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Policy Insights

Migration Becomes More Volatile

Interview with Demographer Jakub Bijak
Copyright: Lora-Sutyagina

Population Europe: Migration is the most uncertain demographic component. Do we really know what happens to migrants in times of recession?

Jakub Bijak: We know even less than during the periods of stable economy. Under any circumstances immigration is quite difficult to measure and predict, or even to define in a precise way. During the crisis the situation is even worse, as migration becomes more volatile.

PE: What are the consequences of economic downturn on migration flows and on migrants’ behaviour? Does unemployment cause return migration?

JB: Usually there may be some reduction in migration flows, increase in returns, and a decline in irregular migration. On the other hand, the impact of migration on host economies is debatable. In the long run, it is suggested that the impact is mostly neutral, but in the short run, migration may have a negative effect on the employment of native workers. This in turn can generate grievances and social tensions.  As to migrants’ behaviour, there are some indications of increased propensity to settle in the host country. In general, during recessions migrants’ strategies become more diverse. Migration provides increased flexibility in managing the economic risks within families and households, and offers various possibilities beyond the simple decision to stay or to go. There is also an argument that migrants are on average less risk averse than non-migrants, which helps them adapt to the changing circumstances.

Unemployment as such does not necessarily lead to returns, especially if re-entry may be difficult.  Interestingly, the trends in remittances – the money sent back by migrants to their home countries – are steadily increasing, showing resilience to the recession. Besides, sometimes the help goes the other way: the families in the home countries support migrants through “reverse remittances” only so that they can remain in the destination country until the crisis passes. In short, there is no single strategy here, which in my view is what makes migration quite effective in terms of dealing with hardships.

PE: What are the main EU host countries? What is the impact of the recession on destination choices?

JB: The main migrant receiving countries, as before the crisis, are the largest EU economies: Germany, the UK, Italy, Spain, and France. Since the recession started, the number of migrants to Southern Europe generally declined, especially to Spain, but also to Portugal, and to a lesser extent, to Italy. Immigration to Germany declined as well, but on the other hand, the inflows to countries like Belgium, the Netherlands or Sweden remained high, as did those to the UK or France. For emigration, the most dramatic increase has been observed for Spain, Portugal and Ireland, but it is worth remembering that these countries had received exceptionally high numbers of immigrants before the crisis began.

PE: Many young people leave the countries hardest hit. Do you think this is a successful coping strategy?

JB: As for many young people emigrating due to recession, I am not sure to what extent we can generalise this observation. Young people are generally more mobile than other age groups, so they would migrate more often regardless of economic circumstances. When we look at Eurostat data, on average the current patterns by age do not differ much from those before the crisis. There is a slight increase of within-EU migration of people in their 20s and 30s, but not by much, and it varies a lot amongst countries. Still, migration is one possible way of coping with economic difficulties, so this question can be actually reversed – why is there not more mobility in Europe, despite the freedom of movement of workers? Arguably, it should be easier to find a job on the large, interlinked EU labour market than in any of the 28 national economies alone.

PE: Are immigrants especially hit by rising unemployment within a country?

JB: I think this question is really broader – the problem is which social groups in general are the most vulnerable during recessions.  Of course, some vulnerable people are migrants – the literature points out to irregular migrants, young people, or workers in the economic sectors that are particularly affected by the business cycle. The last group, however, includes non-migrants and migrants alike: many local workers in construction and manufacturing are heavily affected by crises. On the other hand, some migrants fare relatively well, especially in the sectors that are largely “recession-proof”. This can concern highly-skilled migrants, but also those working in health care and social care, or those performing unwanted and poorly-paid work at the bottom of the job hierarchy. In general, it is worth remembering that migration can be a strategy to reduce vulnerability – from that point of view, sometimes the most vulnerable people are those unable to move.

PE: From your point of view, what policy choices are European governments facing? Do you think that migrants should be specific targets of policy measures?

JB: As far as migration and integration policies are concerned, migrants are by definition their main target. However, when it comes to more general policies aimed at ameliorating the effects of recession, I do not think that the policies should specifically focus on migrants, rather than simply on the vulnerable groups. We need to remember that many non-migrants face equally great, if not greater challenges during the crisis.

At a more general level, I think that the policy choices should be explicit about what societal values they represent: How much freedom and competition? How much security and protection? There are no ready answers, but in my view sensible policies should look at the trade-offs between these values, and manage the risks associated with recessions. From this point of view, migration can be an element of building resilience and creating new opportunities, but on the other hand it can bring about unwanted consequences, for example for local workers. Given all the surrounding uncertainties, prudent policies need to take these trade-offs into account, and involve a lot of contingency planning and “stress testing”. Ideally, such policies would be based on an informed and open discussion about costs, benefits, risks, and – last, but not least – values. 

Jakub Bijak is Lecturer in Demography at the ESRC Centre for Population Change at the University of Southampton. He has recently published a book entitled “Forecasting International Migration in Europe: A Bayesian View”.