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Migration now a global debate

10 January 20150 comments

Migration now a global debate-3Immigration increasingly dominates national debate in Australia – but what about the rest of the world?

From the far right making political capital in Scandinavia to ten-thousand strong anti-islamist marches in Germany and Chinese leaders worried about an exodus of talented citizens; a seminal debate about migration is taking place across the globe.

Migration with all its emotive baggage has the capacity to excite politicians’ and voters’ passions like few other issues.

And for decades now, the world has been on the move. Last year, according to the UN, the number of people living outside their country of origin reached 232 million – 50 per cent more than in 1990.

And although that represents just 3.2 per cent of the world’s population, these émigrés are unevenly spread. Sixty per cent live in the developed world, including 72 million in Europe, 71 million in Asia and 53 million in North America.

Almost two-thirds of migrants currently living in the developed world came from a developing country.

The developed world is also where international immigrants represent a larger proportion of the total population: 10.8 per cent, against just 1.6 per cent in developing regions.

Migrants now make up almost ten per cent of the total population in Europe, 15 per cent in North America, and more than 20 per cent in Oceania.

But migration patterns are shifting. While more people still settle in developed countries than in developing, the growth rate is now higher in the latter: 1.8 per cent against 1.5 per cent.

Also, overall migration is slowing. From 2000 to 2010, 4.6 million people left their home country each year; that number is now 3.6 million.

But migration and its effects, real or perceived, remain one of the defining political and social issues of the day.

In Australia asylum seeker boat arrivals have received blanket media coverage and have been at the centre of both major parties’ election policies.

But is the rest of the world just as obsessed by people who come from elsewhere?

Britain has a population of 64 million and net migration between 2010 and 2014 of almost 1 million.

Immigration has become a key issue in British politics in recent years. The right-wing, Eurosceptic and anti-immigration party UKIP has topped European Parliament polling in Britain – raising questions about the future of the nation’s migration policy and ultimately its membership of the European Union.

In response, Prime Minister David Cameron announced reductions to the number of immigrants Britain will take into the future.

The move came as official figures show a rise in the arrival of European Union citizens to the UK in the year to December 2013 with net migration remaining unchanged.

The latest figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics said net migration remained at 212,000, unchanged from the previous quarterly figures.

The detailed figures show that in the year to December 2013, some 201,000 EU citizens came into the UK as long-term immigrants; something officials said was a statistically significant increase of 43,000 over the previous year.

Of those, 125,000 came for work reasons, up from 95,000 the year before. However, due to changes in movements of other categories of people, the overall net migration figure remains unchanged.

Russia has a population of 144 million and net migration between 2010 and 2014 of 1.1 million.

According to UN data, Russia has more immigrants than any other country in the world, except the United States, with about 11 million foreigners living in the country at any one time and a large grey labour market.

Immigrants have been responsible for the lion’s share of the construction and other work that has taken place during Vladimir Putin’s presidency, when, at least until recently, high oil prices fuelled a building boom.

Much of the immigration to Russia is from countries that were once part of the Soviet Union and have suffered economic decline since its collapse. Whole villages in mountainous Tajikistan empty of their menfolk each summer as hundreds of thousands travel to work on construction sites and do other menial jobs.

Partly because many of the immigrant communities are transient and temporary, and partly because of active government policies to prevent it, Moscow’s enormous migrant population has never translated into ethnic districts.

Occasionally these latent tensions bubble over into violence, most notably last year in the Moscow suburb of Birulyovo, where rioting broke out after a Russian football fan was killed by a migrant from Azerbaijan.

Even Alexei Navalny, the great hope of Moscow’s liberal classes, has disturbingly nationalist views. Navalny says he merely wants to see visas introduced for the former Soviet republics, but in his earlier years he appeared in videos comparing migrant workers to cockroaches.

But low living standards and the bureaucratic hurdles that make it impossible for many migrants to work without paying bribes has led to tension and mistrust among Russians. A survey over the summer for the Levada polling agency found that 76 per cent of Russians felt the number of immigrants should be restricted, and just 12 per cent said they had a positive opinion of migrants from the south Caucasus.

Scandinavia (Sweden, Denmark and Norway) has a collective population of about 15 million.

The largest immigrant group in Sweden is Finns followed by Iraqis.

In Demark currently Germans made up the largest group of immigrants (mostly students arriving to study), with Syrians third. But Romanians followed by Poles have been the largest two groups in recent years.

Demark, Sweden and Norway, collectively, traditionally have been viewed as liberal, progressive social democracies, but they have had significantly different approaches to immigration.

With more immediate challenges arising – productivity stagnation and increased inequality, a slumping oil price, particularly in Norway and an ageing population (Sweden) – anti-immigration parties across the region have skilfully exploited the concerns of predominantly lower-income groups to reap huge dividends in the polls. So immigration has been the most significant political issue in Scandinavia for more than a decade.

India has a population of 1.2 billion and net migration between 2010 and 2014 was – 2.294 million.

Terror and security issues have largely driven India’s immigration policy. India’s 2,300km border with Pakistan is fenced and guarded.

But increasingly, illegal migration and population pressures have become issues too.

