Intervention by Ambassador Robert Vandemeulebroucke, Ambassador (retired), Belgium
Conference on the topic « Multiculturalism: A contribution to Peace ? »
United Nations Office Geneva • Room XIX (19), Geneva, 23 September, 2011

Introduction:

Migration has always been inherent to the human condition.

Since the beginning of human activity, people migrated mostly out of necessity brought along by famine, droughts, strife, civil war or persecution.

  • Some of our ancestors leaving Africa and moving on to Europe, Asia, America and Australia in the course of the last 2,5 million years, in search of a better life while populating the globe at the same time;
  • The prophet Abraham leading his people out of Ur in Mesopotamia around 1900 BC;
  • famine and wars in various European countries leading to a massive human exodus to the USA in various waves in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The involvement of governments and international bodies regarding migration issues is a recent phenomenon. This came essentially about in the aftermath of WW II with the foundation of the UN, its humanitarian agencies, the creation of the EU and the coming into being of numerous distinguished NGO’s that keep people and governments aware, informed, motivated and under pressure on the complexities of dealing with migration issues.

I will not talk on recent dramatic events concerning people displaced as a result of drought, famine or war: the massive influx of refugees in the Horn of Africa looking for food and shelter, the continuing wars in Iraq and in Afghanistan resulting in an exodus of tens of thousands of citizens to neighbouring countries, the continuing civilian unrest in Syria with no end in sight, the consequences of the Arab spring on the populations of countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. The list goes on and on…

Governments and international agencies are, though very knowledgeable and experienced, more often than not on unchartered territory trying to cope with ever more massive, unexpected and complex migration problems. They face a daunting task and merit our gratitude.

Addressing these events is the subject of a different forum.

I will focus on questions regarding migration every government and every concerned citizen is aware of, more so today than say 10 - 15 years ago, in the hope they will provide food for thought and contribute to the discussion.

I’ll present the main issues on both sides of the argument and illustrate these with government decisions taken in a number of countries across the globe.

First some basic facts:

  • migration in our lifetime has become a global phenomenon and it is here to stay;
  • over many years an increasing number of countries have acquired an extensive experience with regard to immigration: e.g. the USA, Australia, Canada, the EU-countries especially since the end of WW II and the independence of  their former colonies and territories;
  • In Europe: a big chunk of European immigration originates within the European Union itself – and so would be difficult to restrict, under the EU’s rules, even if politicians wanted to;
  • hence: how to cope with an ever growing issue such as migration in a world presently in crisis and with limited resources to absorb immigrants, even in good times?

The challenges:

What goes on in the public opinion on matters of immigration  needs to be translated into adequate policies by the governments concerned.

I am not a judge of the various arguments pro or contra but here is what goes on in the public opinion of many a country:

  • immigrants are a burden on the state and health care agencies, take natives’ jobs and living space, and undermine social cohesion. They depress wages at the bottom of the labour market and threaten the demographic balance. However, the belief that immigrants take locals’ jobs is economically illiterate. Just as working women do not deprive men of jobs;
  • mass immigration into any society, without the appropriate integration of newcomers, is endangering the combination of individual liberty and social solidarity. It is doing so by changing the face of many towns and cities too rapidly, eroding the belief that existing citizens come first and weakening a sense of mutual obligation expressed through the tax and benefit system. It means immigration must be managed in the first place with the interests of existing citizens in mind;
  • anyone can join (if invited) so long as they learn the language and respect the culture and traditions of the country;
  • immigration in itself is without danger, but when it happens too quickly, on a very large scale and when many immigrants choose to live in cultural enclaves, it does do so. That is, alas, what has been happening in Europe over the past 50 – 60 years. The unintended consequences of liberal immigration policies and multicultural politics – meaning you can come here and remain the same - have alienated voters across the continent and given rise to populist parties;
  • in several European countries the immigrant and ethnic minority population is rising to 15 or 20 %. Many large towns are already around 40% minority: Birmingham, Malmo, Marseilles. This sudden and largely unplanned demographic shift risks damaging trust between citizens and generates segregation, fear and, in some countries, extremism;
  • many a young migrant, however, is dynamic and creative, willing to do dirty or under-rewarded jobs that few natives want. Almost all the economic analyses of immigration in recent years have found that the effect on employment, wages and per head growth is marginal and does not make the autochthonous population poorer. Moreover, productive immigrants probably pay in more than they take out;
  • low skilled immigrant workers without accompanying training are a burden in the job market, since they compete with low skilled autochthon citizens. The creation of appropriate jobs, if any, takes longer than the taking. This increases congestion, increases pressure on public services and housing and creates social tensions (e.g. looting in London)
  • no sensible person wants a complete halt to immigration, but various countries need a slowdown to absorb the large inflows of recent decades;
  • overt racism is, luckily, in sharp decline. Young people now have very liberal views on race and gender, but have, at the same time, become much less generous on welfare, poverty and redistribution;
  • learning to live together can be tough. Throughout history European societies have wrestled with how diverse individuals and groups can live together freely, peacefully and productively. The best solution so far is modern, liberal democracies where – however imperfectly – differences are tolerated within the rule of law that applies equally to all and robust democratic institutions help settle issues through political negotiation.

