Are migrants settling in?

Immigrant integrationThomas Liebig, OECD International Migration Division

Always a hot topic, integration of immigrants is high on the policy agenda in many countries and one of the main issues of concern for public opinion. Yet, the discussion is shaped by plenty of misunderstandings and misrepresentations – a regular feature of the migration debate. Against such a backdrop, there’s never been a greater need to get to the facts – to inform public debate and to guide sensible policymaking.

A step forward in helping that to happen comes in a new report from the OECD and the European Union, Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2015: Settling In. The report offers the first broad set of international comparisons of how well migrants and their children are “settling in” across all EU and OECD countries – a key issue, and not just for immigrants. When immigrants integrate successfully, it greatly increases their potential to contribute to the economy and society of their adopted homes. And their integration is a precondition for the acceptance of further immigration by the host country society.

So what do the numbers show? To start with, they underline how hard it is to generalise about how both countries and individuals experience immigration. These experiences range from the likes of Australia, Canada and New Zealand, which have traditionally seen migration as part of nation-building, to much more recent migration destinations in Europe, such as Spain and Ireland. But even here there are substantial variations. Immigrants to Spain in recent years have tended to have fairly low levels of education; by contrast, newcomers to Ireland have been pretty well educated.

Nevertheless, despite all these variations, not to mention the differences between immigrants themselves in terms language ability; education; reasons for migrating – be it for employment, family, or humanitarian; and so on; certain broad themes emerge in the report:

There is no “integration champion”: Whereas countries such as Australia and Canada – which have taken in large numbers of skilled labour migrants on top of family and humanitarian migrants – have better outcomes than most European destinations, they too face some challenges, for example with respect to making the most out of migrants’ skills.

More immigrants doesn’t mean less integration: There’s no obvious link between the proportion of immigrants in a population and how well they do across a range of areas, such as in employment, income levels and education. In terms of employment, countries that are home to larger proportions of immigrants even tend to have better outcomes.

Things get better over time: In many areas immigrants tend to do a less well than native-born. In particular, recent arrivals face difficulties virtually everywhere. However, the longer immigrants stay, the narrower the gap with native-born becomes. That underlines the reality that integration is a process, not an overnight transformation, and reflects the success – or otherwise – of immigrants in making friends, learning local ways and acquiring a new language.

Immigrants’ kids still face problems: The acid test of integration is the fate of the so-called “second generation” – that is, the native-born children of immigrants. If integration efforts are working, the children of migrants born in adopted countries should be doing about as well in education and, later, the workforce as the children of natives. But the signs of success for them are mixed. While they’re narrowing the gap in educational performance and with respect to labour market outcomes – particularly for women – they still lag behind in other areas, particularly in Europe when it comes to employment. In Europe also, the proportion of locally born children of immigrants who say they feel discriminated against is worrying high – a feeling that could have grave implications for social cohesion.

Useful links

Indicators of Immigrant Integration 2015: Settling In

OECD International Migration Outlook 2014

OECD work on migration

OECD Insights: International Migration – The Human Face of Globalisation

The Perfect Life for International People? What Surveys Reveal about Life Abroad

Wish you were here?
Wish you were here?

Today’s post is from Margit Grobbel of InterNations

Back in middle school, my classmates and I used to make up a game called “Anywhere but here” to while away the time during cover lessons and study hall. It involved closing your eyes, flicking through an atlas, and randomly pointing your finger at a map. Then you had to invent an elaborate story about your life in wherever you would end up.

Obviously, most adults contemplating a move abroad would want to make a more informed decision. Expat surveys and country rankings are a handy way of comparing potential destinations and getting an idea of what the quality of life, cost of living, etc., is like. But can such surveys actually tell us where life is best for expatriates?

As the world’s largest online community for expatriates, we kicked off the Expat insider Survey 2014 to gain insights into what daily life abroad is like for our international member base. We were particularly interested in seeing how satisfied they are with their respective destination.

A pivotal part of the survey report consists of a comprehensive country ranking, based on participants’ ratings of various factors, from leisure options to childcare costs. However, once we finished analyzing the data and compiling the ranking, some results rather surprised us, sparking heated discussions on our social media channels as well.

The highest-ranking expat destination on our overall index turned out to be Ecuador. The third place went to Mexico, ahead of such presumed favorites as Switzerland, Singapore, or Australia.

At the InterNations office, we hadn’t really given much thought to Ecuador, beyond its great reputation among trekking enthusiasts and wildlife watchers. As for Mexico, we were aware of local issues with personal safety, violence, and the impact of organized crime.

Such seemingly counter-intuitive results prompted us to take a closer look at our data. The areas where Mexico (or Ecuador, for that matter) do particularly well mainly include the “soft” topics featured in our ratings: how welcoming a country and its culture feel to new arrivals, how friendly the people are, or how easy it is to make new friends abroad.

When it comes to the “hard” facts, like working hours or medical care, our respondents’ subjective ratings are less strikingly different from what objective statistics would suggest. Let’s take just one example:

We asked the participants to judge the quality of education in their current country of residence. In this category, Mexico ranks 20th out of 34 countries altogether. If we counted only the OECD member states in this rating, Mexico would rank 15th out of 21.

The OECD Better Life Index, on the other hand, uses several statistical sources to assess the quality of education: the number of years spent in education, the percentage of the population that has completed upper secondary school, and the PISA test results.

Here Mexico sadly comes last out of 36 countries. If we included just the OECD member states also featured in the Expat Insider ranking for quality of education, Mexico would still be last out of 21 destinations.

The subjective assessment in our survey is thus somewhat better than what the statistics suggest. However, our survey population is not representative of the average Mexican citizen.

