Thursday, 24 February 2011

The land will belong to those who fight for it: The increasingly visible hand of immigration policy in the South

In the last few years, political developments in Côte d’Ivoire and South Africa have forced the world to face a new reality: people are moving more often and easier than in the past. But in comparison to the glorified age of migration of the mid-19th century when many Europeans fled to the New World, this migration era is different. This migration is about flexible mobility.

For one, people are now moving for shorter time periods and returning or moving on to other places, at least when migration policies are relatively open. The temporary nature of these movements is associated with an increase in communication technology but also a drop in the cost of transportation. This is unlike population movements in the mid-19th century when people moved for longer periods. Second, the rise in short-term migratory flows continues despite the fact that many governments are raising barriers to enter their country – a phenomenon which did not exist during the migratory movement to the new world when labour was openly sought. The barriers are not stopping people from leaving their countries however. Instead, they are merely contributing to the development of new routes to other countries – sometimes to countries that have no recent past experience with mass immigration. Without first acknowledging the lack of clear policy in many of these countries, the levee has to break. And in many places it already has.

In one of the worse cases, the conflict in Côte d’Ivoire -largely spurred by debate over who belongs in the country- has left about 2000 people dead. Other cases have only uncovered the potential consequences. In May of 2008, a series of xenophobic raids in South Africa left 62 people dead. Similar cases have surfaced more recently in Mexico and Morocco.

Many, if not most countries have taken a very intolerant stance on immigration. In fact deportations, while usually highly mediatised in the richer countries, are on the rise everywhere. In 2005, Malaysia ordered the mass expulsion of more than 400 000 illegal immigrant workers, mainly from neighbouring Indonesia. The United Nations estimate that in 2009 Angola expelled 160 000 Congolese, while the Democratic Republic of Congo expelled 51 000 Angolans. South Africa (165 270) and Libya (53 842) also figure at the top of the list.

Without a proper policy of integration, the world’s new countries of immigration walk a fine line between social cohesion and outright civil disorder. Côte d’Ivoire is still feeling the repercussions. Many argue that the seeds of the current conflict, which has existed on-and-off since 2002, were planted when policy in the 1960s encouraged immigration, but did not set the basis for integration or access to citizenship. The country found itself with one-quarter of its population foreign-born when Ivoirité took center stage in the country’s politics – and an air of xenophobia ensued.

Interestingly, many of the Gulf countries find themselves today with immigrant populations totaling up to 80% of their total populations. One has to wonder whether the recent Arab revolutions can be successful in these countries without the support of immigrants.

A full migration policy needs to include clear immigration rules, facilitation for integration and a transparent understanding of citizenship rules. But this is not enough – administrative capacity in the South is limited. Policy-makers in developing countries already have their hands full and ensuring that rules and regulations on immigration are followed is often secondary priority. In short, what is written down is not necessarily reflected in reality.

Immigration policy, rather, needs to consider the realities of the country. In the South, informality prevails and administrative capacity is limited. Providing things such as freedom of association and speech, social security benefits and access to formal jobs is part of an entirely different debate. They may be viewed as luxuries even to non-immigrants.

Successful integration in the South rests on providing the basics required to live and work: adequate living arrangements, basic health services and access to educational services for immigrant children. It also rests on the perception of the locally-born. Discrimination can be the strongest deterrent for successful integration, and the onus falls on several people to attenuate potential conflict: political but also traditional leaders and migrant associations for instance.

There is no easy solution. Just look at OECD countries. A succession of countries, namely Canada, France, Germany and the United Kingdom have recently declared that multiculturalism has simply not worked in their respective countries, after years of integration policies and debate. It amounts to perhaps yet another piece of evidence of the shift in wealth: countries in the South are increasingly facing issues which have been plaguing countries in the North since the end of the War: how to get people with different cultures to work and play nicely. And perhaps 50 years of experience on “what hasn’t worked” is a good starting point for newly emerging immigration countries.

[1] The title references Côte d’Ivoire former president Felix Houphouët-Boigny’s famous immigration policy slogan: “The land belongs to those who cultivate it”.

Jason Gagnon

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