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Is Circular Migration a Solution?

Steffen Angenendt
Bosch Fellow, Transatlantic Academy
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Labor Migration Management in Times of Recession
Is Circular Migration a Solution?

Transatlantic Academy Paper Series

May 2009

Steffen Angenendt*
Bosch Fellow, Transatlantic Academy

Introduction . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 2
The Impact of the Current Crisis on Labor Migration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 4
Recent Migration Policy Trends . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6
The Current Political Debate on Circular Migration . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7
Experiences with Circular Migration Schemes . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9
Policy Challenges . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10
Conclusions for Future Circular Migration Policies . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 15
References . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19

* Steffen Angenendt is senior associate at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik–German Institute for International and
Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin. Within the Global Issues research unit, he is responsible for research on demography,
migration, and security. He has published extensively on German, European, and international migration policy. Before
joining SWP in 2006, Mr. Angenendt was responsible for the German Council on Foreign Affairs’ (DGAP) international
migration program, and editor of the Council’s Yearbook of International Politics. He also worked as a consultant to
UNICEF, UNHCR, IOM, the German Federal Government’s Independent Commission on Immigration Reform (Süssmuth-
Kommission), the Council for Asia-Europe Co-operation (CAEC), and the High Council on Migration and Integration
(Zuwanderungsrat) of the German government. Mr. Angenendt taught political science and political sociology in Berlin at
the Free University and the Humboldt University. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Free University in Berlin.
1 Introduction

The global economic crisis seriously affects the usually regarded as being more able to cope with
labor markets and migration policies of both volatile economic conditions and labor markets
industrialized and developing countries. Receiving than long-term or permanent flows.
countries are already experiencing a slowdown of
labor immigration, while sending countries are Much of the recent temporary migration debate
confronted with increasing re-migration. And has been focused on “circular” migration. Since
many migrants—especially low-qualified and 2005, this concept has been debated intensively
irregular immigrants—will be forced to make in many countries. Despite the controversy, it has
tough choices between staying in the host countries nevertheless become part of the European Pact on
under deteriorating conditions or returning home, Migration and Integration, a strategy approved by
perhaps to be met by even worse situations. Even if the European Union in October 2008. Considering
firm comparative data and in-depth assessments of circular migration as a major element of a future
the impact of the economic downturn on migration common European migration policy, the EU
are still lacking (Papademetriou and Terrazzas member states have already begun to implement it.
2009), it can be expected that in the wake of the And other industrialized countries are becoming
current crisis, international labor migration will increasingly interested in developing such concepts
decline further. as well.

Nevertheless, it is not at all certain that such a Nevertheless, up to now, the concept has not
reduction of global labor migration would be large- been defined precisely, either in the European
scale and permanent. For decades, all industrialized Union or elsewhere. Most objectives, instruments,
countries have noticed a structural and increasing and implications are still controversial, and core
demand of foreign labor. Challenged by growing questions have yet to be answered: Should the
global competition and unfavorable demographic concept be used only to manage seasonal and
trends, many industrialized countries have short-term migration, or also mid- and long-term
become aware that labor migration is of critical migration movements? Does circularity mean a
importance for their future competitiveness and single stay and return, or multiple movements back
wealth. According to the United Nations, in 2007, and forth? Should return be enforced, or should it
13 percent of the industrialized countries intended be discretionary? What role should governments
to increase the numbers of temporary immigrants, play in defining and implementing these policies?
and 44 percent planned to increase the immigration Should other actors (employers, unions, and local
of highly-skilled workers (UN DESA 2008). government agencies) be involved, and should the
regulation of flows be left more to market forces?
Thus, although the search for advanced migration And, perhaps the most controversial question:
management concepts may be interrupted for What type of migration should the provisions
awhile, it can be expected that the “battle of be designed for? Should they facilitate only the
migration concepts” will go on—and will regain migration of unskilled and low-skilled workers, or
momentum once the recession recedes (Somerville also of skilled and highly-skilled workers?
and Sumption 2009). In addition, it is highly
likely that the crisis will spur further interest on This paper addresses the subject from the receiving
the part of the sending and receiving countries in countries’ perspective (although circular migration
developing more flexible migration schemes and is obviously not limited to South-North flows). It
extending temporary migration flows, which are begins with a brief assessment of how the current

2 Transatlantic Academy
crisis affects global labor migration, first, describing It also emphasizes the need for realistic,
how the major receiving countries have adjusted transparent, and clearly defined programs. This
their labor migration policies to the crisis so far; paper suggests tailoring the programs to skill levels
second, providing an overview of the current by distinguishing between low-skilled, skilled, and
(European) debate on circular migration; third, highly-skilled migrants, and points out that circular
briefly outlining previous experiences with circular migration programs require strong and effective
migration schemes; fourth, analyzing the main governance mechanisms.
policy challenges facing circular migration; and
finally, drawing some conclusions for a successful
circular migration policy.

