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Why Australia should be talking migration at the G20

By Carla Wilshire - posted Friday, 1 August 2014

There is little doubt that history will judge this century as one characterized by the global movement of people.

The number of people living outside their homeland has now surged to 232 million, or 3.2 percent of the world's population - and while the figure may seem small, what we are seeing in this trend is the beginning of an acceleration. To put this in perspective, the total number of migrants globally has nearly doubled over the past two decades.

In June I attended the C20 summit in Melbourne, the body of civil society representatives that will inform the G20 when they meet in Brisbane later this year. It was broad grouping of civil society representatives, all vying for a much-coveted spot for their issue on the G20 agenda. The issues spanned the full policy spectrum and included aid, welfare, employment, education, climate change, infrastructure and governance. Yet a key thread across many topics related to the movement of people and the vulnerabilities created by a fluid workforce.


The developing world is the main origin of international migrants, with some 70 per cent coming from the 'south'. Half migrate to developed countries such as the US, Canada, Australia and the UK, while half move to other developing countries. Most significantly, the patterns of movement are changing. Increasingly migration is more temporary, more circular, and more closely tied to the economics of globalization.

Broadly speaking, migration is rationalised by characterising both the push and pull forces. The driving incentive for individuals moving from sending countries are employment and income opportunities, and the search for access to education, health and first world services. For receiving countries, an ever-aging population and the need to fill gaps in their labour market make the attraction of migrants an imperative for economic survival.

These forces are not new, but as the freedom of global movement increases, their influence on migration in turn gathers momentum. People movement has now become one of the most powerful tools for development and a significant player in global growth. Fueling this age of migration is the reciprocal benefit for both sending and receiving countries.

In an effort to determine the potential of migration, Lant Pritchett, Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government has calculated that a 3 percent increase in the labor force of developed countries through migration would result in a net annual gain of $56 billion.

More importantly, it would also yield $305 billion a year for developing countries. Incredibly, this is almost twice the combined annual benefit of full trade liberalization; foreign aid and debt relief.

For developing countries migration has unprecedented benefits including the transfer of skills and the direct cash benefits of remittance flows as migrants send a proportion of their income back home. This year's remittance flows to developing countries will exceed $436 billion, rising to $516 billion in 2016, or over five times the global foreign aid budget.


Moreover, counter to popular rhetoric, the average impact of migration on developed countries on employment and wages is neutral to positive. In Australia and Canada, countries with mainly high-skilled immigration programs, the average impact on low-skilled wages is an increase of 4.5 percent for Australia and 3.3 per cent for Canada. Nowhere in the OECD does immigration have a strongly negative impact on the average wage of citizens.

Yet despite the recognised impact of migration, global engagement lags behind, with the Centre for Global Development recently describing migration as "the biggest blind spot in the world economy". While there is increasing awareness that we need to address migration issues at a global level, we are not effectively realizing the benefits of migration and we are failing to manage the negative consequences of cross border movement.

Australia can do much to further this agenda. Indeed it is an international arena in which we are well positioned to assert leadership. In his time as Secretary-General, Kofi Annan pushed for a United Nations body to deal with migration, an entity that would act to regulate and harmonize international migration, finding its mandate in the complexities that inevitably follow the globalization of people movement.

It is a thought worthy of consideration. Migration is a series of balancing acts and many reach beyond the influence of any one state: How do you maximize skills transfer to developing countries while preventing brain drain? How do you increase the economic benefits of migration flows, while maintaining local employment conditions in developed countries? What rights should temporary migrants have, and when does temporary become permanent? Are temporary workers entitled to the same social benefits as citizens they work alongside?

Contemporary debates on these questions – such as those arising out of the issues around guest labour associated with the 2022 Qatar World Cup – will need strong advocates. There is a need to strike the right balance between unlocking the opportunity of immigration and preventing the exploitation of migrants.

The G20 is perhaps one of the few global fora capable of reshaping our international institutions. A mix of the largest sending and receiving nations, it is well placed to open up discussion on the international frameworks that govern migration. Furthermore, as the host of this year's G20, Australia is uniquely positioned to put forward migration as a key issue for collective consideration. We are a country born of generations of migration; this experience has become our nation-building story. Our diverse society is one of our defining characteristics and the settlement of millions has been one of Australia's greatest achievements. Surely in this of all areas we should be capable of leading the charge.

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About the Author

Carla Wilshire is CEO of Migration Council Australia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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