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Updated: October 27, 2009 02:11 IST

Migration: supportive policies needed

Vidya Subrahmaniam
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Seeta Prabhu:
The Hindu
Seeta Prabhu: "We must recognise the positive effects of migration"

The reality of public opinion towards migrants is more complex than the rhetoric of public debate would have us believe.

The United Nations Development Programme-sponsored 2009 Human Development Report on migration, “Overcoming Barriers: Human mobility and Development” has been widely acknowledged as a path-breaking study on human movement. Shattering the many myths around migration, the report concludes that most migration is in fact beneficial, and calls for supporting policies to ease barriers to free movement. Senior Assistant Country Director, UNDP, K. Seeta Prabhu. discusses the report with The Hindu.

For long, we have battled with the idea of “brain drain,” especially in India where emigrants have had to live with the guilt of leaving home. Your report on migration is emphatic that migrants enrich life both at the exit and entry points.

The HDR 2009, ‘Overcoming Barriers: Human Mobility and Development’, argues that being able to decide where to live is a basic human freedom. Migration can be a beneficial force but there needs to be a supportive policy environment for these benefits to be realised.

The report recognises that the exodus of skilled workers like doctors, engineers, and in the case of India, IT professionals, is a concern but these are symptoms of a system that is not able to provide enough opportunities for people. The solution is to address these internal constraints so that skilled professionals are motivated to stay within the country.

At the same time, we must recognise the positive effects of migration. In the United States for instance, data generated over a period of 50 years, from 1950-2000, showed that a 1.3 per cent increase in the share of migrant university graduates increased the number of patents issued per capita by a massive 15 per cent.

Countries of origin benefit in the form of remittances to families back home. As the HDR shows, in more than 20 developing countries, remittances exceed earnings from the main commodity export. In India, remittances have been estimated at $34,262 million in 2007 which is one and a half times the amount received as foreign direct investment. Besides there are “social dividends” in the form of women’s empowerment and enhanced opportunities for the wider community back home as remittances are often spent on care for elderly parents or on home construction.

When we think of emigration, we are conditioned to think of North America, the U.S. in particular. Why is this so?

Data provided in the HDR indicate that while the magnitude of migration has remained stable at 3 per cent of world’s population since 1960, the direction of movement has changed. In 1960, the share of migrants in North America and Europe was 19 per cent. In 2010 it is expected to touch 27 per cent, which perhaps explains the perception. However, the Indian reality is somewhat different. If we look at remittances to India, 27 per cent flow from Northern America, 12.8 per cent from Europe and a whopping 58.2 per cent from Asia (51 countries including Gulf countries). Seventy two per cent, or the bulk of emigration from India is to other countries in Asia.

Fears about immigrants taking away jobs persist, and have increased post-the global downturn. In the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, there are periodic calls from civil society to review and restrict immigration.

People’s views about migration are conditioned by the availability of jobs. In the majority of the 52 countries covered in the latest World Values Survey, most respondents endorsed restrictions on immigration, but many emphasised that these restrictions should be clearly linked to availability of jobs.

The examples set by Sweden and New Zealand are worth examining. In New Zealand, under the Recognised Seasonal Employer Scheme initiated in 2007, employers in the horticulture and viticulture sectors are enabled to access seasonal workers from abroad and overcome the severe shortage of labour faced every season. In Sweden, the number of visas issued is expanded, conditional on labour demand. When demand for labour complements local demand then the issue is less contentious.

Negative perceptions about migrants persist and migrants are the first to be hit during times of economic crisis. However, fears that migrants reduce employment for locals and that they lower wages of local workers are largely unfounded, though there may be specific instances where it indeed affects locals. In fact, some studies show that the inflow of migrants stimulates local employment. Evidence from a research study in California commissioned for this report indicates that migration to specific areas was positively correlated with higher employment growth in sectors such as education services.

Your report suggests that official attitudes to migration have hardened in recent times and that pre-World War I governments were more supportive of migration which they saw as beneficial.

Security concerns post 9/11 have led to viewing newcomers from different backgrounds with some amount of suspicion as there seems to be a perception linking immigration with crime. The data do not establish such a link. In the year 2000, the average incarceration rate for locally born young men in the U.S was 3.5 per cent as compared to 0.7 per cent for the foreign born.

The data you have collected make a strong case for enabling migration. Do you see governments being responsive to the body of evidence you have provided? Or will this be just another report filed away and forgotten?

Human development reports have always been influential policy advocacy documents and receive a great deal of attention from governments the world over. Raising awareness and consciousness about the development impacts of migration is the best way to influence policies. As you would have seen, since the launch of this Report there has been an animated debate in the media over the issue of migration and the need for policies that are more responsive.

Increasing awareness is feasible because as the report shows, the reality of public opinion towards migrants is more complex than the rhetoric of public debate would have us believe.

Your report says migration hugely benefits poor people. But we often see poor people from the rural areas shifting to urban slums and living on pavements. Does this really qualify as better life? Also, internally we continue to see opposition to migration.

An important fact pointed out by the report is that internal migration far exceeds international migration – an estimated 740 million move within countries as compared to 214 million who move between countries. In India, the estimated number of internal migrants moving from one State to the other is 42 million; those who reside at a place other than their place of birth is as high as 307 million. Studies in Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh indicate that poverty rates fell by 50 per cent between 2001-02 and 2006-07 for households which had at least one migrant.

Overcoming Barriers recognises the challenges arising from rapid urban growth as a result of internal migration. Migrants families often end up in shanty towns and slums on the outskirts of cities, do not have access to basic minimum services, and face harassment and eviction. A review of the urbanisation experiences in Asia indicates that a number of governments continue to pursue policies aimed at discouraging in-migration to cities. Many countries have forcibly cleared slums and adopted ‘closed city’ policies. What needs to be recognised is that movement is driven by unfavourable circumstances back home — either in terms of falling living standards or weak support services.

The solution is to provide greater opportunities for livelihood as well as minimum levels of social services at the place of origin. Simultaneously, in the urban areas of influx, the Report argues in favour of equitable policies of pricing of basic social services and extension of these services to the areas where migrants live, even-handed regulation of the informal sector, outreach and support services such as language classes for migrant groups and regular independent audit and publication of municipal accounts.

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