20 November 2008
Press Conference

Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York



Migration would eventually be one of the tools in stabilizing the global economy and Governments, but in the meantime, it must be ensured that migrants were not “scapegoated” in the current global economic crisis, the Director of the Population Division of the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs said today at a Headquarters press conference on global migration.

Hania Zlotnik said it was impossible to tell how long the global employment contraction would last, but it did not seem it would be over quickly.  The situation to avoid was a backlash.  Governments of countries hosting large numbers of migrants should take steps to ensure their citizens did not turn on the migrants within their societies and blame them for the country’s economic woes.

Joining Ms. Zlotnik was the Under-Secretary for Migrant Workers’ Affairs of the Philippines, Esteban Conejos, who chaired the Second Meeting of the Global Forum on Migration and Development, held in his country from 27 to 30 October.

Ms. Zlotnik recalled that the Forum had evolved from the 2006 United Nations High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development.  At that occasion, the Belgian Government had agreed to organize a State-led process on migration and development and had hosted the first meeting in July 2007.  After this year’s meeting in the Philippines, the next meeting would take place in Athens, and then in Argentina, the following year.  Two other countries had already scheduled additional annual meetings to indicate that the process was gathering momentum.

She said that the timing of a mechanism for Governments to meet on an annual basis to discuss migration was fortuitous when a recessionary period was hitting major receiving countries and migratory flows were affected, with migrants sharing in the negative effects of the economic downturn.

Mr. Conejos reported that some 1,130 delegates from 163 countries and 33 international organizations had participated in the October Forum, in addition to 230 delegates who had joined during a civil component.  The meeting had truly been an international event for discussing migration and its impact on development.  Protecting and empowering migrants had been the theme, and three round tables had considered three major aspects of the question, namely migration, development and human rights; the positive developmental effect of secure legal migration; and policy and institutional coherence with regard to migrant questions.

The people-centred focus had been a contrast to the first Forum in Belgium, where the debate had centred more on the rational, economic benefits of migration, such as remittances and employment needs, he said.  Now, the needs of migrants and their families had been central in considering the developmental benefits to both sending and receiving countries.  Of course, individual migrants went abroad to earn money for their families, but the collective impact of all migrants was “capital” that could be leveraged into development.

Nevertheless, he continued, the migrant was always the principal actor, and that was a human being, not “capital”, as such, when it came to considerations of migration and development.  So the question came down to how the migrant could be supported and protected so as to maximize the person’s human capability to contribute to development.  The shift in focus had been reflected by the interest shown in development by civil society participants who were advocates of various aspects of migrant rights.

On the financial crisis and migration, Ms. Zlotnik said it was more accurate to talk about the economic underlying conditions that had led to the crisis and what the consequences would likely be.  There was already evidence that the crisis would affect migration in three ways.  First, unemployment would occur everywhere and that generally affected migrants first, in both developed and developing countries.  Many migrants worked in the construction industry, which was severely and globally affected by the drop in real estate prices.

Spain, she noted, had seen an increase in migrants from 166,000 to 280,000 in just four months, earlier this year.  Nearly all were unemployed now because the unemployment rate in the population at large was around 11 per cent.  In the United States, a survey among Hispanics had shown that the unemployment rate was rising among them and that, for the first time ever, the unemployment rate among immigrant Hispanics was higher than among the non-immigrants.

The higher unemployment would have two effects on migrants, she said.  Remittances would be affected in that migrants living in contracting economies would send less money back home.  In Mexico, for example, the amount of foreign money going into banks between January and September had declined by 4 per cent, but that could be a sign that money was being transferred by hand.  The World Bank estimated that stabilization was occurring rather than decline.  However, as remittances had increased over the past five or six years, the new estimate was that the growth in remittances would be about half what it had been in recent years and that a contraction would occur next year.

The second way in which higher global unemployment would affect migrants was in the area of migrant returns, she said.  Migrants who were not doing well in a foreign country would likely return home in higher numbers.  That had already taken place in several situations where the economies of originating countries were doing better than the destination countries.

Polish migrants, for example, had returned because Poland’s economy was doing better than destination country economies that had already gone into recession or contraction, she explained.  Poland, in fact, was creating jobs for other countries of origin.  In Mexico, while statistics were unreliable, indications were that the number of migrant returns had dropped by less than 10,000 between 2007 and 2008, which was not significant.  However, the number of illegal aliens crossing the border had decreased sharply, based on a projection of the number caught.  It was estimated that the 2008 rate would be 39 per cent lower than the peak in 2006, and lower than in 2007.

In Europe, she said, Spain had been receiving migrants from countries such as Morocco.  Those numbers were dropping because the high unemployment rate made it less attractive for migrants to bother with the application process.  In fact, Governments were intending to cut quotas on the grounds that the need for migrants had decreased, but important industry representatives said they needed migrants for skills that were unavailable in their countries.  Such debates over unemployment rates and the skills of migrants would be taking place in the countries that had attracted the greatest numbers of migrants.

In response to a question about the Forum and its outcome, Mr. Conejos described measures taken by the United Arab Emirates to clear up problems for Philippine migrants in that highly unusual receiving country, where migrants made up 90 per cent of the workforce.  There, the Government had a keen interest in addressing migrant issues because migrants made up such a large proportion of the population.  In other places, Governments had a range of priorities with regard to migrant issues.  India’s Government, for example, was not only interested in the economic elements of migrants and remittances, but also in creating an enabling environment in the countries of origin so as to maximize the development impact of migration.  The questions involved the identification and matching of skills with needs, and of how a country’s experience with diaspora could maximize development.

Ms. Zlotnik added that the Governments of the Gulf countries had begun to participate in discussions of migrant issues in recent years and they were expressing an interest in good relations with originating countries and in managing the migrant question.  They were also interested in opening certain “possibilities” for migrants.  They would never become a country built on migration regardless of how many migrants they had.  Migrants in those countries were considered temporary, and could not become citizens.

Replying to other questions, Mr. Conejos affirmed that South-South migration was increasing and that the issues faced were the same as those in South-North migration.  Both were concerned with the identification of skills and the protection of rights.  Also, the distinction had blurred between countries of origin, destination and transit.  Most countries today were all three.  His country, for example, had a lot of workers in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore.

Summing up the situation through a review of the role of the market mechanism in the global migratory flow, Ms. Zlotnik said there was concern in Singapore now that the large number of domestic workers would be let go due to dropping portfolio values.  China was seeing re-migration back to the countryside, as factories closed in cities.  Bulgaria was recruiting its workers to return from overseas.  Spain, with 3 million migrants, was allowing them to return to their homes with a payment equivalent to the unemployment benefits to which they were entitled.

In Europe overall, with 200 million migrants, a migrant policy had just been adopted that was a “middle of the road” compromise between policies of hard-line countries against migration and those that had migrant-friendly policies, she said.  The new policy was tougher than some former national policies and more lenient than others.

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For information media • not an official record