Migration: one thing the crisis hasn’t changed

Posted on March 10, 2012


The ongoing effects of the global economic crisis has not had as great an impact on worldwide migration trends as may have been expected, demonstrating the resilience of migration in the face of economic upheavals.

Instead, the major reasons for migration of large groups of people over the last few years has been social and political upheavals as well as the increasing number of natural disasters, according to the World Migration Report 2011 from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).

Migratory flows to developed countries did slow down during and immediately following the crisis, but there were no huge reversals of movement as some may have expected. The global stock of migrants was barely affected, with the most recent figures estimating 214 million migrants across the world, up from 191 million in 2005. In fact, the major reasons for migration in recent years have been the political upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa, which have “given rise to a type of population movement rarely seen on such a scale in the past”, and natural disasters, which displaced 42 million people in 2010 compared to 17 million the year before.

The report concluded that migration had not been heavily affected by the crisis and indeed is set to further increase in the coming years.

“Overall, international migration has shown its resilience in the face of economic downturns and can be expected to grow further in size and complexity over the next few decades,” it stated.

Migration into developed countries did fall slightly as a result of the global financial crisis in 2007/08. In the United States, the number of foreigners entering the country dropped from 1.13 million in 2009 to 1.04 million in 2010. Drops also occurred in the United Kingdom, the number dropping from 505,000 in 2008 to 470,000 in 2009 and in Spain, from 692,228 in 2008 to 469,342 in 2009. Sweden and New Zealand also saw declines in the number of migrants.

“With the downturn it is the free-movement migration which has gone down the most,” noted OECD international migration expert Georges Laimatre. “These are workers who can come and go as they please, as they have the right to live and work in other EU countries.”

Yet though many major destination countries adjusted their migration programmes and even introduced schemes to return migrants home, there was no large scale move on the part of migrants to return home, while remittances have bounced back after a small decline.

Predictions made since the onset of the financial crisis have included a sizeable reduction in migration inflows and foreign population in high-income countries, with a corresponding reduction in remittances and increase in return migration. These predictions, according to the IOM, have been largely inaccurate. Some countries are seeing migrant numbers creep up again, with the number of foreign workers entering Canada increasing from 178,271 in 2009 to 182,322 in 2010. The United States and Germany also saw the number of new arrivals increasing. The results have been somewhat mixed – it is projected that the UK will see its migrant population decrease by 360,000 by 2015 while 60,000 migrants left Ireland in the year ending 2009 with 40,000 more projected – yet the broader picture is not one of outward decreased or outward migration from higher-income countries.

This was not because migrant workers retained secure jobs in their destination countries. According to a 2011 report from migration management expert Bimal Ghosh, several thousand migrant workers lost jobs or work permits due to the shrinking of labour markets in their destination countries in the wake of the crisis. By the end of 2009 seven million jobs had been lost in the United States and 1.6 million in Spain, with levels of unemployment disproportionately affecting migrant workers due to their concentration in affected sectors and the fact that they tend to be younger and have less job security. Different sets of migrants were affected in different ways. In the UK, Eastern and Central European nationals were mostly unaffected, but migrants from Africa, Bangladesh and Pakistan were.

Yet, according to the IMO report, “the overall stock of migrants did not decrease as much as expected because, even after losing their jobs, many migrant workers chose not to return home, despite incentives to do so being introduced in some countries, and because the economic situation was often worse in the country of origin than in the country of destination.” A ‘pay-to-go’ system introduced by the Spanish government in 2008 to give unemployment benefits to non-EU nationals who agreed to go home recorded just 11,660 applicants in two years compared to an anticipated 87,000. Similar projects in the Czech Republic and Japan had similar impact, with only Poland seeing an increase in returnees since 2008, probably due to the fact that the Polish economy did not fall into recession. The global economic crisis did, however, see a decrease in illegal migration, with the number of border apprehensions for attempted illegal entry into the EU falling by a third between 2008 and 2009, according to Frontex, the European agency for the management of external borders.

Some countries saw an increase in migrant workers even compared to levels before the crisis. A rise in average salaries in the Gulf Cooperation Council countries has made them popular destinations for migrants from Africa, South America, the Far East and China. In 2010, eight of the top ten countries with the highest share of international migrants relative to their native population were located in the region. In Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, international migrants account for 87 per cent, 70 per cent and 69 per cent, respectively, of total population.

Predictions that remittances from migrant workers back home, so depended upon in certain parts of the world, would significantly fall also proved to be wide of the mark, with a recovery underway. Africa saw a small reduction in remittances in 2009, but in 2010 an estimated thirty million Africans living abroad sent over $40 million back home, 2.6 per cent of Africa’s GDP. “Since the beginning of the crisis in 2007–2008, remittance flows have shown great resilience compared to other financial flows, such as foreign direct investment and official development assistance,” noted the report. In general, remittance flows returned to pre-crisis levels in 2010, exceeding $440 billion with the majority $325 billion being sent to developing countries. Growth rates of approximately eight per cent are expected up until 2013.

With the impact of the global financial crisis negligible, the political transitions in the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 have had the biggest impact on migration patterns. Major civil conflicts in Egypt and Libya resulted in large outflows of people into neighbouring countries. Many migrant workers were caught up in the conflicts and required assistance in returning home. In the case of Libya, by the end of June last year more than 600,000 migrants had left the country, according to the IOM. “Major cross-border movements were recorded at the border with Tunisia and Egypt, with 256,000 and 184,000 arrivals, respectively,” noted the report. “Arrivals outside the region were mainly recorded in Malta and Italy; as of the end of June 2011, more than 43,000 migrants had landed on Lampedusa Island since the beginning of the crisis ― 19,200 departing from Libya and 24,100 from Tunisia.”

Along with the effects of the Arab Spring, natural disasters also made a contribution to the amount of migrants. The majority were displaced by climate change-related disasters like flooding and storms, with heavy floods in China and Pakistan displacing over 25 million in mid-2010. Asia was the most affected region, with earthquakes hitting Chile, Japan and Haiti, while Bangladesh, India and the Philippines also saw natural disasters. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) has estimated that natural disasters have doubled over the last twenty years, from approximately 200 to over 400 per year.

At the end of 2010, it was estimated that there were 15.4 million refugees and 845,800 asylum-seekers globally,” the report stated, with refugee figures having increased by 153,000 on the previous year. “The increase in refugees was mainly due to the deterioration of the situation in Somalia, which resulted in an additional 119,000 Somalis fleeing to neighbouring countries during 2010. As a result of conflicts that flared at the beginning of 2011 in North and West Africa, particularly in Libya, but also in Côte d’Ivoire, the number of refugees in 2011 is expected to increase.” The number of asylum-seekers has, however, fallen.

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