A portrait of family migration

Jonathan Chaloff and Friedrich Poeschel, OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs

© Shutterstock/Nowik Sylwia

Migration is all over the news in Europe, North America and Australia. When people think about migration, they tend to picture either refugees driven to undertake dangerous journeys in order to escape threatening situations or people coming to a new country to pursue studies or work. Yet there is a large category of migrants all too often overlooked: family migrants. Such migrants accounted for 40% of migration to the OECD area in 2015 and they typically make up 25-50% of an OECD country’s foreign-born population – and as much as 70% in the United States.

Why is family migration receiving so little attention? In part because family migration is often seen as a natural derivative of other categories of migration, one that takes place automatically based on international conventions and human rights. The lack of attention may also be due to the diversity of family migrants as a group: they migrate for various family-related reasons and have diverse demographic profiles. One family migrant may be an infant, moving with his or her parents or as part of an international adoption. Another may be a parent or grandparent, rejoining an adult migrant who moved to the destination country long ago. And there are also those who migrate to “follow their heart” – forming a family with a native-born partner (in many OECD countries, at least 10% of marriages are between a citizen and a foreigner), joining a partner who has already migrated or accompanying a spouse who is a labour migrant.

A closer look at family migrants does reveal some common characteristics, however. If family migrants are predominantly female, men typically comprise at least 40%. Family also tend to be younger than labour migrants, and are more likely to settle permanently in their new countries. Their education level tends to be related to that of their spouse, with those who come to join a citizen of the destination country, or who arrive together with a labour migrant, better educated, on average, than those who reunite with partners or marry a migrant later on. In most countries however the education of family migrants has been increasing recently. Once arrived, family migrants generally struggle to enter the labour market, taking 15 to 20 years, notably in Europe, to reach the same employment rate as native-born people. This may be due to the fact that family migrants do not come with a job offer in hand but also to family migrants’ often limited abilities in the host-country language.

What does this mean for governments and migrants alike? Whenever close family relationships are involved, stakes are high. It’s true that family migration levels can, to a certain extent, be anticipated more than other migration flows, and immigration authorities thus can be prepared to deal with them. And family ties are not automatic grounds for migration: in practice, family migration is subject to restrictions and requirements.But establishing the right mix of requirements is challenging and policy makers have to balance different priorities and constraints. How long should family migrants have to wait to be reunited? On the one hand, short waits accelerate the integration of children in schools and allow families to be together; on the other, longer waits may be needed to ensure income and housing requirements are met. Yet restrictions may make a country less attractive for sought-after labour migrants, who want to bring their families. And while language requirements and other conditions may effectively speed up the integration of family migrants, they may also delay or prevent it. Finally, what about migrants who are joining citizens to form a family? Should the same conditions apply to them?

With migration comes family! This is a simple fact of life and it is time to give family migration more attention. This may be a difficult area for policy makers, but it cannot be ignored. Further analysis of policy trade-offs and bottlenecks, as well as better data, will go a long way to providing a firm basis for future family migration policies.

Links and further reading

European Commission (2016), European Migration Network report on practices in family reunification

International Forum on Migration Statistics 2018

OECD work on migration

OECD webinar on migration (July 2017)

OECD (2017), A portrait of family migration in OECD countries (International Migration Outlook 2017)

OECD (2016), Family migration channels for refugees (International Migration Outlook 2016)

OECD countries need to address the migration backlash

imoThis post, by Stefano Scarpetta, Director of the OECD Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs, is also the editorial of  the “International Migration Outlook 2016”, published today.

The public is losing faith in the capacity of governments to manage migration. Opinion polls in a wide range of countries suggest that the share of the public holding extreme anti-immigration views has grown in recent years and that these extreme views are more frequently heard in public debates. In part, this is due to the perception that no end is in sight for large migration inflows and that countries have lost control over them. People are concerned about the short-term impact of large inflows of migrants, and refugees in particular, and many feel that migration is threatening their economic, social as well as personal security. Common concerns are that migration is unmanaged and borders are not secured; immigrants stretch local services, such as social housing, health and education, to the detriment of local populations; immigration benefits the rich, with the poor finding themselves competing with immigrants for jobs, and wages for low-skilled work depressed; and many migrants do not want to integrate and may even oppose the values of host societies.

