The global recession has caused countries that once welcomed foreign workers by the tens and hundreds of thousands — particularly Spain — to rethink generous immigration policies as unemployment rates have risen.
Governments in Europe, Asia, and North America (but not Canada — see Issue #6: Canada Bucks the Trend) have responded in three main ways: tightening criteria for skilled workers, reducing the number of temporary workers, and paying migrants to leave. They have also combated illegal migration. In some places, policymakers have used protectionist rhetoric in explaining the changes — though not in the extremes that some feared. (See Issue #4: What the Recession Wasn't).
The United Kingdom was the first to announce changes to high-skilled migration criteria this year. British policymakers have stated that the points-based system, which it began rolling out in 2008, provides them with the flexibility to respond to economic changes and to ensure that companies can recruit abroad though not at the expense of British workers.
Since April, highly skilled immigrants (Tier 1 of the points system) seeking to enter the United Kingdom need to have at least a master's degree and earn at least 20,000 pounds per year (US$31,000) — rather than a bachelor's degree and 17,000 pounds (US$26,400) — to qualify for entry.
Also, employers wishing to bring over skilled workers (Tier 2) must advertise jobs to resident workers through a government-run job Web site for two weeks (to be extended to four weeks as of mid-December) and one other permitted method before they can bring in a non-European Union worker. In 2010, the minimum salary for skilled workers rises from 17,000 pounds (US$26,400) to 20,000 pounds (US$31,000).
In addition, the list of jobs on the skilled shortage occupation list has shrunk over the last year, from about 700,000 to about 500,000. Potential migrants score points if they are applying to work in one of these occupations.
In mid-November, Prime Minister Gordon Brown made his first major speech on immigration since early 2008. Brown noted the changes to the shortage occupation list and emphasized the need to invest in the skills of British citizens so that the country is less dependent on foreign workers in the future.
While Eastern European migrants have left the United Kingdom in large numbers (see Issue #1: The Recession's Impact on Immigrants), the government decided in December 2008 not to open its labor market to nationals of Romania and Bulgaria in January 2009. Nationals of those two countries, which joined the European Union in 2007, can only fill low-skilled jobs through two specific programs, the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Scheme and the Sectors Based Scheme (limited to the food manufacturing sector), and only up to 21,250 places for the seasonal program and 3,500 for the other in 2009.
Neighboring Ireland also has seen a decrease in migration from Eastern Europe this year. Nevertheless, it tightened its work permit system for non-EU workers in June 2009 due to the country's recession and high unemployment among Irish citizens.
Among the changes: no new work permits for jobs with a salary of under 30,000 euros (US$43,500), jobs must be advertised within the European Economic Area for a longer period, and spouses and dependents of work permit holders may not work unless they obtain their own work permits.
Rather than change its points system criteria due to the economy, Australia in mid-March announced a 14 percent reduction in the number of skilled migrants it would accept for permanent residence.
The following month, Australia also announced higher admissions standards for the 457 visa, which allows skilled workers to stay in Australia for up to four years. These workers, as of mid-September, need to be paid at market rates so that employers cannot exploit them. The government also increased the minimum English-language requirements for certain trade and hospitality occupations.
As the Australian government and observers expected, demand for 457 visas has dropped. The number of applications filed in October 2009 was 57 percent lower than in October 2008, and visa grants decreased 60 percent compared to a year earlier. Also, the 74,000 457 visa-holders in October was 9 percent off its February 2009 peak.
Export-dependent Malaysia, which had over 2 million temporary foreign workers at the beginning of the year, mainly from Indonesia and South Asia, in January banned the hiring of foreign workers in a number of industries.
The Malaysian government also announced that existing permits for unskilled workers would not be renewed and that companies hit by the recession could apply to dismiss foreign workers before their contracts expired. By March, approvals for new work permits had been cut 70 percent. The government's message has not wavered: give priority to local workers and become less dependent on foreign workers in the future.
New Zealand, less affected by the recession than most other immigrant-receiving countries, purposely left permanent skilled migration untouched and chose instead to manage temporary worker flows by not renewing work permits in cases where New Zealanders are available to do the job. The government, noting the long-term importance of skilled migration, has called its response moderate compared to countries like Australia and Ireland.
Other changes in New Zealand include removing a small number of occupations from its shortage list and requiring skilled visa-holders to meet a minimum income threshold in order to bring over dependent children.
