Reversing the flow: tempting emigrants back home

By on 02/05/2018
Countries that wish to tempt emigrants back home need to ensure a warm welcome and a soft landing

Mass migration isn’t only a problem for destination countries; those losing swathes of young, ambitious people can suffer too. Gavin O’Toole explains how Mexico, Mali, Latvia and Ireland are working to encourage and support the return of their citizens overseas

“We consider people returning as an opportunity for national development and growth – we have witnessed many success stories among people who have been repatriated and currently have their own business or a highly-qualified job,” says Patricia Martínez Cranss. “But we don’t just see return migration as an economic phenomenon: we celebrate returns for reunifying families, and even for enabling returnees to continue their studies in Mexico.”

Mexico’s minister for population, migration and religious affairs is discussing the pioneering Somos Mexicanos policy, which has become a global model for the reception and reintegration of migrants returning to their home country.

Somos Mexicanos is a policy response to the challenges posed by large global migrant flows. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) says there were about 244 million international migrants in 2015 – 3.3% of the world’s population. The US has been the biggest single recipient of immigrants since 1970, but since 2005 Germany has become the second most popular destination – hosting over 12m new residents, many of them from Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

Homeward bound

Migration is economically crucial to many developing nations: the global amount remitted home reached US$429 billion (£306bn or €350bn) in 2016. But many emigrants’ home countries are seeing rising numbers of returnees – a phenomenon that they’re often keen to encourage.

Some migrants are finding their new homes becoming increasingly unwelcoming places; some have built up enough capital to enjoy good lives back in their home countries; some want to help rebuild formerly-troubled homelands now recovering from conflicts or natural disasters. And their countries of origin recognise that people who’ve spent years abroad often return with investment cash, new skills or international business connections, fostering growth; returning with their families, they can also help rebalance demographics put out of kilter by the emigration of swathes of young people.

Yet the prospect of returning after years away can be an intimidating one; and the IOM concedes that the issue of return migration has been “neglected”. The organisation, which has operated assisted return programmes for 35 years, argues that there are three elements to successful reintegration: opportunities for return emigrants to become economically self-sufficient; access to social networks that allow them to rejoin communities; and the need to ensure their emotional well-being. IOM advises countries to adopt a strategic, integrated policy approach that balances these factors.

Repatriating migrants has become a key EU objective although it has made limited headway, in part because of a reluctance by some countries of origin to cooperate. The EU’s approach, therefore, emphasises partnerships between individual states: there are no EU-level policies on return migration, but some 96 national-level return migrant programmes run by its members.

Mexico’s approach

Patricia Martínez Cranss, Mexico’s minister for population, migration and religious affairs (Image courtesy: SEGOB).

Somos Mexicanos – which means “We are Mexicans” – has been praised by the Organisation of American States (OAS) as a leading international example of policymaking, scrutinised closely across Latin America.

Mexico is the second largest country of origin of migrants in the world, and the fourth highest recipient of remittances – receiving US$25bn in 2015. However, in recent years a combination of factors has changed migration patterns: between 2010–2015, for example, a total of 442,505 Mexicans returned from the US.

Despite a long history of migration from Mexico to the US, it was not until 2013 that the Mexican government established a strategic policy – the Special Migration Programme 2014-2018 (PEM) – to integrate the work of government departments and agencies in this area. The programme coordinates the efforts of governmental agencies, state and municipal authorities, civil society groups and the private sector in supporting the social and economic reintegration of returning emigrants.

These aim to meet the diverse needs of returnees – from health and nutrition services to communication with their families, the validation of foreign documents and, crucially, re-entry into the labour market. “Although there are people who are easily incorporated into the labour market with high qualifications, whose income allows them to rent a home and acquire goods and services in a short time, there is also a significant number of returnees that, even though they have lived for years in the United States, did not acquire technical skills or mastery of English,” comments Martínez Cranss.

She believes that Mexico’s decision to adopt a strategic approach of this kind can offer other countries valuable lessons, in areas from institutional design to monitoring and promoting dialogue among diverse stakeholders – but it’s not perfect, she adds. Given the scale of Mexico’s population movements, she concludes, “the institutional and programmatic design that we have implemented still faces great challenges”.

Mali’s approach

Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta visits the new Bamako centre (Image courtesy: IOM).

“I have been in many countries working on migration, and I have to say that this is one of the rare examples where you find this type of support for migrants – this is the first centre that I know of in the region built entirely by a government to welcome returning migrants,” says Bakary Doumbia, the IOM’s chief of mission in Mali.

He is referring to a new centre for return migrants: the US$2m Bamako centre for return emigrants, which opened in March, comprises two blocks that host the High Council of Malians Abroad (HCME) and residential quarters for 240 people. A conflict in the north of the country has displaced half a million Malians, and the country’s location makes it a transit centre for migrants – both those travelling north towards the Mediterannean, and those returning home after failed attempts to enter North African or EU countries.

