It was not so long ago that industrialised countries generally pursued an active policy of attracting workers from less affluent parts of the world. While some of these countries did so on the basis of temporary labour contracts, avoiding creating any expectation of permanent establishment or even integration, many other countries attracting foreign workers did not set time limits, and allowed the workers’ families from overseas to join them under certain conditions, which led to permanent establishment, to family reunification, and to larger or lesser degrees of integration of these persons in those countries. Although irregular forms of international migration also occurred, they were not generally perceived as posing a major problem to these countries, because the influx of foreigners was generally welcomed. Refugee and asylum questions were seen as distinct issues, and dealt with under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol.
More recently, many developed countries have become more reticent, and in some cases unfavourably disposed, to admitting foreigners to their labour market. There are several reasons for this. In the wake of diminishing employment opportunities the admittance of foreigners to the labour market may be seen as a threat to local workers. Governments may be concerned about additional security risks, or negative attitudes of the electorate. At the same time, paradoxically, the private sector may be demanding more flexibility to recruit foreign workers, and if this demand is not met, for example due to political resistance, decide to move an industry, or part of it, abroad, or resort to the services of subcontractors employing migrants with irregular status.
Even in times of diminishing employment, however, there are sectors of the economy, both at the low-income and at the high-income knowledge-based side (health, education, IT), which can only function with the help of foreign labour. That is why many developed countries are facing the dilemma of either making certain exceptions to a restrictive admission policy, or tolerate, out of sheer economic necessity, a certain quantum of migrants with irregular status, and perhaps, after some time, regularise their status. The situation has been further complicated by the influx into many developed countries, for example in Europe, of persons seeking asylum, most of whom however do not qualify for refugee status, and many of whom are in reality economic migrants. This in turn, has an adverse effect on the way countries implement their obligations under the UN Refugee Convention, to the detriment of those who do qualify for protection as persons fearing persecution.
If one looks at the issue from the perspective of the international migrants – women and men – and the countries from which they migrate, the current situation is no less complex. The main forces that are driving international migration are differences in development, demography and democracy. As the divide in living standards between affluent and poor regions continues to grow, and a migrant can easily earn many times more in the industrialised part of the world than at home, the incentive for migration towards the industrialised regions increases. Demographic differences reinforce this trend: while fertility rates in the industrialised countries tend to fall below the replacement rate (2.12 per woman) and their populations are getting older, the population growth in the developing regions continues, with the result that an increasing percentage of the global labour force will come from those regions. The democratic deficit in certain developing countries, in the face of rising but unfulfilled expectations with the younger generation, is an additional factor causing many young people to migrate to countries where they can exercise their rights as free citizens.
It is often entrepreneurial people, those who have some education, bright and capable women and men, who set out to migrate. Some are in a position to exercise the skills they have also in their country of origin but choose to improve their living standards or level of knowledge or skills by moving abroad. Most, however, migrate essentially out of necessity rather than free choice. Many might have stayed in their country where they have their roots and where they would have preferred to develop their full human potential including their socio-cultural identity, if the economic, social and political climate in their homeland were not so hopeless. Moreover, when they leave their country they do so often under very difficult circumstances and at great personal cost, even risking their lives.
B. Temporary or “circular” migration
For countries of origin, the departure of migrants may have both adverse and positive effects. Clearly, migration may mean a relief to countries that have an excess of labour supply. Losing bright and skilled people forever may, however, weaken the country’s prospects for development. It is well known, for example, that the loss of professional personnel in the health sector as a result of migration to wealthier countries has had a very serious negative impact on the delivery of health services in some parts of Africa. A similar trend may be noted in the field of education. The result is a downward spiral with an adverse impact on the development of the countries of origin concerned. In contrast, these countries will draw great benefits from those migrants who return, if only temporarily, and bring the knowledge, skills and contacts they have gained abroad. Measures to promote temporary, “circular” migration are therefore of great importance, and they will be most effective when based on common understanding and co-operation between countries of origin and countries of destination. Several Asian countries, for example, have recognised the developmental opportunities of this form of migration and it is estimated that each year some two million Asian people leave their countries to work abroad under short-term contracts.
To many countries of origin, remittances sent home by international migrants are an increasingly important source of income. In 2004, Mexico received 16,000 $ million, India almost 10,000 $ million, and the Philippines 8,500 $ million worth of such remittances. To some smaller countries remittances represent a share of 20% or even 30% of their GDP. It is estimated that they almost triple the official development assistance to low-income countries, and come second as a source of external funding after foreign direct investment. They also come at a price, however. They involve social costs when family and community structures fall apart as a result of international migration. They may discourage economic reform in the countries of origin and may reinforce inequalities between households that do and those that may not count on remittances. Temporary labour migration, although not free from problems, may assist in avoiding some of the drawbacks of remittances by permanent emigrants.
International remittances may find hurdles on their way: unavailability of accessible formal financial channels, high banking fees, and unfair exchange rates, among others. To the extent that the money is being transferred through formal financial channels remittances, in addition to benefiting the direct recipients, also provide foreign exchange to countries of origin, and reinforce the financial sector (both in countries of destination and in countries of origin). But this assumes that migrants and recipients alike have access to these channels at acceptable costs. If not, they may resort to informal and clandestine channels, which may be intertwined with money laundering activities, involve more risks for the individuals concerned, and yield less indirect benefits to the economies, in particular of the countries of origin. Better regulation and co-ordination at the internal level combined with international co-operation and monitoring at the international plane could raise the micro as well as the macro benefits of international remittances.
Due to the dynamic and changing nature of international migration, the distinction between countries of origin and of destination is not clear-cut. There are countries that fall in both categories, or have become transit countries (there number is growing), and, as migration patterns change, a country of immigration may become a country of emigration, a country of emigration may become a transit country, etc. All three types of countries, however, and, above all the individual victims themselves, are currently faced with appalling abuses as a result of the involvement of traffickers and unscrupulous agents in the movement of people across international borders. Trafficking involves the coercive or deceptive transfer of people independent of their will for purposes of exploitation, whereas smuggling is a consensual transaction for the purpose of circumventing immigration controls. But in practice the two may be combined, or may be difficult to distinguish. While the criminal fight against these abuses, within and between the countries involved, will continue to require great efforts, these efforts could be assisted by the further development of legal machinery for the regulation and licensing of intermediaries involved in the recruitment of migrant workers, in particular in the context of temporary labour programmes. International co-operation at the administrative level and monitoring of the licensing system could serve this development.