Our data for Mexico reveal that expat parents are very likely to have an academic degree themselves and to send their children to private schools. It might be reasonable to assume that socioeconomic factors could compensate for some potential disadvantages when it comes to the quality of education, or the quality of life in general.

What really boosted the overall ranking of both Mexico and Ecuador, though, was the respondents’ high personal satisfaction with life abroad. Its impact is partially a methodological issue, as this question was assigned disproportionate weight in the factors contributing to the country ranking.

Interestingly, however, this observation also tallies with life satisfaction in the OECD Better Life Index. Though Mexico doesn’t perform particularly well in areas like safety or income, its life satisfaction score of 7.4 out of 10 puts it among the top 10, on a par with Australia, Sweden, or the Netherlands.

While we can’t explain the somewhat baffling contrast in the OECD index, we can hazard a guess as to why our expat respondents in Mexico might be so happy.

Our survey population in Mexico skews rather differently from the global average with regard to various characteristics. They are noticeably older than the average respondent (by about five years), and they include a disproportionate number of US nationals.

Moreover, there’s a high percentage of people with dual citizenship, who are Mexican due to family background, marriage, or naturalization. Over 80% of respondents also state that they have at least fairly good Spanish skills. Factors like these would mitigate the impact of culture shock and the potential sources of frustration with living abroad.

We have used a fairly broad definition of “expat” that includes people from all walks of life who have chosen to live and/or work abroad. In Mexico, the “typical” expat (a senior employee or manager on a foreign assignment) is actually rare among our survey respondents. They rather feature a fairly high quota of retirees, teachers, or expats in various forms of self-employment. Their choice of destination was probably not subordinate to the demands of their career.

When we look at the reasons they give for moving to Mexico, these imply a certain degree of personal freedom as well. Participants say that they enjoy living abroad in general or that they were looking for a place with a lower cost of living; that they have always wanted to live in Mexico, or even that they moved for love.

Therefore, it’s not all that surprising that four in ten respondents in Mexico consider staying forever, compared to a global average of one in four.

This case study leads us back to our original question: Do expat surveys tell us where life is perfect for expatriates? Maybe they tell us it’s time to rephrase the question: Where is life abroad perfect for whom?

Useful links

OECD Better Life Index

Breathless in China

Click to see the report
Click to see the report

What do you look for in a holiday destination – sunshine and sand, fine food, ancient treasures? If none of these send you scuttling off to Tripadvisor, then how about this: fresh air. That’s what one Chinese province is promising in adverts running on national TV: “Take a deep breath, you’re in Fujian.”

The campaign seems to be working: So far this year, the coastal province has seen a 38% rise in visitors, according to NPR’s Rob Schmitz. “The air is so fresh here!” one tourist told him. “Whenever I go to work in Beijing, I have to wear a mask or else I’ll start coughing uncontrollably. It’s just been terrible lately.”

Indeed. Even by Beijing’s standards, air pollution this past winter has been awful, with the city repeatedly blanketed in throat-choking fog. On one weekend in January, the level of airborne fine particles classed as PM2.5, which are especially harmful to health, briefly rose to almost 40 times above the acceptable limits set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Beijing is not alone: Less than 1% of China’s 500 biggest cities meet WHO air-quality guidelines, according to the Asian Development Bank, and seven of them rank among the world’s ten most polluted cities. According to the in the world from urban air pollution.

None of this is particularly new – China’s problem with pollution has been apparent for years, but the depth of the murk that descended this past winter does seem to have sparked a real bout of soul-searching. China’s media, for example, has been reporting the problem with unusual frankness –“Beijing’s 225 shades of grey,” says a headline in the China Daily, over a set of photos of the smoggy capital. The leadership, too, has responded, promising increased air monitoring and extra efforts.

The air problems in China’s urban areas bring together two major challenges facing the country, both of which get special attention in the OECD’s latest Economic Survey of China, released ahead of the annual China Development Forum in Beijing at the weekend.

The first is the challenge of making China’s rapidly growing cities more liveable. At one level, this means ensuring that citizens have access to breathable air, rapid transport and so on. But there are other, less visible, issues. Setting environmental problems aside for a moment, one of the most pressing concerns the status of internal migrants, who account for around 70% of the growth of China’s cities over the past few decades. Faced with an ageing population and stagnating workforce, China needs that movement to continue but, if that’s to happen, its cities will need to set out a proper welcome mat for migrants. As we’ve noted before, the hukou registration system means people leaving their home area can lose access to services like health and education. That’s bad not just for migrants but also their children. Many of them – perhaps 36 million – get left behind, and are raised by grandparents; those who do move with their parents to the cities – an estimated 23 million – don’t always have access to great education. Chinese cities and provinces have pursued piecemeal reform of the hukou system, but there are growing calls – including from the OECD – for cities to grant residential permits to migrants; recent reports suggest substantial reform may not be far off.

The second great challenge is, of course, the environment. Smog-filled cities are just one face of the country’s environmental degradation, which also encompasses desertification, flooding, soil contamination and water pollution. China has made some progress in tackling these: For example, sulphur dioxide emissions have declined somewhat, although the country remains the world’s biggest emitter, and there has been a slight improvement in water quality – Shanghai’s floating pigs notwithstanding.

Nevertheless, grave problems remain and, as the OECD report notes, a wider range of weapons needs to be used to tackle them, including market-driven pricing of fuels like natural gas and coal and greater use of pollution taxes and levies. The potential impact of China on the global environmental is so great that, unless the country rises to the challenge, it won’t just be the citizens of its own cities who are gasping for air.

Useful links

OECD work on China

网站 (中文) (The OECD’s Chinese-language site)

China Development Forum