15 September 1994 - 17 September 1994

International Migration and Population Pressures

Chair: Ambassador Dr Hans Arnold

Our conference was given extra topicality by the high- profile United Nations meeting on population just beforehand in Cairo - though, perhaps surprisingly, our discussions in the event turned little on population issues per se; we doubted whether much migration could be attributed purely to excessive pressure of numbers, and it seemed evident that migration could not be organised on a scale, or with a selectivity, that would seriously address perceived demographic imbalances.

We noted at the outset that migration was a very diverse as well as a very large phenomenon. Most categorisations within it were at best imperfect - for example, no simple division of states between senders and receivers could be accurate; and because individual motivations were complex and changeable, migrants themselves were often not neatly classifiable. Most migration was moreover a normal and long-standing feature of the world scene. Though global statistics - suggesting that some 100-120 million people currently lived outside the country of their birth - were not precisely dependable (and public authorities would do well to seek improvement in them) it seemed clear that the component not truly desired, whether by immigrants or by recipients, was a minority. Within this again, most movement happened between neighbouring developing countries, not into developed ones, and a perhaps - increasing proportion represented displacement not intended, at least initially, to be permanent. We observed also that though migration internal to a state was not formally on our agenda, it was - notably in Russia, and still more in China - a problem of increasing scale, and one which was often apt, sooner or later, to produce spill-over effects into the international arena

Our prime focus was naturally upon "unwanted" international migration. Political persecution - on grounds of race or belief, or simply from inherently oppressive regimes - was a major cause, and in some areas the fading of Cold-War-related constraints had released or enhanced unpleasant such forces; to a growing extent forced migration was sometimes now not just an incidental effect but a direct objective of conflict. Some totalitarian countries moreover were apt to use migration (or its threat) from their territory as an instrument of pressure upon reluctant "receiver" countries, who might sometimes then face - as memories of Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Communist Vietnam suggested - uncomfortable issues of whether to force individuals to remain under inhumane or ethnic-cleansing regimes.

Economic impulsion too remained a major factor, and its effects were perhaps heightened by the combination of readier international transport and the media-based explosion of expectation-raising awareness that others lived much better. Alongside the economic category the force of environmental calamity had become notably more widespread, or at least more widely perceived, within the past few decades; famine, earthquake, volcanic eruption and desertification were all threatening forces; a repetition of Chernobyl might one day be another; and for all the scientific uncertainties about global warming its possible long-term implications for migration could not prudently be ignored.

Attitudes and policies among developed Western countries, in their capacity as receivers, varied considerably. In general - perhaps on account of particular history and culture - the United States and Canada were customarily more open than Europe. Even within Europe practice varied widely, with Germany, albeit partly for special reasons, in 1992 admitting eighteen times more immigrants than Britain. There was little intra-European burden-sharing, and the principle of "first-country asylum", whatever its logic, had a highly uneven effect. In most developed countries public and Governmental attitudes were tending now to become more restrictive; even Germany had markedly tightened its admission policy. Though concerns related to external security had faded, there remained popular worries about social cohesion, and about risks that some conflict-driven immigrants would damagingly import their conflicts with them. We were not agreed on whether labour-market concerns had much substance, especially in relation to the threat of flooding the unskilled market - it was argued that little correlation could be traced between unemployment levels and immigration volumes. But the perception of threat to jobs was widespread, and it contributed to the fear by governments - underlying restrictive tendencies - that right-wing extremism might win electoral success through exploiting the anti-immigrant theme. We noticed the paradox of de facto protectionism in labour markets alongside the accelerating drive to global freedom of trade and capital movement, and we knew that in principle free movement of labour ought to be good economics; but the political reality was that people were perceived as a different matter, and no GATT dealt with them.

There was a case that Governments could and should do more to educate popular sentiment in the advantages that immigration brought to receivers - the perception that receiving was entirely a favour done to the incomers was both inaccurate and - through the "compassion-fatigue" danger - harmful. It might help in this regard, one participant suggested, if admission policy could give some weight to the selection of immigrants evidently likely to succeed economically. But we were fairly reminded also of the need for Governments to listen to public opinion, not just to attempt to influence it.

Admission policies were often partly shaped - or distorted? - by the difficult practicalities of control. The capability dependably to control inward movement varied considerably among Western countries; in particular, most found it hard to police the dividing line between visiting and staying (and apprehension about this problem perhaps accounted for such arrangements as the British use of temporary detention centres, strongly criticised). Russia, we heard, was facing grave control difficulties, with massive movement and no mature instruments or even concepts for its management

The basic content of a sound admission policy was not easy to define in workable operational terms. Part of it must reflect international obligations, especially as laid down by the 1951 Convention. That Convention was by now a very incomplete reflection of the range of modem problems, and many Governments moreover placed upon it a practical interpretation which it might be generous to call minimalist. The Convention was however in place, and attempts to widen or update its legally-agreed scope would be unrealistic; it should not be asked - for example by the importation of some new category such as "environmental refugee" - to bear more weight than real-life politics allowed.

The better course might be, through more systematic and thorough dialogue, to develop guidelines, amounting progressively to a code of conduct, for how democratic countries concerned for human rights ought to behave in admission policy. Stability of practice was important - entry could not reasonably be turned on and off, tapwise, for example with the economic cycle; and governments should recognise moreover that much current migration was a natural consequence of past migration, which in turn had often been positively stimulated or welcomed by the now-reluctant receiver. A stronger bias towards liberality - for example in the criteria governing the "family reunion" category - should be injected, so most of us thought; and some argued that whatever rules were laid down should admit a significant measure of discretion for the deserving case falling just outside them. At the same time we acknowledged that arguments for administrative discretion, as also for thorough transparency of practice, entailed an awkward balancing with the divergent risks of alleged arbitrariness and of providing a clearer focus for anti-entry pressure. Whatever the practice in entry control, however, we were sure that an adequate policy on immigration must include fair citizenship rules and fair treatment of incomers, including help to them in any necessary language skills and in the avoidance of rapid lapse into economic dependency.

