Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Illegal immigration in Europe and the UN's new migration forum

The Economist has this great story on illegal immigration into Europe and the attitudes of rich and poor countries towards a UN Migration Forum. It highlights the problems that the large EU nations face in approaching immigration policy:

Immigrants now make up 8.7% of Spain’s population. Those turning up so telegenically in the Canary Islands are, at 21,000 over a year, just a detail. Most step off flights from Latin America, and walk straight into jobs on building sites or as household helpers. Spain benefits in many ways, but Spaniards are worried that immigration is out of control.

Spain’s ad hoc approach—along with much of Mediterranean Europe—is to encourage illegal migrants by granting periodic amnesties. France, home to between 200,000 and 400,000 illegal immigrants, mostly from West Africa and the Maghreb, is now trying a new tactic: throwing them out. But that, too, is proving less than satisfactory.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the hard-talking French interior minister and the centre-right’s leading presidential candidate for next year’s elections, insists he will never accept “mass regularisation” of illegal immigrants. But various failed attempts by the French government to expel them—one long-running saga involves squatters in a disused university building in Cachan, outside Paris—have shown that getting tough produces few results either.

It then goes on to discuss the new UN Migration Forum. Not surprisingly, politicians are too beholden to their interests groups to approach this topic; so it has been pushed primarily by the private sector--which (for now at least) has the most at stake in the debate:

Might there be another way to go? Some prominent figures in the Western world are proposing a new way of looking at things. Migrants who seek jobs should be encouraged and rich and poor countries should agree on how to manage the process. Peter Sutherland, chairman of BP, an oil company, and Goldman Sachs, an investment bank, has spent the past year leading a quiet but successful campaign to usher into existence a UN-backed Forum on Migration and Development. This will act as a repository for clever ideas on how to get the best from migrants, on encouraging more efficient sending of remittances and on discouraging illegal migration.

Unlike the World Trade Organisation, which he used to head, Mr Sutherland is promoting not a rule-making agency, but an up-market arena where experts can propose “smart” approaches to regulating a huge and growing global phenomenon. (The total number of migrants in the world rose to 191m in 2005 from 155m in 1990.) The forum is expected to organise at least one high-profile inter-governmental meeting a year, with the first to be hosted by Belgium next summer. Reflecting enthusiasm for the project, representatives of 127 countries attended a preparatory session in New York last month.

While it would probably be more useful to have a forum which was actually empowered to look for international agreements on migration, this is a good starting point. Globalization means an increasing international flow of goods, capital, and labor so, at some point (if not now), it will reach a point where some authority is absolutely necessary to manage the process. Migration, as everyone on this blog knows all-too-well is even more important because of its ability to dull the demographic sword hanging over aging societies. Why then are these the same countries that are dragging their feet the most?

The new organisation is supposed to empower politicians in rich countries who have the courage to argue in favour of welcoming newcomers. Most rich countries want firm assurances that yet another full-blown organ of the UN system is not being created. Some, including the United States and Australia, have been sceptical that any further global action should be considered.

But poorer countries want to see a strong body emerge, with the legitimacy, in their eyes, that comes from its connection with the UN system. The new forum is something of a compromise. It does have the blessing of Kofi Annan, the UN's secretary-general, but it will be funded and managed by individual countries, not by the UN itself.

The problem as I see it is that the public in the developed countries sees immigration as a fundamentally short-run issue: immigrants are seen as making periods of slow growth even tougher on the average worker (which is probably true); and not for their long-term contribution to the 'health' of the labor force. They are seen as outsiders deriving undeserved benefits from that which 'belongs' (wages, profits, government services etc.) to the domestic constituents; rather than as those who can themselves assimilate into the receiving society, given a certain amount of time and tolerance. Immigration is undoubtedly in the interests of rich nations over the long-term--but only if they can learn to integrate the 'outsiders' into their societies.

There is another element to it too: for the most part, international immigration is an economic decision and it has economic consequences. Theoretically speaking, labor will (gradually) flow to where it can generate the best 'returns'. It brings with it a form of added competition (as do foreign goods and foreign capital) which stimulates the receiving country's economy.

At one point, in the US at least, competition was a sacrosanct principle in policymaking. The impetus for deregulation came from the acknowledgment that competition was the best driver of economic growth and the best way to make the economy more flexible. Could it be that the 'advanced' countries are tiring of this important idea?


Anonymous said...

"Getting tough" doesn't work if you only _talk_ tough.

Realistically, actual "tough" measures would involve a universal biometric ID system and immediate, summary penalties with no judicial recourse for those caught without residence permits.

Something like indefinite detention in labor camps deliberately designed to be on the order of the old Soviet Union's "destructive" type.

_That_ would work; whether it would be desirable is of course another matter and highly dubious.

But let's be honest about the terminology, or that "tough measures don't work".

Anonymous said...

I might point out that countries belong to their citizens, and if they want to restrict immigration they have an absolute right to do so, and to set any conditions for residence they please.

Emigration is a right. Immigration is a privilege.

No 'supranational authority' has a right to restrict the democratic sovereignty of the people (of a specific country) in this regard without their consent.

They may make stupid, short-sighted or bigoted decisions, but that's their affair. Outsiders have no right to interfere.

Anonymous said...

I might point out that countries belong to their citizens, and if they want to restrict immigration they have an absolute right to do so, and to set any conditions for residence they please.

To reach that conclusion, you need to assume a theory that the citizens are free to restrict other citizens in any way they please, and not merely in some ways. In other words, you need to assume that citizens have no inalienable rights, no liberty. This is because restrictions on immigration are also restrictions upon the citizenry's freedom of association.

Anonymous said...

"To reach that conclusion, you need to assume a theory that the citizens are free to restrict other citizens in any way they please, and not merely in some ways."

-- no, you don't. This is ridiculous. Unless acquired by birth, citizenship has been universally regarded as bestowed at the pleasure of the recipient community.

The country belongs to its citizens as a collectivity and they establish the conditions for aliens to acquire rights of residence or naturalization collectively.