Top 10 Migration Issues of 2008
Issue #1 — "Buyer's Remorse" on Immigration Policy
December 4, 2008
Booming economies in the last decade created plenty of opportunities for immigrant
workers, millions of whom flocked to Spain, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and
Australia, among other destinations.
Hungry for labor, Spain threw open its doors to legal migration in 2005 without
giving much thought to how it would cope with migrants if economic circumstances
changed. More than 800,000 foreigners moved to Spain in 2006 alone, with the
foreign population standing at 4.5 million, or 10 percent of Spain's population,
as of early 2007. Between 2005 and 2007, the proportion of foreign workers
in the labor force rose from 8 percent to 12 percent.
The United Kingdom, by granting immediate labor-market access to nationals
from the new European Union Member States in May 2004, effectively legalized
hundreds of thousands Eastern Europeans already working there and allowed many
more to follow. Polish nationals quickly became the largest immigrant group
in the United Kingdom, growing over 700 percent from about 53,000 in early 2004 to
447,000 by the end of 2007, according to UK Labor Force Survey data.
The current economic downturn, however, has made many destination countries
cautious about welcoming permanent migrants, with some expressing the policy
equivalent of buyer's remorse: paying too high a price for something no longer
desired. There are seeming exceptions, such as Sweden and Norway, each of which
have experienced high immigration levels in the past three years but have not
The country with the most remorse is Spain, which attracted migrants from
Latin America and North Africa and legalized about 560,000 of them in 2005, plus family members.
Unemployment is at 11.3 percent (17.5 percent among foreigners), the construction
industry is nearly at a stand-still, and the economy is shrinking.
After Prime Minister Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was reelected this year, he recognized
the changing mood around immigration and brought in more of a hardliner as
his new minister of employment and social affairs.
That minister, Celestino Corbacho, in June announced a voluntary return program
that would give unemployed legally resident migrants from certain countries
compensation for leaving Spain and agreeing not to return for three years.
Unsurprisingly, immigrant groups in Spain did not endorse the return program,
which the government began implementing in September, and few migrants have
taken the government up on its offer. Spain has warned that it will likely
issue few new migrant visas in 2009.
Due to political pressure and the economic downturn, the United Kingdom in November cut back the originally
planned number of "shortage occupation" visas, part of its new points system
for bringing in skilled migrants, from 1 million to 800,000 (see Issue
#2: The Recession-Proof Race for Highly Skilled Migrants). Importantly, the existence of such a list means
that the United Kingdom will have greater ability to tailor immigration to
its needs as those needs change — agility that is important in the rapidly
evolving globalized economy.
Although the flow of migrants from new EU Member States, particularly
Poland, has slowed, with some returning home (see Issue #6: Return Migration: Changing Directions? ), British politicians face a public increasingly hostile
toward immigrants and a system they perceive to be out of control.
Equality and Human Rights Commission Chair Trevor Phillips, in an October
speech promoting the benefits of immigration and the need for control, acknowledged
that such fear is legitimate. "I think we need to look out for the wife or
partner with a young child," he said. "When she applies for work, is rejected
for job after job in a slack labor market yet sees a clever young Latvian or
Lithuanian with two degrees and three languages doing the job she'd like to
do, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out how she'll feel."
Although Australia and New Zealand remain committed to attracting foreign
students who can eventually become skilled migrants, leaders in both countries
face pressure to cut immigration flows as well.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in a radio interview in October,
"As with all previous governments, and mine is the same, whenever we set immigration
targets, we will adjust them according to economic circumstances of the day."
Helen Clark, who lost her reelection bid for prime minister in New Zealand's
November elections, said in a campaign speech, "We have told Immigration that
if there is the slightest sign of uptake, they are to get much tighter on permits."
However, Clark said the country's seasonal worker program, which brings workers
from Pacific Island nations on a temporary basis, would not be stopped. This
indicates that even as permanent migration channels are reconsidered, temporary
migration channels for certain economic activities are likely to remain safe and could even be expanded.
Even Singapore, which has aggressively courted migrants and deems them essential
to the country's prosperity, has seen tensions rise over foreign workers. So
far, however, the government is not changing its rhetoric or its policy.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said during a recent dialogue with Malay grassroots
leaders, "I think our interest is to protect the Singaporeans and look after
the Singaporeans, but we must do it intelligently, we cannot just react and
just do something without thinking."
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