Migration flows, labor force and the faucets of immigration

August 16, 2017
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Migration flows have always been a habit for many populations throughout the history of the world. This subject is explored through an excerpt from Alfonso Giordano’s Population Movements (LUISS University Press).


History shows that there is not one immigration, but many types of it. However simplistic and pretentious it may be to try and classify this complex phenomenon, we can argue that there exist three types of immigration:

– Mass populating immigration, as in those areas (North America, Australia, New Zealand) that feature population of a low density type, where economic dynamism is linked to those resources contributed by the immigration itself. It should be noted, however, that this category, just like the other ones described below, should not be exclusively associated with large countries that vast territories and a low density of inhabitants. This is the case of France, making use of a foreign component also for purely demographic reasons for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. The importance of this approach can be easily detected by recalling General Charles De Gaulle’s true mantra: a modern France should have reached, in his opinion, the historic milestone of one hundred million inhabitants;

– Economic immigration, linked to the temporary recruitment of labor force, depending on the country’s economic needs. In this instance, the right of residence in the host state is, at least in theory, closely linked to the duration of the employment contract. This form of immigration has for example been used in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, but also on the European front, especially in 1960s Germany when the so-called gastarbeiter policy enjoyed a considerable success;

– Humanitarian immigration, which refers on the one hand to the possibility, covered although sub condicione by international law, for an immigrant resident in a country other than its own to obtain from the authorities of the host country a visa for a so-called family reunification in order to allow the entry of their loved ones.

On the other hand, humanitarian immigration is a possibility given to asylum seekers, whose rights are chiefly protected and guaranteed by the 1951 Geneva Convention. It is worth noting that, under the limits of the above classification, one must never give in to the illusion of being able to associate one or more groups of nations with each category. This is because each country has adopted one or more of those, even at the same time, depending on the historical periods and their internal economic and social needs, due to the intrinsic criticalities to the management of migratory flows.

Considering population movements, the history of Europe since WWII is nothing but emblematic. In the years after 1945, the Old Continent saw a deep economic and social cleavage widening between Mediterranean and central European countries. In fact, the first ones turned into a manpower tank for the latter.

This picture, however, changed suddenly and radically after the 1970s. Those years, in fact, marked a sudden change in the economic and political relations between Western countries and a substantial part of the Third World. In particular, the oil and gas crisis at the beginning and again at the end of that decade had disruptive effects on the economic systems of all European countries, accompanied by an upheaval in the international terms of trade, a rise in energy costs and a series of chain reactions leading to a stagnation in economic growth, coupled with high inflation rates and widespread unemployment.

The main consequence of these events was a sharply evolving, restrictive migration policy by those same European countries that had been traditional destinations for migrants. Announcing the first blockade of economic immigration was Sweden in 1972, followed by France in 1974 and then by Germany and the United Kingdom. Soon, however, those nations’ governments were forced to take note of a concept that was so simple yet underestimated at the time: the “faucets” of immigration, unlike water taps, are difficult to open and close as one likes it.

Finally, a new phase for population movements has begun due the financial market crisis that hit the global economy in mid-2008 and led, as it is now well established, to the worst known recession after WWII. EU countries, also heavily affected by the global crisis, have returned after years of steady economic and employment growth to levels of stagnation that have not been recorded for decades and have suffered, although with different intensity and speed, a negative impact on their own territories and companies.

People’s mobility, both in terms of incoming and outgoing migration flows from Europe, as well as the various effects on the countries of origin and destination of said flows, was obviously affected by the effects of this latest crisis. These effects have involved the inclusion of migrants in host nations, remittances for the countries of origin, access to welfare systems, consequences on different types of migration (female v. male migrants, qualified v. unskilled, looking for work v. asylum seekers, and so on), and they have caused a change in the management of migration flows by European countries in response to the changed economic conditions.

As can be seen from the brief excursus that covers half a century, the geopolitics of population movements in Europe has experienced profound changes that make it very difficult to classify individual countries solely on the basis of the migration management policies that they have been adopting. This is due to the fact that they have not remained unchanged over time, having known many variations according to the needs of the moment.