International migration – winners and losers

We live in a time with major migration, indeed forced migration, with a record high 60 million refugees. Voluntary or semi-voluntary migration includes several hundred million. People smuggling and trafficking is a growing problem. In USA, there is constant discussion about how to keep illegal immigrants out, and the current president says he wants to build a wall on the southern border with Mexican border. In Europe, the influx of more than a million immigrants in 2015, and high numbers also after that, led politicians and people in some countries to term it a ‘crisis’. Many countries have developed new and stricter immigration policies in order to limit the number of refugees and ordinary migrants, legal or illegal.

At the same time, the fact that there are aging populations in most European countries has already led to a ‘reluctant realisation’ of a need for import of labour; in future, more people will be needed in order to maintain and improved standards and continued economic growth. This means that the high international migration today has both positive and negative aspects, with winners and losers, and a balanced view is not always present.

In Stockholm, for example, a former Swedish prime minister, Göran Persson, recently said in a TV interview that without immigrants, many of the country’s important services would have been at a standstill or unable to perform well. Yet, also in Sweden, where about twenty percent of the population of ten million, are immigrants, many people believe the number is too high, especially since integration and naturalisation take time and can obviously not always be smooth. At the same time, like the PM, many other citizens are realising the positive enrichment of the local culture, competence, skills and more, when people from abroad are also included in the new multicultural world we live in.

A few days ago, when I listened to the German ambassador to Pakistan, Martin Kobler, speaking at a Rotary meeting, I noted that he spoke with pride about his country’s second largest city, Hamburg, being immigrants. Hamburg, with two million people and another three million in the greater metropolitan area, is an impressive hub for industry, innovation, culture, media, tourism, and more, and the immigrants are essential to keep it all up. In June this year, the Rotary World Convention will be held in Hamburg and the German ambassador welcomed Pakistanis to visit and see the diverse city for themselves, with proud and dynamic people from all over Germany and the rest of the world.

Let this be the introduction to my article today when I shall reflect on some of the pros and cons, gains and drains, in international migration. Pakistan is certainly part of all this. As for influx of people, it is well known and impressive that Pakistan has played host to some seven million Afghan refugees over four decades, and still up to two million remain in the country, many born in Pakistan; new solutions for how to regularise permanent residence for many of them have been suggested by Pakistan’s new government. I believe that is a positive and pragmatic. I have earlier written about refugee issues, it being one of my specialities, but today I shall write about the ‘opposite’, that people from a country, indeed from Pakistan, migrate to foreign countries for shorter or longer time. Let me mention that in my article last week, I touched upon the topic, telling the story about an impressive lower class immigrant from Southern Europe who immigrated to Sweden as a young child and has now made success in the land, against many odds. She is certainly a gain to her new country – and she is a drain on the land she left.

I believe emigration is often an overall loss to a sending country when it is sending a large number of its citizens abroad as voluntary and semi-voluntary migrants. But it is also a gain. When Europe sent tens of millions of people to USA mainly from 1800 to 1900, it drained Europe for good people. At the same time, since the sending countries had high unemployment and overpopulation, they ‘exported their poverty’; this term was used by the Norwegian history professor Ottar Brox. Norway, and the neighbouring Scandinavian countries, lost up to a third of their populations due to emigration, and other countries sizeable numbers; Ireland lost the highest percentage of its population to USA. We will not know what would have happened to Europe’s development if the opportunities of emigration to the New World had not existed. It might have caused greater political unrest and upheaval in Europe, and the political systems might not have been able to change fast enough. Yet, it might also have resulted in faster economic growth and development if the young, entrepreneurial emigrants had stayed at home and also contributed to faster political change there.

Back to our time and especially to Pakistan’s situation, most people and analysts would consider emigration an economic gain. Yet, since the issue is complicated, and it is not given that we should only read the bottom line of the balance sheet, we should discuss the issue further – also in a longer term and broader perspective. Since Pakistan needs economic growth and development, and it needs employment for many million people, and since Pakistan sends out a high number of people, it is pertinent that we discuss the issue in more detail, realising that there are both gains and losses.

Overseas Pakistanis are almost eight million people, with over four million in the Middle-East, one and a half million in UK, close to half a million in USA, and sizeable numbers in many European countries (including my home country Norway with some 45,000), Australia, New Zealand, Canada and elsewhere. Although most overseas Pakistanis are labourers, many are also skilled workers and professionals; few are women.

Overseas Pakistanis send back huge amounts of money, essential for their relatives in the home country and their local communities, with investments in residences, education, health, and income generating activities. The remittances are important sources of Pakistan’s foreign exchange earnings, officially USD 18 billion in 2018, but probably higher assuming that not all transfers are registered, happening through informal channels. At the end of 2018, the media reported a major in increase in transfers (thirteen percent). As regards foreign exchange earnings, remittances are only second to export of goods; they overshadow by far official development aid.

Remittances are indeed important to Pakistan’s economy, and certainly to the overseas Pakistanis themselves, their families and home communities. Furthermore, since there is high unemployment in Pakistan, the authorities are not only allowing but also encouraging people to work abroad. The Overseas Pakistani Foundation (OPF) was established in 1979 and is the Government’s overall support organization, with half a dozen offices in Pakistan and attachés worldwide, appointed by its Bureau, advising and assisting immigrants and foreign workers in communities with many Pakistanis. It also provides assistance to overseas Pakistanis who return home after shorter or longer stays abroad. Furthermore, the Overseas Employment Corporation (OEC), also under the Ministry of Overseas Pakistanis and Human Resource Development, is an important organization promoting Pakistani manpower for employment on the international labour market in foreign lands. In addition, overseas Pakistanis themselves have their own social and other interest organizations.

The immigrants have little say over their work and employment conditions. They depend entirely on the policies and economic conditions of the host countries. I have suggested above that it is likely that Europe in particular in future will need immigrants; that seems also to be the case for the Middle East, at least in the near future. Yes, overseas Pakistanis depend on the recipient countries’ policies, plans and economies. Also, to what degree Pakistan sends many foreign workers and emigrants depend on the country’s development, its surplus of labour and related policies, and also as regards its development policies. I believe there is a need to consider further the long-term and broader policies. Due to the importance of remittances, changes should be cautious and over time, but there is a need to consider and debate long-term policies more vigorously than seems to be done. There is also a need to consider improvements in the near future. For example, institutional and company linkages between sending and receiving countries should be established to benefit the sending country, and also the receiving country. Today, we seem to focus almost exclusively in monetary aspects in way of remittances. The exposure, experience and expertise that the overseas Pakistanis possess must be used better and more systematically during the time they are abroad and when they return home. Unfortunately, many stay abroad for too long or they don’t return at all. That is a loss to the country. Most Pakistanis should and would like to build their own land, not only the rich foreign countries where overseas Pakistanis go, and where others dream of going.


The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist
with experience from university, diplomacy and
development aid.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience in research, diplomacy and development aid

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