What Happens After Migrants Arrive in the Promised Land?

Last spring, at the height of the Arab uprisings, many in Europe were apparently gripped by visions of a migrant tidal wave crashing its shores. The wave never came. Yet its spectre helped to feed a tenacious anti-immigrant populism that has concealed an important new trend: migration to Europe—as well as to the United States—has largely stalled. In many countries, more immigrants are leaving than are arriving, due mainly to the economic crisis that has drained jobs in the West.

The numbers are startling. Take Spain as an example: Its population is now declining, having fallen by nearly 28,000 in the first half of 2011, and it is on track to lose more than half a million residents by 2020. By contrast, between 2002 and 2008, Spain’s population grew by 700,000 a year, driven largely by immigration. The trends are similar elsewhere in Europe.

While this fact alone will not quiet opponents of immigration, it does give countries more breathing room to improve the way that they receive and integrate migrants. In so many ways, these systems are broken.

Rapidly aging Western countries are unable to attract the immigrants they need. They allow millions to suffer from discrimination and abuse. Deportations and detention take place under conditions that are sometimes very bad. Meanwhile, the international community collectively fails to protect vast populations of vulnerable migrants—such as the millions stranded by the recent conflicts in North Africa.

Undoubtedly we must confront the rise in anti-immigrant populism. Political parties in France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands (to name a few) have run successful campaigns that scapegoat immigrants.. Whilst polling suggests that attitudes are influenced more by ethnicity than religion, both in some sense define identity and attitudes. Governments from Alabama to Budapest are passing laws that undermine what should be the rights of migrants. Italy recently adopted harsh “emergency” decrees targeting migrants by making undocumented entry and stay in Italy a criminal offense.

The anti-immigrant rhetoric from the extremes has fed into mainstream political discourse. European leaders have tripped over themselves to declare, one more forcefully than the next, that multiculturalism is dead. Dutch politician Geert Wilders, whose Freedom Party is informally part of the governing coalition, did them one better when he was charged with incitement to hatred against Muslims. In the US, alligator-filled moats and electrified border fences have featured in the current presidential campaign.

Such attacks on immigration might offer instant political gratification in some quarters, but their net result is to cleave societies whose cohesion is already being seriously challenged by the economic crisis. The rising discrimination in employment, housing, and education affects not just immigrants and their children, but harms our societies as a whole.

With the lull in net immigration, we now have a window of opportunity to address these shortcomings. Debunking the myths about migration— that most immigrants entered unlawfully, for instance, or that immigration displaces existing workers—would be a good place to start. It would also be useful to explain in OECD countries that immigration is necessary for prosperity and growth.

If the West and other aging societies like Japan fail to get it right now, they will be woefully unprepared when they confront the real tidal wave—of retiring baby boomers in the coming two decades. The gaps that will then appear in their labour markets will be immense—from software specialists to physicians to home health aides. The EU labor force will decline by almost 70 million workers in next 40 years; in the absence of significant net immigration (combined with a much higher retirement age), European economies and social safety nets will shrivel.

The priorities, though multiple, are clear. We need to better understand how our economies will evolve in the coming decades and to redesign our educational systems to produce workers with usable skills. In parallel, where it is clear that immigrants will be needed, we must create immigration systems that identify, welcome, integrate, and protect them. Meanwhile, our most fundamental institutions—schools, police, the courts— must be reengineered to reflect and respond to the diversity of our communities, which is now a fact of life. And countries must learn to work together to achieve these goals, few of which can be reached by nations going it alone.

If our toolbox were empty, then our inaction might be understandable. But examples of smart migration practices abound. Canada and the Philippines, for instance, have a well-functioning accord that protects the rights of temporary workers. Sweden has developed legislation that minimizes bureaucracy for companies that need foreign workers. And important advances have been made in how to ensure that immigrant children receive the education they need to become full members of society.

Progress is being made on the global level as well, despite the economic crisis and the anti-immigrant populism. Just this past June, ILO members overwhelmingly approved the Domestic Workers Convention, which will significantly increase protections for an extremely vulnerable group of workers—the majority of whom are migrants. The Global Forum on Migration and Development, meanwhile, has quickly become an important vector for fostering knowledge and partnerships since its founding in 2007.

The reason for this blossoming international cooperation is simple: countries everywhere are affected by migration, and, increasingly they are countries of immigration and emigration simultaneously.

Although migration in the popular imagination is a north-south phenomenon, the reality is very different. Today, roughly one-third of migrants move between developed countries; one-third move between developing countries; and only one-third move from the developing to the developed world. Highly skilled workers, such as bankers and engineers, are flocking to China. Mexico, known primarily as a country of emigration, is home to millions of migrants from Central America. In Southeast Asia, where millions venture to the Middle East to work, millions more cross borders within the region. And the list goes on.

We are all in the same boat—and that boat is leaking. It is time for us to find enduring ways to fix it.

This article was first published on Project Syndicate in January 2012