Labor Migration Management in Times of Recession: 3

Is Circular Migration a Solution?
2 The Impact of the Current Crisis on
Labor Migration

The current economic crisis has ended a long European countries. One effect of the oil price
period of global economic growth that featured crisis and the subsequent discontinuation of
a 3.4 percent average global annual increase in guest worker recruitment was that companies in
GDP over the past 30 years (IMF 2009). While these countries began to shift production sites to
some regions, like Asia and Latin America, have developing countries, especially in Asia, triggering
experienced economic downturns in this period, new labor migration movements to these newly
most others are experiencing the first substantial industrializing countries. Another outcome was an
The repercussions economic setback within a generation. This increase in return migration. But this re-migration
of the current long period of growth (and its uneven global was highly selective. A substantial number of labor
crisis are unclear, distribution) has brought about a sharp increase of migrants returned to Southern European countries
but historical international migration and the emergence of new that were already part of the emerging European
experiences migration patterns, especially in North America, Community. Migrants from Turkey and Northern
provide some the Gulf States, and Europe. In the United States, Africa, for example, were far more reluctant to
for example, the number of foreign-born residents return because this decision would have been
has nearly tripled since 1980 (Grieco 2008), in final, and the economic perspectives in their
Spain it has quintupled since 1997 (OECD 2008), home countries were far from good. Hence, many
and in the United Kingdom there has been a 21 decided to stay despite substantial insecurities and
percent increase between 2004 and 2007 alone deteriorating living conditions.
(ONS 2009). Due to this long period of growth and
the lack of more recent experiences with migration In comparison, Asian migration statistics suggest
management in times of economic crisis, it is that the 1997–1999 Asian financial crisis had only
unclear how the current crisis will affect global a limited impact on migration flows. Although
migration. For the time being, existing migration there were considerable shifts between countries of
theories and data are not sufficient to predict future origin and destination, the overall number of labor
shifts in flows. Only historical comparisons can migrants changed only gradually. One reason, as
provide ideas about what might be expected. Jon Sward (2009) has pointed out, was that some
receiving countries’ industries (e.g., agriculture,
In recent decades, the industrialized countries food processing, and industry) were so heavily
have experienced two major economic crises: the dependent on low-skilled immigrants’ labor that
so-called oil price crisis of the early 1970s, and governments refrained from imposing return
the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. The policies. Thus, in this case as well, many migrants
two crises had vastly different repercussions for stayed—often despite reduced incomes, insecure
migration flows (Sward 2009; Martin 2009). The working conditions, and human rights violations.
oil price crisis had a substantial impact on both
European and Asian migration flows because Given these—limited—historical experiences, it
it terminated a 25-year period of guest worker could be argued that similar patterns of migration
recruitment in Europe, and spurred new migration and re-migration could occur during the current
flows and patterns in Asia. During this recruitment recession. If so, it can be expected that unskilled
period, the inflow of largely unskilled workers from and low-skilled labor migrants, being the most
the Southern and Southeastern shores of Europe vulnerable part of a given labor force, will be
had fueled the post-World War II Wirtschaftswunder the first to experience wage cuts and lay-offs,
or “economic miracle” in Northern and Western and that some governments will increase the
pressure to return (ILO 2009a). Indeed, as current

4 Transatlantic Academy
U.K. data and estimations suggest, inflows have Thus, some governments may shift to more restrictive
decreased substantially (U.K. Home Office 2009) labor migration policies—partly in response to public
and migrants—especially from Poland—have pressure—just as they did during previous recessions.
already returned in considerable numbers. But it Nevertheless, many advanced and also emerging
is also highly likely that individuals who have few countries are now highly structurally dependent
opportunities in their countries of origin or lack on foreign labor—as was the case during the Asian
the necessary means to return will have a strong financial crisis—and this labor force can only
incentive to stay. This is even more likely since the partially be compensated for, not least because natives Due to the
current crisis—in contrast to the aforementioned have little incentive to take on the jobs in question. global character
recessions—has a fundamentally global character In addition, those industrialized countries affected of the crisis,
and will not leave individual countries or by demographic aging (and shrinkage) will be even many potential
world regions unscathed (Castles 2009; World more dependent on permanent inflows, and they
re-migrants will
Bank 2009). must develop appropriate policy strategies to respond
hesitate to return.
to this demand.

