OECD Secretary-General

The Outlook for Migration in Challenging Times


Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, delivered at the Launch of the 2012 Edition of the International Migration Outlook

Brussels, Belgium, 27 June 2012,
(As prepared for delivery)

Commissioner Malmström, Commissioner Andor, Ladies and Gentlemen:

It is my pleasure to present the 2012 edition of the OECD’s International Migration Outlook. This is our third consecutive joint launch of this study, reflecting the excellent co-operation between the European Commission and the OECD. 

This year’s edition, the Outlook for Migration in Challenging Times, addresses some key challenges for migration policies in the context of low growth and high unemployment, ageing populations and workforces, and an unprecedented geo-economic shift from OECD countries to emerging economies.

One determinant factor for international migration flows in the coming years is what is happening in Europe today. The European Union is one of the main catalysts for international economic exchanges, including of course migration. Its prospects of growth and employment have a direct impact on global migration flows. This is why the decisions that will be taken in tomorrow’s Summit, along with the efforts made by the G20 at Los Cabos, will be crucial for international migration and migration policies.

So, what is the impact of this apparently “endless” crisis on international migration? How are the current global transformations influencing migration dynamics? What are the new trends? Let me share with you some of the key findings of our study.

Migration flows into the OECD bottomed out in 2010.

The global financial and economic crisis and the subsequent Great Recession had a tremendously negative impact on employment globally. Migrants, along with youth, were particularly affected by the global jobs contraction (and even more so young migrants). The impact was so strong, that migration flows into OECD countries experienced important declines during 2008 and 2009.

In 2010, migration inflows declined again, for a third year in a row. However, as the recovery started gaining momentum in several OECD countries, this decline was modest (of around -3% compared to 2009) and the number of migrants in the 23 OECD countries measured (plus Russia) totaled just over 4.1 million, a higher number than in any year prior to 2005. The preliminary figures for 2011 show that immigration flows started to increase again in 2011 in several OECD countries. We will have to see if this trend holds, given the new bout of economic weakness.

It is interesting to note that these new increases are not related to the particularly hard times that some Southern European countries are going through. In fact, emigration from countries like Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain increased only very modestly.

A second key message is that free mobility of labour enhances its adaptability to changing labour market conditions.

Take the case of Europe. Free mobility within the region accounted for much of the overall decline in immigration inflows since 2007, almost half a million. Still, free mobility continues to account for almost 40% of migration flows into the European OECD countries.

This issue of free mobility and its broader implications for the labour market is at the heart of another OECD publication on migration released today: Free Movement of Workers and Labour Market Adjustment - Recent Experiences from OECD countries and the European Union. I want to thank Commissioner Andor for his active support of this work. This study shows how free mobility favours the labour markets adaptability to changing conditions or downturns, and portrays it as a great advantage.

The decline in intra-EU migration flows in the post-crisis period has not been driven by policy restrictions, but rather the decline in demand for labour. This important lesson is reflected in the experience of countries like Sweden, which fully opened up its labour market for migration in 2008 but did not experience a strong increase in labour immigration. This should make us think twice before we consider closing the doors to immigration as an adequate answer to unemployment.

Demographic change is another determinant factor for migration policies.

It is highly important to gauge the implications of the current crisis on migration flows and to review our policies under this challenging dynamic. But it is also crucial that we take into account longer term trends, like the demographic transformations in our societies. 

And this is not just a question of how many new workers there are to replace those who retire. As the 2012 International Migration Outlook reflects, labour markets are changing too rapidly to consider demographic imbalances alone as a reliable indicator of future occupational needs.

By 2015, immigration - at the current level - will not be sufficient to maintain the working age population in many OECD countries, especially in the EU. But the coming labour and skills shortages are not a simple function of demographic imbalances, they also depend on the changing nature of demand for particular skills and the extent to which they can be filled from existing sources of supply.

The links between occupational growth and decline, demographic imbalances and the need for immigrant workers are therefore far from obvious.

Over the past decade, new immigrants represented 15% of entries into strongly-growing occupations in Europe, and 22% in the United States. They are thus playing a significant role in responding to labour demand in the most dynamic sectors of the economy. Many jobs which migrants are entering are new jobs, while many jobs from which older workers are retiring are being cut.

But even in occupations where overall employment is declining, there is still recruitment.  New immigrants account for around 25% of new entries in these occupations in Europe and the United States, as these jobs are often less attractive to native workers. In other words, labour migration is not so much about replacing retiring workers, but about satisfying the changing needs of the labour market.

Finally, one particularly interesting trend analysed in this year’s International Migration Outlook is the changing role of Asia in international migration.

Migration dynamics in, from and to Asia are becoming more and more important for OECD countries. Asia’s share in migration flows to OECD countries has grown impressively: In 2010, Asia has been the leading source region of new migration and accounted for 35% of all immigration flows. This represents more than 1.8 million persons, an increase of 56% over 2000.

However, Asia is rapidly becoming not only a source region for migration, but also an important destination. In a growing number of Asian non-member countries, the policies to attract and retain skilled workers are converging with those in the OECD. So if OECD countries want to rely on a steady stream of skilled workers from Asia in the future, they must take steps to maintain or rather improve their attractiveness as a destination for Asian skilled workers and students.

These are just a few reflections that emerge from our Report. You will find many other interesting assessments and recommendations in its almost 400 pages.

Dear Commissioners, Ladies and Gentlemen:

International migration flows are an extraordinary source of change, progress and integration. These flows have built our nations and they keep being essential for the functioning of our economies, both in sender and host countries. But the benefits of these flows are not automatic. They are the result of complex, sophisticated and effective policies.

Thus, it is essential that we analyze and understand international migration from an evidence-based perspective. It is essential that we adapt our migration policies to the global economic trends and transformations. It is essential that we learn from each other and use that learning to improve our policies. This is what the OECD and the European Commission have been promoting together for years. And we hope that this Report helps our countries design, promote and implement better policies for better lives!

Thank you very much.


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