Thinking Aloud: “The Latest Wave of Migration: Motivations and Responses,” Part I

May 12, 2015 by Darius 

Today, I attended a discussion on “The Latest Wave of Migration: Motivations and Responses.”  Both Kathleen Newland, currently affiliated with the Migration Policy Institute, and Dilip Ratha of the World Bank provided incisive statistics and made a number of trenchant observations.  Today, I’ll share the comments of Kathleen Newland, which dealt mostly with the current European migration crisis.  Tomorrow, I’ll share the remarks of Dilip Ratha, known as the economist who first documented the role remittances play in the global economy.

Newland began by pointing out that the great majority of the world’s migration is normal, legal, and positive for both the migrants and the receiving countries.  However, most news today focuses on the exceptions, and most notably, on the European crisis.

Newland said the current European migration crisis, which is seeing tens of thousands of would-be migrants boarding boats for Europe, is nothing new.  Four or five years ago, the same phenomenon was happening in the Gulf of Aden as Somali and, to a lesser degree, Ethiopian refugees tried to get to Yemen, which served as a gateway to the rest of the Gulf.  The death rate for migrants making that journey was approximately 5%, similar to migrants crossing the Mediterranean today.  In 2013, the spotlight was on Australia’s migration crisis: 20,000 Asian migrants arrived on Australia’s shores, a comparatively huge proportion of Australia’s population.

According to Newland, we are witnessing some changes at the margins of international migration.  Most notably, migration is becoming more sea-borne.  Secondarily, we are seeing a rise in unaccompanied minors making the journey; 137,000 such unaccompanied minors have crossed the border from Mexico to the US alone.

International migrants today are a mix of refugees and non-refugees.  Newland felt it is growing increasingly difficult to draw a clear, bright line between refugees and non-refugees, especially if one considers violence and extreme poverty to be forms of compulsion for migrants.

Newland also said that unauthorized migration has a major ability to cause political crises in the receiving country or countries.  Many people see “defending” the country as one of the primary responsibilities of the government, and migrants, particularly those arriving in boats, quickly “conjure up images of invasion” for some people.  The result has been, in Europe at least, a race to the bottom in political rhetoric as various political parties outdo each other on taking a hard line on immigration, and the visceral reaction to unauthorized immigration has resulted in policy focused on treating the symptoms rather than the underlying causes of such immigration.

Turning to specifics, Newland said that in 2015, the death rate for migrants crossing the Mediterranean to Europe has been 20 times that of 2014.  Newland blamed the termination of an Italian-led search and rescue program and its replacement with a European “border patrol” program, which is terribly undermanned, underfunded, and has a very narrow mandate.

The burden of the current crisis is not being shared evenly.  Newland identified four European countries as shouldering a majority of the burden: Italy, Greece, Germany, and Sweden.  Italy and Greece are the countries where the boats carrying migrants are literally coming ashore, and the burden is falling disproportionately on Italy and Greece to feed, house, and process migrants.  Germany and Sweden are the top destinations for secondary migration due to their relatively strong economies and tolerance for migrants, which has resulted in a high rate of asylum seekers being granted asylum.  Some European countries, such as Great Britain and Hungary, have said they want no part of any plan to distribute the burden more evenly across Europe.  The UK has taken a total of 300 Syrian refugees.  Hungary, which has a right-wing government, has been dealing with a different migrant burden: 40,000 refugees from Kosovo.

Newland commented on the specifics of the way migrants integrate into European economies.  Unlike the United States, where it is easy for migrants to get jobs but difficult for migrants to plug into the welfare system, European countries, especially northern European countries like Sweden, have chosen to maintain a labor system that is largely closed to migrants while opening welfare systems.  Thus, it is possible for asylum-seekers to arrive, be shut out of the labor market, and immediately go on welfare for two years.  In the US, by contrast, migrants often get jobs fairly quickly, often, for women especially, at below-market rates in child care and jobs caring for the elderly and disabled, which has the ironic effect of allowing the US to avoid putting money into a European-style public social welfare system.

The European Union’s most concerted policy initiatives at the moment have been attempts to stop the boats carrying migrants across the Mediterranean.  The EU has lobbied for a UN Security Council resolution to grant European navies the right to use force against smugglers in not just international waters but also in Libyan territorial waters.  However, Newland cautioned that stopping the boats is simply not geographically feasible.  While such a strategy worked for remote Australia, it cannot work for proximal Europe.

Instead, Newland felt that the problems of migration cannot be solved by Europe, the UN, or any other country or organization without fixing the conflicts and pressures in each country of origin.  However, Newland said it is possible to manage the problem and to lessen its human toll.

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