Labor Migration Management in Times of Recession: 5

Is Circular Migration a Solution?
3 Recent Migration Policy Trends

Before the crisis, many governments had already (promoting working holidays, student jobs, etc.)
begun to review their migration policies and to or introduced new seasonal migration programs
develop new migration strategies (OECD 2008). New (Spain, Australia, and New Zealand). In addition,
instruments and institutional settings for a more most of the “old” EU countries opened their labor
comprehensive, although more selective migration markets to migrants from the new member states in
policies were introduced, such as shortage lists, the process of EU enlargement, which in many cases
quotas and caps, and new cooperation schemes with filled unskilled and low-skilled positions (Chaloff and
Many sending countries. Increasing competition emerged Lemaitre 2009).
governments will between industrialized countries—especially between
Europe and North America—on how future labor Now, due to the recession, governments may
try to substitute
market shortages could be filled and how highly- postpone these reforms. In particular, they may
skilled migrants could be attracted (Doomernik, become more reluctant to admit labor migrants in
Koslowski, and Thraenhardt 2009). sectors with uncertain economic perspectives. It
temporary flows. can be expected that some governments will revise
For highly-skilled migrants, the industrialized national shortage lists and remove occupations from
countries began introducing new human-capital- these lists, reduce caps, quotas, and other quantitative
oriented immigration schemes (like those in the migration targets, introduce new return policies, and
United Kingdom) and new options allowing foreign generally further adjust to a more demand-driven
students to stay in the country. With regard to skilled migration policy to support their ongoing struggle
migrants, the definition of “skilled” was extended (in with irregular migration (Lemaitre 2009).
Canada, France, and Norway to include the skilled
trades), and the options for employer-driven labor Nevertheless, given the growing dependence of many
migration were expanded (Australia, New Zealand, economically advanced countries on skilled and
and Canada). Since a rising demand for highly- highly-skilled foreign labor, it is likely that programs
skilled labor usually leads to an increasing need for to attract these immigrants will continue to be
unskilled and low-skilled labor, some countries also developed. Furthermore, since the current recession
opened new channels for these migrants to enter creates the temptation to create more flexible labor
(e.g., Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, and Korea), while migration schemes, it will probably only further
other countries encouraged “incidental” migration promote temporary and circular migration.

6 Transatlantic Academy
4 The Current Political Debate on
Circular Migration

Circular migration is not a new concept. Originally For the European public at large, the concept of
employed by anthropologists and ethnologists circular migration was new. But actually it had been
to describe migration patterns in Africa, Asia, used previously by several European institutions
and Latin America (Vertovec 2007; Agunias and including the European Commission in its September
Newland 2007), it has since occasionally been 2005 communiqué on migration and development.
used to categorize migration flows and to analyze In this statement, the Commission formulated its
transnational migration networks. It made its way understanding of circular migration as “a form of
into the international migration policy debate only migration that is managed in a way allowing some The current
in recent years, triggered mainly by international degree of legal mobility back and forth between debate is
organizations such as the International Organization two countries.” characterised
for Migration (IOM), the World Bank, and the by substantially
Global Commission on International Migration In the Commission’s view, the value of this kind of
migration for development policy lies in the transfer different concepts
(GCIM). The influential GCIM report, Migration
of knowledge between destination country and of circular
in an Interconnected World: New Directions for
Action (GCIM 2005), strongly promoted the idea country of origin, which could potentially reduce migration.
that circular migration could constitute “triple win the negative effects of brain drain. Furthermore,
situations” benefitting sending countries, receiving circular migration could help the members of a
countries, and migrants. diaspora to invest in their home countries and
create employment. Since releasing this statement,
The European debate on circular migration was the Commission has reaffirmed its understanding
triggered in October 2006 by a German-French of circular migration in a number of subsequent
initiative of then-Interior Ministers Wolfgang statements, among others in the communiqué of May
Schäuble of Germany and Nicolas Sarkozy of 2007 on circular migration.
France (Angenendt 2008). At an informal meeting
with their colleagues from the six largest EU The European Parliament had dealt with the issue
countries (G6), they presented a “German-French of circular migration prior to the German-French
Initiative for a New European Migration Policy.” initiative as well, endorsing the Commission’s
Therein, expressing fears of increased migration recommendations on the subject. In their view, the
flows to Europe, they called for a fundamental concept of alternating stays in home and host country
rethinking and tighter coordination of European offers numerous benefits for both countries, and
migration policy. The member states should they recommended that the European Union and its
conclude a “Pact for Immigration Control” (finally member states promote this form of migration.
approved in October 2008 by the EU as the Nevertheless, it became rapidly apparent that the
“European Pact on Immigration and Asylum”) different European politicians and policymakers
containing the basic principles, priorities, and had very different ideas of what circular migration
goals of a common migration policy. The interior should mean. While the Commission and Parliament
ministers highlighted four main areas where closer were interested in promoting international mobility
cooperation was needed: the fight against illegal in order to encourage development, the Justice and
migration, development policy, asylum policy, and Interior Ministers of the member states (Justice and
managing legal migration. In the latter area, the Home Affairs Council, JHA) wanted to emphasize
ministers argued that circular migration could make controlling and limiting migration. In the paper cited
a contribution. above, Schäuble and Sarkozy stated their priority as

