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DEVELOPMENT: Pros and Cons of International Migration

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 15 2006 (IPS) - As the number of international migrants from poor to rich nations continues to rise – reaching a record 191 million in 2005 – most Western countries have either imposed or are planning to impose restrictions to reduce the flow of humans into their territories.

”Migrants should be able to migrate out of choice rather than out of necessity,” says the 25-member European Union (EU), in a position paper released Friday at the conclusion of a two-day high-level meeting on international migration and development.

The EU implicitly argues that most migrants are driven out of their home countries primarily for economic reasons. And therefore it is imperative to address the root causes of migration both through facilitating livelihood opportunities and eradicating poverty.

”Every government should see it as their responsibility to create and sustain a society where their citizens, in particular the youth, can secure a livelihood and build a future. It is a viable option to stay in one’s country,” the paper said.

In his keynote address, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan took a different view: ”Migration is a courageous expression of an individual’s will to overcome adversity and live a better live.”

Put simply, he said, ”we are all in this together.” More countries are now significantly involved in, and affected by, international migration than at any time in history.

On the positive side, he said, the evidence on migration’s potential benefits is mounting. The amount of money migrants from developing nations send back to their families – estimated at 167 billion dollars in 2005 – ”exceeds the total of all international aid combined,” Annan said.

Still, the downside of migration includes illegal activities like trafficking and smuggling, as well as social discontent and increased crime, according to surveys in Europe.

Last week the government of Spain threatened to deport illegal immigrants residing within its borders. The British government says it is considering restricting access to nationals of Bulgaria and Romania – if and when the two countries gain admission to the EU.

Since 2004, when most Eastern Europe countries joined the EU, over 427,000 East Europeans, about two-thirds from Poland, have registered for employment in Britain. At the same time, Western Europe is now more inclined to hire Eastern Europeans both for skilled and unskilled jobs than Asians and Africans.

Asked if developing nations are justified in accusing rich nations of covert racism in their decision to be selective in controlling their borders, Peter Sutherland, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative on International Migration and Development, told IPS, ”There is little doubt that Europe is contending with a new wave of immigration, much of it coming from Africa.”

The reasons for this are many, he said. Among them, disparities in wealth between Europe and its surrounding neighbors, as well as the contrast between the rapidly ageing and retiring European work force and the legions of unemployed youth in Africa.

”There is, in short, a need for immigrants who will do the jobs that Europeans either cannot or will not do. But at the moment, many European countries have yet to fully acknowledge that their future growth will depend, in part, on the labour of immigrants,” Sutherland said.

But even those countries that do understand this often fail to develop a successful approach to immigration: they might not offer enough visas or make it easy for employers who need workers to find them.

The flow of migrants from poor to rich nations can also have a negative effect on the developing world. According to a study by the Helsinki-based World Institute for Development Economics Research (WIDER), developing nations that see their entrepreneurs, scientists, technology experts, medical doctors emigrate ”can experience a retard in their development potential.”

In contrast, ”receiving countries will benefit from an in-flow of talent that enlarges their qualified human resource base, relieving shortages of high skilled people,” says Andres Solimano in a WIDER study titled “The international mobility of talent: new ways for international development.”

Sutherland said there is also a great deal of work for the EU to do in order to offer immigrants full access to the social, economic, and political opportunities that other residents enjoy.

Ultimately, the EU must also aim to contribute in a more meaningful, sustained way to the economic, political, and social development of Africa, so that fewer people feel the need to emigrate, he added.

Complicating all this, Sutherland said, is the human tragedy of countless immigrants who seek to enter Europe illegally. In the process, many die – either crossing the desert or the sea.

”This has contributed to a public perception that immigrant flows are out of control. In this respect, it is vital for all nations – not just those in Europe or in the developed world – to exercise greater control of their borders so that the movement of people takes place in a safe, orderly, and legal way.”

Above all, he said, ”we need to do this for the sake of migrants’ lives; it’s also essential in order reaffirm public faith in the rule of law and in the ability of governments to provide security.”

Of the 191 million international migrants last year, about 115 million lived in developed countries, according to UN figures. Three-quarters of all migrants lived in just 28 countries in 2005, with one every five migrants living in the United States.

The United States also leads the world as a host country, with over 38 million migrants in 2005, constituting almost 13 percent of the country’s population.

With U.S. Congressional elections due in November, international migration has also become a hot political issue in the United States.

”With the population of the United States on a course to reach 600,000 million inhabitants by the year 2100, immigration will continue to be a major issue,” says Werner Fornos, the 2003 UN Population Laureate, who tracks immigration and population trends worldwide.

What is desperately needed in immigration reform, Fornos told IPS, is a reform of the quota system by which immigrants are admitted to the United States.

”This will go a long way in discouraging illegal immigration. It is the sovereign right of all nations to control their borders. And the United States should be sure that people entering it for permanent residency are screened for public health risks and previous criminal activity,” said Fornos, founder and chief executive officer of Global Population Education.

”Immigrants can continue to make valuable contributions to the development of the American way of life,”

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