Technical Symposium on International Migration and Development, The Hague, 29 June-3 July 1998

The Hague, the Netherlands
29 June-3 July 1998

Executive Summary

The Technical Symposium on International Migration and Development was held in The Hague, the Netherlands, from 29 June to 3 July 1998. The meeting was intended as part of the follow-up to migration-related recommendations adopted at recent United Nations global conferences -- in particular, the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo in 1994. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands hosted the Symposium, which was organized as one of the activities of the United Nations Working Group on International Migration, part of the Administrative Committee on Coordination (ACC) Task Force on Basic Social Services for All (BSSA). Forty-nine invited experts from 33 countries participated, along with representatives of the organizing agencies, other concerned intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), host country institutions, and universities and research institutes from around the world. (See Annex 1 for the Programme and Annex 2 for the List of Authors, Discussants and Organizing Agencies.)

The Symposium was envisaged as a forum for detached and objective assessment of various approaches to migration issues facing policy makers in countries of origin and those of destination. Which policies work and which do not? How can their effectiveness be determined? What forms of State intervention can bring about the desired outcomes more efficiently, and under what conditions? By seeking answers to questions such as these, the Symposium sought to advance the knowledge required for the better management of orderly migration, in ways beneficial to both sending and receiving countries, through international cooperation.

Participants considered a variety of substantive papers, including country case-studies, prepared expressly for the Symposium. The topics covered, inter alia, migration for employment, including the irregular employment of migrants; the effectiveness of measures that countries have taken to protect their migrant workers abroad; the social and cultural situation of long-term migrants in a variety of contexts; and measures to prevent the marginalization of migrants. Recognizing the importance of return migration, the Symposium examined its implications for the development of countries of origin and the problems posed by large or unexpected return flows. The Symposium devoted special attention to forced migration and the changing responses to it in various regions. By covering such a range of issues, with an emphasis on the assessment of migration policy, the Symposium made a significant contribution to the process of reviewing and appraising the implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action, a process culminating in a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly, from 30 June to 2 July 1999.

Participants also examined the major challenges that international migration posed to the international community, challenges compounded by negative public perceptions about international migration and often limited recognition of the important contributions that migrants make to development and the quality of life in both their host societies and their countries of origin. Varying definitions and the scarcity of reliable data further contributed to common misconceptions about international migration.

The most recent worldwide estimates of the number of international migrants, dating from 1990, indicated that there were 120 million international migrants at that time, accounting for about 2 per cent of the world’s population. Between 1965 and 1990, the number of international migrants had grown at a moderate rate of 1.9 per cent a year, although the pace of growth increased between 1985 and 1990. Overall, international migrants accounted for 4.5 per cent of the population of developed countries in 1990, compared with a relatively stable 1.6 per cent for developing countries. However, international migrants tended to be unevenly concentrated in certain countries and subregions. Moreover, the disintegration of some countries in the aftermath of the cold war had resulted in substantial population movements. Female participation in international migration, while not having increased markedly in percentage terms at the global level, had become more evident in some regions and in certain types of flows.

An examination of the links between international migration and development underscored the impact that globalization of capital movements and trade, as well as the emergence of regional economic cooperation mechanisms, was already having on migration. Evidence indicated that when regional trading blocs included countries at different stages of development, economic integration was likely to stimulate migration, at least at the outset. However, a more powerful analytical framework and further research were needed to better understand these relationships. It was also suggested that migration should be a specific element of international cooperation arrangements within regional economic associations.

The Symposium examined the extent to which such factors as poverty and environmental degradation caused migration. An econometric analysis relating, inter alia, income levels and deforestation in developing countries of origin to rates of emigration to developed countries showed that low income levels reduced emigration whereas incomes over a certain threshold increased emigration. An increase in deforestation tended to increase emigration. These findings and a review of those from other studies indicated that the links between poverty or environmental degradation and international migration were complex. Because of the costs involved in international migration, poverty generally reduced the capacity to migrate unless other factors forced people to undertake "survival migration". Environmental degradation was expected to have mainly an indirect effect on international migration by affecting economic conditions which, in turn, could stimulate departure.

Analyses of the causes of international migration at the individual level were limited by the lack of adequate data. Hence, the Symposium took note of a special study designed to gather the data needed to assess both the proximate and the root causes of migration from developing to developed countries. Using surveys covering both countries of origin and countries of destination, the study gathered comparable information on both international migrants and persons in the countries of origin who did not migrate, thus providing the ideal reference group for analysing the causes of migration. It also gathered information at individual, household and community levels, thus permitting an analysis of both the microlevel and macrolevel factors leading to migration.

The Symposium further examined remittances, an important mechanism through which international migration influences development. Reviewing the high levels of remittances received by the main countries of origin, the Symposium noted the efforts made to incorporate the use of remittances into a revised economic theory of migration -- the "new economics of labour migration". According to this theory, migration was seen as a means by which households could diversify risk and gain access to the capital needed for productive investment. The Symposium noted that studies of communities where the requisite data existed had corroborated that remittances had a positive effect on the allocation of household income to productive activities.

