Long before modern nation states regulated migration, movement between two places, often for seasonal work, was an established human behavior.
This concept, known as circular migration, today means a continuing, long-term, and fluid pattern of international mobility that can exist naturally (where national borders are open or not heavily enforced) or with government involvement (typically a bilateral agreement). A person with citizenship in two or more countries can easily move among them without restriction.
Circular migration has become a standard policy tool for certain gulf countries and East Asian economies that need low-skilled foreign labor but do not want workers to settle permanently. After working in Saudi Arabia on a two-year contract, for example, a construction worker from Pakistan must return home before he is allowed to return for another two-year contract. The worker cannot bring his family and stands little chance of becoming a Saudi citizen.
However, circular migration programs do not have to be so restrictive. Western developed countries struggling with labor shortages and aging societies (see Issue #7: Demography and Migration Flows: Do Shrinking Populations Mean More Migrants?) in some cases are slowly warming up to the idea of circular migration programs that go beyond the traditional temporary-worker programs of the mid-20th century. Those programs often led to permanent settlement.
Newer circular migration programs, such as those in Spain's agricultural sector, protect migrants' rights while in the host country and also seek to ensure they build their skills while abroad and use them when they return home.
Spain has successfully encouraged circular migration by requiring returning temporary workers to register with the Spanish consulates or embassy in their home country. The reward: access to permanent residency after four years of compliance.
The European Union moved ahead with its first "mobility partnerships," announced last year, by setting up pilot programs in June with Moldova and Cape Verde. Mobility partnerships seek to discourage illegal immigration in exchange for legal migration opportunities and short-term visas. Both pilots seek to facilitate circular migration, though details have not yet been announced.
Three Canadian provinces — British Columbia, Manitoba, and Alberta — signed memoranda of understanding with the Philippines this year to allow for temporary migration of overseas Filipino workers of varying skill levels. British Columbia, for instance, is eager to recruit workers who can staff the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
The agreements are based on Canada's existing Temporary Foreign Worker program, which permits migrants to renew their work permits but does not automatically allow for back-and-forth movement. Still, the agreements include provisions important to circular migration: they protect Filipino workers' rights and welfare in Canada and encourage Canadian employers to support their reintegration in the Philippines. For the Philippine government, Canada is an attractive partner because it promises more protections for workers than gulf countries.