A panel discussion on global migration

I recently attended a panel forum on global migration, hosted by the Australian National University. It was an excellent discussion, chaired by Stephen Castles (Sydney University) and including Kathleen Newland (Migration Policy Institute), Gervais Appave (International Organisation for Migration), Khalid Koser (Geneva Centre for Security Policy) and Richard Bedford (Waikato University).

There was general agreement that the Global Financial Crisis had an impact on migration, however these were to reinforce existing trends as opposed to transform them.  Koser and Newland in particular focused on how migration is driven by labour markets, which the GFC has again shown.  Newland spoke of how net Mexican migration to the U.S. has stopped in the wake of the crisis.  Koser spoke of how labour markets in high-income countries are segmented, with migrants performing jobs locals are unwilling to do.  While this used to be a contested topic in immigration literature, it now seems to occupy the mainstream.

This discussion certainly highlighted how global migration is wildly different to immigration to Australia.  Australia has a suite of policies that are economic in nature, with dual objectives to raise overly economic gains while also to protect the wages of low skilled workers by disallowing (significant) immigration of low skilled workers. By allowing high skilled migrants, there are significant fiscal benefits to Australia as well as more competition amongst skilled workers, helping reduce income inequality (at the margin).  It is important to recognise this unique nature of Australian immigration and that the vast majority of countries do not have a similar policy framework.

The conversation then turned to the global governance of international migration. Recently the UN has established a dialogue on migration, linking it closely to development opportunities to help reduce poverty.  While Appave from the IOM was a glass half full guy about the potential impact this may have, others were more skeptical. Koser outlined how the private sector is cut out of this discussion, possibly because they do not want to play a role in what is seen as a heavily bureaucratic system made up of various multilateral organisations. Richard Bedford added some useful context by talking about the Pacific and programs like the Australia and New Zealand seasonal work, which show how migration and development can occur in practice.

I am typically reluctant to believe in the power of ‘high level dialogue’ to advance migration outcomes. However it was encouraging to hear Mr. Appave talk about how the conversation has changed.  He noted how previous conversation in high income countries was rooted in the vernacular of border protection while developing countries would push a human rights agenda for their citizens abroad.  While he said now a more civilised discussion on migration and development has formed, there now needs to be more concrete outcomes from future cooperation.  Put this one in the wait and see basket.

One very important point stood out for me.  Stephen Castles raised the prospect of high income countries ratifying the Convention on Migrant Workers, which migrant receiving countries are loathe to do because of the conditions attached in the form of stringent human rights.  Often in political and public debates about Australian migration you will hear calls from what I will term the broad progressive left (Human Rights Council, ACTU) that Australia should ratify this treaty. This may be because of mistreatment of skilled migrant workers or the exploitation of international students.

Newland made a forceful argument against the convention, saying how it was framed in a completely statist manner, where governments are the determining factor for migration outcomes.  The assumptions of the convention are built on cooperation and agreement between governments whereas migration occurs because of individuals and networks. She noted how Mexico is now as concerned about its southern border as the U.S. is about theirs and that neither country could control these forces as they are outside of their capability.  Appave also noted how the IOM could expand energy in attempting to get countries to ratify the convention but was not sure this was the best use of resources given previous difficulties. The implicit consensus from the panel seemed to be the convention should not be pursued given the questionable benefits would be heavily outweighed by significant costs.

Lets consider this for a moment. Here was an eminent panel of migration practitioners all of who favour expanded channels of migration to provide more opportunity for those who wish to migrate. And almost uniformly, the convention was dismissed as a pragmatic method to further the goal of more people movement. This is a strong message for those in Australia who seek ratification of this convention that it may not be in the best interests of migrants, especially potential migrants who wish to migrate but cannot.

A range of other topics were discussed. Why cities are critical to how migrants integrate into societies and how this will inly increase over time. The issues with brain drain (strong arguments against the concept itself as some evidence demonstrates it doesn’t exist). The extent of rights provided to migrants. How temporary migration is changing the perception of immigration. It was a fascinating opportunity to hear the perspective of people who have lived this topic for decades.

Finally, there was a note of optimism from Khalid Koser which should be promoted. He mentioned how immigration in the UK is “terrifyingly polarised” where nuanced public debate doesn’t occur. He strongly advocated for governments to preserve a public space for serious debate on immigration, to recognise the positives and drawbacks. While this doesn’t occur in the UK, he was impressed by how this public space exists in Australia. While some may disagree if we focus exclusively on asylum seekers, he is undoubtedly correct when we turn to concepts such as citizenship, multiculturalism and migration as a whole.

I hope after relatively poor public debate in the 2010 election campaign and earlier this year about migrants in the labour force, Australia can again turn to this complex discussion where serious debate can occur.

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