Larisa Smirnova (lari_snova) wrote,
Larisa Smirnova

World Migration Crisis: How We Got to Now, and What’s Up Next?

How sad the world is at evening!
You will know it if <…> you have walked through the world carrying an unbearable burden.
M. Bulgakov, “Master and Margarita”, Chapter 32 “Eternal Refuge”

All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
The Beatles

The Chinese translation of this article by LB was published by the Financial Times Chinese edition on September 22, 2016:

The issue of international migration has attracted an unprecedented degree of public attention. Amidst the extreme migration crisis in Europe, the phenomenon of the “desperate loner” terrorism, recently on the rise in many places of the world and often perpetrated by immigrants, might be an unfortunate testimony to the fact that there are indeed migration-related situations that can amount to moral, psychological, and psychiatric dilemmas. 

It is true that the ubiquitous question of the public debate at stake in many countries, including the US presidential election and the UK Brexit referendum, is whether, if at all, a country needs any foreigners or whether they should all be kicked out. Whereas many scholars argued, validly, that immigrants can bring economic benefits to a country and that cultural exchanges are beneficial for knowledge acquisition, on the other hand, people may as well legitimately feel insecure when hearing news of terrorism or simply annoyed by the presence of those who look or behave differently.

Psychologists believe that humans have a natural need for “belonging” to a group. Therefore, from a migrant’s perspective, facing difficulties in integrating a society, exacerbated by endless legal hurdles of visas, residence, and work permits, can become extremely frustrating. Yet the migrants’ opinions tend to be stigmatized to the extent that only those who have the experience of direct exposure to their conditions can fully comprehend their frustration while most people who have never lived in a foreign country do not usually even think about it.

There are some simple steps that can save government money while greatly relieving the frustration of migrants that I have learned throughout my almost twenty years of dealing with migration in different capacities of a migrant in several foreign countries, a scholar, and a UNHCR refugee aid worker. My stance on the issue can be summarized in one principle: in order to create a virtuous migration circle, policies should prioritize self-reliant migrants with strive and ability to succeed.

Towards a fairer “migration mentality”
The “Darwinist” principle of helping the fitter in various situations, including migration, has been criticized, by many, as too capitalist or even too cynical. In my opinion, it doesn’t mean, though, that we should not extend a helping hand to those in need. Rather, it means that at any given point where resources are limited, regardless of how we got to that point, we should in the first place extend help to those people who are willing to accept it “actively”. That is to say, the assisted migrants should demonstrate their ability to leverage resources in order to become self-reliant and, ideally, reach a level when they can in their own turn help others, creating a virtuous circle and reducing the burden of their original benefactors. 

Unfortunately, however, the migration and asylum policies in many countries and places launched the exact opposite vicious circle. They restricted opportunities for the fit, poured the assistance resources towards, assumingly, provision of help to those in despair, but ended up creating a lot of waste throughout the process that includes maintaining costly bureaucratic migration control apparatus. These policies succeeded in making literally everyone upset, migrants and nationals alike: the workers because of their lost opportunities, the employers because of inability to hire workers of their choice, those in personal relations with foreign nationals because of inadvertently sharing the frustrating circumstances of their beloved ones.

Overall, the general course of events demonstrates that, wherever culturally different foreigners become numerous enough, tensions in the society tend to rise, and whoever finds themselves in a minority situation is vulnerable by definition. Theoretically, there is nothing to prevent any country from growing nationalistic to the extent of making a collective decision to simply expel all foreigners, like it famously happened with the Jews throughout history. In such a case, no better guarantee can be provided to foreigners than granting them, at some point, with citizenship rights. However, if more and more foreigners become citizens, sooner or later “citizens of foreign origin” will become the majority and the original natives a minority, as it famously happened in the Roman Empire as well as in most countries of the so-called “New World”. Within the next several dozens of years, this kind of transformation is likely going to take place in large parts of Europe, including my native Russia.

The search for resolution of the migration dilemma is essentially comparable to the Shakespearean “to be or not to be”. Yet we are talking about people with their unique lives, their emotions, happiness, and pains, so, it seems, some fairness should be pursued and can be found through answering the following two questions: First, how these foreigners ended up in a particular country? Second, at what time and under what conditions, if any, should they be granted citizenship and no longer be considered, at least legally, as foreigners?

Burden, profit, and humanism  
Migrants are usually divided into two broad categories: voluntary, often referred to as economic migrants, and forced, often referred to as refugees, a term that has its legal nuances but that I will use here for the sake of simplicity. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, currently estimates that 65.3 million people are in situations of forcible displacement around the world, a more than threefold increase from ten years ago and that their number continues to grow by 34 thousand on a daily basis .

Rather, unfortunately, in dealing with refugees, national and institutional interests tend to prevail over personal dramas. One major issue at stake for countries is the so-called “burden-sharing”: in other words, if a war causes a massive flight of refugees from a country, which countries should be responsible for accommodating them, provided that their presence will almost inevitably impose financial or other costs on the recipient country?

