for women (particularly in the context of health and protection), children (unaccompanied minors and trafficking of children), and health (specifically reproductive health and the spread of HIV/AIDS).

©OECD Observer May 2001

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