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Happy Migrants Day!

18 December 2012
Click to see the publication

Click to see the publication

Manila’s main airport is rarely a quiet place. But it will be even busier than usual over the next week as some of the Philippines’ 10 million or so emigrants head home for the holidays. When they land, they’ll get the red-carpet treatment – literally. In a tradition dating back to the 1990s, returning Overseas Filipino Workers get to walk down red-carpeted lanes and are promised speedier processing at immigration and customs. They can also look forward to raffles and prizes and even a visit from the president. “This is the government’s tribute to the heroism of OFWs who come home during Christmastime to be with their families,” an official explained.

Emigrants are on the mind of many at this time of year, and not just because of holiday homecomings. For today – December 18 – also brings International Migrants Day, marking the anniversary of the adoption of – big breath – The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrants Workers and Members of Their Families.

Of course, it doesn’t take a special day to draw attention to migration – the topic is rarely out of the news. Just this week, for instance, we learned that two-thirds of Germans think immigrants “cause problems”; that at least 20 immigrants are feared dead after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean; and that there’s a rising level of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe.

There’s a negative feel to much of what the media says about migration. Less often reported – and surely worth noting on this of all days – are the positive stories. Did you know, for example, that migrants head up just over half of Silicon Valley start-ups? Migrants are also behind many household names in computers and technology – think of Sergey Brin at Google, Jerry Yang at Yahoo!, Pierre Omidyar at eBay. They’re also strongly represented in the arts and popular culture – think of Joni Mitchell, Junot Diaz, Rihanna. (OK, you can stop thinking of Rihanna now.) It’s no wonder that the authors of a book on migrants – and the source of most of these factoids – entitled it Exceptional People.

Away from the star names, migrants contribute to development. Worldwide, they sent home an estimated $325 billion in remittances in 2010, far more than what OECD countries gave in assistance to developing countries. As we noted recently here, their role as a source of ideas, innovation and investment through diaspora networks is also increasingly recognized. And, of course, they contribute to the economies of their adopted countries: A 2007 report from the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers estimated that immigrants contribute about $37 billion to U.S. economic activity every year.

Still, there’s no denying that, in many OECD countries, immigrants aren’t integrating as well as they could do. That doesn’t just mean “fitting in”; it also means the extent to which they match, or even exceed, locals in areas like employment, earnings, health levels and education. Failures in integration carry a high economic and social cost, which helps to explain why governments in OECD countries are increasingly interested in the subject. It was also recently investigated by the OECD in Settling In, which looks at the performance of immigrants in several areas, including household income, work and civic engagement.

Some of the factors behind success or failure to integrate are obvious. For example, countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada that essentially select most of their new immigrants tend to attract better-educated people, who, in turn, tend to integrate better. Other factors reflect everything from language ability to how long immigrants stay in their adopted countries. And, unfortunately, some of the factors relate to discrimination and racism. Numerous experiments have shown, for example, that employers are often more likely to choose a CV with a “native,” rather than a “foreign,” name.

Given the signs of tension over immigration, there’s likely to be growing pressure on governments to make a success of it, both for migrants and the countries they settle in. Understanding the reasons why migrants succeed – and why they don’t – will be an important part of that effort.

 Useful links

OECD work on international migration

OECD Insights: International Migration – The Human Face of Globalisation

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