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The Door That Will Not Close

Author: Jagdish N. Bhagwati
January 9, 2003
Australian Financial Review

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International migration lies close to the centre of global problems that now seize the attention of politicians and intellectuals across the world. Take just a few recent examples:

  • Prime ministers Tony Blair of the United Kingdom and Jose Maria Aznar of Spain proposed at last year's European Council meeting in Seville that the European Union withdraw aid from countries that did not take effective steps to stem the flow of illegal emigrants to the EU. Blair's outspoken minister for development, Clare Short, described the proposal as "morally repugnant" and it died amid a storm of other protests.

  • Australia earned international condemnation last year when a special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights exposed the deplorable conditions in detention camps that held Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi and Palestinian asylum-seekers who had landed in Australia.

  • After the September 11 attacks, US attorney-general John Ashcroft announced several new policies that rolled back protections enjoyed by immigrants. The American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch fought back. So did Islamic and Arab ethnic organisations. These groups employed lawsuits, public dissent and congressional lobbying to secure a reversal of the worst excesses.

  • The Economist ran in just six weeks two major stories describing the growing outflow to developed nations seeking to attract such immigrants. The "brain drain" of the 1960s is striking again with enhanced vigour.

These examples do not just underline the importance of migration issues today. More important, they show governments trying to stem migration only to be forced into retreat and accommodation by factors such as civil-society activism and the politics of ethnicity. Paradoxically, the ability to control migration has shrunk as the desire to do so has grown. The reality is that borders are beyond control and little can be done to stem immigration flows. The societies of developed nations will simply not allow it. The less developed nations also seem overwhelmed by forces propelling emigration. Thus, there must be a seismic shift in the way migration is addressed: governments must reorient policies from attempting to curtail migration to coping and working with it to seek benefits for all.

To demonstrate effectively why and how this must be done, however, requires isolating key migration questions from the many other issues that attend the flows of humanity across national borders. Although some migrants move strictly between rich countries or between poor ones, the most compelling problems result from emigration from less developed to more developed countries. They arise in three areas. First, skilled workers are legally emigrating, temporarily or permanently, to rich countries. This phenomenon predominantly concerns the less developed countries that are losing skilled labour. Second, largely unskilled migrants are entering developed countries illegally and looking for work. Finally, there is the "involuntary" movement of people, whether skilled or unskilled, across borders to seek asylum. These latter two trends mostly concern the developed countries that want to bar illegal entry by the unskilled.

All three problems raise issues that derive from the fact that the flows cannot be effectively constrained and must instead be creatively accommodated. In designing such accommodation, it must be kept in mind that the illegal entry of asylum-seekers and economic migrants often cannot be entirely separated. Frustrated economic migrants are known to turn occasionally to asylum as a way of getting in. The effective tightening of one form of immigrant entry will put pressure on another.

Looking at the first problem, it seems that developed countries' appetite for skilled migrants has grown. The enhanced appetite for such professionals reflects the shift to a globalised economy in which nations compete for markets by creating and attracting technically skilled talent. Governments also perceive these workers to be more likely to assimilate quickly into their new societies.

This heightened demand is matched by a supply that is augmented for old reasons that have intensified over time. Less developed countries cannot offer modern professionals the economic rewards or the social conditions that they seek. Europe and the US also offer opportunities for immigrant children's education and career prospects that are virtually non-existent at home.

These asymmetries of opportunity reveal themselves not just through cinema and television, but through the immediacy of experience. Increasingly, emigration occurs after study abroad. The number of foreign students at US universities, for example, has grown dramatically; so has the number who stay on. In 1990, 62 per cent of engineering doctorates in the US were given to foreign-born students, mainly Asians. The figures are almost as high in mathematics, computer science, economics and the physical sciences.

Many of these students come from India, China and South Korea. For example, India produces about 25,000 engineers annually. Of these, about 2,000 come from the Indian Institutes of Technology. Graduates of IITS accounted for 78 per cent of US engineering PhDs granted to Indians in 1990. And almost half of all Taiwanese awarded similar PhDs had previously attended two prestigious institutions: the National Taiwan University and the National Cheng Kung University. And 65 per cent of the Korean students who received science and engineering PhDs in the US graduated from Seoul National University. The numbers were almost as high for China's elite Beijing and Tsinghua universities.

These students, once they have graduated from American universities, often stay on in the US. Not only is US graduate education ranked highest in the world, but it also offers an easy way of immigrating. In fact, it has been estimated that more than 70 per cent of newly minted, foreign-born PhDs remain in the US, many becoming citizens eventually. Less developed nations can do little to restrict the numbers of those who stay on as immigrants. They will, particularly in a situation of high demand for their skills, find ways to escape any dragnet that their home nation may devise. And the same difficulty applies, only a little less starkly, to nations trying to keep citizens with only domestic training but who are offered better jobs abroad.

