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Seventh European Regional Meeting in Budapest Managing migration in Europe

BUDAPEST - Migration has become a defining issue in almost all countries in Europe and Central Asia, and policymakers are looking for possible responses. The number of economically active migrants in the region is estimated to be 26.5 million, or about 4 per cent of the total workforce. But their significance for the future of economies and societies in the region may well far outweigh their current numbers. Migration, both regular and irregular, is one of the main issues to be discussed at the European Regional Meeting of the ILO in Budapest, 14-18 February. ILO Online spoke with ILO experts Patrick Taran and Roger Plant.

Article | 15 February 2005

ILO online: What are the main migration flows in Europe?

Patrick Taran: While in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, most migration flows are from the former Soviet Republics (CIS countries) to the Russian Federation, the pattern is more varied in Western Europe. For example, of the 7.3 million foreign nationals in Germany, more than 25 per cent are from Turkey (2 million), followed by the formerly 15 EU countries (1.85 million). In Italy, migrants from other EU countries account for only 11 per cent of foreign nationals, compared with 30 per cent from North African countries and Albania, and over 27 per cent from Asia. Of the 1.3 million foreigners in the United Kingdom, around one-third are from the EU, 11 per cent from Asia and 6 per cent from the United States.

ILO online: How do demographic trends affect migration policies?

Patrick Taran: Ageing work forces, declining population and changing labour force composition are prompting a reconsideration of migration policies almost everywhere across the region. ILO projections show that if current labour, demographic and economic trends remain the same in the coming years, the standard of living in Western Europe in 2050 may be 22 per cent lower than expected! In 2003, ten Western European nations already had higher mortality rates than birth rates. Net migration was positive in a great majority of these countries. By 2050, Armenia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Slovenia and Spain are predicted to have median ages of over 51 years. The fall in the population of the Russian Federation is also expected to result in labour market shortages. The cross-border movement of workers will likely be one of the key measures to enables countries with emerging labour shortages to maintain their standard of living in the coming decades.

ILO online: Is there a link between unemployment and immigration?

Patrick Taran: Widely held fears in receiving countries, that an influx of low-skilled migrant workers will create downward pressures on wages and employment levels, have been shown to have almost no empirical foundation. Indeed, in most cases, migrant workers, as well as the enterprises set up by migrants, have a positive effect on the host country's economy.

ILO online: Clandestine migration and trafficking have become major concerns in Europe. Can you say more about the extent and the reasons for the phenomenon?

Roger Plant: Information obtained from regularization programmes and other sources suggests that between 10 and 15 per cent of migrants are in an irregular situation. According to various estimates, of the 22 million foreign nationals resident in Western Europe in 2000, around 3.3 million were in an irregular situation, while a figure of 5 million has been quoted for the Russian Federation.

Political changes, and in some cases the redrawing of borders in Europe and Central Asia, have facilitated migration, both regular and irregular, on the Continent. There are both supply and demand factors behind the growth of irregular migration, and broad differences in per capita incomes clearly lead to migration pressures. However, this is only part of the equation. There is also ample evidence that irregular migration is stimulated by the excess demand in Europe for unskilled labour, and the lack of legal channels to meet such demand.

ILO online: The ILO report prepared for the ILO regional meeting in Budapest particularly refers to women as victims of irregular migration and trafficking.

Roger Plant: Women and girls. The report mentions women from Albania, the Republic of Moldova and Ukraine who have been deceived about job opportunities abroad and forced into prostitution. According to the report, children are trafficked for various purposes, such as begging, street vending or prostitution. In southern Europe, a girl trafficked into sex work is reportedly worth between US$500 and US$2,500, while a trafficker who "owns" a young virgin from Albania is reported to command prices of up to US$10,000 in industrialized countries.

But a significant number of trafficking cases also affect male migrant workers, who are forced to work in such industries as construction or agriculture. While a decline in the number of victims receiving support in shelters has been identified during the past year in south-eastern Europe, this decline may be due to traffickers changing tactics, rather than a fall in the number of victims.

ILO online: Are recent tragic events, such as the drowning of Chinese cockle pickers on the coast of Lancashire in the United Kingdom, representative of migrant workers' general conditions?

