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Opportunities of migration

Triple win

by Dirk Niebel

In depth

Vietnamese student at Frankfurt’s Goethe University

Vietnamese student at Frankfurt’s Goethe University

We must make better use of migration, argues Dirk Niebel, Germany’s federal minister for economic cooperation and development. A triple win for migrants, host countries and countries of origin is achievable. By Dirk Niebel

To many people, the term “migration” has negative connotations. They are wrong. It is only slowly dawning on many that most industrialised nations will depend on immigrants in the future. At the same time, many developing countries’ education systems are improving, but they cannot supply all graduates with good and attractive jobs. Some of the people concerned hope richer nations will allow them to immigrate so they can work there for some time. Migration plays a role in many development models promoted by governments in less advantaged countries.

Migration is a global phenomenon, and people have always migrated. Over time, the reasons for leaving homes have hardly changed. Typically, the motive is desperate need. People leave their home country because they see no other way to escape poverty, hunger or unemployment. No doubt, climate change will increasingly contribute to driving people from their homes in the future. Many migrants, however, simply hope for a better future for themselves and their families. It takes courage to move to a foreign country, and hope for a better life is a strong motivation.

At the global level, migration is becoming more frequent and more diverse. Increasingly, people are moving from developing countries to advanced ones. South-south migration is intensifying too, however, and so are temporary, circular and repetitive migration. More people are shifting more often, but not necessarily to a permanent location.

Distorted perceptions

Nevertheless, migration primarily tends to be considered a problem. The German public is only slowly changing its mind on these matters. Lower fertility and higher average life expectancy are making it ever more evident that our pension and health care systems are running into trouble, and that there is an increasing lack of skilled and qualified staff. Managed well, migration offers great opportunities. Germany should grasp them, which is why our government recently passed a strategy to tackle demographic change. The strategy points out that prudent and well drafted migration policies will help Germany avoid such bottlenecks. Our skilled labour initiative and the recent reform of our law on residency have opened our country to migrants with professional qualifi­cations.

These steps make sense in developmental terms too. In joint efforts with our cooperation countries, we should tap fully the potential of circular migration. The obvious priority must be to offer personal prospects to the people concerned, and developmental policies can contribute to doing so.

Yes, the rich world has a bearing on how strong exactly the pressure to migrate is in cooperation countries. It would, however, be naïve to assume there was a way to prevent migration as such. The opposite is true. It is well understood that development in its early stages lays the foundations for more migration and even triggers the trend. Indeed, this is part of migration’s potential. More development means more voluntary and regulated migration, which is beneficial for both the host countries and the countries of origin.

A single figure suffices to highlight the relevance. Last years, migrants around the world sent their families and friends in developing countries remittances worth $ 370 billion. That was three times more than the global expenditure on official development assistance (ODA). Remittances directly serve the purpose of poverty alleviation. A relevant share of this money is spent on children’s education and business start-ups. Remittances have an immediate developmental impact.

Most migrants stay in touch with their countries of origin. Therefore, they can be valuable partners for development agencies. When they return home, many migrants assume social and political respon­sibilities. Typically, they build bridges between cultures. Their potential support for development co­operation is great.

It must be said, however, that migration also has developmental downsides. Brain drain is a serious concern. In Germany, we must consider what it means for developing countries when we hire qualified personnel. If the result is a lack of doctors and nurses in other parts of the world, rich nations must refrain from poaching these people. After all, government policy must coherently promote development. Recent research, however, shows that what matters most are the job opportunities skilled persons have at home. If their chances are scant or even void, it does not make sense to speak of brain drain. After all, these people’s potential is not made use of so it does not serve development.

Gender issues

It is difficult to tell what consequences migration has on social settings, families and women in particular. Women are certainly affected most because of their rele­vance in families. On the other hand, migration often means liberation from traditional stereotypes, and can contribute to boosting women’s right over the years.

What must be done to make migration serve development most effectively? We obviously need coherent policies on migration and development. We must manage matters in a way that benefits all sides – the migrants, the host countries and the countries of origin. Of course, this applies at the EU level too. Some sound policies are in place, such as the EU’s Global Approach to Migration and Mobility or the Mobility Partnerships.

In Germany, we have means for action too. For instance, an internet website is making it easier to transfer money to developing countries. Moreover, we offer support to migrants organisations that wish to boost development in the countries of origin. We also advise cooperation countries on migration matters. Examples are Mongolia, Honduras and the nations of the western Balkan.

I have to admit, however, that we should take more account of migration when designing developmental measures in general. In bilateral cooperation, we must consider migration issues right from the start, and assess how the developmental potential of migration can best be tapped.

In this context, we commissioned research on the opportunities of high-skilled persons’ migration from North Africa. It showed that migration serves development whenever people cannot find adequate work at home. In Germany, they are likely to gain new insights and acquire additional skills. Both are prone to make them attractive to employers in the country of origin at a later point in time. This is true of engineers from Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia, for instance. Triple win scenarios are certainly demanding, but we should look out for them and achieve them more often.

The UN General Assembly will hold a high-level dialogue on international migration and development in 2013. Germany will share experiences and insights in this context, keeping in mind the relevance for drafting future global development goals. While migration, to many people, remains a tough topic, it is certainly one that must not be neglected. Unless we rise to the challenges, we will neither be able to manage things actively, nor to grasp all opportunities. Doing so will benefit all parties concerned, the migrants, the countries of origin and Germany too.