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Filed under: Migration and remittances

tiny genie lamp

Last week I was in Albania working with the local UNDP office on migration issues. It’s a very topical subject in a country where (See: Connecting with emigrants, OECD):

  • Roughly one third of the population lives abroad
  • Some 10 to 15 percent on the national income comes from remittances
  • It’s leading regional polls on emigration by highly educated people

Apart from these figures, what struck me is the complexity of the phenomenon that has an impact on many countries, concerns literally millions of Albanians with many different interests, and touches on the mandate of almost any ministry.

Academia and the private sector are struggling to come to terms with migration and the European Union (EU) is concerned about the high level of irregular migrants giving rise to large numbers of readmission cases per year (53,000 in 2010 and 15,000 in 2011 – See European Commission progress reports).

People are leaving in droves – how do we get the genie back in the bottle?

Migrants are not leaving for no reason. They believe that their opportunities outside the country are better than if they stay.

Some leave to pursue education opportunities, others to find a job, others to flee uncomfortable situations at home. The OECD’s Connecting with emigrants study forecasts the international competition for labour to continue – if not grow, especially for those with a high education.

Many countries have tried to stem emigration by either imposing restrictions or by reducing the ‘push-factors’ making life at home a bit more bearable. Like Albania with its Brain Gain project, others try to lure back migrants with all kinds of incentives like salary supplements, giving tax-free import arrangements, easy recognition of foreign degrees or mediating jobs. (See: Jobs for young Albanians)

Soon we will be publishing a review of the Brain Gain activities on our Capacity Development Facility website.

Why empty Ali Baba’s cave?

The question is: Do you really want to get all these migrants back – when unemployment is already high, and when local opportunities are not that great?

Are migrants not of greater value when they stay in their host countries – with their possible contributions while out there, with their networks in their host countries?

Owen Barder and Michael Clemens discuss some related issues having to do with development and migration in a recent interview (highly recommended!).

Migrants generally keep some kind of link with their country of origin and they do so for hundreds of reasons. Some want to participate in debates, some want to contribute funds (and not only to the family), some want to do business, and some want to engage in academic research.

And yes, some may want to come back, maybe permanently, maybe temporarily, maybe ‘virtually’, some for work, some for holidays, some to get married.

If you start thinking about the options, it almost looks like the cave of Ali Baba: full of treasures.

The challenge is not the lack of opportunities. The challenge is how to engage migrants with development in their country of origin.

Approaching migrants with only one proposition (returning permanently) is highly unlikely to be successful.

Migrants, like everyone, have multiple interests. One migrant may at the same time be interested to support an NGO, to give a lecture at the university (for free), to engage a local university in her research network and to help her brother set up a small export business for cheese.

It is in the complexity and multitude of these interests where the added value lies in providing engagement options to migrants.

Instead of looking at migration only from a losing perspective (the brain drain), let’s look at it as an opportunity. Let’s leave the genie out of the bottle and explore the contents of Ali’s cave.    

  • Olga

    Many thanks for these interesting points. However, according to a report of USAID, approximately 180,000 people, or 20% of Albanian immigrants in Greece returned to Albania in the last five years, because of the great impact of the Greek financial crisis. Indeed, “return migration is a factor which must be monitored carefully because it can be converted into a social bomb, although in the long term it may have some positive impact in some fields.
    The main question for me is not if Albania or origin countries in general really want to get all their migrants back, but the vital question is “what could be done? – when unemployment is already high, and when local opportunities are not that great? Firstly, we have to take into account the effective distribution of aid and trying to open new companies/industries by indigenous individuals (not the domination of foreign businesses).
    Additionally, one solution proposed could be the high cooperation among origin and host countries. This aid could be the transfer of knowledge, R&D or “know-how”
    skills, in order to improve education or human capital of unemployed individuals in order to become more competitive in the local labor market. This transfer can be achieved via an exchange of educators between host and origin countries, providing the latter with a higher level of education and the former with a more multicultural approach in their home countries. Also, with the opening of new & local industries will be an expansion of employment opportunities, meaning that the employment will not be dependent only on public – sector jobs.
    All in all, trying to evaluate what is right and what is
    wrong is extremely difficult. In our case, the situation is more complicated, since human beings involved and actions can have severe effects in their lives. After all, we must always remember that migration is about people, people who deserve to be paid attention to and cared for by the citizens and the state.