A common sense fair answer to this question suggests that those responsible for the breakout of war should bear the costs thereof. Yet, in reality, refugees might either feel insecure in the country in conflict with their own, or feel emotionally reluctant to reach that country, or face an inability to do so because of geographical distance, legal hurdles, and other reasons. The immediate refugee “burden” will, therefore, be incurred by either those countries surrounding the conflict zone (such as Turkey in the case of the Syrian conflict) or countries neutral to the conflict (paradoxically, that includes, according to our observations, China in the case of the Ukrainian conflict).

The refugee “burden” may seem extremely unfair to the recipient countries unless they manage to effectively involve refugees in their economy and gain profit out of the otherwise unfortunate situation. The United States science and technology, famously, benefitted greatly from the influx of Second World War refugees from Europe, Albert Einstein being one illustrious figure in the cohort. 

However, the US Second World War luck is rather untypical. Under the auspices of the United Nations Refugee Convention, the one guarded by the UNHCR, many countries set up extremely cumbersome and costly “bureaucratically legalistic” procedures of determining who is and who is not a refugee. Going through the determination process can last for years, if not dozens of years, result in legal battles that may literally lead up to the Supreme Courts, and cost fortunes in terms of government and personal funds, wasted time and lost opportunities.

Less attention has been paid to migrants whose situation may be inasmuch dramatic as that of refugees: those who have stayed in a foreign country for a long enough period of time so they largely lost all ties with their country of origin. Most European countries responded to the aging of the massive generation of migrants who gained Europe during the post-Second World War economic boom, by opening up their citizenship procedures.

In China, the issue of legal status of foreign immigrants has not attracted much attention thus far because they represent but a tiny minority vis-à-vis the local population, and because, due to their small number, it used to be largely possible to handle them on an ad hoc and case-by-case basis. This situation will likely change in the near future, as those foreigners who came to China after the “reform and opening up” policy was launched will reach their retirement age, and as more numerous generations of migrants will come and stay in China.

Quick, effective, and simple
Back in 2006, I assisted a French government immigration department in streamlining their immigration and citizenship application processing. I believe that some simple measures that we took were helpful to relieve much of the migrants’ stress while saving the government funding and could be considered by policy-makers elsewhere.

First of all, we decided that it was fair to prioritize those migrants who could speak good French and were able to correctly prepare their application file. Common sense as it may seem, it was not necessarily obvious to everyone, because one of the policies in place suggested that the government officials should assist “integration” of migrants by encouraging them to learn French and helping them with filing their immigration applications. The difference of our approach was that we decided to start from the positive end by first rewarding those who already made the necessary efforts to learn the language and integrate the society, in the hope that others would spontaneously follow their example.

Second, we felt that spending resources on any empowerment-oriented project with potential knowledge or economic output was a more productive budget expenditure than policing or enforcing restrictions. In other words, assuming the choice is between either spending government money on setting up language classes for those willing to improve their linguistic skills, or buying deportation tickets to migrants who are not otherwise criminals and whose only fault consists in their failure to comply with various, often self-contradicting, migration regulations, which policy should be preferred? We found, not without systemic resistance, the former to be a more rational option.

Obviously, one important variable in the design of migration policies is a country’s willingness to submit the nationals to a labor market competition with foreigners. Based on my, likely subjective, observations, I believe that those countries, most of them common law, who have been less protective of their nationals, tend to be more successful in smoothly tackling immigration issues than those, frequently continental law countries, who have shown more fear of competition.

For example, when the EU expanded in 2004 to include 10 new members, the UK, Ireland, and Sweden were the only three countries which opened their borders straight away to workers from the new member states while most other countries introduced transitional restrictions. Also, when I was working for the World Bank, an international organization with predominantly American management culture, we were encouraged to introduce our spouses and partners for vacancies within the Bank, provided they satisfied qualification requirements. As one advisory note stated pretty straightforwardly, hiring spouses would be beneficial to both improve the psychological stability of the Bank’s employees and to save the new staff training fees, as “you have already trained your spouses by sharing your work experiences with them at home”.

Hence, the following few ideas might offer some insights to China. One of them is to allow foreign students to legally hold part-time jobs, as it is already the practice in many countries, a simple policy that has the advantage to increase the self-reliance of students and to reduce the need for scholarship funding. Another one is to open labor market to the spouses of nationals. Assuming family unity is a value and families should be allowed to stay together, if foreign spouses of a country’s citizens are not allowed to work or only allowed to work under a number of restrictive conditions (that is the case of China), the obvious question is: who is supposed to financially provide for the foreign husband or wife and for the children? The one who ends up penalized the most in this case is, likely, not even the foreigner but his or her citizen spouse!

* * *

Let me end this story with an anecdote. One French police intelligence department once found an ingenious “Gallic humor” solution to the issue of complying with the central government’s targets of the number of foreigners that had to be deported. On January 1, 2007, Romania was to join the European Union. After that date, the Romanians would no longer need visas to reenter France. In December 2006, the police agents secretly agreed with the illegal Romanians that their deportation would consist of “sending them back home for Christmas” on government expenses, but they would be able to safely come back after the holidays. An arrangement that, apparently, worked out just fine, but that would have, if publicized, certainly made many French, and not only French, citizens extremely jealous!
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