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East: OECD Says Migrant Flow At Record Levels

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Record numbers of immigrants are moving to Western countries in search of a new life. The latest report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development shows that the upward trend of immigration, from Eastern Europe and elsewhere, which began in the mid-1990s, is continuing -- despite the economic downturn in many of the host countries.

Prague, 22 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in its latest report on trends in international migration, says official figures show people are continuing to flow Westward in ever-greater numbers.

They come from Russia, Ukraine, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, China, North Africa, and elsewhere, whether legally or illegally, to seek new lives in Europe and the United States.

OECD migration expert Jean-Pierre Garson, giving details of the report in Paris, said that the latest figures relate to 2002. But there is no reason to suppose the flow has reduced in the past year.

Garson said that, as the European Union prepares to enlarge to the East, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland are themselves becoming targets of immigration. Previously these countries were regarded as transit points for migrants on the way west.

The report focuses not only on the difficulties Western Europe has in integrating the thousands of new arrivals, but also the loss in expertise to the countries being left: "For example, the refugees in Sweden and Norway, some of them have a very high level of qualifications, but they do not speak the [host country's] language, so it is very urgent to put the people to work, and at the same time give them better proficiency in language and better qualifications if necessary."

Garson says the prospect that many of the immigrants will ever return home is very limited, because of the difficulty of regaining admission in the host country if they leave, and because of continuing poor prospects in their countries of origin.

But he says there is new thinking developing on this subject. With aging populations, the EU countries are coming to need increasing numbers of skilled workers. The result is that more attention is being given to temporary legal-migration programs, in which supply could be matched to demand: "It is impossible to manage migration flows without the participation of the sending countries. Also, there could be a kind of compromise, in terms of better control of the people [wishing to emigrate]. That does not mean that migration should be avoided, but illegal, irregular migration, [should be avoided]. Then there is the possibility to develop stronger and better cooperation, based on clear elements -- I mean a real element of cooperation and a real element of development."

At the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, analyst Joanna Apap says the discussion of such legal migration programs tends to focus on control mechanisms, in which the sending countries would sign re-admission agreements, and therefore control illegal exits. But she cautions: "This is very much borderline, with respect to the parameters of human rights, because in fact one should always have the right to leave one's country. Therefore, when you involve a government in controlling the exit of people, it has to be done legally and not illegally; you are institutionalizing something which could almost be considered authoritarian."

For this reason, the issue must be carefully handled. But she says, nevertheless, temporary migration can be seen as a key form of development for the sending country: "The [cash] remittances sent [home] by migrants have contributed hugely at times to a very important percentage of the gross national product (GDP) of the country of origin. One can really see how migration is a form of development of the country of origin per se, so we can stop with the idea that migration only benefits migrants who want to get rich fast, and rather see that it is a form of co-development."

Apap carries the logic of that a key step further. She says there should be help from the developed world to assist migrants to invest their financial gains fruitfully in the economy back at home, creating jobs for themselves and others. She continues: "They can then use their European 'added value' [in terms of] the experience they have gained in the countries here, in the host country, wherever they were, when they decide to go back to their country of origin. And that way, they can participate fully using the extra knowledge they have acquired in the host country during the two or three years of migration."

Apap says such a pro-developmental approach swings the migration debate into a positive area, away from what she calls the "negative" tone set by considering only the question of controls on movement of people.

As to the importance of remittances, that can be seen for example in Morocco, where they amount to 6 percent of GDP, or in Jamaica, where it is a full 10 percent. She says that this money can augment formal government-to-government aid -- which sometimes is swallowed up by the receiving governments without ever reaching the population: "If we help migrants channel back their own remittances effectively, then in addition use the aid -- which so far has not produced enough fruits -- but with more concrete projects on the ground in the countries of origin; and if we really supervise where the aid goes -- because a lot of times, unfortunately, aid money received by governments in the countries of origin disappears into the pockets of elites or into the system; if we could put proper surveillance on the ground [we could] make sure that jobs really are being opened."

She suggests this could create a "circle of virtue," in that people returning home with new or higher skills would find a better framework developing in that country for use of their skills.