In most countries though, refugee flows are still a relatively small part of overall migration. The OECD has collected a wealth of evidence showing that the medium and longer term effects of migration on public finance, economic growth and the labour market are generally positive. But this message is not getting through. However much the demographic and macro-economic arguments for migration are true, they seem abstract and long-term to many people. As a result, they have only a limited impact on public opinion, and mainly preach to the converted. Governments need to develop better, more practical arguments if they are to counter anti-immigration voices.

The truth of the matter is that migration is a fact of life and is here to stay. About 120 million people living in OECD countries were born elsewhere and one person out of five is either a migrant or was born to a migrant parent. More than 4 million new permanent migrants settled in OECD countries each year on average over the past decade.

If we want to reap the full benefits of migration and to heal the social schisms that seem to be appearing in too many countries, action is needed from policy makers on three main fronts.

Countries must acknowledge and address the fact that the impact of migration is not the same for everyone.

Immigrants are nearly always concentrated in specific regions and urban areas – often the most disadvantaged ones. The local impact of large-scale immigration may be far stronger than what is observed at the national level, and may be working in a different direction. In particular, this edition of the OECD International Migration Outlook shows that large sudden inflows of migrants can aggravate longstanding structural problems and bottlenecks in local infrastructure, such as housing, transportation and education. Similarly, although this is not usually the case, in some circumstances, large numbers of low-skilled migrants arriving in a particular area may have a negative impact on the local labour market prospects of low-skilled residents already present. Scaling up those local public services stretched by increased numbers of migrants is a necessary part of an effective policy response, as is ensuring that minimum wages and other labour market regulations are applied rigorously.

Global challenges need global solutions. Leaving individual countries to deal with massive inflows, as recently witnessed with the refugee crisis, cannot address the problems adequately. International co-operation needs to be stepped up, with different countries making different contributions.

Needs must be identified and addressed more rapidly at both the global and local level. Adapting to higher migration flows can take time, during which political resistance builds up. If authorities fail to respond quickly to emerging migration challenges, as witnessed during the recent refugee surge in Europe, the impression that migration and (lack of) integration are out of control becomes entrenched.

Preparing for future developments requires:

  • Better anticipation of future flows and the corresponding needs for infrastructure and capacity, at all levels.
  • Pre-commitment to take appropriate actions. When a migration crisis hits, it often takes too long to agree on even ad hoc actions at the international level. Countries should consider stronger pre-commitment before a crisis becomes unmanageable. Here, lessons from other global challenges are illuminating; for example, systems are in place to identify global health challenges and to ensure that they are addressed in a co-ordinated and systematic way.
  • Adapting policies to reflect crisis situations. This issue is considered at length in the OECD International Migration Outlook. For example, a range of policy responses to address large movements of refugees and migrants are available, but one which has not yet been exploited in any substantial way is the use of legal alternative pathways to reduce irregular flows.
  • We need a new generation of effective migration policies adequate to the challenges of the 21st century. These policies must be global, because no country can deal with large, unexpected migration flows alone and in isolation. And local, because policies must promote quick and effective integration of those who are going to stay in the local community; and address the specific concerns of those who feel they do not experience direct benefits from migration and fear that it will challenge the basic values of the host society.

Unless systematic and co-ordinated action is taken in a timely way to acknowledge and vigorously address these concerns, migration policy will continue to seem abstract and elitist, at best trailing behind the problems it is supposed to be addressing. And, as is already apparent, the result is likely to be a more strident political populism.

Useful links

OECD Migration Insights

The Nordic Welfare Model and the Refugee Crisis: Buffer or Weakness?

social justice reportAnne Skevik Grødem, research director at the Institute for Social Research in Oslo. In collaboration with Bertelsmann Stiftung.

Demanding labor markets, high social benefits – many people believe that the universal Nordic welfare states may be less able to face the challenges of migration than other countries. But does empirical evidence support this view?

