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International Migration: Challenges and Opportunities

SharafThe growing Diaspora of expatriate populations across the world and their multiple but mutually reinforcing identities and allegiances are a feature of globalisation. This is reinforced by the fact that governments in developing countries are reaching out to their respective overseas communities, especially in the rich countries, for investments and transfer of knowledge for human resource development programmes.

It is also helped by increasing multiculturalism at national and global levels. If the opportunities offered by migration are exploited positively, it can play a vital role in reducing poverty and economic vulnerability and in improving sustainable human development.

There is a need to improve the understanding and implementation of existing legal instruments on migration, supplemented by voluntary and cooperative efforts to provide capacity building, foster dialogue between host states and the countries of origin, and make migration mutually beneficial to countries and migrants.

Better indicators on measuring the impact of migration and development can provide answers to such questions as how this can contribute to reducing poverty. Managing migration means having the correct data for mitigating skills shortages in countries of origin as well as destination.

The orderly and selective management of labour markets can address the gaps between supply and demand and ultimately, dry up the existing ground for traffickers and smugglers who abuse the openings in the system for personal gain.

The relationship between migration and development is not new, certainly not for the developing countries. The history of the South Asian subcontinent as well as other parts of the world is intertwined with the movement of people; people who left their homes for education, trade, business opportunities and even to explore the world and to discover new territories. Over the years, these movements resulted in building a rich political, social and cultural heritage with a common purpose – to pursue happiness, peace and a safe future for the coming generations.

What is new in the context of migration today is the rapid pace, excess capacity and pressing impetus for global mobility. People move for a range of reasons – from the very oppressing, namely conflict, war, persecution, famine and disease to the most positive, imparting technical know-how and skills to others in response to specific requests or for the betterment of their future. Migration is both the result of a cause (positive or negative), as well as an act of voluntary choice due to social and economic circumstances.

Migration also has implications for host populations who can either benefit by allowing migrants to take up job opportunities in the services sector which is not fully exploited. Alternately, the local populations may feel threatened by seeing so many of local opportunities taken away by outsiders who are either better skilled or are willing to accept lower wages.

What is also new today is the greater possibility for gathering of information which allows systematic evaluation of the impact of migration on labour markets, remittance flows and migration networks. This can help countries to formulate effective policies to manage migration flows in a way that they make a greater contribution to global development.

A specific example of the value of migration is its ability to deal with shortages in skills in countries which are developed and abundant in natural resources. Although migrants fill this gap quickly in the host countries, they cause a shortage of skills in the countries of origin which have often invested heavily in producing technical expertise for national development, especially in the sectors of health, education and information technology. The remittances sent home by their nationals cannot replace the brain-drain caused by flight of these skilled workers to greener pastures.

Effective development is promoted not just by aid and trade in goods and services but also by expanding the exchange of experience and skills across countries and regions. Migration reflects the interdependence of the countries of the world as one of the most effective ways of promoting respect and understanding amongst communities and the elimination of causes of friction.

Selective removal of visa barriers to enable young professionals, scientists, business persons, journalists and artists to travel freely between nations is an important element of this strategy.

South Asian countries need to further expand on the existing visa waiver initiatives being negotiated under the aegis of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation.

Some of the benefits of international migration are exposure to globalisation through study visas and short term work permits for skills’ enhancement; internationalisation of production involving movement of labour and management; promotion of fundamental political economic and social values which are common to humanity; increase in foreign direct investments and capital flows necessary for development; and foreign exchange earnings for developing countries and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) in the form of workers’ remittances sent from abroad.

The eradication of human trafficking requires a comprehensive approach which focuses on the prevention and protection of victims and the prosecution of culprits. In 2005 the Commonwealth countries agreed to honour their obligations arising under international law and to support the full implementation of the 2000 Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the UN Convention against Transnational Organised Crime. They also affirmed the principle of solidarity and burden-sharing with regard to assistance afforded to refugees and to their host communities.

An area often talked about but least implemented is the human rights of migrants. Countries have an obligation under the UN instruments and other subsequent international protocols to take measures to ensure respect for and protection of the human rights of migrants, migrant workers and members of their families. Sometimes appropriate laws exist in the statute books of receiving countries but these are rarely enforced.

There have been many case studies of exploitation of South Asian, South East Asian and Middle Eastern immigrant workers in the oil rich Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, even though their legal systems provide protection to immigrant workers against abuse of human rights.Many developing countries are reluctant to engage in a national debate on human rights in the context of international security as it puts an additional strain on their law enforcement agencies. The issue of missing persons in Pakistan is an example of the challenge human rights poses in dealing with criminals and terrorists.

The developed world, particularly the G-8 countries, have a moral obligation to translate into action the tall pledges made at various international conferences for improving the standard of life of people through free and fair trade and debt forgiveness initiatives so that people do not leave their countries of origin in search of better livelihoods elsewhere, thereby overloading the migration system in the first place.

Development assistance also needs to focus more on capacity building programmes for improving education and health sectors and strengthening other institutions of the state in order to transform societies through economic, social and human development. Development of innovative approaches for deepening inter-state cooperation can help promote the managed transfer of migrants from countries with adequate labour surplus such as those in South Asia to those facing projected labour shortages such as Europe and North America.

The debate also needs to focus on how the countries of origin that benefit from human resource development and workers’ remittances can prepare themselves to meet the shortages that are temporarily created due to the flight of human capital and absorb their skilled workers back in the countries of origin after they have returned home at the expiry of their work visas.

An important area which should form part of the policy framework on immigration and development is strategy for information management. Migration can be managed properly if there is accurate information about labour markets. Both labour and immigration authorities need to be equipped with the machinery and technical skills to be able to provide accurate figures, when required for planning and evaluation.

There is also need for each country to maintain a database of its nationals with due legal protection for its citizens for sharing of data for security reasons, and upgrade the electronic filing systems of the customs and immigration departments to be able to use this data efficiently.

These systems should be strong enough to cope with the increase of passenger traffic at all entry and exit points such as airports and seaports for business and holiday travel. Malaysia offers an example of a highly integrated information system on citizens in the form of the Malaysian national identity card.

Pakistan has also moved closer to keeping a national database of its citizens for passport purposes but is debatable whether consolidating other data such as information on tax, health records, credit details, etc., is safe and practical. It also needs to be supported by comprehensive data protection legislation and its implementation at all levels to preserve the privacy of citizens.

It is also in the interest of the US and the European Union to double their current assistance to developing countries such as Pakistan to build capacity for designing a complete and efficient immigration database of their nationals as well as maintaining the record of other incoming and outgoing persons to and from their territories for tourism, study, temporary work or other short-term stays.

This article was published by the author in the daily Dawn on 17 April 2007 www.dawn.com