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Migration: A dirty word or global opportunity?

“Migration not infrequently gets a bad press.  Negative stereotypes, portraying migrants as ‘stealing our jobs’ or ‘scrounging off the taxpayer’, abound in sections of the media and public opinion especially in time of recession”.  That is the opening sentence of the United Nations Human Development Report 2009.

The report goes on to say that “fears about migrants taking the jobs or lowering the wages of local people, placing an unwelcome burden on local services, or costing the taxpayer money, are generally exaggerated.”   The Report asserts, “when migrants’ skills complement those of local people, both groups benefit” and it makes the point that “the policy response to migration can be wanting. Many governments institute increasingly repressive entry regimes, turn a blind eye to health and safety violations by employers, or fail to take a lead in educating the public on the benefits of immigration.”
Little wonder, then, that immigration in most countries has become a political problem.  In the absence of factual information on the benefits of immigration to societies, the view prevails that immigration is harmful.
When some governments release figures on the number of migrants who have entered a country, there is seldom, if ever, a simultaneous release of the number of people who have left. 
In many places, if the flow of migrants was mostly out and little in, the economies would soon be in trouble as the population shrinks resulting in fewer skills, a smaller labour force, less demand for goods and services and less money circulating in the economy. 
The global flow on migrants is also vastly overestimated by the majority of the world’s people particularly because accurate information is not only sparse; it is simply not made available to the public.   For example, the UN Report reveals that the global figure for international migrants in the world’s population has stayed at only 3 per cent over the past 50 years.
However, there are some regions of the world where outward migration has a peculiarly negative impact because of the type of people who migrate, and the Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) is one such region where there is a heavy outflow of tertiary educated people to the developed countries particularly Britain, Canada and the United States. Commonwealth Secretariat figures show that among the CARICOM countries that have lost more than 75% of their tertiary educated graduates are Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Dominica, Guyana, Grenada, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago.    
Unless these countries can produce enough tertiary educated graduates to retain a sufficient number for their own development needs, not only will the public and private sectors suffer from a paucity of knowledge-based skills and entrepreneurial insights, but their economies will become uncompetitive and will decline.   The case for more investment in education and human resource development is therefore compelling.
It is a case that should be developed by the CARICOM Secretariat and jointly advanced by CARICOM countries to the International Financial Institutions, such as the World Bank, and the developed countries that benefit from this migration, to make a significant grant contribution to education in the region.
There is, of course, another side to the immigration story, and that is remittances sent back home from migrants abroad.  In the 53-nation Commonwealth, remittances have become extremely important.  They are greater than official development assistance and second only to foreign direct investment (FDI).  The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reckons that total global remittances in 2008 were $328 billion as against official development assistance of $120 billion.
All CARICOM countries benefit from remittances.  The leaders in 2008 in terms of remittances per head of population were Jamaica ($826), St Kitts-Nevis ($760), Barbados ($659), Grenada ($603), Dominica ($412), Guyana ($365) and Antigua and Barbuda ($305).  But, it is clear that in 2009, the remittance figure declined indicating that immigrants were among the principal sufferers in the countries to which they had migrated.  Many of them lost jobs or were constrained to accept lower wages and, thus, had less money to send back home.  In this connection, while remittances are important to the economies of many Caribbean countries, active policies for attracting investment from the Caribbean Diaspora have to be developed for the medium term. 
Within CARICOM, the problem of migration has become a vexed one in the context of the current global recession.  As the 2009 UN Human Development Report stated: “The current recession has made migrants particularly vulnerable.  Some destination country governments have stepped up the enforcement of migration laws in ways that can infringe on migrants’ rights”.  
It is a human reaction to try to secure the interests of citizens over migrants at a time of crisis, particularly when the migrant community is substantial as in the cases in CARICOM of Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago.  Even though the CARICOM Treaty acknowledges “Freedom of movement of People”, it is impractical to simply rely on that as a justification for migration.  CARICOM ought to be considering a more practical and realistic approach to the issue until such time as a Single Market and Economy is fully completed. 
One way of doing this would be to develop a regional mechanism under which there would be a partnership between countries of origin and destination, supervised by a Council of appropriate officials, to manage migration based on labour needs with full respect for the rights of workers and their families by the destination countries.
In early November, the former Prime Minister of Jamaica, P J Patterson, quietly began the Chairmanship of a Commission on Migration and Development.  The Commission is an initiative of the Ramphal Centre in London, named after the Caribbean’s former Commonwealth Secretary-General, Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal.
The Most Honourable P J Patterson
The Patterson Commission is in its fledgling stage and it is still be to be funded fully, but the meeting attended by representatives of the United Nations, the Commonwealth Secretariat and other multilateral organisations displayed every sign of new thinking on the issue.
The task before it is huge, but Patterson has the gravitas in the international community to make the Commission’s report a seminal document in the international discourse on how the issue of migration should be tackled to maximise its benefits.

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