Labor Migration Management in Times of Recession: 7

Is Circular Migration a Solution?
follows: “We want no uncontrolled migration into the topic emerged, with substantial criticism at least
our labor markets and social systems.” For them, in two points:
circular migration is a management tool that allows
the introduction of “labor migration quotas for • First, the JHA proposals are charged with
specific professions.” These quotas should not be bringing back a warmed-over version of the
set at the European level, but should instead—as old guest worker policy pursued starting in
with labor migration as a whole—remain under the mid 1950s by some EU states—Germany
Circular migration: national authority. According to the ministers, the and France, for example—to provide short-
A tool to improve economic situations and labor market needs within term solutions to labor market shortages. And
the European Union differ so widely that member according to the critics, the hope that these
labor migration
states need significant flexibility to react quickly and labor immigrants would voluntarily return
appropriately to changes—in some cases, by imposing to their countries of origin after their work
temporary quotas. Nevertheless, the member states contracts expired proved illusory even then.
development, or
are expected to report these quotas voluntarily to • Second, it is charged that the ministers’
reduce irregular
the Commission, which will then use them in its proposals are imprecise and fail to provide
negotiations with third countries on the readmission concrete indications as to the countries
of illegal immigrants. with which the partnership agreements are
The latter point makes clear that at its core, the to be concluded. It is also unclear which
German-French initiative was about reducing illegal professional groups and which areas of
immigration through temporary immigration professional knowledge and expertise
programs. By this means, the countries of origin are targeted, and whether the return of
were to be integrated more closely into the efforts of these immigrants is to be facilitated by
destination countries to reduce illegal immigration. return transfers and reintegration aid.
Although the ministers also cited development policy This critique reveals that several fundamental
goals, these were clearly subordinate. They merely questions still remain unresolved. Apparently, this
alluded to the possibility of awarding temporary visas is not only the case for the European, but also for
to selected migrants in order to offer them vocational the international debate on circular migration. The
training opportunities (or further education) and confusion is partly due to the numerous forms this
thus to foster educational elites in the countries type of migration can take and the diverse past
of origin. experiences with circular migration.
Since the introduction of their initiative, the proposal
was successfully promoted in the JHA and the
European Council. Nevertheless, a lively debate on

