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Prejudice against immigration
June 24, 2018, 2:47 pm

What are the contributions of migrants to trade, to the economy of their countries of destination and origin? This is an angle that is generally ignored in the international debate on the subject, which usually focuses more on issues such as the incidence of foreigners in crime or unemployment.

Migration tends to be treated today primarily as a police matter. To address the issue in a different manner, we need to first analyze the favorable economic implications for a country in hosting migrants. In order to discuss these and other questions, international experts met in Buenos Aires at the first Forum on Migration, Trade and the Global Economy.

Organized by the Geneva-based International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in association with the Foro Del Sur foundation, an Argentina-based non-governmental organization that promotes diversity, the forum brought together experts from around the world to discuss issues pertinent to global migration.

"Migration is a complex social and economic phenomenon, so you have to be very sophisticated in how you speak about migration to people. It's very difficult to explain that maybe those people are unemployed today, but in the future, they could bring positive skills and knowledge to society," said Marina Manke, head of the International Organization for Migrations (IOM) Labor Mobility and Human Development Division.

There are some 244 million migrants in the world today — around three percent of the total population — according to figures provided by Diego Beltrand, the IOM regional director for South America. The number of migrants grew by an estimated 300 percent over the last 50 years.

The lack of knowledge about the positive impact of migration is the reason why, "freedom of trade has been widely recognized around the world, but not freedom of movement for people", said Mr. Beltrand. Different kinds of evidence of their economic contribution, something that is usually ignored, were presented at the forum

According to a study presented by the IOM, migrants contribute nearly 10 percent of the world's GDP and are especially helpful to their countries of origin at times of economic crisis through remittances. It is estimated that migrants generate over US$6 trillion worldwide and according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) data remittances to low- and middle-income countries is expected to reach $485 billion in 2018.

Another prejudice challenged at the forum was that most immigrants aspire to very basic jobs. Stefano Breschi, a professor at Bocconi University in Milan, Italy, revealed that in the last two decades, high-skilled migration grew by 130 percent against an increase of just 40 percent for the low-skilled.

Why then do politicians from all destination countries of the world try to win votes by promising more restrictions against foreigners, against all empirical evidence?

Manke, a Russian woman married to a German man emigrated to Germany and now visits there on weekend from Geneva, where she works. "My family in Germany sees a large number of migrants in Berlin and it worries them. We need to be patient. Maybe there is a negative impact in the short-term but over long periods migration is a broadly positive phenomenon," said Manke.

The forum was held in the old Buenos Aires Immigrants' Hotel, as a symbol of the country’s historic tolerance of migrants. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Argentine government gave free accommodation there to families who had just arrived after long sea journeys.

Argentina is a country whose founders set their sights on attracting immigrants. The National Constitution, written in 1853, promises equal opportunities "for all men of the world who want to live on Argentine soil."

Thus, between 1881 and 1914 more than four million foreigners arrived, who represented more than a quarter of the population in 1895, as can be read in the museum. The majority of these immigrants were from Italy, Spain and other European countries. Today things have changed, and Europe is the destination sought by millions of immigrants as it tries to close its borders.

"The major problem in Europe is that we find that the data is not reflected in the public discourse. If you look for information, you generally find a neutral or positive picture of migration's role in the labor market and economy," said Martin Kahanec, a Slovak professor of public policy at the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.

"In the debates related to Brexit in the UK, for instance, all of the narratives were not founded in data: migrants take our jobs, they abuse our welfare," said Prof. Kahanec. "Although economic arguments are used in the debate, what really drives this debate is fear."

Europe is the main destination for migrants from Africa, the continent that exports the most people. Every year, between 15 and 20 million young Africans join the labor market and a high proportion cannot find a job there and are impelled to leave their country, according to figures provided during the forum, setting out on journeys where death can prevent them from reaching their destination.

South America, on the other hand, received praise for its recent immigration policies. Since 2009, efforts were made to strengthen the regional integration process with freedom of movement agreements for citizens of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Paraguay and Uruguay.

This made it possible for more than two and a half million citizens from other countries in Latin America to obtain residency permits, according to data from the IOM Regional Office for South America, based in Buenos Aires. In the case of Argentina, the National Director of Migrations, Horacio García, said that since 2012, more than 1,350,000 residence permits have been granted.

García, however, warned that it is necessary for the State to get involved in the integration of immigrants into the labor market, a topic that today is being neglected. "It is necessary to identify those regions of the country where there are job opportunities, so migrants can move there and contribute to the region’s development with their skills; this also takes pressure off urban areas that getting crowded with most of the arriving migrants," he said.

Like other countries in the region, Argentina recently received large numbers of immigrants from Venezuela who are fleeing the economic, political and social crisis in that country. Argentine sociologist Lelio Mármora, who specializes in migration questions, estimated that in the last year and a half alone, some 40,000 Venezuelans have settled in Argentina.

However, openness towards immigrants is not common in the world said Mr. Mármora, who is one of those who most emphatically condemned the difference between the freedom that exists for the movement of goods and for the movement of people." "Everyone applauded the fall of the Berlin Wall and today we have about 20,000 kilometers of walls and fences that prevent people from passing from one place to another," he noted sadly.

By Daniel Gutman of the Inter Press Service


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