Now more than ever, migration policy needs to be comprehensive and co-ordinated

IMO 2015This post, by Stefano Scarpetta, Director of the OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, is also the editorial of  the “International Migration Outlook 2015”, published today.

OECD countries are facing an unprecedented refugee crisis. In 2014, more than 800 000 asylum applications were recorded, an historical high, but the figure for 2015 is expected to be even higher.

Even if humanitarian migration is an issue of increasing concern in several parts of the world, notably in Asia, most asylum applications were made in Europe (more than 600 000 in 2014). This is clearly an emergency situation that requires a co-ordinated response at both European and global levels.

In Europe, this humanitarian crisis is taking place in the broader context of increasing challenges associated with irregular migration. The absence of controls at Libyan borders has created a unique situation and the number of irregular entries, as recorded by the European agency Frontex, is on a constant rise. In the first six months of 2015, about 137 000 people landed in Greece, Italy, Malta and Spain, corresponding to a staggering 83% increase on the 75 000 recorded for the same period of 2014. The fact that these landings include not only potential refugees but also migrants who are not always in clear need of protection adds to the pressure.

Images of people landing on the European shores and information on the many who died in their attempt to find a better life are as powerful as the tragedy of these people is real. The current refugee crisis also takes place in a context of relatively weak European economic and labour market conditions, as well as against the background of a global fight against terrorism. The anxiety regarding migration issues has reached new highs and antiimmigrant sentiment is spreading.

Building consensus among European countries to identify and agree on ad hoc emergency solutions has proven particularly challenging, in part because of expected negative reactions in public opinion at the national level. Nevertheless, in light of the worsening situation, current policy responses may need to be prolonged and enhanced. The failure to anticipate – and to communicate on – ongoing trends may actually have a very detrimental effect on trust and ultimately on the capacity to adapt further emergency policy responses but also, more generally, to adapt migration management systems as required.

Most resources (political capital, administrative staff, energy and attention of policy makers) are currently devoted to addressing the humanitarian crisis. However, one should not forget that existing legal migration systems also need to be constantly adjusted because of changing economic and demographic conditions, international competition for talent, and lessons learnt from evaluation of past policies and experiences. This also applies to integration policies, which help ensure migrants’ skills are used to their best potential. Most migration to Europe and the OECD still occurs through legal channels and is managed in an orderly fashion. Legal permanent migration to the OECD amounted to 4.3 million in 2014, a 6% increase compared to 2013. In the European Union (EU), permanent legal migration from outside the EU is now equivalent to what is recorded in the United States: about one million a year.

The integration of immigrants and their children also needs to be supported by appropriate public policies. Recent OECD evidence shows that despite some marked improvements across generations, in many OECD countries immigrants are more likely to be unemployed, in low quality jobs or overeducated in their jobs and to face poverty including in-work poverty. Their children attain on average lower levels of education. To make the most out of skills of migrants who are here to stay, it is important to continue investing in integration policies and reinforcing the efficiency of these investments.

The European Agenda on Migration proposed by the European Commission in April 2015 was initially meant to develop a global approach with proposals for immediate action but also longer term proposals for a new labour migration management system and integration. The second part of this equation should not be forgotten.

Even in the current context of the humanitarian crisis, a global policy strategy is needed, which has the right tools – and international co-ordination – to deal with current and future refugees and asylum seekers flows as well as more long-term tools to get the most out of legal migration. Failure to act on the first is likely to jeopardise efforts to improve on the second, as it will fuel anxiety about migration, regardless of the actual numbers involved.

Useful links

OECD migration insights

International migration: The human face of globalisation Brian Keeley, OECD Insights book

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