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22 October 2001


A plan for the world - Migration

By Robert Taylor

What we want

  • An international campaign to convince people that migration is desirable
  • A strengthened International Labour Organisation, with powers to enforce a minimum code of employment standards
  • Language training and help in finding work for migrants in new countries
  • “Give me your tired, your poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” The words of Emma Lazarus engraved at the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbour evoke what seems like a lost world of hope and innocence. Nearby lies Ellis Island, where millions of the poor and persecuted of eastern and southern Europe passed through in search of a new life between 1892 and 1924.

    That flow of humanity was one of the largest migrations in history; it helped create US dominance in the 20th century. Mass migration was an essential part of the first age of globalisation. Now we need to encourage openness and freedom across the industrialised world.

    Until recently, workers feared, with some justification, that unlimited immigration would undermine their wages and their flimsy labour rights. The internationalisation of labour was a comforting slogan; but immigration was often used as a weapon to enforce conformity and obedience.

    Today, we have the opportunity to build a new global system that takes a far more enlightened attitude to migration in a more socially just way. This will require us to develop a global employment strategy to stimulate the creation of jobs for the workless and underemployed millions. We should ensure that people do not move in search of work across national frontiers out of economic necessity. If economic and political conditions can promise stability and security, more open migration would not provoke huge population movements. Contrary to popular prejudice, only 3 per cent of the world’s population today live outside the country of their birth.

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    But the positive value of migration needs to be emphasised. Too often today, the focus is on the dangers of racial conflict, the perils of multiculturalism and the struggle between workers for jobs. In the new world, the dangerous myths of racial and cultural superiority must be challenged relentlessly. The civilisations of the world are enriched by the interaction between peoples. Open frontiers, and not closed minds, have characterised human evolution. Immigrants have been described as the “shock absorbers of the global economy”. Many countries need high levels of future migration to protect their economies from stagnation and decline as a result of falling fertility rates and ageing populations.

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    But even those “huddled masses” who went to America were assisted and controlled in their passage by governments and private agencies. Migration has to be managed, and we now need an international body to do it. The International Labour Organisation would be ideal. It should set out a minimum standardised framework for processing immigrants. New technology should help to provide more information on where employment opportunities exist in different countries and to establish quotas for different types of worker to meet specific labour market demands. The US green card system could be a model for other countries to emulate. To match supply with demand effectively, we need globally recognised qualifications and educational requirements.

    This kind of framework, giving clearly understood routes of lawful migration, would undercut the criminal networks that now exploit the desperation of potential migrants. We need private as well as state migration agencies that can be regulated and monitored to achieve best practice.

    But if we have open migration, we also need to ensure that it does not lead to any downward drive in labour standards. The ILO would need more powerful sanctions than it has now over the behaviour of nation states and companies. A world without slavery and child labour, where workers are free from discrimination and able to organise themselves collectively, is crucial to reassure workers that open migration will not undermine their rights. Sanctions against those who trample on workers’ rights could include trade boycotts; social labelling to identify those products made in accordance with agreed standards; and a more high-profile naming and shaming.

    We also need a programme to integrate migrants more effectively into the countries where they choose to move. This should include foreign-language training, grants and loans to establish migrants in the labour market, and tax incentives to encourage their employment. Finally, we need nation states to make determined efforts to eradicate discrimination against foreigners.

    Robert Taylor is a historian and journalist