Migration is Here to Stay, So Get Used to It

Commentator Brunson McKinley poses a lofty question: How can one manage migration for the benefit of all? According to a newly released report on world migration patterns, the costs and benefits vary among countries and individuals. As such, writes McKinley, wide-ranging, hard-and-fast rules are not appropriate. Migration management policies that are based on the characteristics of specific situations can maximize benefit to host nations. McKinley also takes issue with the notion that migrants drain the resources of host countries; rather, it is insufficient management policies, he claims, that prove to be more costly. The priority, he concludes, is not to debate the merits of migration, but to identify sound strategies for its management. – YaleGlobal

Migration is Here to Stay, So Get Used to It

Brunson McKinley
Friday, June 24, 2005

GENEVA By the end of 2004, there were 185 million migrants worldwide - approximately 3 percent of the world's population, or roughly one in every 35 persons, almost half of whom were women. Does this represent too much or not enough migration?

Although certain to produce a lively debate, this is the wrong question. International migration is an established feature of contemporary economic, social and political life, driven by unstoppable forces of globalization and demography. Modern communication and transportation ensure that more people know more about, and have access to, formerly distant and unreachable lands. Migration today touches every country in the world, with all 191 sovereign states now either points of origin, transit or destination, and often all three at once.

The real question is how to manage migration for the benefit for all.

Migration flows are changing - for the first time, countries that traditionally receive migrants, such as Australia, New Zealand and Britain, are seriously examining their real or perceived brain drain; Australia and New Zealand are considering options for attracting back highly skilled and talented émigrés.

Temporary labor migration is growing rapidly worldwide, outpacing permanent immigration in some destination countries. Demographics are also changing: Developing countries add more than 40 million workers to their labor force each year, while there is slow or no labor-force growth in developed countries, where two-thirds of workers are employed in service industries.

The World Migration Report 2005, released this week by the International Organization for Migration, examines the costs and benefits of migration for societies, governments and migrants, focusing particularly on the intersection of migration with labor markets, development, integration, health and institutional structures.

A key finding is that the costs and benefits of migration vary widely from situation to situation, which makes generalizations about the complex effects of international migration difficult and precludes any "one-size-fits-all" migration management policy. The response to the displacement of people after the breakup of the Soviet Union would have to be different in character and scale from the movement of temporary workers to fill Germany's green card program, an attempt to meet the shortfall of 20,000 qualified information technology professionals essential to the continued development of the economy.

Migration management policies that are tailored to specific needs and circumstances can maximize migration's benefits. The one million Indians living in the United States account for 0.1 per cent of India's population but earn the equivalent of 10 per cent of India's national income; the 50 million Chinese who live outside China (including Taiwan) earn an annual income equivalent to two-thirds of China's gross domestic product. A significant portion of these earnings return to the countries of origin in the form of investment or remittances. Other countries can and do follow the Chinese and Indian examples.

The perception that migrants represent a financial burden on host countries is not sustained by research. A study by Britain's Home Office calculated that in 1999 and 2000, migrants contributed $4 billion more in taxes than they received in benefits. A recent study by the Institute for Public Policy Research found that the contribution of immigrants to public finances is significant and growing, from 8.8 percent of Britain's tax receipts in 1999-2000 to 10.0 percent in 2003-2004. In Germany, according to research conducted by the International Labor Organization, the average immigrant makes a positive net contribution of €50,000, or $60,630, during his or her lifetime.

Costs are more apparent when effective management policies are not in place. Brain drain can be a significant problem when not accompanied by taxes and other measures to mitigate the loss of skilled workers and professionals and to encourage their return to invest. Social and cultural tensions can arise if insufficient attention is given to integration and the development of shared goals, values and interests.

An end to the fruitless debate over whether or not to have migration is long overdue. We have migration. We will continue to have migration. Our choice lies in the policies we develop and pursue to channel migration into safe, orderly, humane and productive avenues that benefit the individuals and home and host societies, while minimizing potential costs.

Brunson McKinley is the director general of the International Organization for Migration.

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