The Integration of Migrants and Refugees: Challenges and Opportunities


Keynote lecture by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General

Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

Washington DC, 7 October 2016

(As prepared for delivery)



Dear Dean Hellman, Ladies and Gentlemen:


Thank you for your warm welcome. Today’s discussions will focus on one of the most complex challenges and opportunities of our era: the integration of migrants and refugees. The way we choose to handle this growing phenomenon will impact all of us. Effective integration policies can transform people’s lives for the better. They can enrich countries economically, socially and culturally, generating unprecedented opportunities for development. There are many stories of successful integration around the world, including in this country.


Yet, looking at recent campaign speeches and referendum and election outcomes, reading the newspapers, watching the news, you may get the impression that international migration is out of control, that governments are feeble in the face of unstoppable movements, and that migrants are threatening the social fabric of many countries.


These concerns are not totally unfounded. International migration through legal channels to OECD countries is at record highs. And the Syrian and Libyan crises have overwhelmed the reception and processing capacity of several European and Middle Eastern countries.


When it comes to migration and refugees, emotions run high on all sides. We are often dealing with vulnerable people fleeing war, violence and/or extreme hardship. They may have endured great trials, crossing continents, and losing relatives and friends. Nonetheless, many in host countries are quick to view migrants and refugees as a threat, fearing the burden they may impose on taxpayers, local values and cultures. In this atmosphere, it can be difficult to set out the facts and the evidence needed to inform a balanced public debate.


International migration is a fact of life


Migration itself is a fact of life. It’s one of the oldest human phenomena. Humans have always moved across communities, states and continents. But numbers are going up and are likely to increase further given large political, demographic and economic imbalances and climate change. In 2015, about 244 million people were living outside their country of birth ─ half of them in OECD countries. This is over 40 million more migrants to OECD countries than in the year 2000. On average, the share of migrants in the OECD population rose from 9.5% in 2000 to 13% in 2014, and increased in almost all OECD countries.


This increase in legal flows has been overshadowed by the mass inflows of asylum seekers in 2015 and the first part of 2016. To-date, around 1.65 million asylum applications have been registered in OECD countries, the highest number since World War II. More than two-thirds of these applications were filed in European countries.


But these figures do not reveal the full picture. Syria’s neighbours remain the largest refugee-receiving countries. Turkey alone provides temporary protection to more than 2.7 million Syrians. Jordan and Lebanon follow with about 1.5 million each. And asylum seekers and humanitarian migrants represent only a fraction of total migration flows. The vast majority of migrants arriving in OECD countries are seeking to work, study, or reunite with their families.


Looking ahead, it’s clear that the push factors behind international migration are not going to weaken. Even if present conflicts are resolved ─ which doesn’t look imminent ─ millions of people will be displaced in the future because of climate change and other global threats.


Closing our eyes ─ or our borders ─ is not an option.


Migration is all too often seen as a threat, not an opportunity


Yet this is what we are witnessing more and more. Fears over migration are fuelling populism and mistrust and undermining the capacity of governments to manage flows.


In OECD countries, people think that there are two or three times as many immigrants as there really are! There is a similarly exaggerated perception of how much migrants cost and how much they access social benefits. Half of Europeans think that refugees are going to take their jobs and social benefits. And regardless of actual migrant numbers, half the public in the USA and among the OECD’s European Members think ‘‘it’s too many”.


Our evidence ─ reported annually in our flagship International Migration Outlook, which has just celebrated its 40th edition ─ shows that in almost all OECD countries, migrants contribute more than they take in social benefits. They are productive members of society who work, set up businesses and have innovative ideas. Migrants boost the working age population: over the past 10 years, they accounted for 47% of the increase in the US workforce and 70% in Europe. They also fill jobs in both fast‑growing as well as declining sectors of the economy, including the care of the elderly and health care in general.


On the other hand, migration does have short‑term costs. And the local impact of large‑scale migration may be far stronger in some areas than at the national level. If we don’t recognise the real costs being paid by some local communities and the stress of adapting to diversity, we not only look elitist and out of touch; worse still we are failing to point policy in the right direction.


We need to move the debate from managing threats and costs to seizing opportunities, from one of fears to one of hope.


So what should we do?


It’s fair to say that the management of international migration has not always been enlightened. All too often, migration policies are defined by short‑term, narrowly defined national interests. Our ability to address the current challenge will thus depend crucially on our efforts to reinforce international co-operation on migration issues.


Let me highlight three international dimensions in which we falling short:

(1) International co-operation on regular migration.

(2) The global framework for handling refugee crises.

(3) Integration.


First, we must improve international co-operation on regular migration. Our traditional model, in which employment services screen and place low-skilled workers into factory jobs in the destination country, is no longer effective. Bilateral or multilateral agreements ─ such as those for supplying seasonal workers, or health-care professionals ─ cover only a fraction of movements. And efforts to mitigate the negative effects of brain drain are rare and mostly ineffective. The countries most affected by brain drain ─ such as those in sub-Saharan Africa ─ lack the professional opportunities to attract these workers back.


Progress on regional integration has improved the management of migration flows and brought countries together. The European Economic Area, and free mobility provisions within MERCOSUR are good examples. International co-operation on border security is important, but we also need co‑operation on the recognition of professional qualifications, and on social security.


Last month, for the first time, countries came together at the UN to discuss migration and refugees in a dedicated summit. They agreed that there are common rights for all refugees and migrants. They agreed to fight xenophobia against refugees and migrants. And they agreed to negotiate two instruments, a Global Compact on Refugees, and a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The New York Declaration aims to finalise and adopt these Compacts in 2018.


