The 15-nation Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM) should establish an expert group to study and report on migration and how to manage it.
Migration is now one of the major issues confronting the world. It is an issue that will become more controversial as new economic strains are felt globally.
In regional groupings such as the 27-nation European Union and the 15-nation Caribbean Community and Common Market (CARICOM), the problems of migration are even more complicated because the treaties governing these groupings expressly allow freedom of movement of people.
While in the case of the European Union (EU) people are free to cross borders to live and work under reciprocal arrangements, in CARICOM freedom of movement is restricted to certain categories of workers and only with the specific approval of receiving governments.
Different levels of development explain why freedom of movement occurs relatively easily in the EU and not in CARICOM. The short explanation is that the recipient countries of the EU are well enough developed to absorb migrants whereas CARICOM countries are not. When migrants enter and remain in CARICOM countries, even though they contribute to the economy by paying taxes and buying goods and services (and often doing jobs that locals do not want) they also place an additional burden on health and education services and even on water and electricity that the State is expected to provide but for which they did not plan.
This strain on public services in small countries is exacerbated when migrants are there illegally. It is understandable, therefore, why countries, such as Barbados, take a strong position on sending illegal migrants back to their homelands. Small countries simply cannot cope with an unplanned influx of migrants.
But, misinformation and misconceptions contribute greatly to the more vocal views about migration. In the United Kingdom, for example, polls indicate that the widely held belief is that 24 per cent of the population is foreign-born. In actuality, the figure is only 9.6 per cent. A study of eight migrant receiving countries (US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain) found in all of them that respondents on average exaggerated the size of the migrant population.
Similar exaggerations in the actual number of migrants in CARICOM countries are more than likely to be found if definitive studies are conducted. As an example, in many Caribbean countries the view, that foreigners are largely responsible for crimes, is shattered by statistics revealing that the overwhelming majority of persons in prison are local.
The migration issue has already made for uncomfortable relations between some of the member states of CARICOM. As vexed an issue as it is, it could get worse unless there is regional agreement to manage it, and to do so in an open and transparent manner which upholds the rights and protections to which migrants are entitled.
CARICOM countries also have to exert particular care in dealing with the matter of migration. On a per capita basis, the Caribbean is one of the areas from which the largest number of migrants flows to other countries. Caribbean countries cannot encourage an open-door policy for their migrants to other countries, while practicing a closed door policy for themselves. This is one important reason why the region has to develop a well thought out policy for managed migration.
While the region would like to continue to export its unskilled people to the US, Canada, Britain and elsewhere, and keep their skilled people at home, they cannot legislate that wish. Migration of skilled and unskilled people from the Caribbean to developed nations will not stop once economic factors encourage them to move.
World Bank research shows that the highest rates of ‘brain drain’ are from small states. For instance, the World Health Organisation has confirmed that while the largest number of foreign-born doctors working in the industrialised nations of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) are from India, among the ten countries with the highest expatriation rates are six Caribbean small states: Antigua and Barbuda (89%), Grenada (73%), Guyana (72%), Dominica (60%), Trinidad and Tobago (55%) and St Vincent and the Grenadines (53%).
To reverse this trend, CARICOM countries have to widen the opportunities for their skilled people to work and earn. They would better do so in arrangements which offer the entire region as a market, in which Caribbean professionals can travel freely to practice their trade and deliver services.
A further problem for CARICOM countries, which makes the matter of migration ripe for expert analysis and informed policy-making, is that, for many of them, their productive populations between the ages of 15 and 64 are becoming smaller. The United Nations projects that this group of the populations of Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago will decrease over the period 2010 to 2020 by 0.08 and 0.3 respectively. In the same period, the same age-group in Jamaica and Grenada will increase marginally; and in Guyana and St Lucia, the 15 to 64 year olds will grow by just over 1%. Only in Belize will this group grow by 2.57%.
This means that the countries, whose productive populations are contracting, will have to encourage migration into their countries, or face economic contraction including a fall in government revenues and declining capacity to deliver goods and services to their people especially social services for the elderly.
This situation demands that new migration should be a planned and managed process that would be better achieved through a co-operation arrangement by CARICOM in which member countries seek skilled and unskilled workers from each other on a reciprocal basis that should include the transfer of the payments by migrants to social security and medical benefits schemes from one country to another.
To tackle this problem, CARICOM government should consider establishing a Group of Experts drawn from relevant departments of government, the Universities, the private sector and the trade union movement to study the issue carefully and produce a report and recommendations that could be discussed with the Caribbean people in town-hall meetings throughout the region, in media discussions, and in parliaments before implementation.
A good basis for the work of such an Expert Group would be the Report of a Commission for Migration and Development set up by the Ramphal Centre in the United Kingdom. The Commission is being Chaired by former Jamaica Prime Minister, P J Patterson, and the report will be published later this year.