Is it time for Europeans to migrate?

Image of Gillian Tett

If you say the word “migrant worker” in Washington these days, it usually evokes images of Mexican farm labourers. But last week in Boston, at a meeting of financial leaders, the concept reared its head in a surprisingly different way: it was linked to the eurozone.

The context was a lunchtime debate about the future of global finance, at which Paulo de Sousa Oliviera, the head of Brasil Investimentos and Negócios, gave a speech selling Brazil as a financial hub. With passion, Oliviera explained why it was important for financial centres such as Boston, London and São Paulo to co-operate, and cited endless statistics showing how vibrant the Brazilian economy is these days, relative to the west.

Then, as the conversation inevitably turned to the latest eurozone horrors, Oliviera made a plea. “There is such high unemployment in Spain and Portugal, they should send their people over here [to Brazil] to get work – they can work and then send money back home [to Europe] and then go home themselves after 10 years!” he earnestly explained. After all, he added by way of example, Brazil currently needs about 60,000 engineers a year – but only 40,000 are graduating inside Brazil. So why not get those European engineers, or other young graduates, to travel as migrant workers? “We have a need for 20,000 more engineers! We have a need for migrants!” he explained. Why not use Latin America as a source of remittances for eurozone families starved of cash?

It is a telling little indication of how the world is being subtly turned on its head, amid the rolling crises. During the past five decades, if anybody has been packing their bags to travel overseas to send remittances home, it has typically been the Brazilians, or other “emerging markets” peoples, not the developed Europeans. In recent years, Spain and Portugal have been pulling in vast quantities of migrant workers, both skilled and unskilled, as Poles and other eastern European workers have flooded to places such as the UK and Ireland. America has sucked even larger numbers of migrants, not just from Brazil but from other parts of South America. A couple of months ago, for example, the Pew Hispanic Center (PHC) in America released a fascinating report which calculated that 12 million immigrants have moved from Mexico to the US in the past four decades alone, to seek jobs and cash. “The US today has more immigrants from Mexico alone – 12.0 million – than any other country in the world has from all countries of the world,” the PHC report observed, noting that in absolute terms “no country has ever seen as many of its people immigrate to this country as Mexico has in the past four decades.”

Yet these days the most fascinating detail of the PHC report, which echoes that Boston lunch, is that a change is afoot. Last year “the net migration flow from Mexico to the United States has stopped and may have reversed,” it says, for the first time since records began.

Part of the explanation is “the weakened US job and housing construction markets, heightened border enforcement, a rise in deportations,” along with “the growing dangers associated with illegal border crossings and the long-term decline in Mexico’s birth rates”. But another issue is the improved “broader economic conditions in Mexico”. Life south of the border, in other words, is no longer quite as grim as it was before, or not relative to the risks of moving to the US.

Sadly, there is surprisingly little comparable data for other immigration flows. As Ian Goldin, an Oxford academic, has long lamented, the world lacks any centralised system to track migration flows in a timely way, let alone devise policies. Thus we do not really know how many young Portuguese or Spanish are seeking jobs in Latin America now (although Reuters reports that around 328,000 Portuguese hold work permits for Brazil, 50,000 more than last year, it is unclear whether these have been exercised). Nor is it clear how many Poles are returning to their homeland from the UK or Ireland, as austerity bites there; or how many young Irish may now be seeking their fortunes overseas (yet again). While I have recently heard plenty of anecdotes at American dinner parties and conferences about how young American graduates are becoming so disillusioned with their jobs markets that they are moving “temporarily” to Brazil or India, tracking data on that American flux – if it exists – is hard.

But I hope that plenty of ambitious young Europeans do take up Oliviera’s suggestion to pack their bags, at least for a while. A century ago, entrepreneurial Europeans headed to the “colonies”. Retracing those steps, as those ex-colonies swell in might, is not so odd. Migration has been a powerful force for growth in human history. Fluid flows may yet be a means for a profoundly unbalanced global economy to rebalance itself. It would be nice, at least, to dream of that – particularly in Boston, a city built by Irish immigrants fleeing earlier waves of economic pain.

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