Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 December 2011
Issue No. 1077
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

On the move

Mobility cannot be sealed by borders, Maurizio Busatti of the International Organisation of Migration tells Al-Ahram Weekly

Migration has for a long time been the dream of many Egyptians and Arabs seeking a better income and standard of living. Although revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region have attracted many expatriates to return back to their homelands, many have been pushed out by post-revolution unrest.

Maurizio Busatti, International Organisation for Migration (IOM) France mission chief, told Niveen Wahish that this may not be the case for long. "Normally after the storm settles, people go back," he said. Busatti gave Libya as an example, saying that it is very likely that countries with unfavourable economic conditions will be sending their nationals back to Libya. Busatti spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly on the side of a recent conference on migration organised by the Economic Research Forum in Beirut.

There are exceptions. Busatti pointed out the example of Iraq, where he says the ethnic divisions created a situation that would make the return of certain groups that have been migrating, like Christians, difficult.

In fact, Busatti finds that having people resettled into another continent, instead of having them hold on for as long as possible so that once the conditions are re-established they can go back, is a big mistake.

What worries Busatti about the MENA region is the prevalence of smuggling of people across international borders to enter countries where they think they will find employment.

Busatti says smuggling rings are very well organised and they are out to take advantage of the demand that exists especially in the illegal market in Europe and in the MENA region. This is exacerbated by the fact that legal and regular channels of migration are limited.

For example, he said, Europe is establishing a migration policy that is restrictive going for more bilateral and multilateral agreements with the countries in transit and countries of origin in order to cooperate on controlling outgoing migration and as a bargaining chip; it is granting these countries limited quotas of 2,000 visas for labour migration a year. Egypt has one such agreement with Italy.

In the meantime, many of the MENA region are themselves attracting migrants because they are diversified and there is room for irregular migrants to find an occupation, he explained.

A solution, according to Busatti, lies in linking migration and development in a way that substantial resources are devoted to raising communities of origin so major migration could be mitigated. "But there is not enough interest" in doing that, he says.

A starting step to addressing cross-border migration, says Busatti, is to deal with rural to urban migration first. Seventy per cent of migration takes place within boundaries. If one does not address this problem of urbanisation, more migration would spiral out of control, he said.

But migrants do represent a source of income for their countries of origin through their remittances. The question is, can they be sent in an organised way? Busatti says there would be a number of preconditions for that to happen. The countries of origin and destination should have the same level of understanding of each other's needs. There is a need to build capacity in the country of origin while on the demand side, countries need to know exactly what your economy can absorb. "If you have demand but then the person arrives and does not find housing, education, social security, social network and the cultural ground to make this permanence productive, with time this could result in attrition and conflict."

The country of destination also needs to calculate the cost-benefit of this person, Busatti says. "In certain countries, they produce more than they cost."

Meanwhile, the countries of origin need to carefully profile their surplus labour, he says, adding that "they have to prepare a number of services that will be essential for the migrants to avail of migration opportunities. And they must be prepared with orientation, language, information about the downfall and potential risks."

"Integration is a two-way process where the migrant would blend into the receiving society, which in turn would embrace this individual not as a liability but as an asset."

But that has not been the case in the past which, according to Busatti, has been the reason and cause of enormous social problems for the last 15 years, and the failure of integration models in France, the UK and Germany.

These lessons of the past should not be wasted, he says. Countries which were traditionally migrant exporters and are now also becoming countries of destination themselves should learn the lesson.

Busatti warned against labelling, stereotyping and ghettoising, exploiting and cordoning the migrants. "This is a time bomb." But even before the migrants arrive, countries should develop regional consultative processes to bring different stakeholders to the table to discuss the issues which may be driving this migration. Mobility cannot be sealed by borders because borders are fragile, as "in face of a strong push, they will cave in."

Busatti stressed that the MENA region must increasingly see itself as a system for mobility of goods, services and people. Demand and supply need to be profiled in the region to meet internal requirements.

Busatti believes the MENA region can make optimum use of its migrants by qualifying its labour force to compete better on the international labour market through better education.

Moreover, Busatti says that to absorb the massive numbers of newcomers to the labour market, the MENA region itself needs to encourage and optimise interregional regional mobility. It needs to create "a new agenda for migration in the MENA region that is endogenous and not pushed by external factors".

A boom for remittances

EGYPT and Lebanon came among the top 10 recipients of migrant remittances in 2011 with $8 billion each. No other Middle East or North African country made the list. These figures were revealed by the Migration and Development Brief prepared by the World Bank's Migration and Remittances Unit.

The brief showed that although remittances in the Middle East and North Africa between 2008 and 2011 hovered between $34 billion to $36 billion, they are estimated to see an average annual growth of five per cent in the coming three years to reach $37 billion in 2012, $39 billion in 2013 and $42 billion in 2014.

The full impact of the "Arab Spring" is not yet visible in data, according to the brief but it says that the crisis in Libya has resulted in mass departures of migrants to their home countries or to neighbouring countries. "Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have returned home since the crisis began, causing a deceleration in the growth of remittances to the country in 2011."

Tunisians and other Africans nationals from Niger and Chad and other sub-Saharan African countries, have also left Libya, adversely affecting remittance inflows.

But overall, officially recorded remittance flows to developing countries are estimated to have reached $351 billion in 2011, up eight per cent over 2010.

Following this rebound in 2011, says the brief, the growth of remittance flows to developing countries is expected to continue at a rate of seven to eight per cent annually to reach $441 billion by 2014. Worldwide remittance flows, including those to high-income countries, are expected to exceed $515 billion by 2014.

But the authors of the brief point out that there are some serious downside risks to this outlook, namely persistent unemployment in Europe and the US.

There are also risks that if the European crisis deepens, immigration controls in these countries could become even tighter. "This would affect remittance flows to all regions -- especially to countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and North African countries that have a large share of their emigrants in Europe."

Furthermore, the brief said that a deepening and spread of the European debt crisis will also pose risks for oil prices, which could in turn reduce demand for migrant workers and depress remittance flows to Asian countries. Volatile and unpredictable exchange rates present further risks to the outlook for remittances.

In 2011, high oil prices had helped provide a cushion for remittances to Central Asia from Russia and to South and East Asia from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Also, a depreciation of currencies of some large migrant-exporting countries (including Mexico, India and Bangladesh) created additional incentives for remittances as goods and services in these countries became cheaper in US dollar terms.

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