Mali’s government has taken a proactive role – developing a strategic national migration policy, and launching public information campaigns to discourage citizens from irregular migration to Europe. It works closely with both the IOM and the EU, with which it signed a landmark deal to expedite the return of migrants in 2016.

Doumbia says Mali’s collaborative approach is yielding concrete results that exceed targets, adding that the country is examining proposals to establish a migration research institute in the country. “Mali’s government is playing a very important role on this issue,” he comments. “Mali is one of the rare countries in Africa to have a national policy on migration, and one of the few to have allowed the IOM to look into the migration indicators to see how we can support the government in improving migration policy.”

Latvia’s approach

A picture of Atis Sjanīts, Latvia’s current diaspora ambassador (Image courtesy: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Latvia).

A growing emphasis on return emigration is also evident in the European Union, where labour mobility has had a negative impact on growth in some countries.

In Baltic states such as Latvia, low birth rates have compounded problems caused by high emigration driven by low wages and limited opportunities. Latvia’s working-age population has fallen by about quarter since 2000, leaving what one study described as a “permanent scar” of suppressed output. But now there is evidence that some return emigration is under way – the economy ministry forecasts that between 2015 and 2022 about 76,000 people will return – and the government has tried to provide a safe landing for returnees.

In 2013, the government approved a three-year return emigration plan aiming to provide a one-stop service bringing together information on relocation from government and municipal institutions responsible for employment, social insurance and education policies. However, critics accuse of the government of failing to implement key elements of its plan, including the creation of a single agency to coordinate relocation issues.

Today, responsibility for returnees lies with the foreign ministry under its ‘ambassador for the diaspora’, a role pioneered in other Baltic states such as Lithuania. Atis Sjanīts, Latvia’s current diaspora ambassador, says: “This is a time when we are growing fast and we have a new phenomenon in our economy – labour shortages. Therefore, naturally, the diaspora is one of the ways to solve this issue.”

Sjanīts admits that there is little existing support for returnees. Municipalities are increasingly being seen as a key provider of services, he says, and a pilot project is to be introduced this year requiring them to establish special coordinators to advise returnees. But he points out that the government can’t be seen to be offering returning emigrants better treatment than those who’ve remained in the country throughout

Nonetheless, Sjanīts argues that there is a limit to what the state can – or should – provide and that it is important not to offer returnees incentives that may be perceived as discriminating against local residents. “If you speak about special entitlements, then there is this issue whereby you need to explain to the public that this is not discriminating against local [people] – so the policy must be very focused”, he says.

Ireland’s approach

Ireland has, of course, seem emigrants leave its shores for many centuries. And a further wave departed following the 2007-08 financial crisis, when the country again recorded net outward migration; but an improving economy meant that by 2016 it was again experiencing net inward flows.

The National Youth Council of Ireland (NYCI) has long been highlighting the impact of emigration on young people, their families and communities, and has been at the forefront of calls for a strategic approach to return emigration. It held a conference on return migration in 2014, and the government appointed its first ‘minister for the diaspora’. Ireland’s first Global Diaspora Policy, outlined in 2015, was supported by the creation of an interdepartmental committee to consider migration.

Since then, a number of measures have been introduced to cater to returnees – but it is only this year that a fully integrated policy has begun to take shape, following landmark research by think tank Indecon. Published in February, this will form the basis of a strategic plan to reduce barriers for returning emigrants.

Marie-Claire McAleer, the NYCI’s head of research and policy, says: “Now that the Irish economy is showing signs of recovery, it is essential that the government invests in a strategy to facilitate, encourage and support those who wish to return.

“This means more than just political rhetoric,” she added: ministers must develop policy  “that is responsive to changes in migration and demographic changes, ensuring long-term policy planning, considering ways of attracting people back – and addressing the challenges preventing or making it harder for them to return.”

Echoing the experience of Latvia, McAleer argues that a failure to attract young people back home has consequences for the whole of a society. “In economic terms, any economy requires a pool of well-educated and skilled young people to attract investment and stimulate and sustain economic growth,” she points out. And this requires governments to put in place well-researched, substantive strategies that pull emigrants back home – and help them to re-integrate on arrival. “In the context of a more competitive global market, we can no longer assume automatic return of migrant workers will happen organically,” she concludes.

About Gavin O’Toole

Gavin O’Toole is a freelance writer and editor in London. He has written for leading newspapers, magazines, wire services and business schools about financial markets, business and regulation around the world. He has a particular interest in international relations, and a specialism in Latin American affairs. He has conducted research on this region’s political economy and has also published a number of books about its politics and natural environment. His latest title, Environmental Security in Latin America, will be published by Routledge in September 2017.

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