Roger Plant: Probably not, but they illustrate the serious gaps in labour protection which exist even in the most advanced societies. Migrant workers are often concentrated in low-skilled occupations, usually in jobs requiring long or irregular hours of work or subject to seasonal lay-offs, which are normally shunned by national workers. They work mainly in agriculture, construction and services, which are characterized by a large number of small producers, low technology and high firm turnover.

Equal treatment between regular immigrant and national workers is established in law in numerous countries in the region, eighteen of which have ratified the principal ILO Convention (No. 97) on this subject. However, while protection against discrimination and in relation to wages normally covers all workers, irregular migrants are not in a position to denounce violations, because this will draw attention to their lack of legal status.

ILO online: How do we regulate international migration in the twenty-first century in the face of these immense challenges?

Patrick Taran: The effective management of labour migration has to include a number of key elements. In the first place, migration policy has to be consistent with labour market conditions and realities. These policies need to be based on common international standards to ensure cooperation and accountability. Wider ratification of the ILO Conventions on migration for employment and the UN convention on migrant workers is essential, including obtaining better cooperation between origin and host countries. Migration policy has to be based on broad public support, which is most effectively obtained through extensive social dialogue between governments, employers and workers.

Measures are needed to regulate recruitment and prevent trafficking, while promoting decent work and ensuring that migrant workers are covered by national labour laws and social security schemes. Policies also need to be adopted to facilitate the integration of immigrant workers and combat discrimination.

ILO online: What can the countries of origin do to reduce emigration pressure?

Patrick Taran: When it comes to reducing emigration pressure and protecting nationals who seek employment abroad, countries of origin also have an important role to play. On the one hand, they can improve employment prospects in their own countries by giving high priority to employment promotion and decent work in their development strategies. On the other hand, they can supervise recruitment, facilitate remittance transfer, promote the productive investment of migrants' savings and encourage the return and transfer of know-how.

The governments of the countries concerned have sought the cooperative management of migration through bilateral agreements with destination countries. Albania, for example, has concluded bilateral agreements with Italy and Greece on seasonal employment in agriculture for its nationals.

Trade unions have also taken initiatives, defending and organizing this particularly vulnerable category of workers. In the Netherlands, for example, the Netherlands Confederation of Trade Unions (FNV) opened membership to undocumented migrant workers in 2000. In Switzerland, unions have worked together with the movement of undocumented workers – "sans papiers" – and have obtained some positive results in terms of legalization of the status of a number of undocumented migrant workers.

ILO online: What is the ILO's response to migration?

Patrick Taran: The ILO, which is active on this issue through projects and policy dialogue in 13 countries in the region, bases its assistance on labour migration agreements and other forms of cooperation between countries of origin and of destination, the creation of a single system of labour market information for jobs at home and abroad, the monitoring of job placement agencies, the improvement of labour inspection, and the development of job opportunities for adults and of educational and vocational training opportunities for actual and potential victims of irregular migration flows.

Other activities include support for the implementation of relevant international labour standards, as well as data collection, microfinance and the provision of entrepreneurial skills.

Roger Plant: As far as irregular migration and trafficking are concerned, the ILO's response has three key aspects:

First, the ILO gives particular attention to the labour dimensions of trafficking. It is increasingly realized that migrants can be trafficked into various forms of labour exploitation, in a range of economic sectors in the destination countries, as well as into sexual exploitation. But no organization has so far carried out systematic research into this. It is an important gap that the ILO is now filling, with particular emphasis on Europe.

Second, labour institutions have a key role to play against trafficking, whether for sexual or other forms of economic exploitation. Governments increasingly realize that effective action against human trafficking must address the social roots of the problem, including labour market failures, rather than adopting a narrow law enforcement approach.

Third, the ILO aims to address trafficking through integrated action in both origin and destination countries. Our new generation of projects aims at addressing both the supply and demand aspects of trafficking, assisting vulnerable persons through grassroots interventions in countries and communities of origin, raising awareness in destination countries, and strengthening the capacity to stamp out abusive recruitment systems.

Note 1 - Managing transitions: Governance for decent work, Report of the Director-General, vol. II, Seventh European Regional Meeting, Budapest, February 2005. Chapter 4: Strengthening a rights-based framework for managing migration.