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Facing the facts on migration

Philip Bowring

HONG KONG The United Nations has dropped another ball. Faced with a key issue which touches almost every country, the Global Commission on International Migration, established by Kofi Annan two years ago, has produced a 96-page report heavy on sanitized waffle and politically correct phraseology.
Unsurprisingly, the report has received token media coverage, much of it focused on its predictable call for further expansion of the UN bureaucracy by the "immediate establishment of a high-level inter-institutional group to define the functions and modalities of, and pave the way for, an Inter-agency Global Migration Facility."
This is a pity because buried within the report itself and in the supporting documents available on the commission's Web site are some hard truths that should be thrown in the face of governments.
Migration takes many different forms in different countries. Common policies are difficult enough on a regional basis, impossible on a global one. But recognition of facts is needed everywhere.
For one thing, the notion that illegal migration can be stopped by laws or barbed wire is an illusion. Migration is a natural response to demographic as much as income disparities, so countries with low birth rates and aging populations need to do something soon about their demographics or accept that foreigners will arrive to fill the local labor market vacuum. (The report declines to use "illegal," preferring the euphemisms "irregular" and "undocumented".) The number of migrants worldwide is now nearly 200 million and has doubled in 20 years.
The demographic divide is likely to increase so that even if other factors, such as changes in global manufacturing systems, cease to influence migration, the process is likely to continue unabated. By declining to offend any member state, the UN report avoids specifics and naming names. That's a pity, because specifics could, for example, show why an EU failure to admit Turkey, a country with relatively favorable demographics, would probably lead to an increase in illegal migration from other sources.
Rather than admit that their announced migration policies - which are mostly anti-migration policies - are a failure, governments turn a blind eye to what is going on. This may be viewed as "realism" but is not merely hypocritical. It provides cover for migration agencies and employers to flout employment laws and trash the human rights that these developed countries claim to protect.
Some countries with a high degree of control over their citizens keep illegal migration to a minimum but tolerate restrictions on movement of imported workers, impose discriminatory taxation or make no effort to enforce minimum-wage laws and other legislation that protects workers. Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand could be cited for endemic abuse of basic human rights and/or failure to implement their laws. In these places, many migrant workers from nearby countries exist in conditions not much different from those of indentured laborers in colonial times or the bonded laborers still found in South Asia.
Governments of migrant providers, for their part, are often more interested in maximizing the numbers of people they send abroad, and hence the amount of money that will be remitted, than in protecting their nationals. Connivance between diplomats and exploitative labor agencies is rife - just ask an Indonesian domestic helper in Asia.
Labor remittance is by far the most important form of resource transfer from rich to poorer countries. By comparison, official transfers, of which rich countries often boast, are of minimal importance. The UN report wisely advises against taxing remittances, which are at least as likely to be spent sensibly as official aid.
The media in recipient countries has an appalling record of prejudice, ignorance and stirring up populist sentiment against migrants. But why does the UN report not name names?
These are just a few of the points from the report that should have hit the headlines. Instead, the report has endless verbiage on its buzz words "capacity, coherence, cooperation."
Risk and entrepreneurship are characteristics of migrants everywhere. They have little in common with a UN panel of diplomatically sensitive experts. But it is not too late for Kofi Annan to give the migration ball to someone who can run with it and risk offending governments everywhere.
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