A realistic response requires abandoning the "brain drain" approach of trying to keep the highly skilled at home. More likely to succeed is a "diaspora" model, which integrates present and past citizens into a web of rights and obligations in the extended community defined with the home country as the centre. The diaspora approach is superior from a human rights viewpoint because it builds on the right to emigrate, rather than trying to restrict it. And dual loyalty is increasingly judged to be acceptable rather than reprehensible. This option is also increasingly feasible. Nearly 30 nations offer dual citizenship. Others are inching their way to similar options. Many less developed nations, like Mexico and India, are in the process of granting citizens living abroad hitherto denied benefits such as the right to hold property and to absentee voting.

However, the diaspora approach is incomplete unless the benefits are balanced by some obligations, such as the taxation of citizens living abroad. This author first recommended this approach for developing nations during the 1960s, and the proposal has been revived today. Estimates made by the scholars Mihir Desai, Devesh Kapur and John McHale demonstrate that even a slight tax on Indian nationals abroad would substantially raise Indian government revenues. The revenue potential is vast because the aggregate income of Indian-born residents in the US is 10 per cent of India's national income.

The more developed countries need to go through a similar dramatic shift in the way they respond to the influx of illegal economic immigrants and asylum-seekers. Inducements or punishments for immigrants' nations of origin are not working to stem the flows, nor are stiffer border-control measures, sanctions on employers or harsher penalties for illegals.

Three sets of factors are behind this. First, civil-society organisations have proliferated and gained in prominence and influence. They provide a serious constraint on all forms of restrictive action. For example, it is impossible to incarcerate migrants caught crossing borders illegally without raising an outcry over humane treatment.

More than 50 per cent of illegals, however, now enter the US by legal means, such as tourist visas, and then stay on illegally. Thus, enforcement has become more difficult without invading privacy through such measures as identity cards, which continue to draw strong protests from civil liberties groups. A notable example of both ineffectual policy and successful civil resistance is the 1986 Sanctuary movement that surfaced in response to evidence that the US was returning refugees from war-torn El Salvador and Guatemala to virtually certain death in their home nations. (They were turned back because they did not meet the internationally agreed upon definition for a refugee.) Sanctuary members, with the aid of hundreds of church groups, organised an underground railroad to spirit endangered refugees to safe havens. Federal indictments and convictions followed, with five Sanctuary members given three- to five-year sentences. In response to a public outcry, the judge placed the defendants on probation.

Sanctions on employers, such as fines, do not fully work either. The US General Accounting Office, during a debate over the 1986 immigration legislation that introduced employer sanctions, studied how such rules had worked in Switzerland and Germany. The measures there failed. Judges could not bring themselves to punish severely employers whose violation consisted of giving jobs to illegals.

Finally, the sociology and politics of ethnicity also undercut enforcement efforts. Ethnic groups can provide protective cover to their members and allow illegals to disappear into their midst. The ultimate constraint, however, is political and results from expanding numbers. Fellow ethnics who are citizens, legal immigrants or amnesty beneficiaries bring to bear growing political clout that precludes tough action against illegal immigrants.

If it is not possible to effectively restrict illegal immigration, then governments in the developed countries must turn to policies that will integrate migrants into their new homes in ways that will minimise the social costs and maximise the economic benefits. These policies should include children's education and grants of limited civic rights. Governments should also assist immigrants in settling throughout a country, to avoid depressing wages in any one region. Greater development support should be extended to the illegal migrants' nations of origin to alleviate the poor economic conditions that propel emigration. And for the less developed nations, there is no option but to shift towards a diaspora model.

Some nations will grasp this reality and creatively work with migrants and migration. Others will lag behind, still seeking restrictive measures to control and cut the level of migration. The future certainly belongs to the former. But to accelerate the progress of the laggards, new institutional architecture is needed at the international level. Because immigration restrictions are the flip-side of sovereignty, there is no international organisation today to oversee and monitor each nation's policies towards migrants, whether inward or outward bound.

The world badly needs enlightened immigration policies and best practices to be spread and codified. A world migration organisation would begin to do that by juxtaposing nations' entry, exit and residence policies towards migrants, legal or illegal, economic or political, skilled or unskilled. Such a project is well worth putting at the centre of policymakers' concerns.


Jagdish Bhagwati is a professor at Columbia University and a senior fellow at the US Council on Foreign Relations.