In the east, along India’s 3,360km border with Bangladesh, shoot on sight orders allow border guards to kill with impunity. The Human Rights Watch organisation says at least 1,000 people, including many children, have been killed by Indian border guards since 2000.

Most victims are poor, landless farmers seeking a marginally better life in India. Migration is overwhelmingly undocumented.

While the World Bank’s official figures suggest a net outflow, estimates for the number of illegal immigrants run from 3 million to 20 million. And migration to the country is increasingly a potent religious and political issue.

During the election campaign earlier this year, India’s new Hindu nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, told a rally that “these Bangladeshis better be prepared with their bags packed” when he came to power. Meanwhile, he said, India should make space for Hindu migrants left behind when the British carved up the subcontinent in 1947.

Pakistan has a population of 182 million and net migration between 2010 and 2014 was 1.63 million. 

Pakistan is home to one of the largest refugee populations in the world. The majority are Afghan refugees who began arriving after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and have continued in waves through the following decades of war.

The UN says there are currently about 1.6 million refugees living in Pakistan, and in total they have helped repatriate 3.8 million Afghan refugees. The government, meanwhile, says there are another million Afghan refugees who are undocumented, while some experts place the total number of Afghan refugees closer to 4 million.

In the sixth most populous country in the world, accurate figures are hard to come by.

Some estimates say there are around 40,000 to 50,000 border crossings between the two countries each daily. Many though are daily migrants traveling back and forth.

Yet despite the high number of refugees, there is currently little national debate about immigration.

The lack of debate is partly because many Afghan refugees live in areas where they have strong ethnic and cultural links to the local population. But there has been a growing hostility in recent years. There have been mass arrests and harassment of refugees as a way to “encourage” them to be repatriated.

China has a population of 1.35 billion and net migration between 2010 and 2014 was -1.5 million.

The urgent issue facing China is not an excess of arrivals – but of departures. China’s immigration deficit, as measured from the early 80s, has reached nearly 8.5 million. The nation’s leadership is now seeking to address that.

Compared to the size of the population, the number of foreigners is very low. The 2010 census found there were just less than 600,000 living on the mainland for more than three months – by 2012, that total had risen to just 633,000, according  to Chinese media.

By far the largest number – around a fifth – came from South Korea, with the US and Japan also sending significant numbers and smaller groups coming from Burma, Vietnam, Canada, France, India, Germany and Australia.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of Chinese migration is internal: more than 160 million rural workers now live in cities, but their rights to basic services are restricted by the hukou or household registration system, which divides people into urban and rural dwellers and classifies rights accordingly.

Spain has a population of 46.5 million and net migration between 2010 and 2014 was 600,000. 

The debate regarding migrants arriving in Spain has been overshadowed by worries about the number of people leaving.

Fifteen years ago, immigrants from Ecuador, Bolivia, Romania and Morocco drove the immigrant population in the country from less than 2 per cent in 1999 to 12 per cent in 2009, but today many of these same migrants are leaving.

In the face of an unemployment rate that hovers around 24 per cent, many of Spain’s migrants are heading home, joining the exodus of Spaniards hoping to find better job opportunities abroad.

Spain became a net exporter of people in 2010; last year some 550,000 people left while 250,680 migrated to the country, primarily from Morocco, Romania and the UK.

The economic crisis has led the number of Latin American migrants to drop off considerably in recent years. Increasingly taking their place are migrants from China, who see business opportunities in the crisis.

Compared with many other European countries, there has been less rejection of migrants in Spain but some observers say this attitude of acceptance is being eroded as the financial crisis bites.

Public debate over immigration recently has focused on the borders at the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, where migrants spend months living rough in the hope of rushing the border fence that separates Morocco from Spain.

Some 14,000 people rushed the fence last year, with 2,000 making it in; a minuscule drop in the bucket compared with Spain’s 4.6 million immigrants. Still, the border fences have become the flashpoint of the debate over migrants in Spain, with human rights groups, the European Union and United Nations expressing concerns about Spain’s actions.

South Africa has a population of 52 million and net migration between 2010 and 2014 was –100,000. 

South Africa is among the biggest recipients of refugees in the world but the issue remains surprisingly left out of the political discourse.

Immigration figures are notoriously imprecise. South Africa’s 2011 census says 3.3 per cent – or about 1.7 million – of the country’s 52 million-strong population are “non-South African” citizens.

A total of 108,711 applications for temporary and permanent residence were approved by the government in 2013. Two-thirds of these were from Zimbabwe, Nigeria, China, India, Pakistan, the UK, Lesotho and Angola.

Neighbouring Zimbabwe is easily the biggest source of asylum seekers after more than a decade of political and economic turmoil under President Robert Mugabe. Estimates vary between 1.5 million and 3 million.

Coming from a country with the highest literacy rate in Africa, they are often sought after by employers as nannies, security guards or waiters on low pay, prompting some South Africans to accuse them of “stealing jobs”.

Meanwhile, Somalis, fleeing 20 years of civil war, have carved a reputation as traders provoking a backlash from local shop owners who feel their territory under threat.

 Laurie Nowell
AMES Senior Journalist