The participation of women in international migration was of special interest to the Symposium. Growing opportunities to secure employment abroad had significantly raised the visibility of female migrant workers, especially in Asia. Although their increasing participation in labour migration implied that they could earn better salaries abroad, female migrant workers tended to be concentrated in low-status occupations that provided minimal prospects of socio-economic mobility in the receiving State. Furthermore, women working in such fields as domestic or entertainment services were especially vulnerable to exploitation and harassment. This had led some Asian countries of origin, in particular, to adopt protection measures. However, enforcement was difficult and violations continued. In developed regions, as elsewhere, the trend towards more women moving as independent labour migrants or as the principal worker in a family group was noted. Notwithstanding the risks involved in international migration, the Symposium considered that the migration experience had the potential of enhancing the status of female migrants and contributing to their empowerment.

Having noted the important implications of globalization for the international movement of workers, the Symposium focused on the migration of skilled personnel. This issue was growing in importance because both developed countries and the newly industrializing economies of the developing world had been making special efforts to attract workers with needed skills. Policy measures were needed to ensure that sending countries were not harmed by the loss of skilled personnel and that the benefits to receiving countries and skilled migrants themselves were maximized through recognition of qualifications and employment in appropriate positions.

The Symposium noted that the free temporary movement of persons as service providers had been formally accepted under the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) and that labour-abundant countries might consider developing their human resources to enhance their service-providing capabilities, thereby reducing migration pressures. In addition, developing countries might consider cooperative arrangements among themselves to develop service packages that could strengthen their position in bidding for international contracts.

Five country case-studies focused on the interrelationship between irregular employment and international migration. Although national workers were also affected, foreigners were found to have a greater propensity to take up irregular employment because of their weak legal position and social vulnerability. In all five countries examined, both irregular migration and the irregular employment of migrants had resulted from the conflict between real demand for unskilled workers and restrictive or ineffective migration policies that hindered or prohibited their admission. In countries with economies in transition, the political and economic transformation contributed to an increase in irregular migration. To reduce irregular employment, closer examination of socio-economic developments as well as policies driving irregular migration was, therefore, needed, since regulation alone had generally failed to address the issue and had sometimes inadvertently increased the vulnerability of migrants. Even though migrants taking up irregular employment were contributing to the economic prosperity of the host society, public perceptions about irregular migration were often extremely negative and were fuelling xenophobic or racist reactions. In such a context, draconian measures or populist attitudes on the part of Governments risked exacerbating the problem. To be effective, policies to combat irregular migration should take a holistic approach based on a better understanding of the economic role of the informal sector and the need for unskilled labour. Monitoring and understanding irregular movements, the extent of irregular employment, and the employment and social situation of irregular migrants should also be improved.

Given the continued significance of migration for employment, the Symposium examined the effectiveness of the special institutions and procedures that had been established by a number of countries of origin to protect the basic rights of their workers employed abroad. As four country case-studies showed, the need for protection arose in diverse settings. In some cases, protection was necessary because of weak labour institutions in countries of destination; in others, the need stemmed from the irregular status of migrants in the country of employment. Exploitation at the hands of labour recruiters and other intermediaries was also a common problem requiring State intervention. One case-study presented an innovative methodology for empirically evaluating the impact of that country’s protection of its workers employed abroad. Applying such an approach in countries where policies, institutions and monitoring systems were either lacking or less developed, however, was recognized as difficult. Furthermore, countries of origin, especially those that considered the export of labour as a vital part of their economic strategies, were often in a weak position to protect their migrants abroad or to demand effective protection of their citizens as a condition for deployment. The Symposium considered that the best framework to ensure the effective protection of migrant workers was a partnership between sending country and receiving country, since the equitable treatment of migrant workers was in their common interest and a key precondition for achieving orderly and mutually beneficial migration flows. To this end, the Symposium noted that standards already existed in international human rights instruments and Conventions of the International Labour Organization (ILO) on the rights and treatment of migrant workers. These should be applied. The Symposium stressed that, where actively pursued, the policies of countries of origin did have a positive effect on the protection of migrants abroad and contributed to making migration more orderly.

With more countries hosting sizeable and increasingly diversified populations of long-term foreign residents, the Symposium considered the issues raised by their status in the host society. Four case-studies, covering both new and traditional receiving societies, examined the economic integration, social mobility, educational opportunities and cultural identity of migrants and their children. Their focus was on how, from a policy perspective, Governments and other actors could prevent the economic, social and cultural marginalization of resident foreigners, especially when marginalization was linked to ethnicity or race. Whatever the original intentions of migrants and employers and their Governments, experience showed that some proportion of migrants often settled permanently in receiving countries. Migration policies should take this outcome into account. Moreover, a comprehensive long-term strategy was needed to ensure the socio-economic integration of foreign residents, given the failure of the short-term, ad hoc measures tried in many countries to prevent marginalization. Such a strategy should recognize and respect the desire of foreigners to maintain their linguistic, cultural and religious practices. Although it was recognized that policies and practices needed to be adapted to each context, the experiences of immigration countries provided indicators of policies most likely to bring about satisfactory integration. Public information and education were considered crucial in this respect, since even the best policies could not succeed in the absence of public understanding and support. The Symposium cautioned that the lack of appropriate social and cultural policies enjoying broad-based public support could lead to social tensions, making the local population feel threatened and foreigners feel insecure and excluded.

