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World Economic Forum: Debunking the Migration Myth

Gregg Wirth  Content Manager, Legal Executive Institute

Gregg Wirth  Content Manager, Legal Executive Institute

Migration has become a critical issue in today’s economy, as developed countries in Europe and the West continue to need an influx of labor to help run their economies — even as the issue has become a societal hot potato. Complicating matters is that legal, labor-based migration too often gets conflated with illegal immigration and the plight of refugees fleeing a litany of crises.

This multi-faceted subject was the topic Debunking the Migration Myth, a panel discussion held Wednesday morning at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Alessandra Galloni, Global Managing Editor at Reuters, moderated the panel, beginning by stating that “migrants represent more than 3% of the world’s population and contribute nearly 10% of global GDP, yet the public’s perception of migration is increasingly polarized.” She added that this has led to a situation that is “moving in the opposite way” of where society should want the migration discussion to go.

Galloni asked the panel, “Is there a way we can shift these attitudes by showing the power and potential of including migrants in the economy?”

Image: IOM World Migration Report 2020

Panelist Mohamad Al Jounde, who fled Syria’s civil war in 2013, arrived in Lebanon as a 12-year-old refugee, and helped found a school there, said the key to changing attitudes is to try to make people understand the experience of others. “This is done by talking to people, by becoming a story-teller, and offering the perspective of other people’s lives,” he said.

As part of that effort, Al Jounde is a board member of Gharsah Sweden, a group that works to support a school in Lebanon by connecting it with the Swedish community and encouraging an acceptance of newcomers.

Sara Pantuliano, Chief Executive of the Overseas Development Institute, agreed that unless attitudes change, the migration debate is unlikely to be constructive. “A large portion of the world’s population is supportive of migration, and another portion is very opposed, but there is a very large ‘anxious middle’ that can change its mind,” she said, adding that is who policymakers and migration advocates need to reach.

Politicians often make a populist argument against immigration. That argument is is emotionally based and often resonates, Pantuliano explained. The way to combat it is to make the experiences of migrants relatable to other people’s own lives. “If we do this, it will shift opinions,” she said.

Migrants & Refugees

Panelist Achim Steiner, Administrator for the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), argued against what he called the “conflation of refugees and migrants” and noted there are distinct global compacts to address each issue separately. “Unfortunately, most of the countries most opposed to these issues are also the countries most opposed to working together to find solutions,” Steiner said.

“In the past, migration was driven mostly by labor demand from the country that was receiving migrants,” he explained. “But today, so much is driven by crisis, whether caused by war or some other disaster.” The real challenge, he said, was separating the question of illegality from the issue of migration. “Can you arrive without illegality, and thus establish an identity where you are legally employed?”

New innovation and markets may make some parts of this problem easier to solve. In his experience with the UNDP, Steiner noted there were several examples of how new technology and the global economy allowed legal migrants to benefit in ways that were unheard of before. He shared a story of a woman who migrated from Turkey and was trained by a labor program to make and sell jewelry. When asked whether the program was actually sustainable — after all, how much jewelry can people sell to their local markets? — the woman replied that with her Instagram account, she was now selling her jewelry globally.

“A large portion of the world’s population is supportive of migration, and another portion is very opposed, but there is a very large ‘anxious middle’ that can change its mind.”

Reuters’ Galloni followed up the debate over legality and global labor markets by asking, “Where does the responsibility lie for moving migrants into the legal workforce?” Al Jounde suggested international pressure on governments and business does help, and can often lead to change.

Pantuliano agreed, adding that “investment needs to be made” and that we all need to “reframe how we address the issue.” Germany, which welcomed an influx of migrants and refugees in recent years, will see the benefit of those policies, she added, though initially they caused some strife within the country. “For some people, it is very hard to see a large inflow of newcomers, but border building — which has increased throughout Europe and the U.S. — only increases the danger to migrants and makes it harder for needed labor migrants,” she explained.

When asked how one measures success, Steiner, of the UNDP, offered that the economies of both the receiving country and the home country — which often receives a boost from money sent home from abroad — should be seeing benefits.

But for illegal migration and the refugee crisis, we “need to wake up and come up with some better ideas” to address the underlying components of this issue, which includes population expansion and economic inequality, Steiner said.

“We have to make migration a process that doesn’t impoverish the migrant and make them undesirable in the community in which they locate,” he added.

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