International migration policies and data

Launch of 2008 International Migration Outlook - Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General


Launch of 2008 International Migration Outlook


Remarks by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General


Paris, France, 10 September 2008

Good morning ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to launch the 2008 edition of the OECD’s flagship publication on migration.

Migration is one of the biggest policy challenges of the 21st century. Globalisation means that not only goods, services and capital are moving around the world, but people too. The hope for better job opportunities, higher living standards, a brighter future for their children, and lives free from conflict and persecution – all of these factors are leading migrants to pack their belongings to seek a better life elsewhere.

The demand for migrants’ skills and contributions is increasing as well. As baby-boomers are retiring and fewer young people are entering the job market, OECD governments and employers have been looking to migration to make up for shortfalls in labour supply. Migration is not the only solution to compensate for population ageing, but certainly part of the answer. In fact, the OECD’s 2008 Migration Outlook shows that the working-age population in most OECD countries will not decline by 2020 if countries keep migration at current levels. But there are some important exceptions. In some countries, including Japan and Germany, current migration levels will not be high enough to offset projected population declines.

Migration is here to stay. It will become an increasingly important feature of the global landscape. But countries’ policies to manage the many challenges that these movements pose have been lagging behind the events. Most countries have been approaching the issue in a piecemeal fashion. Migration-related issues, such as the labour market insertion of migrants, their integration into society, security and border controls, remittances sent back home, and brain drain in origin countries, are being addressed separately, often without a coherent framework. And we are still missing an important part of the picture as we know too little about illegal immigration.

The current climate of economic uncertainty shows just how important it is to take a broad view. I have just returned from Spain where the complexities of migration policy are clearly illustrated. Over the past decade, Spain has seen the most significant increase in immigration in the OECD. Based on a consensus with the social partners, there was a large regularisation of immigrants and only few restrictions were applied to recruitment from abroad. Immigrants helped expand sectors such as construction, agriculture and tourism and filled the coffers of the treasury and social security system with their contributions. Spain is now going through a serious economic slowdown and immigrants were among the first to lose their jobs; having sent their savings back home, they lack money and family support networks and have turned into one of the most vulnerable groups of society. Both return migration and the integration of migrants have now moved to the top of the Spanish policy agenda while plans to severely restrict hiring abroad are being discussed.

Migration will only be manageable if we take a comprehensive, long-term perspective. In order to do so, we need to know more about the multiple facets of migration. The analysis of migration movements and the development of best practices in migration policy is therefore one of the priorities I have set for the OECD. I am proud to say that the International Migration Outlook, with its wealth of internationally comparable data, has become an indispensable reference for work in this field. But we do not stop here. With our work on policy areas such as on the management of migration flows, on the integration of migrants, on the impact of migration on origin countries, and on the education of migrants, we aim to address this important driver of globalisation from as wide a perspective as possible.

The OECD’s 2008 International Migration Outlook confirms that the trend of increasing migration continues. About 4 million permanent legal migrants entered OECD countries in 2006, a five percent increase over the previous year. Illegal migration remains an issue but, by definition, is hard to measure. We have all seen the pictures of aspiring immigrants in search of a better life trying to enter foreign countries by boat or by crossing borders. But most illegal immigrants actually come to OECD countries in a legal way, using tourist, family visit or other visas, and become irregular later through staying beyond the authorised period.

This year’s Migration Outlook takes a detailed look at the management of low-skilled migration. This is a difficult and politically sensitive issue, but one that needs to be addressed if migration policies are to work better for all parties concerned. Many OECD countries are competing to attract high-skilled immigrants, but are often less comfortable with the idea of accepting more low-skilled immigrants, even where there is a strong demand for such workers. They fear that less-skilled workers might not be employable in the long term and that they would face more problems integrating than more educated workers.

Most countries have chosen to manage migration of the low-skilled through temporary migration schemes. Also, circular migration is being discussed for this group of migrants. The concept implies that migrants move back and forth between home and host countries. 

The use of temporary migration schemes for low-skilled migration raises two fundamental policy questions.

First, are most labour shortages indeed temporary? The answer is no. Many of the low-skilled labour needs in OECD countries are likely to persist. Earlier, I mentioned that OECD countries will experience labour shortages due to population ageing. Looking across countries, we often see shortages in the same occupations: for example, agriculture, construction, hospitality, cleaning and household services and personal care. There is no reason to assume that these are only short-term needs. Today, most OECD countries offer limited possibilities for legal entry to fill these jobs and often only on a temporary basis. This may be one explanation why so many unauthorized immigrants work in these occupations.

Secondly, can temporary migration schemes be used to supply labour for long-term needs? This seems unlikely. Cycling repeated waves of temporary migrants in and out of the country to occupy the same jobs is inefficient. Employers have to retrain workers every time rather than retain experienced staff. Enforcing such a scheme on employers entails substantial economic and political cost. More likely, economic rationality would win out over artificial or badly-designed regulations, with the risk that employers cheat the system.

This does not mean that all temporary migration schemes for low-skilled workers do not work.  Some temporary schemes are working well, when they involve planned returns, when arrangements are worked out with all stakeholders, and when they cover labour needs that are truly temporary, such as seasonal jobs in agriculture and tourism. But constructing a country’s migration policy on the assumption that labour immigrants will only stay for a short time is not the way to go. It is neither efficient nor workable. Even if so-called circular migration schemes are offered, many migrants may be unwilling to leave on the promise that they can return later after a stay in their home country. 

The 2008 International Migration Outlook shows that there is in fact significant return of migrants: between 20 and 50% of migrants leave the host country within 5 years of arrival.  But return migration is not primarily driven by policy. Most of the returning migrants decide to go back home spontaneously, based on individual and family objectives, but also influenced by job opportunities back home. If the economic, political and social situation in the origin country is stable and attractive, workers may go back. But if economic and political prospects are bad, even assistance and financial aid from the host country are unlikely to convince immigrants to go back.

There are many ways in which migrants can contribute to the development of their home country, without necessarily making return a precondition. Engaging the diasporas can, for example, promote the transfer of skills and technologies and help reinforce ties with the home country. Return migration and the mobilisation of diaspora can in this way support, if not actually initiate, the development process.

In closing, let me underline the OECD’s commitment to help both developed and developing countries to tackle the many challenges of migration. Mastering migration will bring us a big step closer towards making globalisation work for everyone. Tailoring immigration to future needs is vital.

But it is also vital to address migration objectively; to treat it as an economic and social phenomenon which, if well managed, can provide solutions to some of our present challenges rather than to react intuitively or emotionally, or to use it for short-term political gain.

Neither should policy makers ignore the issue or look the other way while economic reality overwhelms obsolete legal frameworks.

Migration is one of the 21st century’s most important challenges. The OECD is ready to help countries deal with it in the most favourable way possible.

Thank  you.


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