Circular migration

Rich countries need skilled workers, and poor countries need a work force with valid experience. From a developmental perspective, it would make sense if migrants returned home after working abroad.

By Caroline Triml

Caroline Triml is an occasional reporter for D+C/E+Z.

Due to demographic change, there is a lack of skilled labour in Germany. According to Monika Varnhagen of the na­tional labour office Bundesagentur für Arbeit (BA), Germany annually needs 300,000 to 400,000 immigrants. In April, a reform took force, according to which Germany accepts professional qualifications from other nations more readily.

Currently, the unmet demand for nursing staff is particularly pronounced in Germany. Bernd Meurer, who works for an umbrella organisation of private-sector firms involved in social issues, says it would be very easy to find jobs for 30,000 nurses in a single week. But according to him, demand has not been met for quite some time.

Germany was one of the last EU countries to grant full liberty to labour migration from new EU members last year. Experts had expected a “run on Germany”, but that did not happen, as Armin Laschet recalls. The Christian Democratic poli­tician is a former integration minister of the German state of Northrhine-Westfalia. He warns that Germany will need an addi­tional 5 million people in the workforce, even if the country manages to ensure that every child finishes school, fully involve women in the labour market and make se­nior citizens to participate more in work life.

Things look less dramatic in Sweden. This country fully opened its borders to inner-EU migration in 2004. Three years ago, it also made migration easier for people from non-European countries. Johanna Peyron works for the Ministry of Justice in Stockholm and reports that anyone who finds a job in Sweden is allowed to stay, provided that no Swedish citizen applies for that job and that it is paid according to Swedish standards. Her government, she says, will not tolerate any kind of wage dumping. However, Peyron adds, the state pays for language courses, though it does not oblige migrants to enroll in such courses. Moreover, Sweden allows foreign students to look for jobs immediately after graduation, without forcing them to return home.

From a developmental perspective, the migration of skilled people from poor countries to advanced economies is worrisome. Most African nations need the doctors and nurses they train, but many of these move to rich nations sooner or later. Internationally, this phenomenon is known as “brain drain”.

Therefore, interest in circular migration is growing in development circles – the idea being that migrants should only spend a limited time in the host country and then return home with valuable experience. Both sides can benefit from this model. The host nations get workers, and the countries of origin get new insights. Moreover, they often profit from the financial clout and entrepreneurship of migrants and members of diaspora communities.

An Nguyen Xuan from Vietnam’s Ministry of Labour appreciates the idea of circular migration. He praises the agreement his government made with Germany on this matter. According to him, it serves three purposes:
– Vietnam’s human resources are boosted,
– people get well-paid jobs, and
– international exchange promotes mutual understanding.

Many skilled Vietnamese consider Germany attractive, Nguyen Xuan said at a conference that BA and GIZ organised in late March in Berlin. However, he recommends that Germany should reduce bureaucratic requirements since many potential migrants shy away from such obstacles.

Personal freedom

Most migrants only leave their home countries for limited time spans, says Gunilla Fincke of the Expert Council of German Foundations on Integration and Migration (SVR), so circular migration looks like a natural thing. However, Fincke insists that governments must make it easier for people to move back and forth repeatedly. For instance, she says that foreigners who have spent five years in the EU deserve a permanent residence permission. Indeed, experience shows that such rights contribute to motivating migrants to return to their countries of origin. The reason is that migrants who choose to do so, do not risk losing anything in their host country, should things not work out as hoped.

Heidi Obermeier of Münchenstift, a charitable institution for human resource management, is equally aware of the problem with short time frames. Münchenstift is participating in a GIZ model project called Triple-Win Migration, which is about recruiting nursing staff from foreign countries. “The idea is great,” says Obermeier, “and the people are motivated and work hard.” Nonetheless, she assesses the projects as something of a “triple-lose” approach because it is only designed for
18 months. It takes time and money to find housing, get approval of certificates, prepare people for working in Germany and teach them the language. A year goes by, Obermeier reports, before a Bosnian nurse can take care of aged people, and by then it is almost time to prepare for the trip home.

Andrij Waskowycz of Caritas Ukraine points out another kind of migration cost. He worries about “Euro orphans”: children whose parents work in the EU. The parents send home enough money, he says, but their offspring needs attention too. He mentions serious problems with illegal drugs and crime. He therefore demands that it must become easier for families to join and stay in host countries.

Steffen Angenendt of the German foreign policy think tank SWP appreciates the opportunities of circular migration, but nonetheless speaks of “conflicting goals”. Migration policy, he says, is about satisfying labour market demand in advanced economies, whereas the developmental priorities are to build capacities in poor countries and prevent brain drain.

Rita Süssmuth, the former president of the Bundestag, who later headed a governmental advisory board on migration, points to another controversial field of policy­making. She says there are many skilled people among refugees, so it would make sense to start recruiting among asylum seekers. So far, they are barred from working in Germany, because the government does not want to provide incentives for fleeing to the Federal Republic.

Caroline Triml

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