People on the move

The world is seeing the greatest mobility of people in human history. Hundreds of millions are on the move – many without authorisation – to wealthier and growing economies north and south.

The consequences of these migration flows are challenging the capacities and finances of government authorities and intergovernmental organisations as well as public attitudes towards immigrants.

The most recent example is now playing out along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea with tens of thousands leaving northern Africa for southern Europe. These extraordinary migration flows are creating shocks that challenge the basic foundations of the EU, especially the principles of free movement, open borders and asylum. The sudden flows have led to the widely reported diplomatic spat between France and Italy and a challenge to the Schengen Agreement, which was signed in 1985 and guarantees free movement among 25 nations, covering a population of more than 400 million, which essentially share one external border. The quarrel was sparked by the French authorities’ refusal to let the French-speaking Tunisian migrants with temporary residence permits issued by Italy cross the border from Italy, and was patched up by direct intervention of President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

This human tide is also shifting the political landscape throughout Europe, with mounting public support for anti-immigration legislation and parties of the extreme right. In Denmark, in response to pressure from the right-wing populist Danish People’s Party, the government has unilaterally decided to reintroduce permanent border controls. Mediterranean border nations, such as Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain, regularly complain that the EU neglects immigration, burdening them with the costs of illegal immigration. In France, the immigration issue has catapulted the political career of Marine Le Pen, head of the right-wing National Front, who advocates a moratorium on immigration.

A half century ago 77 million of the globe’s people were immigrants, meaning they live in a place different from their place of birth; today the figure has nearly tripled to 214 million, increasing at nearly two per cent annually. If past migratory trends continue, as seems likely, the projected number of international migrants by mid-century could exceed 500 million. Today the number of refugees is estimated at 15 million, with the largest single group – nearly 5 million – being Palestinian refugees.

Although many economies in the West are in recession, conditions in developing nations, especially in South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and Central America, are worse. Consequently, the numbers of people attempting to leave their homelands are increasing, along with border apprehensions and deportations.

More recently, political upheavals in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia have produced large numbers of desperate migrants, seeking work and refuge in Europe. As a result of these abrupt migratory streams as well as fears of additional future flows, the European Commission has proposed allowing EU countries to reintroduce national border controls – on a temporary and exceptional basis – aimed at policing illegal migration. However, public opinion polls show that majorities across the EU want their national governments, not the EU, to manage who and how many enter their country. Countries such as Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands fear that migrants entering EU border states, in particular Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain, will gravitate to their cities, destabilising local labour markets and social solidarity.

The commission is also proposing tightening border controls outside the EU to reduce arrival of illegal migrants and asylum seekers coming mainly from war-torn countries in Africa and Asia.  While tightening border controls may reduce illegal migration at least temporarily, it’s also likely to increase smuggling. Despite the high costs and risks, many young adults are not deterred in embarking on dangerous trips with hopes for better lives.

Despite the public desire in most receiving countries to reduce immigration, the huge differences in living standards and enormous demographic imbalances between the more and less developed regions are creating powerful migration forces. On the one hand, many European countries, such as Germany and Russia as well as Japan and South Korea, are entering a period of demographic decline and rapid population aging, and these trends are expected to continue. For example, while the proportions in the labour forces in those countries are projected to decline by at least a fifth, the proportions of elderly are expected to increase by more than 40 per cent. For many of these countries, a critical dilemma for the 21st century is either more immigrants with distinctly different ethnic backgrounds or fewer citizens with a decidedly older population age structure. More immigrants are economically desirable, but culturally hard to accept.

On the other hand, the populations of most sending countries, such as India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Mexico, continue to grow. During the coming decades millions are expected to migrate from these countries to the large cities of more developed regions. Without this migration, these countries would not only lose valuable remittances, but also a demographic outlet for frustrated youth.

All governments profess their intentions to manage international migration, accepting immigrants of their choice after carefully vetting them for health, income, age, education and country of origin rather than accepting those unknown who enter countries illegally. However, skimpy efforts of governments to confront illegal migration are likely to be too little, too late. Many still advocate open borders on ethical and humanitarian grounds, believing that people should be able to move as freely as capital and goods. But not effectively addressing illegal migration not only puts at risk the lives of those who attempt to enter unlawfully, but also undermines the rule and enforcement of law, increases the costs for local services and border and internal surveillance, reduces support for legal immigration and fuels anti-immigrant sentiment among the public.

Joseph Chamie, former director of the United Nations Population Division, is research (director at the Center for Migration Studies, New York.(© 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalisation

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