Refugee crisis: Enough words, now it is time for action


Article by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General 

Anti-immigration voices are on the rise, to a great extent as a result of our citizens’ perception that governments are failing to manage the refugee crisis. While many people may be naturally concerned, confused and afraid of the unknown, it is the sheer perception that we lack the means to deal with this situation that is giving wings to growing anti-migration rhetoric. Unless we take urgent action to manage refugee flows in a coordinated manner and effectively integrate them, we will all lose. We should seize the opportunity that refugees bring for our economies and societies.

The arrival of refugees is not a new phenomenon, but the current volume is putting European countries under an unprecedented test, as well as questioning the ability of the European Union to meet this challenge with a coherent, unified approach. This challenge is here to stay: when refugees leave a country that has been hit by war or natural disaster with everything they own on their backs, they don’t go in search of taking other people’s jobs or making trouble – they go in search of a better life and the opportunities that they lack at home. Unfortunately, this reality often gets twisted in the public discourse, and no matter how much we try we just cannot seem to turn public opinion.

What can we do? Governments and policy makers need to develop better arguments to explain the core reasons of migration and refugee flows and develop policies that integrate migrants and refugees into our societies by tapping into their skills. If they are given the proper opportunities, the same people that we see on our screens today can help us grow our economies tomorrow.

The OECD has collected a wealth of evidence showing that the medium and longer term effects of migration on public finance, economic growth, and the labour market are generally positive. People assume that immigrants burden local services, when in fact our research shows that in many cases such services may have been broken well before the newcomers ever arrived. Indeed, very often immigrants can hold the key to fixing our ageing welfare systems, by paying taxes and contributing to pension systems. There is also concern about the ability of our countries to absorb current inflows, although countries like Canada have successfully resettled 25,000 refugees in just a couple of months, while Sweden is showing the world how to fast-track refugees’ skills.

What is needed is early integration that is tailored to the needs of the individual migrant and the local community. This implies measures such as more efficient and transparent qualification recognition processes; investing on education, re-skilling and language courses; and providing the support and mechanisms to facilitate a prompt and effective integration into labour markets.

Our OECD International Migration Outlook, released today coinciding with the UN Summit on Refugees and Migration and the Leaders Meeting hosted by President Obama, points out specific actions on a number of fronts to manage the current situation and reap the full benefits that migration can offer:

  • International co-operation: It cannot be assumed that countries will naturally work together. Collaboration requires incentives, rules, and recognition that this is a shared responsibility for the whole international community, not only for the main recipient countries.

  • Temporary protection: Unfortunately, this is becoming the rule but may be insufficient in the case of protracted crisis, such as the one we are witnessing now.

  • Global resettlement efforts. We must reinforce the global resettlement effort but this is not sufficient as it excludes large groups of people in need of protection (as resettlement focuses on the most vulnerable). Resettlement should be complemented by other actions; such as making better use of alternative pathways for refugees.

  • Time is of the essence. Needs must be identified and addressed more rapidly at both the global and local level. Adapting to higher migration flows can take time, during which political resistance builds up. If authorities fail to respond quickly to emerging migration challenges, the impression that it is out of control becomes entrenched.

About 120 million people living in OECD countries were born elsewhere and one person out of five is either a migrant or was born to a migrant parent. On average over the past decade, more than 4 million new permanent migrants settled in OECD countries each year. History teaches us that efforts in welcoming and integrating refugees are a down-payment on the future, and will benefit our societies. This is the main message that we need to convey to our citizens. And it is a message that needs to be accompanied by effective action.


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