Although many migrants have settled abroad permanently, others have returned to their countries of origin. Return migration was recognized as an important process, although information on its magnitude was limited, and few public authorities were perceived as attaching sufficient importance to the conditions of return. The Symposium considered five case-studies dealing with the impact of return migration. These made it clear that both the impact and the conditions of return varied, depending, in part, upon whether the return was purely voluntary or the result of changed conditions in the country of employment (recession, political instability or war), producing a large return flow. In some cases, returning migrants appeared to have made almost no contribution to development in their country of origin after their return, whereas, in others, the effect was positive. However, because few countries had taken explicit measures to facilitate the reintegration of returnees, an assessment of the role of policy interventions in these outcomes could not be carried out. Available evidence suggested, nevertheless, that the provision of counselling and information as well as access to credit were conducive to the maximization of the positive effects of return migration. Returnees were more likely to prepare and plan for their return if advised and supported by governmental agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The maintenance of social networks in the country of origin appeared to be crucial to their successful reintegration. To develop better strategies for facilitating return and successful reintegration -- especially when large numbers of migrants returned simultaneously -- the Symposium underscored the need for closer cooperation between the Governments of countries of origin and those of countries of destination, with the assistance of international organizations and NGOs.

Recognizing the growing importance of forced migration and the issues raised by the rising numbers of persons in need of protection who did not qualify as refugees, the Symposium considered the changing responses to the arrival of asylum-seekers in different regions of the world. It was recognized that people were generally impelled to migrate by a complex mix of factors, which might include individual persecution as well as economic needs, family ties, environmental problems and other considerations. One of the key problems confronting the institution of asylum was considered to be the real difficulty in deciding, for each asylum-seeker, whether individual persecution was the major cause of flight. At the same time, the Symposium identified trends towards increasing restrictiveness in refugee and asylum policies in both developed and developing countries. To safeguard the institution of asylum, it was considered essential to ensure compliance with basic human rights norms and to safeguard fundamental principles, such as the right to asylum in the event of individual persecution and the principle of non-refoulement. To address the new situation, it seemed necessary to search for a range of measures that responded to the diversity of protection needs, including the use of flexible responses such as the granting of temporary protection. The return of those who were refused asylum was also essential to the integrity of the asylum system, but required cooperation between sending and receiving countries and measures to make returns more acceptable to the individuals concerned. To achieve this, receiving countries and countries of origin needed to engage in a constructive dialogue with a view to negotiating practical solutions, it being noted, for example, that a number of readmission agreements already existed.

In developed countries, asylum procedures had become the operational mechanism for resolving the dilemma of migration control versus refugee protection. The rising costs of processing asylum claims had compromised the availability of funds to support refugees in poorer countries. To reduce those costs, receiving countries had been adopting increasingly stringent non-admission policies that had the potential of preventing bona fide refugees from seeking asylum. In developing countries, not only was there a growing reluctance to admit refugees but, in addition, the physical security, dignity and material safety of those admitted could not always be guaranteed. In both developed and developing countries, public support for refugee and asylum-seeker protection had been eroding. The Symposium considered it important for Governments to counter these public perceptions, both by undertaking public education and by ensuring effective and well-managed refugee and asylum systems which could secure public confidence.

The Symposium concluded with a panel discussion that highlighted the main findings and policy implications of the debates. The importance of international cooperation based on an appropriate balance of the concerns of the various parties was stressed. The international harmonization of migration and asylum policies was seen as the appropriate long-term goal; however, it was thought that this goal would most likely be reached in stages, starting at the subregional and regional levels. Attention was drawn to the gulf between formal rights and the actual treatment of migrants and to the need to create conditions favouring the full participation of migrants in society. Notwithstanding globalization, States still had considerable power to control international migration. However, ill-conceived control mechanisms or a disproportionate focus on control might be contributing to the rise in irregular migration. It was stressed that nobody wanted to be an illegal migrant: the challenge was to create conditions which made that unnecessary.

The Chairman pointed out in his closing remarks that the Symposium had helped to highlight the need for better collection and analysis of data on various aspects of international migration. Lack of reliable information often led to the perpetuation of myths about migration that were a weak basis for policy formulation. International migration had clearly become a major concern in domestic and foreign policy. A better understanding of its complexities and dynamics was needed to maximize the benefits of migration for all concerned.