Booming economies in the last decade created plenty of opportunities for immigrant workers, millions of whom flocked to Spain, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Australia, among other destinations.
Hungry for labor, Spain threw open its doors to legal migration in 2005 without giving much thought to how it would cope with migrants if economic circumstances changed. More than 800,000 foreigners moved to Spain in 2006 alone, with the foreign population standing at 4.5 million, or 10 percent of Spain's population, as of early 2007. Between 2005 and 2007, the proportion of foreign workers in the labor force rose from 8 percent to 12 percent.
The United Kingdom, by granting immediate labor-market access to nationals from the new European Union Member States in May 2004, effectively legalized hundreds of thousands Eastern Europeans already working there and allowed many more to follow. Polish nationals quickly became the largest immigrant group in the United Kingdom, growing over 700 percent from about 53,000 in early 2004 to 447,000 by the end of 2007, according to UK Labor Force Survey data.
The current economic downturn, however, has made many destination countries cautious about welcoming permanent migrants, with some expressing the policy equivalent of buyer's remorse: paying too high a price for something no longer desired. There are seeming exceptions, such as Sweden and Norway, each of which have experienced high immigration levels in the past three years but have not been overwhelmed.
The country with the most remorse is Spain, which attracted migrants from Latin America and North Africa and legalized about 560,000 of them in 2005, plus family members. Unemployment is at 11.3 percent (17.5 percent among foreigners), the construction industry is nearly at a stand-still, and the economy is shrinking.
After Prime Minister Luis Rodriguez Zapatero was reelected this year, he recognized the changing mood around immigration and brought in more of a hardliner as his new minister of employment and social affairs.
That minister, Celestino Corbacho, in June announced a voluntary return program that would give unemployed legally resident migrants from certain countries compensation for leaving Spain and agreeing not to return for three years.
Unsurprisingly, immigrant groups in Spain did not endorse the return program, which the government began implementing in September, and few migrants have taken the government up on its offer. Spain has warned that it will likely issue few new migrant visas in 2009.
Due to political pressure and the economic downturn, the United Kingdom in November cut back the originally planned number of "shortage occupation" visas, part of its new points system for bringing in skilled migrants, from 1 million to 800,000 (see Issue #2: The Recession-Proof Race for Highly Skilled Migrants). Importantly, the existence of such a list means that the United Kingdom will have greater ability to tailor immigration to its needs as those needs change — agility that is important in the rapidly evolving globalized economy.
Although the flow of migrants from new EU Member States, particularly Poland, has slowed, with some returning home (see Issue #6: Return Migration: Changing Directions? ), British politicians face a public increasingly hostile toward immigrants and a system they perceive to be out of control.
Equality and Human Rights Commission Chair Trevor Phillips, in an October speech promoting the benefits of immigration and the need for control, acknowledged that such fear is legitimate. "I think we need to look out for the wife or partner with a young child," he said. "When she applies for work, is rejected for job after job in a slack labor market yet sees a clever young Latvian or Lithuanian with two degrees and three languages doing the job she'd like to do, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out how she'll feel."
Although Australia and New Zealand remain committed to attracting foreign students who can eventually become skilled migrants, leaders in both countries face pressure to cut immigration flows as well.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in a radio interview in October, "As with all previous governments, and mine is the same, whenever we set immigration targets, we will adjust them according to economic circumstances of the day."
Helen Clark, who lost her reelection bid for prime minister in New Zealand's November elections, said in a campaign speech, "We have told Immigration that if there is the slightest sign of uptake, they are to get much tighter on permits."
However, Clark said the country's seasonal worker program, which brings workers from Pacific Island nations on a temporary basis, would not be stopped. This indicates that even as permanent migration channels are reconsidered, temporary migration channels for certain economic activities are likely to remain safe and could even be expanded.
Even Singapore, which has aggressively courted migrants and deems them essential to the country's prosperity, has seen tensions rise over foreign workers. So far, however, the government is not changing its rhetoric or its policy.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said during a recent dialogue with Malay grassroots leaders, "I think our interest is to protect the Singaporeans and look after the Singaporeans, but we must do it intelligently, we cannot just react and just do something without thinking."