Government’s actions at present (selected countries across the globe):

All governments mentioned below are, in principle, open to skilled workers entering the country legally. Illegal immigrants are in general deported.

However, the general picture overall nowadays is less migration.

  • USA: haven of immigration in the 19th and most of the 20th centuries. Nowadays: restricted immigration (security concerns);
  • Australia: restricted. Insists that invited immigrants should respect Australian norms and values;
  • Canada: relatively open but choosy;
  • U.K.: has introduced a “migration cap” for workers from outside the EU. The aim is to cut unskilled immigration;
  • Poland: piloting schemes to restrict the number of incomers;
  • Denmark: recently introduced limited border controls in defiance of the EU’s Schengen-agreement, which permits passport-free travel between 23 of the 27 EU countries;
  • Spain and Japan: compensate workers who agree to return to their country of origin (Pay as you go). To limited effect. Madrid introduced controls on Romanian immigrants;
  • France: sought to deport Romanian gypsies;
  • Malaysia: stopped more or less to issue work permits in 2009;
  • Ireland: was particularly attractive and open to immigrants during its banking and building boom in the early 2000. It has now the largest outward migration since 1989;
  • Sweden: increasingly popular with immigrants. Liberalised its work-permit system;
  • Greece: due to its fiscal problems, austerity and unemployment, has seen anew wave of emigration notably to the USA and Canada;
  • South Korea: witnessed a rise of incomers since 2007 and is particularly keen to attract American-educated graduates;
  • China: becoming a country of choice for many young workers especially from Asia and Africa. South Koreans (121.000) top the list of expat residents in China, followed by Americans (71.000) and Japanese (66.000). As to Africans:100.000 are settled in Guangzhou;
  • As to my own country, Belgium: rather open to immigration at present but under a new government - in the works, negotiations are still ongoing after almost five hundred days - a number of loose ends need to be tightened and immigration laws will become tougher.

Conclusion:

  • Governments are acting in opposing directions when it comes to immigration policies: from relatively open to almost closed. Therefore: there is not one size fits all nor is such a type of solution desirable;
  • in the present crisis, governments in general tend to restrict immigration;
  • it is of paramount importance for governments to take into account their own citizens views and opinions when drafting immigration policies, both at a local and state level. Citizens must in all circumstances be made aware of “owning the project” otherwise serious social tensions may arise;
  • there is increasingly little chance for unskilled migrants to be admitted in many host countries given an already existing oversupply of unskilled workers competing for ever fewer jobs;
  • when it comes to immigration: one’s country loss may be the other country’s gain.

Amb. Robert Vandemeulebroucke

Author: Amb. Robert Vandemeulebroucke

Ambassador (retired), Belgium

After graduating in History of Art and Archaeology and obtaining his PhD in the Hittite civilization at Ghent University, Ambassador Vandemeulebroucke entered the Belgian diplomatic service, during which time he was Ambassador to such countries as Nigeria, Benin and Togo and more recently Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar.

He was also Minister plenipotentiary and head of the BIT (Bilateral Investment Treaties) Department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Brussels and has held many positions of responsibility in the field of Trade and Economic Affairs. Ambassador Vandemeulebroucke is a specialist in the fields of government liaison, international relations and analysis, negotiations, diplomatic exchanges and protocol and, as such, is actively involved in a number of professional organisations, such as VIRA (Vereniging voor internationale relaties or Association for International Relations) – Anders, which conducts analyses of geopolitical events.

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