07/2009: Prof. Aleinikoff and Prof. Martin


Prof. Thomas Alexander Aleinikoff
Chair of the World Economic Forum’s
Global Council on Migration


Prof. Susan Forbes Martin
Rapporteur of the World Economic Forum’s
Global Council on Migration


“The effects of economic recession
on international migration”


Ü Eurasylum: At the World Economic Forum Summit in January 2009, the effects of the current economic crisis on migration were assessed. One of the conclusions of the WEF’s Global Council on Migration was that, whilst the pull factors in destination countries may be reduced during the current period of rising unemployment, these could be offset by the push factors in the countries of origin, which are also experiencing significant contagion effects from the global slowdown. It is also likely that irregular migration could substitute for reduced migration through legal channels, particularly labour migration. Similarly, whilst the impact of the slowdown on remittances may be difficult to predict, the current economic crisis is likely to affect the capacity of migrants to remit. Can you highlight and discuss some of the most critical effects of the current economic recession on international migration trends ?

Ü Prof. Thomas Alexander Aleinikoff: We cannot be certain at this time about the impacts of the economic downturn on international migration trends. On the one hand, worsening economic conditions at home may provide incentives to migrate – through regular and irregular channels. On the other hand, if the traditional receiving states are also witnessing economic downturns, then there is obviously less of an incentive for persons to migrate. In the United States, it seems clear that the economic situation has produced a lower demand for foreign workers and has also helped produce a significant drop in irregular migration over the southwest border.

Although there has been some anectdotal reporting of migrants returning home due to the worldwide downtown, the evidence seems to be that the worsening economic situation has not led to a trend toward a significant numbers of returns. That is, most migrants seem willing to “stick it out” for the time being, probably calculating that they would be returning to no better prospects than they have in the receiving state.

Ü Eurasylum: Another key issue discussed at the World Economic Forum was the relative economic significance of the so-called migration-development nexus. The Global Council on Migration concluded, in particular, that whilst there are indeed examples of return migration and diasporas spurring economic development in the source countries, there is a tendency in the current political debate to oversell the importance of the migration–development nexus. According to the Council, migration cannot substitute for other drivers of economic development such as official development aid, trade liberalization and targeted aid to human capital development (education and health) in the sending countries. Can you expand on the current potential and limitations of migration on macro development trends ?

Ü Prof. Susan Forbes Martin: Research shows that migrant remittances have a significant impact on poverty reduction, not just for families receiving funds from relatives abroad but for other members of the community as well. Remittances have a multiplier effect when they are used to purchase locally-made products and services. Individual and collective remittances from members of the diaspora often support health, education and social services in low income countries.

At the macro-economic level, remittances are an important source of hard currency, with positive effects on balance of payments. The evidence with regard to migration and economic growth is more mixed, with only a small portion of remittances and diaspora contributions going directly into wealth- and job-creation activities. Many low-income countries are unable to make productive use of remittances and the human capital that migrants bring home because of the factors that motivate migration in the first place–for example, poor regulatory environments, lack of credit, and corruption.

Ü Eurasylum: Several recommendations on migration were published in the WEF’s Global Agenda 2009. These included the need to address “knowledge and awareness gaps”, particularly as regards public awareness and understanding of the positive impacts of migration on both source and destination countries, and gaps in anticipating emerging issues, such as climate change, that affect migration trends; the need to strengthen national governance of migration, and to improve coordination among government ministries affecting and affected by immigration; the need to engage the business community in discussion of future migration trends, policy frameworks and global governance issues; and, possibly, the need to establish a World Migration Organization that would parallel the activities of the World Trade Organization. Can you sum up some of the most important recommendations on migration discussed at the WEF this year and comment on the way(s) in which these might impact on policy decision-making nationally and internationally ?

Ü Prof. Thomas Alexander Aleinikoff: The question mentions most of the major recommendations of the WEF Global Agenda Council on Migration. I would add to that list:

1. The importance of “changing the discourse” on migration. Migrants are frequently portrayed in the media and by politicians as burdens on the receiving states. Leaders – in government and civil society – should be clear about the benefits of immigration and support anti-discrimination and integration policies. This must be done in a realistic fashion; that is, a frank discussion of immigration can neither oversell the benefits nor deny that there are costs.

2. Recognizing that, while of major significance, the current economic crisis will at some point pass and that immigration policy should seek a balanced long-term approach rather than overreacting to current conditions.

The recommendations are based on the conviction that a fact-based, realistic and responsible discussion of the benefits and costs of immigration are in the long-run interest of both states and migrants. National policy-making must resist pressure to yield to stereotypes about immigrants and to xenophobia and it should take positive measures to combat migrant marginalization. Policy-making at the international level might best proceed bilaterally and regionally, as sending and receiving states seek win-win arrangements.