Helping migrants weather the storm

By William Lacy Swing

Perceptions of migration and broad recognition of the positive contributions that migrants make to society have regrettably regressed in most migrant-receiving countries during the current economic downturn. As job markets in the developed world have contracted, a perception has emerged of migrants as the unwanted flotsam and jetsam of globalization, a reserve army of surplus labor that can be jettisoned or rehired with the ebb and flow of the global economy.

But while many migrants, especially the less-skilled, continue to be more affected than host populations in terms of exclusion from the job market, others are showing a remarkable capacity to batten down the hatches and wait for better days.

While there is growing anecdotal evidence that the economic downturn has led to a slowing of migration flows, the impact of this on remittances remains varied. In the Western Hemisphere, the Inter-American Development Bank believes that remittances to Latin America could drop by 11 percent over 2008 values. But in the Asia-Pacific region, remittances sent by overseas Filipino workers appear to be growing, albeit at a slower pace.

The world over, migrants remain committed to doing their best to help families back home. Many have drastically reduced their daily expenditures, are taking second or third jobs, or are drawing on their dwindling savings to ensure that they deliver on their commitments.

In the United States, as in other parts of the developed world, there is some evidence that the flow of remittances is being reversed as a result of the economic crisis, with migrants instructing families back home to sell assets acquired during years of hard work to tide them over in host countries until a recovery kicks in.

This resilience and the belief that migration can contribute significantly to meeting the development challenges facing emerging economies should be encouraged, especially by those developed nations that carry the greatest responsibility for the current global recession.

To date, the response from rich nations has been lukewarm. Migration and development-friendly policies, which are clearly needed to help poorer countries through the recession, have remained on the back burner.

Pledges by G-20 leaders last April in London to make additional funding available to poorer countries have yet to fully materialize. Nor have promises to increase Official Development Assistance to countries affected by reduced remittances.

This sends the wrong message to the developing world and to many migrants, who may now see the exploitative back doors offered by human traffickers as their only real chance of working in a rich country.

Developed countries cannot afford to turn their backs on migrants. Highly skilled migrant workers can bring the knowledge and innovation they need to emerge from recession. The low-skilled can also contribute by taking essential jobs that host country nationals shun.

Continuing demographic and skills deficits in much of the industrialized world, coupled with global supply chains resulting from economic integration, mean that migration is both necessary and here to stay. Policymakers must recognize that the economic and social contributions of migrants are a factor in both global economic recovery and in the achievement of broader, long-term development goals for both developing and more-developed countries, and they must respond accordingly.

William Lacy Swing is director general of the International Organization for Migration.
(article published by The New York Times)


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