The Nordic countries tend to be found near the top when levels of living, redistribution and social inclusion are measured and ranked. In the Bertelsmann Stiftung’s latest EU Social Justice Index Sweden, Denmark and Finland occupy the first three positions in the ranking.

The inclusive Nordic welfare model, and its long tradition for social investment, has been discussed with fascination and often admiration for decades. But in the current situation, with unprecedented high levels of migration to Europe, new concerns emerge: can this model survive a mass influx of “outsiders”?

The Nordic countries have seen very high levels of immigration in recent years, both as labour migration from the European Economic Area (EEA) and as humanitarian migration from third countries.

The different countries have chosen different approaches to migration management: Sweden has gained a reputation as one of the most liberal countries in Europe, Denmark as one of the strictest. When it comes to migration management, there can be no talk of a distinct and unified Nordic model.

The challenges facing the welfare states are however similar: how can comprehensive and inclusive welfare states absorb thousands of immigrants, often with limited laboor market skills and different cultural and religious beliefs?

This can be seen as a challenge to all European countries in the current situation, but given the universal nature of the Nordic welfare states it can be argued that the challenges are written particularly large here. On the other hand, it can also be argued that the Nordic model, with its emphasis on activation and inclusion, has unique strengths when it comes to integrating newcomers.

SJI-2015

Nordic labor markets may pose a particular challenge to integrating migrants

There are two main lines of argument as to why immigration can be particularly challenging for the Nordic welfare states: one economic and one political.

The economic line of reasoning points out that the Nordic welfare model is premised on high employment rates, among women as well as men. Given the combination of high taxes and high social benefits, non-employment represents a “dual loss” at a higher scale than in other countries: high incomes are lost for the state while high costs are incurred.

At the same time, the well-regulated Nordic labour markets may be difficult for immigrants to gain access to. The compressed wage structure implies that even the lowest wages are relatively high. For this reason, there are few “working poor” in Scandinavia. This however gives employers an incentive to replace unskilled labor with capital where possible, leading to fewer available jobs for low-skilled workers.

It also potentially makes employers extra risk-averse, as they will be particularly careful to hire workers who are assumed to have a productivity to match the high wage. Immigrants’ expected productivity is often low or uncertain: either because they lack education or language skills, or because they are unable to document the skills they have.

In short, then, the need to include immigrants in employment may be more acute in the Nordic countries than elsewhere, but the odds of success may be lower.

The Nordic tradition for inclusive policies seems to benefit migrants

These concerns are high on the political agenda in all the Nordic countries, and a number of measures are put in place to increase employment among immigrants from outside the European Economic Area (EEA). Benefit systems have been tweaked in order to avoid perverse incentives, and there are ongoing discussions about whether lower wages or short-term contracts should be allowed in some cases.

The most important approach is however the systematic endeavours to increase employability of immigrants. The emphasis on education – including state-sponsored kindergartens with high rates of participation, free schooling, and activation and life-long learning programs for adults – is an important part of the reason why the Nordic countries have high labour market participation rates.

This approach is extended to refugees and their family members through the so-called introduction programs. Such programs exist in all the Nordic countries. The aim of the programs is to teach newcomers a minimum of language skills and knowledge about the country they now live in, and thus to make them better able to move on to employment.

Available data do not indicate that immigrants systematically fare worse in the Nordic countries than elsewhere in Europe in terms of employment. The Nordic traditions for inclusive and qualifying policies therefore also seem to benefit migrants.

Little evidence that ethnic and religious cleavages undermine support for welfare state

Even if immigrants are reasonably well included in the labour market, it can still be argued that it is more difficult to sustain universal welfare arrangements in countries with large ethnic and religious cleavages. This is the political argument for immigration as a challenge: the feeling of community and shared risk will crumble when strangers settle in the country.

While this argument is plausible, empirical evidence is weak: support for welfare arrangements in the Nordic countries – indeed in Europe as a whole – is high and stable. Anti-immigrant parties have increased their support in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, but these parties are not (any longer) anti-welfare parties: instead, they portray themselves as the saviours of welfare for the insiders.

