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Top 10 of 2012 - Issue #1: Migration Flows Rise, Diversify as Global Economy Stumbles Toward Recovery

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Top 10 of 2012 - Issue #1: Migration Flows Rise, Diversify as Global Economy Stumbles Toward Recovery

Migration flows that were stalled by the global economic crisis have picked up anew to some OECD countries. (Photo courtesy of Les Haines)

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With many developed economies still shaking off the effects of the global economic crisis, some with more vigor than others, migration flows that were stalled for a period by the pronounced recession that began in 2008 have resumed to a number of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries. The United Kingdom and France, which continue to see significant new immigration, have taken a new tack on immigration policymaking. And across the Atlantic, even as the United States continues to experience higher-than-desired unemployment rates, it appears there may be a slight uptick in Mexican migration, breaking a spell of nearly flat-lined flows since the U.S. economy began softening considerably in 2007. Yet the movement is not all towards traditional immigrant-receiving countries. An increasing number of international students and labor migrants appear to be choosing emerging economies, such as Brazil, China, and South Africa, over traditional destinations, continuing a trend that first emerged a few years ago.

Early Signs of Mexican Emigration Growth in 2012, But Still Below Prerecession Figures

Recently released data from Mexico's national statistics agency (known as INEGI) show that during the first half of 2012, the outflow of migrants from Mexico increased to its highest level since summer 2008 — although numbers are still well below those observed between 2005-08. This uptick has coincided with an increase in construction activity in the United States — also at its highest level since summer 2008.

Migration from Mexico to the United States had stalled since 2008, with several explanations in the mix. Some point to lower U.S. labor demand, while others credit increases in U.S. border and interior enforcement. Beyond U.S. factors, there has also been strong evidence of long-term structural changes in Mexico's population growth, social development investments, and capacity to create jobs. The new data suggest, however, that the U.S. labor market remains attractive for many Mexicans. With large differences between earnings prospects in many occupations in the United States and Mexico, coupled with deeply established networks between families and communities in the two countries, Mexican migration seems set to remain a continuing reality in coming years. And while the United States only infrequently adjusts its immigration policies, political and demographic realities seem to be aligning in favor of a substantive legislative debate in Congress in 2013, one that could see the emergence of a hard-fought consensus between the political parties over the always contentious question of how to resolve the status of the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants (see Issue #5: The Stars May Be Aligning for Break in Long-Running Stalemate over Major U.S. Immigration Policy Reform).

United Kingdom, France Take New Tack on Immigration Policies

While many European Union (EU) countries experienced a drop in immigration after the onset of the recession, the United Kingdom did not. The UK Home Office introduced several restrictions during 2012 on the entry of non-EU migrants, including a cap on skilled workers and stricter rules on international students, in an attempt to meet the Conservative government's target of reducing net immigration to fewer than 100,000 by 2015. Current EU law prevents the United Kingdom from applying restrictive policies to European migration, but the issue has gained attention given that transitional controls on migrants from Romania and Bulgaria will cease at the end of 2013. Also during the year, new rules came into effect to end international students' ability to stay in the United Kingdom for two years after graduation without an employer sponsor, and the UK government clamped down substantially on visa fraud (see Issue #7: Governments Crack Down on Student Visa Fraud).

Moreover, the United Kingdom, like a few other EU countries (including Belgium), pursued more restrictive rules on family reunification. Among tightening policy changes, the UK government introduced a new minimum income threshold of £18,600 for sponsoring the settlement of a spouse or partner of non-European Economic Area (EEA) nationality. As currently more than 40 percent of UK earners make less than this amount, this new regulation potentially excludes large swaths of the population from sponsoring a foreign partner.

These new developments represent a major departure from previous UK immigration strategies. They have been the subject of intense debate: many of the new measures have been highly unpopular with the business community and UK universities, and many people doubt that the government's numerical target can be met. Nonetheless, even the leadership of the Labour Party, which presided over high levels of immigration while in government, has broadly supported a goal of reducing immigration despite some disagreements on the details.

France also has diverged from its traditional migration policies since the May election of Socialist Party President François Hollande. The new interior minister, Manuel Valls, continues in the same vein as his right-wing predecessor with hard-line security measures, including dismantling of Roma camps (see Issue #6: 2012 Proved a Year of Migration Management Headaches in the European Union). However, citizenship policy has been relaxed and the Hollande government has scrapped former President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to require immigrants to pass a multiple-choice history and culture test as part of the naturalization process (while remaining tough on French language requirements).

As for other OECD countries, Germany has also seen a large increase in immigrants, many from EU countries, and particularly Poland, following the end of measures restricting Eastern Europeans' access to the labor market. Australia and Canada continue to have high levels of employment-based immigration, both permanent and, increasingly, temporary. During 2012, Canada increased its target number of visas, although many of its selection policies have been under review.

Reverse Migration

Emerging economies also are gaining prominence as new magnets for people seeking opportunities abroad. Brazil has offered increasing numbers of work permits to foreign professionals, and a growing body of anecdotal evidence points towards the country's attractiveness for U.S. emigrants returning home. The Chinese government reports that increasing numbers of its students are returning from abroad, and demand for Indian residence and work rights among people of Indian origin is thought to have grown. In addition, foreign investment often creates demand for the movement of people too — and plenty of it is currently directed towards emerging economies. For example, an increasing number of Chinese are immigrating to Africa: in 2009, the Chinese population in Africa was estimated at between 580,000 to 820,000. Today, that number is believed to be over 1 million. While the absolute scale of migration from wealthy to emerging economies likely remains small, new economic opportunities in these countries seem set to erode traditional destinations' monopoly on the best and the brightest in coming years.

Youth in the Balance

With the effects of the global economic slowdown still being felt in many places, youth unemployment (among those not enrolled in school) has soared in several countries, reaching more than 50 percent of young workers in Greece and Spain, and 30 percent in Ireland and Italy — creating formidable challenges for governments seeking to prevent the long-term exclusion of what many are calling a "lost generation." Amid the fears: That this population of native-born and immigrant youth will become radicalized.

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