8 Transatlantic Academy
5 Experiences with Circular Migration

Newland et al. (2008) broadly distinguish between Some countries also have experience organizing
two groups of circular migrants, according to non-seasonal low-skilled and semi-skilled migration.
the degree of regulation of these flows. The first The Gulf States and some East Asian countries have
category—also labeled “de facto circular migration”— become highly dependent on this type of labor
comprises traditionally unregulated border crossings migration (IOM 2008), and to enforce circularity,
of nomads, traders, and workers, for example, in they have either used a rigid and often discriminatory
West Africa or between Mexico and the United migration regime or offered poor working conditions
States prior to the 1990s, as well as de-regulated and wages, thus reducing the incentives for migrants Many
movements in more or less integrated economic areas to stay. In contrast, the former guest worker industrialized
like the European Union, the Nordic countries, or recruitment countries in Europe have recently countries have
between Australia and New Zealand. In contrast, the become more reluctant to use this type of circular substantial
second category contains regulated flows, namely migration, given their experience with a substantial
experience with
(1) seasonal low-skilled workers, (2) non-seasonal number of temporary migrants putting down roots
low-skilled labor
low-skilled workers, and (3) professionals and and becoming permanent immigrants. Nevertheless,
entrepreneurs. before the current recession occurred, some countries
migration, but
with a huge labor demand—for example, Spain and less experience
Within this second category, the largest group—and the United Kingdom—had begun to implement new with other circular
therefore also the circular migration type with which programs for non-seasonal low-skilled and semi- migration types.
governments obviously have the most practical skilled migrants.
experience—are seasonal low-skilled workers.
During recent decades, several traditional (the United A completely different method of policy setting is
States, Canada, and New Zealand) as well as non- used to regulate the third type of circular migrants:
traditional immigration countries (Germany, the professionals, academics, and entrepreneurs. As
United Kingdom, and Spain) have relied heavily on mentioned above, most industrialized countries
this type of circular migration, primarily to fill labor are eager to attract more of these migrants, and
shortages in agriculture, construction, and services. have already developed strategies to cope with
Germany, for example, has taken in between 300,000 the increasing international competition for these
and 350,000 seasonal workers annually during the highly-skilled workers. Ironically, as Newland et al.
last decade, despite the 1973 recruitment stop for (2008) point out, the receiving and sending countries
foreign labor, which is still in force. The outcomes of switch positions with regard to these migrants, with
these programs as far as circularity is concerned are destination countries now being more interested in
difficult to assess due to usually insufficient national fostering permanent immigration, and countries of
entry-exit data, but obviously they are highly diverse, origin more interested in limiting the brain drain by
with a high number of returnees from Germany and promoting circularity. Thus, for receiving countries,
the United Kingdom in particular, and substantially the circularity of these migrants is the lesser of two
lower numbers from Spain. evils. They develop such programs for highly-skilled
migrants as well, mainly because they hope that this
will provide an additional incentive to immigrate.

Labor Migration Management in Times of Recession: 9

Is Circular Migration a Solution?
6 Policy Challenges

Given the large number of open questions mentioned In Western Europe, public evaluations of government
earlier, as well as the highly diverse (and sometimes efforts at migration management have focused
hidden) policy agendas and still-limited experience mainly on former guest-worker recruitment
with circular migration programs, it is obvious that schemes. It is still the unintended by-products of
such programs would entail substantial political permanent immigration that cause many citizens
challenges, especially with regard to (1) public to conclude that their governments are unable to
acceptance, (2) implementation and compliance, and manage migration properly, an impression that
Gaining public (3) policy coherence. has been strengthened recently by the increasing
support is inability of many former guest workers and their
1. Public acceptance children and grandchildren to achieve economic and
important for social integration (Berlin Institute 2009), and by the
Achieving public acceptance for a specific
any circular increasing number of irregular immigrants. And even
migration program is of overwhelming political
migration policy. if the number of irregular immigrants is relatively
importance, because migration policy is an extremely
small—at least compared to overall inflows (HWWI
controversial policy field in all of the receiving
2009)—the public’s concern is substantial.
countries and in many of the sending countries.
It is also open to political exploitation, and often Consequently, in Europe, there is limited willingness
enough, migration issues have been decisive in local to engage in substantial migration reform or to
and national elections. Thus, many politicians are open up for more highly-skilled immigrants. In
reluctant to propose migration policies that would many countries, anti-immigrant election campaigns
entail more immigration, in many cases despite have been successful, particularly in the 1990s. In
seeing the strategic importance of a more open Germany, for example, the federal “Red-Green”
labor market. (SPD-Grüne) government coalition lost its majority
in the Second Chamber in 1999 due to a successful
Obviously, support for migration reform is often
campaign against dual citizenship in the State
difficult to organize. Support is especially hard to
of Hesse, and as a result, had to compromise on
achieve in the European Union, where the member
its migration reform project. In some countries,
states still differ widely with regard to the numbers
anti-immigrant right-wing and populist parties
of immigrants, migration structures, and historical
have profoundly changed their country’s political
experiences. Some European countries have a long
structures, e.g., during the 1990s in France (Le Pen’s
(although often little-known) history as immigration
Front National), in Italy (Umberto Bossi’s Lega Nord),
countries (e.g., France, the United Kingdom,
or in Denmark (Pia Kjærsgaard’s Dansk Folkeparti).
Germany, and the Netherlands), while others were
Even if their electoral success was limited, these
traditionally emigration countries and have only
parties had a considerable impact on the other
recently become immigration countries (Italy,
political parties’ political agendas. Indeed, since then,
Spain, and Portugal). For their part, some of the
many politicians have refrained from proposing
new EU members from Eastern Europe had limited
migration reform programs.
migration experience under the socialist regime, with
its attendant migration system. But even in some Ironically, in many European countries, this
countries that have been dealing with immigration reluctance toward migration reform has been met
for centuries, the public remains largely unaware of with a growing awareness of problematic regional
this history—and even if they are aware of it, then demographic developments—in particular the
only of the post-World War II period (Bade 2003). aging of society, which is making Europe one of the