It has also been argued that inclusive and universal welfare arrangements have the capacity to breed trust, even as societies become more diverse. This is because such arrangements are transparent and outcomes are easy to predict, which gives less room for speculation about discrimination and favourable treatment of specific groups. Again, therefore, features of the Nordic welfare states can be buffers rather than weaknesses.

Immigration at a mass scale is likely to be challenging for any country, and how the challenges are perceived will be influenced by institutional arrangements in the host countries. The current challenges may look different in the Nordic countries than they do in the South or in Central- and Eastern Europe, but available evidence does not allow us to conclude that the universal Nordic welfare states are less able to face these challenges than other countries.

As the EU Social Justice points out, “If policies are designed well and EU countries act on the basis of solidarity, the current “refugee crisis” can – in the longer run – also turn into a chance for Europe.

Useful links

The Bertelsmann Stiftung conducts an annual study of developments in opportunities for social participation in all 28 EU member states. The latest report (Social Justice in the EU – Index Report 2015) shows that despite economic recovery, the gap between young and old is growing and the social divide between northern and southern Europe remains immense.

OECD Migration Insights

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

Can China solve its migrant puzzle?

Hukou
Every home should have one

If crowds are not your thing, this is not a good time to be travelling in China. As the new Year of the Horse gallops in, hundreds of millions of people across the country have headed home to spend time with their families. It’s estimated that around 3.6 billion trips will be made on trains, planes, cars, ships and even motorbikes in the 40 days surrounding the annual Spring Festival.

The “Spring Festival rush,” or chunyun, is probably the world’s largest annual migration, and every year it generates some memorable moments. A few years back, one frustrated traveller stripped down to his underpants to protest against not being able to board his train. This year, a young teacher in Beijing has been earning environmental kudos for cycling the 2000 kilometres back to her hometown in Sichuan.

The annual rush on its current scale dates back to the 1980s, when workers from the countryside first began moving to the cities in large numbers. That movement helped drive China’s dramatic economic growth and, as we noted in the previous post, turned China from a country that was overwhelmingly rural to one where just over half the population is now urban.

But it also helped create a range of problems that, even today, are proving hard to resolve. Most notable, perhaps, is the uncertain status of the many rural migrants who have failed to secure an official residence permit, or hukou, for the cities in which they now live. Their number is not insubstantial: It’s estimated that around 260 million Chinese find themselves in this situation.

Systems of family registration go back thousands of years in China, but the modern hukou system dates from the 1950s. The system created a division between rural and urban residents and linked people’s place of registration with access to education, health-care insurance and social housing. Hukou reforms began in the 1980s and have continued since. However, their practical impact has been variable. As a result, the hukou system continues to affect the lives of many migrants who have moved to China’s booming cities.

Take education – an issue that attracted a lot of discussion when the OECD released its most recent PISA results in December, which showed Shanghai as the world’s top-performing education system. Some observers argued that the city’s performance was boosted by children from some poorer migrant families not being included in the assessment. This, they argued, was in large part because the children had to return to their families’ place of registration to complete their education.

In response, the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher argued that critics were ignoring major hukou reforms in Shanghai in recent years. Indeed, as Helen Gao wrote recently in The New York Times, “Shanghai has made remarkable progress in integrating migrants into its education system.” That’s true of many other Chinese cities, too. Nevertheless, as Ms Gao also pointed out, substantial problems remain.

According to a recent OECD paper on urbanisation in China, in the major cities of Shenzhen and Beijing, only 30% of migrant children attend state schools. There is evidence, too, to suggest that migrant children are underrepresented in elite schools. The hukou system also means that young people – not just migrants – with registrations outside Beijing and Shanghai face “severe” obstacles in winning places in those cities’ elite universities, which apply a lower acceptance mark for locally registered students.

These obstacles matter not just for the migrant and rural families, but also for China’s capacity to invest in people’s skills and education. Indeed, hukou reforms are seen as essential if China’s cities are to develop their role as engines of growth. “Land and hukou reform is the cornerstone for future economic growth and political-system reform,” according to Yuan Xucheng of the China Society of Economic Reform. So, if full hukou reform is so important, why hasn’t it happened yet?

