- This week, for only the second time in its history, the UN General Assembly will convene to focus on international migration. It does so at a critical moment. New UN data last month showed that the number of international migrants has grown from 175 million in 2000 to 232 million today, with Asia accounting for much of the increase. And the total could reach 400 million by 2040.
- Parlementair Documentatie Centrum
Most of the growth in migration over the next generation is likely to continue to occur in the developing world. How to reap the benefits of migration for economic growth and development will be one of the key challenges for the 21st century.
The European Union has always had a strong commitment to migration and mobility and its single area of free movement—where more than 480 million European citizens can travel, study, work, and reside. The EU has addressed migration as an economic, social, and foreign policy issue.
After World War II, Europe’s robust growth relied on millions of migrant workers – as is the case today in many emerging economies. Most migrants living in the then-European Community were southern Europeans. Human mobility has proven to be an engine of development and a shock absorber in difficult economic times. EU expansion, in fact, has been the most successful immigrant integration policy in history.
The European experience might bear important lessons for countries around the world that are only now grappling with large-scale migration and are looking for promising avenues for socio-economic development. Many emerging economies that have to deal with large inward migration flows for the first time – such as Mexico, Brazil, Malaysia, and Turkey – will need to build robust systems of migration and immigrant integration.
Europe will need to further develop its migration policies.
Despite all efforts to address labour-market needs by bringing more women into the labour force, raising retirement ages, and improving training, Europe will be in serious need of additional skills and talents from abroad for decades to come. Its yawning demographic deficit is simply to big.
Another bedrock of Europe’s approach to growth and mobility is its commitment to human rights, which are at the core of the EU’s values and a “silver thread” in its relations with other countries. In engaging with its neighbours and other third countries, the EU is constantly aiming to strengthen migrants’ access to right – including access to education and healthcare, the right to work, the right of free movement, the elimination of arbitrary detention of migrants, access to justice, and equal treatment with nationals on employment issues.
The impact of respecting human rights goes far beyond the individual migrant. It benefits the communities in which migrants live, as well as their countries of origin. Empowering individuals to access rights is a winning strategy, both for effective migration governance and for sustainable development. Putting in place a migration policy that will promote economic growth and ensures prosperity will bring serious challenges.
More needs to be done to make sure the newly arrived find their place in increasingly diverse societies. Adequate investments need to be made in schooling, housing, and training. Public scepticism about migration, rising xenophobia, and swelling support for populist and far-right parties need to be addressed.
The truth about migrants
Despite immigration rates in many EU countries that rival “traditional” destination countries like the US and Canada, Europe’s leaders have not created national narratives that embrace immigration. Politicians have a particular responsibility to lead the way in fighting racism and xenophobia; they must have the courage to tell the truth about the added value migrants bring and about how human mobility is a part of the reality of the world we live in. Academics, meanwhile, need to dismantle some of the worst myths and show what role migration really plays. Business leaders must speak out about their labour needs and about how economic growth depends in great measure on migrants. And we need the media to give migration a human face and to help move society away from stereotypes.
The UN High-Level Dialogue offers a unique opportunity for the international community to organise and govern ever-larger migration flows in ways that protect the rights of migrants, reduce discrimination, and deter bad actors like smugglers and rapacious recruiters. We strongly believe that increasing international labour mobility should be one of our top priorities for the UN debate. This includes removing unnecessary barriers and facilitating movement. While fully understanding the need for security, there is nonetheless much more we can do to promote legal channels for mobility.
There is, for instance, space to adapt our visa policies. We also should make much better use of the skills and talents migrants already have. Social and pension rights must become truly portable, and we must integrate migration into our development policies, establishing the appropriate legal frameworks and administrative structures. The European Commission is ready to contribute to this on a scale that reflects the EU’s place in the world and the importance of migration and mobility to our member states.
Given its experience with migration, its continuing role as a major destination for migrants, and as the leading donor of development assistance, the EU and its member states have a crucial role to play in driving greater international cooperation on migration and development. The EU can offer and share much of its experience on key issues of concern to the global community – from promoting the protection of the human rights of all migrants and addressing the needs of migrants in life-threatening situations, to advancing regional and international labor mobility, including by removing barriers to human mobility that hinder competitiveness and regional integration.
None of this will be easy; but Europe brings long, and often hard, experience to bear on its efforts.
The writer is a Swedish EU commissioner responsible for home affairs