The OECD stands ready to help, drawing on our data and multidisciplinary expertise, to strengthen international co‑operation on such key issues as empowering migrants to fully use their skills in the destination country; fighting discrimination; tackling smuggling and corruption; and combating the illegal employment of foreign workers.


Secondly, we need a global framework for handling migration crises. The international response to the ongoing refugee crisis was belated, disappointing and overly cautious in many countries. It was only after it became a humanitarian tragedy ─ illustrated in widely publicised images of suffering and death ─ that international co‑ordination accelerated. But we still have a long way to go. The crisis is not over, nor will it be the last, and we need a better international response: more timely, bold, and innovative. More comprehensive; more politically courageous.


The Global Compact on Refugees is one approach. To be effective, it needs to deliver real responsibility sharing. This means stepping up existing commitments to include resettlement. It means involving more stakeholders in the framework for providing broader support. It means assisting developing countries to manage and integrate refugees. Sometimes it means turning traditional thinking on its head, like the flawed notion that development assistance is separate from refugee assistance. Or that in‑country refugee assistance counts against, and therefore substitutes, ODA commitments.


These challenges are all well-identified in the draft compact. But we need to make sure that ambitious solutions are not sacrificed to political expediency and the 2018 timeline.


Beyond the Global Compact on Refugees, we need to rethink the legislative framework governing our international protection system. The 1951 Convention protects the rights of people in need of international protection, but in cases of mass displacement and protracted crises ─ like the current one ─ most people receive only temporary or subsidiary status. Some OECD countries, such as Sweden and Germany, have taken the pragmatic step of giving certain asylum seekers the possibility to work. However, others have been reluctant to do so, fearing it will make their countries a magnet for more asylum seekers. This race to the bottom leaves millions of people with little incentive to learn the language of their host countries, go back to school, or try to integrate in host labour markets and societies. A lose-lose proposition. 


Setting internationally adopted standards for a gradual acquisition of rights would allow countries to focus on integration, rather than on whether their approach to migrants is too generous relative to that of their neighbours.


Third, we must strengthen international co-operation to improve migrant integration. If migration is to be successful, integration is THE key! Although many countries have made progress in this respect, many challenges remain. On average, the unemployment rate of migrants who have been in OECD countries for more than five years is 50% higher than for native-born residents.The integration of refugees is even more difficult, largely because many of them are low-skilled. Recent OECD work with the European Commission shows that it takes about 20 years for refugees in Europe to achieve employment rates similar to those of other migrant groups. Twenty years!


Yet, too often, integration is treated as a domestic issue. It is not! There is a very strong case for international co-operation on integration.


The domestic issues related to the lack of integration ─ economic costs, political costs, instability, and the erosion of social cohesion ─ have international implications.


Besides… inclusive, cohesive and harmonious societies will help improve international relations! Otherwise, the backlash against globalisation and rising social and political fragmentation as well as the rising populism and nationalism we are witnessing across the world will only grow.


Also, failed national integration efforts have knock-on effects in other countries. It’s all too easy, and too common, to turn on the television and see a magnified, sometimes sensationalised, version of poor integration. This fuels fears, shifts the migration discourse, and undermines balanced debate of the relevant issues.


Finally, better integration improves development outcomes. In OECD countries, there are around 10 million high-educated migrants who are not employed. A further 8 million high-educated migrants are poorly matched in their job. Everyone loses out: the host country, the origin country, and the migrant. Improving the integration of migrants means enabling them to remit more to their countries of origin and possibly return there with valuable skills. This is also true for refugees, and some countries are leading the way. For example, Sweden has developed a system to fast-track refugees with skills into occupations where there are labour shortages. And Germany is investing heavily in the early assessment and recognition of refugees’ skills and qualifications.


Flagship OECD publications such as Settling In and Making Integration Work offer a comprehensive set of indicators that allow us to gauge the quality of migrant integration and develop policy recommendations for countries. These focus on facilitating the active participation of migrants in the labour market. As well as recognising qualifications, we need early and intensive efforts to improve literacy and language proficiency, and provide adult education and vocational training. Host countries also need to ensure fair access to social support services, and collaboration with civil society to build ties between migrant and host country communities. This may include supporting humanitarian migrants to deal with trauma-related mental health issues, which is of course a moral obligation, but it’s also an economic imperative, since it helps them to integrate.


Given its global implications, it is striking that integration had until very recently been largely absent from the international agenda. The UN debate focussed on migrants’ rights but not on their outcomes. Even at the EU level, integration remains in essence a national competency with limited collective EU funding and an insufficient appetite for action.


We urgently need an international agenda on integration. Integration issues should be uppermost in the forthcoming UN process to negotiate a Global Compact on Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration, which can be supported by the common principles on integration that we are developing at the OECD based on more than 40 years of experience on the subject. We need to pull together as a global community! 


Ladies and Gentlemen: This year at the Olympics Games in Rio, for the first time ever, refugees from across the world competed for the Refugee Olympic Team. In the words of IOC President Thomas Bach, “these refugee athletes show[ed] the world that despite the unimaginable tragedies that they have faced, anyone can contribute to society through their talent, skills and strength of the human spirit.” We need a new generation of migration policies for the 21st century. These policies must be both global and local. Global, because no country can deal with large flows in isolation. And local, because policies must promote quick and effective integration.


And as important as the policy mix is, it’s also about winning hearts and minds. Indeed, policymakers need to acknowledge that not everybody experiences migration in the same way. The problem is that, when emotions run high, facts do not speak for themselves. So we need to listen to people’s concerns and have a frank, respectful and evidence-based debate about how to design, develop and deliver better migration policies, and better integration policies, for better lives.


Thank you.