In the United States, Congress did take one noteworthy action early in 2009 by requiring banks receiving federal bailout money to give priority to U.S. workers over those coming on H-1B temporary visas for highly skilled workers.
Notably, Bank of America rescinded offers to foreign MBA students, citing the H-1B provision. Wells Fargo went even further and told some of its foreign workers in late March that it would not renew their H-1B visas.
The recession has also affected H-1B demand. The annual cap of 65,000 was reached within days of the start of the application period in previous years. As of November 20 — nearly eight months after they became available — approximately 8,000 petitions (12 percent of the cap) remained on hand.
Like the United States, Hong Kong has seen demand drop for its highly skilled migrant program that targets mainland Chinese. Applications were down 15 percent in the first six months of 2009 compared to the same period a year earlier.
Spain sparked a trend when it began its recession-inspired pay-to-go program in November 2008. Pay-to-go programs, also known as voluntary return programs, offer financial incentives in addition to a plane ticket to those who volunteer to leave and to accept certain restrictions on their ability to return to the program-sponsoring country.
In addition to 50 euros (US$72.50) for travel expenses, Spain pays 40 percent of the migrant's unemployment benefits before departure and the remainder in the home country. On average, each migrant receives 9,148 euros (US$13,260). As of November 2009, the Spanish government had 8,724 participants for its pay-to-go program, the overwhelming majority from Latin America.
But with participation levels much lower than expected, the government anticipates 87,000 migrants will accept the offer, short of its original goal of 130,000. As of November, the program did not have any closing date.
Spain went further when in late November it passed a new law that requires foreigners with residence permits to live in Spain for five years (instead of the previous one year) before they can bring over immediate relatives. The new law also extends the maximum detention time for unauthorized immigrants from 40 to 60 days, giving the government more time to identify and return them.
Following Spain's pay-to-go lead in 2009 were the Czech Republic and Japan, both targeting legal migrants. The Czech Republic's program, launched in February, paid 500 euros (US$725) per adult and 250 euros (US$363) per child during its first phase (through late July); the second phase pays 300 euros (US$435) per adult and 150 euros (US$218) per child.
The Czech Republic's program had just over 2,000 participants as of October, well below the government's goal of 4,000; nearly two-thirds were from Mongolia although the majority of eligible individuals eligible come from Ukraine and Vietnam. The Czech Republic is also running a smaller pay-to-go program for unauthorized migrants through December 15.
Japan started its pay-to-go program April 1 by targeting unemployed Nikkeijin — foreigners of Japanese descent — from Latin America. The government pays $3,000 for airfare and $2,000 for each dependent, plus a bonus of $1,000 to $2,000, depending on how much longer the person was to receive unemployment benefits. As of October 1, over 11,000 applications were approved.
The UK government put a spin on the pay-to-go concept in July when it agreed to pay would-be asylum seekers in Calais, France, 1,700 pounds (US$2,635) to not enter the United Kingdom. And Denmark, which has had a voluntary repatriation program since 1997, increased its financial incentive tenfold to about US$20,000 in November to encourage non-EU immigrants to return home forever.
The recession has also prompted countries to step up efforts to combat illegal migration.
Last year, Italy and Libya reached an agreement that, among other things, allows Italy to return to Libya migrants who leave from Libyan coasts and are intercepted before reaching Italian shores, meaning the migrants cannot seek asylum (see Issue #10: Asylum Seekers Unnerve Governments). As part of the agreement, Italy has provided Libya with patrol boats to stop migrants from leaving for Italy.
In May, Italy put the agreement into practice when it returned over 200 migrants rescued in the Mediterranean. While the Italian government has called the return policy successful, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, human rights groups, and the Vatican strongly oppose it.
This summer, Israel launched a task force that deported 700 unauthorized immigrants and arranged the voluntary exit of 2,400 others as of October. The government's goal is to expel 20,000 of the country's estimated 280,000 unauthorized immigrants by the end of the year. The hard line extends to about 1,200 Israel-born children of workers; the government has vowed to deport the children next year.
The United Kingdom put employers on notice in 2008, stating that it would "name and shame" those that hire people in the country illegally, in addition to hitting them with a fine of up to 10,000 pounds (US$15,500) per unauthorized worker. This year, the UK Border Agency has arrested a number of unauthorized immigrants in workside raids across the country, including at many ethnic restaurants.