International Human Rights Day: Why supporting the fundamental rights of migrants will help us get out of economic crisis


Migration has the potential to benefit everyone in the UK because it promotes economic growth, principally by relieving the bottlenecks in demand for labour and skills which are needed by employers and organisations providing vital services. Migrants make a substantially larger contribution to public services than natives, being around 60% less likely to received state benefits or tax credits, and 58% less likely to live in social housing.

Critics of migration have argued that, whilst these benefits might be got from migration during a period of boom for the economy the same does not hold true when a downturn kicks in. During the long months and years of austerity which lie ahead, so the argument runs, migration will be experienced as extra pressure in the jobs market and an unwanted burden on the health, education and welfare services even at the lower levels of demand they currently generate.

But the case supporting migration and the rights of migrants is actually about the best way to escape the trajectory we are currently on, which leads directly to downturn and stagnation, growing poverty and years of increased hardship, and instead offers hope of returning to sustainable levels of increasing prosperity that will benefit us all.

In recent weeks national political leaders have been meeting in scores of cabals and conference looking for ways to re-start the global to get trade flowing once again. The growth strategy of the UK coalition government depends on small and medium size (SME) private enterprises being given the conditions in which they can begin to flourish once again and compete for business in the global economy. David Cameron has said that the current round of negotiations to liberalise world trade could add $170 billion to the global economy. But, as the director of the NIESR, Jonathan Portes, has recent argued, this figure would be higher by several orders if the liberalisation of global migration regulations was added to the policy mix.

But what have these arguments about economic policy got to do with the human rights of migrants? The Home Office and the UK Border Agency routinely proclaim their support for migration which promotes the interests of British businesses and they believe that a rigorously enforced Points Based System of immigration control is the way to get ‘the brightest and best’ for the national economy. Yet, as they push ahead with plans to limit access to long-term settlement and push back against the right to family reunification, it is clear that their version of an economically-driven immigration policy has absolutely nothing to do with the rights of migrants.

They are completely wrong in taking this line. As the Economist recently argued in an editorial on migration and the global economic crisis, it is not just the muscle power of migrants we need at this time, which theoretically could be herded from workplace to workplace on terms dictated by state officials, but their brain power as well. This is only ever fully engaged when people feel they are free to pursue their own interests, entering into whatever arrangements, partnerships, contracts and agreements which are compatible with their own needs and welfare, as well the wider public good.

The Economist praises migrant networks, calling them “a rare bright spark in the world economy.” It uses the example of the irrationality of current policy in the United States, which prefers to electrify miles of border fencing with its southern neighbour and expel the children of migrants from local schools, rather than work with the communities to strengthen their capacity to re-energise the economy and help it to return to growth.

Yet during the past few days other approaches to international migration policy have been discussed in forums in which both governments and migrant-supporting civil society organisations have been represented. This year’s Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD) concluded on Thursday last week with a high energy session engagement between representatives of 160 national governments and participants in the GFMD ‘Civil Society Days’. In all, 700 people were present during a debate moderated by BBC correspondent Zeinab Badawi.

Over the four years of its work, the GFMD has brought together the themes of the need for migration generated by the countries of the Global North, the role that migrants have played in stimulating economic growth in their home countries through their remittances and networking activities, and the possibilities for increasing these benefits through greater acknowledgement of the rights of migrants by the politicians and policy makers who dictate the terms on which immigration is permitted across the world.

Not just in the GFMD, but across other agencies working for a better-informed policy debate, the argument which links economic growth to the rights of migrants is being proclaimed time and time again. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) argues for migration policies which promote ‘decent work’ for migrants and host country workers. The UN’s Development and Population division scrutinises the processes which enhance human capital, which is the driving force for increased labour productivity and a more equitable sharing of the benefits of economic growth. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM), in its forthcoming World Migration Review, due to be published on 6th December, makes a call for a louder voice for migrants in public policy discussions about migration.

MRN will be joining in the celebrations marking International Human Rights Day this week. On 8th December we will be participating in an evening of discussion, socialising and music at Oxford House, in Bethnal Green, East London. Along with others, we will be making a case for the rights of migrants which is built on the foundations of humanitarian regard, but which adds to this the argument that a strengthening of the resilience and capacity of migrants to act on their own behalf is now crucial to the task of recovering from recession and bringing an end to austerity for us all.

By Don Flynn (MRN)

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