For one thing, local governments in Chinese cities are reluctant to take on the cost of providing education and health care to migrants. According to some Chinese estimates, the cost of settling a single rural migrant in a city is about 100,000 RMB (about $16,500). “Behind household registration reform is money,” Ma Li, an official with the State Council, or cabinet, told Caixin.

Reform is also intimately tied up with the tricky issue of land reform. Migrants can gain much by getting an urban hukou but, by leaving their rural registration behind, they risk losing their rights to use residential and agricultural land in the countryside. Many appear unwilling to make that sacrifice.

Useful links

Policies for Inclusive Urbanisation in China (2013, OECD Economics Dept.)

OECD work on China

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

OECD Insights: International Migration

Looking for ghosts in China

A friend in Kunming laughed when we told her our travel plans: “Chenggong? But there’s nothing there!” More accurate, perhaps, if she’d said there’s no one there.

Chenggong-housing

Under construction since 2003, Chenggong is a satellite city of Kunming, capital of mountainous Yunnan province in southwest China. Such projects are not rare in China, and they tend to follow a familiar pattern: Universities and government offices are relocated, students and officials move in and, eventually, so do other people.

Chenggong is different: Yes it has students and, as far as we know, bureaucrats but – so far at least – pretty much no one else. Its wide-open highways and empty estates have won it plenty of attention in the blogosphere and earned it a reputation as one of Asia’s biggest “ghost cities”.

In truth, the place is not as quiet as all that. Around the spacious university campuses there’s a noticeable buzz. A few small streets are filled with shops selling student necessities – cheap grub and trendy clothes. On one campus, an English-language student, Tina, showed us around and enthused about the quality of the facilities. When we asked her if she liked Chenggong, she nodded enthusiastically: “Oh yes, the air is so clean.” That, too, is often a novelty in China.

Chenggong-campus

But, elsewhere, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Chenggong lacks people. Cars bowl along six-lane highways at speeds unthinkable in most of China’s congested cities, while passengers seem sparse on the light railway that will eventually link the city to the provincial capital. Driving back to Kunming in the evening, we passed housing estates where not a single light seemed to be shining. According to the World Bank’s Holly Krambeck, Chenggong has over 100,000 empty apartments.

Regardless of how many people Chenggong eventually manages to attract, the city is part of one of the most remarkable human transformations in history. In just a little over three decades, China has gone from being a country that was overwhelmingly rural to one where just over half the population now lives in urban areas.

That might sound high but, by international standards, and for a country at its level of development, China still has a relatively small urban population. That wasn’t always the case. As a fascinating recent OECD paper by Vincent Koen, Richard Herd, Xiao Wang and Thomas Chalaux notes, China was once one of the most urbanised places in the world, admittedly in an era when globally around 90% of people lived in the countryside. By around 700 C.E., the city of Chang’an – now known as Xi’an, home of the terracotta warriors – is believed to have had around a million inhabitants, levels that London and Paris would only reach in the 1800s.

By the dawn of the 20th century, however, the proportion of Chinese living in cities hadn’t changed much in 400 years and, throughout that troubled century, it grew only very slowly. By 1949, urban dwellers accounted for just 12% of the population, around a third of levels then typical in the world.

Today, China is playing catch-up. In the last decade, the urban population rose by about 20 million a year; by 2020 the government expects around three out of five people to be living in urban areas. And by 2040, it’s estimated that around one billion Chinese will be living in cities.

China’s government believes cities are essential to building a modern economy. For one thing, cities make it easier for companies to do business, making them hubs for growth. For another, city dwellers tend to spend more than their country cousins, which should help China meet its goal of relying less on exports and more on domestic demand. So, cities will be key to China’s economic and social future. But planning them will require careful thinking about their “hardware” and “software”, to borrow a metaphor.

For an example of the hardware, take transport. By international standards, Chinese cities have relatively low levels of public transportation. That’s evident even in a new town like Chenggong, where, as urban planner Luis Balula notes, “the wide streets and superblocks […] continue conveying the image of a car-oriented urban environment waiting to be populated by cars.”

Chenggong-six-lane-highway

According to the OECD paper, China would need to invest the equivalent of around 11% of its GDP just to bring transport provision in its ten biggest cities up to international standards.

As for the software, think of that as the people who will live in China’s cities. Many will be rural migrants and, so far at least, the legal situation in China’s cities hasn’t worked in their favour. And that’s a topic we’ll return to soon.

Useful links

Policies for Inclusive Urbanisation in China (2013, OECD Economics Dept.)

OECD work on China

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

Over there, but helping out over here

OECD work on migration

Planned next year’s holiday yet? If not, how about Ireland? Along with all the usual attractions – greenery, Guinness, a friendly welcome, rain – Ireland in 2013 is promising to “open its arms to hundreds of thousands of friends and family from all over the world, calling them home to gatherings in villages, towns and cities”.

This year of arm opening, which goes by the slightly spooky name of The Gathering, is targeted mainly at Irish emigrants and their descendants. In Ireland’s case, that’s a lot of people. The country has a population of just 4.5 million, but at least another 630,000 Irish-born people live abroad. The number jumps when you include second-generation Irish, and hits the stratosphere when you count emigrants’ descendants: In the United States alone, more than 34 million people claimed Irish descent in the 2000 census.

The Gathering has its critics – actor Gabriel Byrne has dismissed it as just a way to “shake down” emigrants – but it does represent a popular notion these days. Many countries, both developed and developing, have been making a concerted effort to reach out to overseas communities – their diasporas – in recent years. Among many others, Scotland has its Homecoming; Israel has Taglit-Birthright Israel, which has sponsored homecoming visits for 300,000 young Jews from all over the world; and India has TiE, a group created 20 years ago by Indians working in Silicon Valley and which now boasts chapters in 17 countries.

Emigrants, often ignored or forgotten in the past, are now seen as a valuable resource – and not just as a source of remittances. The point was neatly made by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a speech earlier this year: “By tapping into the experiences, the energy, the expertise of diaspora communities, we can reverse the so-called ‘brain drain’ that slows progress in so many countries around the world, and  instead offer the benefits of the ‘brain gain’.”

It’s not hard to find examples of this in developing countries: China’s largest search engine, Baidu, was founded by two Chinese, Eric Xu and Robin Li, who studied and worked in the United States for many years. One of Africa’s largest phone networks, Celtel, was founded by Mo Ibrahim, who was born in Sudan but spent much of his adult life in the United Kingdom. And when The Economist asked N. Chandrasekaran, the head of Tata Consulting Services, to say how many of the Indian IT firm’s top people had worked or studied abroad, he replied simply: “All of them.”

As The Economist notes, diaspora networks have three great potential strengths. They can allow information – anything from news of new products to investment opportunities – to cross borders. They can encourage trust – people from shared backgrounds are often more likely to believe each other. And they can create connections between people around the world.

The potential of migrants and diasporas to contribute to development is increasingly recognised, including in recent research done here at the OECD. This research, which focuses in part on developing a better picture of migrant communities, offers some fascinating insights. One of the most striking is the level of education among migrants. Among immigrants living in OECD countries, around a million hold doctorates. Africa alone has about 2.5 million high-skilled emigrants living in OECD countries.

Some of these people will eventually decide to return home, although many others won’t. But regardless of their long-term plans, most migrants like to maintain links with home and, where possible, to contribute to their progress. Finding ways to make that happen can be challenging. Diasporas are, by their nature, widely dispersed and often invisible. That’s one reason why the Internet, and especially social media, has such potential to bring them together. One French study has already identified 8000 websites linked to just 30 of the world’s diaspora groups. As interest in harnessing the power of migrants and diasporas grows, that number will surely rise.

Useful links

Harnessing the Skills of Migrants and Diasporas to Foster Development

Connecting with Emigrants: A Global Profile of Diasporas

OECD Insights: From Aid to Development

OECD Insights: International Migration