Editorial: Moving forward with a pragmatic and constructive co-operation agenda on international migration

Migration is nothing new. People have moved across communities, states and continents for millennia. Migration flows have been rising over the past few decades and are unlikely to fall from their current levels, given the large demographic and economic imbalances. In 2017, about 258 million people around the world were living outside their country of birth, and about half of all these migrants were living in OECD countries. In 2017, more than 5 million people settled permanently in the OECD. In addition, more than 4 million temporary foreign workers were recorded in OECD countries in 2016, in order to fill skills shortages, and more than 3 million international students are enrolled in a higher education establishment in an OECD country.

The 2015/16 refugee surge, concentrated in certain European countries, has served as a stress test for asylum, migration and integration systems. Despite the major efforts made by some European countries, the refugee crisis has revealed a number of weaknesses in the capacity of host countries to cope with such a large and unforeseen inflow of people in need of protection. There was difficulty in anticipating such flows, coordinating the response within and across levels of government and sharing the responsibility across countries. In a number of cases, recently arrived vulnerable migrants received support only after delays. However, the crisis also prompted significant policy changes. This year’s edition of International Migration Outlook provides a full account of these efforts. At the regional level, even if much remains to be done, the efforts made – notably by the European Commission – to co-ordinate effectively and step up the response to the refugee crisis, deserve praise. At the global level, the 2016 UN summit on “Addressing large movements of refugees and migrants” resulted in the New York Declaration and the development of two International Compacts, on refugees and on migrants. These are potential game changers.

These are complex times. On the one hand, we face unprecedented uncertainty about the future forms of migration, due to increasing interconnectivity and the multiplicity of sources of short and longer-term instability, associated with geopolitical, climate and demographic changes. On the other hand, the level of international co-operation is also unprecedented. Never before have we been as mindful of the opportunities and challenges associated with international migration.

At the same time, however, the refugee crisis has heightened concerns in the public opinion about the potential benefits of migration. A growing number of people have expressed concerns about the costs of integrating refugees and other migrants and the potential impact on some local labour markets with high concentration. These concerns must be addressed, if there is any chance of success for the ongoing efforts of the international community to build fruitful international dialogue between origin, transit and destination countries and to create a new framework on migration management and refugee protection.

As we move from the height of the refugee crisis, when the main challenge was to provide immediate support to asylum seekers and new refugees, to the next complex phase of promoting the integration of those who are likely to stay, policy makers are facing two main challenges. The first is to manage the integration process itself without generating undue disruptions to the labour market. The second is to address concerns regarding the misuse of migration channels and the perception of a growing number of foreign workers illegally staying or working in host countries. These two challenges are discussed in the two special chapters of this edition of the Outlook.

The Outlook shows that, for European countries as a whole, the inflow of refugees could raise the working-age population by a marginal 0.4% by December 2020. That being said, the impact varies across European countries and within them. As integration takes time, the inflow of recently arrived refugees may contribute to increasing, at least in the short-to-medium term, the number of people looking for a job. In Germany, for example, the number of unemployed could increase by about 6% by 2020 (i.e. less than half a percentage point). Moreover, in countries with large inflows of refugees, such as Sweden, Germany and Austria, the impact will be stronger for some specific groups of native workers who may find themselves facing higher competition for jobs due to recently arrived migrants and refugees. This is the case for low-educated men: the refugee surge may increase the labour supply in the corresponding labour market segment by up to 15% by 2020. In the short term, it may be therefore just as important to reinforce policy support for low-educated men in general, as it is to develop effective integration measures specifically for recently arrived refugees. However, historical evidence on large refugee inflows from Asia, the Caribbean or Western Balkans into the United States and Europe indicates that refugees have limited medium-to-long term impact on the labour market of natives. Indeed, if there is any impact at all, it has been positive.

The Outlook also reviews the evidence about the illegal employment of foreign workers. This is a crucial issue in the management of migration as the lack of accurate information on the number and characteristics of people who may be staying and working illegally in OECD countries fuels the fear in the public opinion on migration more generally. This is clearly illustrated by the recent Eurobarometer survey, which indicates that almost half of the European population has the misperception that there are at least as many immigrants staying illegally as legally in Europe. Most of them believe there are even more migrants illegally staying than those legally staying, whereas no OECD country even remotely approaches these proportions.

The illegal employment of foreign workers takes many forms. It is often understood as migrants who are working without the legal right to stay in the host country, but it can also take on other forms of non-compliance with either migration rules or labour rules. Estimates suggest that there are about 11 million unauthorised immigrants in the United States and significantly less in Europe. Illegal employment of foreign workers is most likely to affect young men and is usually concentrated in a few sectors notably agriculture, construction and domestic services. Addressing the illegal employment of foreign workers should therefore include both labour market inspections and migration policies in order to reduce informal employment and facilitate legal pathways to residency or employment. It should also include measures specifically designed to enhance compliance with existing regulations, including in the workplaces. When the issue has become prominent or structural, targeted regularisation programmes could be used.

Being blind to public anxiety over the economic and social impact of migration, even if this impact is statistically marginal, or deaf to fears regarding the lack of control on migration management, even if largely over-estimated, could prevent us from moving the international migration co-operation agenda forward in a pragmatic and constructive spirit. This is why the evidence provided in this year’s edition of International Migration Outlook is timely and will hopefully help to bring the public debate onto more solid ground.


Stefano Scarpetta,

OECD Director for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs