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86 million migrant workers active in global economy, says new ILO report

Close to half of all migrants and refugees worldwide - or some 86 million adults - are economically active, employed or otherwise engaged in remunerative activity, according to a new report released today by the International Labour Office (ILO).

Comunicado de prensa | 21 de mayo de 2004

GENEVA (ILO News) - Close to half of all migrants and refugees worldwide - or some 86 million adults - are economically active, employed or otherwise engaged in remunerative activity, according to a new report released today by the International Labour Office (ILO).

What's more the report also says that the number of migrants crossing borders in search of employment and human security is expected to increase rapidly in the coming decades due to the failure of globalization to provide jobs and economic opportunities.

"If you look at the global economy from the perspective of people, its biggest structural failure is the inability to create enough jobs where people live", said ILO Director-General, Juan Somavia. "We should consider ways of providing decent work to this vast flow of migrants through multilateral actions and policies."

The number of migrants increased by some six million a year during the 1990s, according to data available for the report. If all the 175 million international migrants recorded by year 2000 were to form a single political entity, they would represent the world's fifth most populous country.

" Towards a fair deal for migrant workers in the global economy" ( Note 1) says that "more and more countries are involved now with migration, either as origin, destination or transit countries, or all of these simultaneously", adding that this requires multilateral rather than unilateral action among all concerned states.

The new report, issued in the run-up to a debate on the issue scheduled for the annual International Labour Conference to be held on 1-17 June, says that a multilateral approach is required to improve the management of migration, "a central issue of our times."

The General Discussion on migrant workers at the Conference will be the highest level and most representative global discussion on migration in 10 years, with participation by Ministers of Labour and representatives of workers and employers from 177 ILO member States.

The report highlights that:

  • The economic effects of immigration on receiving countries are mainly beneficial, with the newcomers rejuvenating populations and stimulating growth without inflation. Following World War II, immigrant workers contributed to Europe's sustained growth for thirty or so years. In East and West Asia, from the 1970s migrant workers helped to transform cities into gleaming metropolises almost overnight.
  • Origin countries may experience a "brain drain" when they face the emigration of skilled people. Nearly 400,000 scientists and engineers from developing countries are working on research and development in industrial countries. Jamaica and Ghana have more of their locally trained doctors outside the countries than inside them.
  • Migrants provide huge flows of remittances to their countries, amounting to an estimated US$ 80 billion annually (in 2002), or the second largest source of external funding for developing countries, according to data from the World Bank.
  • Women account for 49 per cent of the world's migrants and are increasingly travelling on their own as their family's primary income earner.
  • Between 10 to 15 per cent of migrants are in irregular status, a phenomena that is not confined to developed countries. "The extent of the flows of irregular workers is a strong indication that the demand for regular migrant workers is not being matched by the supply".
The report notes that working conditions for a large portion of migrants are abusive and exploitative, sometimes constituting forced labour and all too often denial of union rights, discrimination and xenophobia.

Migrant workers in irregular situations "face the gravest risks to their human rights and fundamental freedoms when they are recruited, transported and employed in defiance of the law". Migration is "one of the most complex policy challenges for governments". The report calls on tripartite delegates from member States to consider the adoption of a comprehensive action programme designed "to improve the conditions of migrant workers and promote more orderly forms of migration" at this year's International Labour Conference. The report says economic, political, and demographic differences between countries and lack of employment and decent work, human security and individual freedoms "help explain much of contemporary international migration".

"The social costs of labour migration in terms of fractured families and communities are no doubt as, if not more, significant compared to the more measurable economic costs". The report notes that some countries of origin seem to have developed a "culture of emigration".

Besides, there are "profound consequences for receiving countries", but there is also a problem of perception on the impact of migration." The report cites studies in both Western Europe and the U.S. indicating minimal change in wages due to immigration, with some suggesting that wages of better skilled workers actually went up during times of high immigration.

Instead, what becomes the subject of public discourse are the social adjustments of receiving immigrants from a different ethnic origin. "Particularly where it does not lead to integration, migration is sometimes at the root of ethnic tensions."

The issue of migration is now high on the international agenda. The recent report by the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization ( Note 2) placed migration at the top of its recommendations and a Global Commission on International Migration has begun work to prepare recommendations for the UN Secretary General and other stakeholders. In 2006, the High Level Dialogue of the United Nations General Assembly will be devoted to the issue of migration and development.

Note 1

Note 2 - A Fair Globalization: Creating opportunities for all, World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, International Labour Office, Geneva, 2004, ISBN 92-2-115426-2.