Mon, Jul 09, 2018 - Page 7 News List

A smart immigration solution for Europe

The issue of immigrants has long been a thorn in the EU’s side, but a new social contract for economic migrants could finally provide an answer

By Sami Mahroum

Illustration: Yusha

Immigration-related headlines have become a staple in Europe, whether the story is of an illegal Malian immigrant scaling a Paris building to rescue a toddler or the formation of a populist government in Italy that aims to deport a half-million migrants.

Yet, despite the constant coverage of the issue — or, more likely, precisely because of it — the immigration policy debate remains beset by misconceptions and politicization.

In the UK, the Brexit vote was fueled partly by false and distorted claims, such as that unrestrained migration from the rest of Europe was driving down wages.

However, since the vote, the anti-Brexit camp has engaged in similar distortions, warning that, once it leaves the EU, the UK would face a skills shortage, but plenty of countries — such as Australia, Canada and Singapore — do just fine without agreements guaranteeing freedom of movement from other countries, by issuing skills-matching visas.

Such distortions, by both pro and anti- immigration forces across Europe, have consistently thwarted sober debate on the topic. Even when parties seem to be carrying out a reasonable cost-benefit analysis of immigration’s economic impact, they tend to cite only the studies and data that back their own viewpoint. This precludes agreement on creative and effective solutions.

Judging by my years spent studying the international migration of highly skilled workers, not to mention living as an immigrant, a rational and balanced debate on immigration must begin with the perspective of immigrants themselves.

What drives a person to move to a new and usually unknown country?

In answering this question, it quickly becomes clear that immigration is a highly varied phenomenon, depending as it does on a diversity of factors such as nationality, skill level, intended duration abroad and motivation.

The experience of a medical specialist moving permanently to the UK from India is very different from that of a construction worker from Romania hoping to secure a better salary in France. From the ease of the journey to the living conditions into which they settle, the experiences of both are very different from those of a refugee from Syria hoping to wait out that country’s civil war in Germany.

What these experiences do have in common is that they are generally driven by a desire to raise one’s living standards, whether through a more prestigious position, a higher salary or increased physical safety.

In short, immigrants want better lives — not a new culture or identity.

Economic migrants, in particular, are simply job seekers from overseas. If comparable employment could be created at home, they might never migrate at all. In this sense, the economic migration challenge boils down to an issue of job brokerage.

Given this, economic migrants should be matched with jobs where they are needed, potentially through newly created job-brokering agencies for major immigrant-sending countries. A program inspired by the EU-Turkey refugee exchange program — in which the number of rotating work visas made available for a country are tied to the number of illegal job-seeking immigrants repatriated to that country — could also be created.

Of course, once in the host country, the immigrants’ rights as foreign workers should be protected, but they do not need to be granted full access to the political rights and social benefits of their host society’s citizens.

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