These duties needed to be partnered by the acceptance of responsibility by the incomers themselves, and by the "exporting" states. Incomers must not be forced into uniform assimilation, but they must learn to comprehend the methods and values of the societies they entered, and to abide by their concepts of basic rights. Exporting states too had obligations. It was not realistic to expect them to impose rigid control on movement outward - many lacked the administrative capability for this, many resented "pick- and-choose" attitudes among receiving states, and attitudes were sometimes understandably influenced by the economic importance of homeward remittances (at an estimated total of $71 billion in 1990, a significant component of resource transfer from the developed to the developing world). But in addition to not avoidably creating the forces - political or economic - that drove people out, states should at least provide dependable documentation, and a policy and administrative framework that did not impede eventual repatriation if the individual so chose.

We returned repeatedly to the theme that the best response to "unwanted" migration lay not in frameworks of inhibition or control, however essential these might seem in the near term, but in redressing the conditions that made it happen. This reinforced yet further the case, already cogent on other grounds, for well-resourced and wisely- targeted development policies, concentrating in this respect particularly on the very poor who formed the main part of most mass migrations; better knowledge, better administration and economic structures placing due valuation upon land and water might help as much as aid by subsidy. Other types of practical action could directly alter motivations; concrete examples included Italian action to ease food shortages in Albania, and UN-led action to protect borders in the Macedonian part of the former Yugoslavia.

The UN itself, we were aware, had - at least in its present institutions - only a limited direct role, and modest capability, in relation to migration; the brief of the UN High Commission for Refugees was directed primarily to repatriation, which could not everywhere be a realistic goal. The UN might however play a part in stimulating and managing the wider dialogue which we believed was essential in order to assemble more accurate information, bring together understandings (including a common vocabulary), and promote and co-ordinate the accumulation of agreed good practice among countries concerned in migrant flows.

We acknowledged that a phenomenon so pervasive in today's world as undesired migration could not simply be swept aside or away, and that tackling it would have to be undertaken by the patient addressal of particular issues in particular places, not by grand design. But we believed that co-operation among governments was already on the increase, and that the problems were mostly not of irreconcilably clashing interest. We were therefore optimistic about their progressive easement if governments assigned them due priority of attention.

This Note reflects the Director's personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: Ambassador Dr Hans Arnold
Retired as Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to the UN in Geneva (1982-87)


Dr John Nieuwenhuysen
Director, Bureau of Immigration and Population Research, Carlton, Victoria

Dr David Coleman
Lecturer in Demography, Department of Applied Social Studies and Social Research, University of Oxford

Ms Sarah Collinson
Research Fellow, Royal Institute of International Affairs

Mr Alf Dubs
Director, The Refugee Council, London   

Dr Barbara Harrell-Bond
Director, Refugee Studies Programme, University of Oxford

Mr Edward Mortimer
Foreign Affairs Editor, FinancialTimes

Dr Norman Myers
Consultant in Environment and Development, including to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Government of the Federal Republic of Germany, NATO, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Defence Staff College and Secretary-General, 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development

Dr John Salt
Migration Research Unit, Department of Geography, University College, London

Mr R Scott Heatherington
Counsellor (Immigration), Canadian Embassy, Bonn

Dr Rosalyn Kunin
Consulting Economist

The Hon Peter Stollery
Senator (Liberal Party), Canada

Dr Leroy O Stone
Statistics Canada: Associate Director-General, Analytical Studies Branch and Director, Family and Community Support Systems Division

Professor Patrick Weil
Professor of Political Science, I'Institut des Sciences Politiques, Paris

Ambassador Hennecke Graf von Bassewitz
Deputy Director General, Department of Economic Affairs, and Commissioner for North-South Negotiations, Foreign Office, Bonn

Professor Klaus F Zimmermann
Dean of the Faculty of Economics, University of Munich

Ms Natalia Voronina
Deputy Head, Federal Migration Service, Moscow, with responsibility for internal migration

Professor Curt Gasteyger
Programme for Strategic and International Security Studies, The Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva

Mr Philippe Lavanchy
Representative for the UK and the Republic of Ireland, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, London

Dr Ellen Brennan
Chief of Population Policy Section, Population Division, Department for Economic and Social Information and Policy Analysis, United Nations, New York

Professor Vernon M Briggs Jr
Labor Economist, New York State School of Labor and Industrial Relations, Cornell University

Dr Paul Demeny
The Population Council, New York

Professor Gary P Freeman
Member, Government Department, University of Texas at Austin

Mr Arthur C Helton
Director of Migration Programs, Open Society Institute, New York City

Dr B Lindsay Lowell
Division of Immigration Policy and Research, US Department of Labor

Dr Demetrios G Papademetriou
Senior Associate and Director, Immigration Policy Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Professor Peter I Rose
Sociologist; Sophia Smith Professor and Director, American Studies Diploma Program, Smith College

Dr Sharon Stanton Russell
Research Scholar, Center for International Studies, and member, Inter-University Committee on International Migration, Massachusetts Institute of Technology           

Dr Aristide R Zolberg
University-in-Exile Professor, Graduate Faculty, New School for Social Research, New York City