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Managing Migration: a Southern perspective

Article by Phoebe Griffith

September 15, 2006

President Fox was pleased for a variety of reasons. No doubt he was hopeful that the creation of legal migration routes into the US could put a break on the daily battle witnessed on the infamous US-Mexican border. And like Bush, he is approaching an election year and saw this as a political opportunity, not least among Mexican-Californians or Texans who, by law, are eligible to vote in Mexican elections. But his pleasure was also the result of hard economics. For many years Mexican governments have taken advantage of the job-creating opportunities which its geography affords, establishing tax free industrial zones for US companies and lobbying the US government for the inclusion of the free movement of people within the terms of the NAFTA agreement. Ultimately, Mexico’s leaders have started to accept that the US job market is the most important pressure valve for Mexico’s job starved economy.

While brain drains are undoubtedly a serious concern for many developing countries, particularly in Africa where HIV and conflict compound skill shortages, the export of people is today written into the development plans of a number of poor countries. The reason for this is mainly that, as in the case of Mexico, job generation is a serious problem for developing countries, even in countries which have high economic growth rates. In addition, in the context of shrinking aid budgets and declining levels of foreign direct investment, capital starved developing countries today depend heavily on the $60billion annual remittance transfer from the developed to the developing world. Many developing countries would therefore be looking on jealously at Fox’s great opportunity.

The Philippines is a market leader in ‘diaspora driven development’. 8% of the country’s population resides elsewhere and 17% of Filipino households receive money from abroad. These figures are high but not unusual. 14% of Ecuadorians and 28% of people in El Salvador are remittance receivers. But what is more surprising is that most of this migration is the product of a government plan.

What is exceptional however is that the Filipino migration plan is a closely managed affair based on three core principles. Firstly, the government sets the terms of these movements. Whether it is nurses or nannies, the state pays to train a surplus of top-class professionals groomed for the international job market and targeted at sectors where there is specific demand.

Secondly, migrants spend at home. Visa card schemes, advantageous exchange rates, as well as tax-free investment plans and duty free shopping are government sponsored programmes introduced to ensure that none of the Filipino migrant earnings are lost to rich economies. Migrants are even celebrated at their own national holiday, in which 20 awards are handed out to the migrant workers who have sent back the most.

Thirdly, migrants return and to guarantee this perks such as training schemes are offered under contract and families at home are taken care of on the understanding that people return after a period abroad.

Other countries are following in these footsteps. For example, in 2002 the Indian BJP government introduced a dual nationality scheme as an attempt to ensure that the wealth of the colossal Indian diaspora could be tapped into. And at an international level, a coalition including several Latin American countries, Egypt, China, India, Philippines and Thailand is today lobbying hard at the WTO for the approval of the GATS (General Agreement of Trade in Services) Mode 4.

However, ‘diapora driven development’ strategies are undoubtedly a risky option for developing countries and much stands in the way of making this a sustainable solution to important development problems. The possibility of economic downturn and growing concerns about security are no doubt putting pressures on developed country governments. In the EU these concerns are accompanied by ongoing debates surrounding the unsustainable strains on welfare systems and the impact which migrant workers can have on social cohesion, particularly in the face of widespread hostility towards newcomers.

However, development agencies and NGOs need to start developing strategies which compliment the efforts by developing country government. The European development community has been so slow off the mark when it comes to migration and development. While in the US, development agencies (such as USAID) and research organisations (such as the Centre for Global Development) have well-established programmes of research on the linkages between migration and development, in Europe we continue to frame our ideas around the notion that development is a tool for ‘controlling’ migration, rather than part and parcel of the same effort. This became most evident in 2001 when Tony Blair and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar went as far as proposing that the European countries should withdraw aid from countries that did not stem the outflow of illegal migrants.

If anything, the development community should respond to anti-migration lobbies which have been making huge capital out brain drain and other debates of this kind. To quote from one of Britain’s most virulent migration-sceptics: “Immigration is a very ineffective development policy … because it removes a stabilising middle class, removes wealth-creating and tax-paying professional and entrepreneurial classes, and it sustains dictatorial regimes by removing awkward dissidents.” While true to some extent, most development experts would agree that the links between migration and development are not black and white.

While migration is clearly a consequence of underdevelopment and economic stagnation, the cases of Mexico and the Philippines show that managed effectively it could also be part of the cure. But in order for this to happen, both host and exporting countries need manage it effectively. Firstly, without secure residence rights and work permits, migrants are unable to contribute to development because they cannot move back and forth. Furthermore, illegal migrants are less likely to invest or mobilise the resources needed at home because they run the risk of being traced.

Secondly, development plans need to factor in migration. In the same way that European governments want to manage immigration, countries like Ghana, Jamaica or India need to ensure that emigration is sustainable and moulded to their needs. They need to be able to ensure that key sectors such as health and education don’t suffer and that they are gaining maximum benefit from the migrants who are leaving, targeting Western needs as well as ensuring that links with home are facilitated. This is particularly important at a time when rich countries are busy developing scheme to attract skilled migrants, to the detriment of the unskilled. Countries like the UK government could consider covering the cost of training schemes in the developing world for IT, construction and health workers, all of which would help ease pressures at home and compliment other development aims.

Finally, we need to formalise our relationships with migrant communities. While some efforts are being made to tap into the flow of remittances and ensure that these are being spent productively, these large resource functions mostly informally. While migrants are rightly suspicious of ‘officials’ and resist attempts to ‘officialise’ funds, they would undoubtedly be more cooperative should official channels help ease the burden of commercial money transfer companies which can take up to 20% commissions.

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