10 Transatlantic Academy
fastest “graying” world regions. In most European representing the main political actors (political
countries, reproduction rates have long been unable parties, employers, unions, churches, local
to keep up with the number of births needed to communities, and NGOs)—as attempted by the
sustain the population’s age structure and size. With German Social Democratic/Green government’s
some exceptions (France and Ireland), all European 2000/2001 Independent Commission on Migration
countries, especially in the Southern and Eastern Reform—to seek compromise on the core principles
European countries, are now confronted with a of a future migration policy. However, this experience
rapidly aging and shrinking population (Apt and has also shown that setting up such a commission Paradox: Societies
Angenendt 2009). The repercussions—especially of alone would not be sufficient to gain public support. remain hostile
aging (or more precisely: of a shrinking population Public awareness and support is crucial, and if to immigration
of youth relative to the overall population)—have the proposals do not allay the worries and fears of despite their
been discussed widely in many European countries, additional competition on the labor market and
resulting in efforts to adjust social security systems, competition for public goods like schools and health
depency on
better exploit labor market resources, and bring and social services, the political and parliamentary
more people into gainful employment (by shortening non-partisan support will rapidly dwindle as well
periods of education, extending work life, reducing (Angenendt, Kruse, and Orren 2003). Therefore, a
unemployment, and introducing pro-active family core element of migration reform must be to establish
policies). Nevertheless, up to now, no substantial a system able to identify structural labor market
success can be observed in overcoming these shortages and to ensure that additional immigration
demographic challenges. has no negative repercussions on the domestic
labor force.
This paradox—that societies remain hostile to
migration while being increasingly dependent on 2. Policy implementation and compliance
it—will only be resolved if the public’s assumption
that their governments are unable to manage A second challenge relates to policy implementation
migration properly can be disproved and if their and compliance: How must a policy be designed to be
confidence in migration policy is restored. A successfully implemented, and how can compliance
necessary condition would be to provide convincing be assured? With regard to circular migration, the
evidence of the demographic, economic, and societal current policy debate revolves around the question
demand for immigration. With regard to highly- of return migration. Since circular migration by
qualified migrants, this seems easier than for skilled definition entails the idea of return, it is urgent to
or low-skilled migrants. After all, in the case of clarify what kind of return is envisaged (temporary or
highly-skilled labor, worries about wage dumping permanent), who these policies should apply to (all
and labor placement are far less severe than for lower- circular migrants or just specific groups), and how
skilled migrants, not least because the added value return should be managed (free choice, incentives, or
of highly-skilled labor is obviously greater than for mandatory return). As a result, the focus is usually on
other migrants. medium-term temporary migration programs.

To mobilize public support in the industrialized Unfortunately, there are currently no empirically
countries, it would be necessary to organize a broad sound answers to these questions. As far as European
political debate on migration demand, strategic countries are concerned, some—for example, Italy,
policy goals, and management instruments. One Great Britain, and Spain—have recently introduced
means of doing so could be to set up a commission such programs on a trial basis, but it is still too

Labor Migration Management in Times of Recession: 11

Is Circular Migration a Solution?
early to evaluate their success. In addition, the capitalizing social security contributions paid by the
former Council for Mutual Economic Assistance migrant to the host countries’ social security systems
(COMECON), the economic organization of as well as additional funds for reintegration assistance
communist states, and the Gulf states’ guest worker prior to or subsequent to return. Since these
programs offer some other historic experience with programs require close cooperation with sending
circular migration. Nevertheless, these programs countries—which share an interest in circular
often seriously disregarded human rights obligations, migration schemes—the sending countries should be
Compliance seems and can therefore not serve as guidelines for involved in the reintegration efforts.
to be higher if democratic countries.
Another question relating to policy implementation
programs foresee
All in all, the present experiences with short-term is whether it is possible to reduce illegal immigration
recruitment of seasonal workers in Europe and through circular migration programs. Thus far, there
elsewhere give cause to conclude that concepts for is no empirically-based answer to this question; once
movements. the promotion of circular migration with the defined more, one can merely formulate plausible conjectures.
goal of a subsequent return are more successful than It is conceivable that individuals who are willing to
one-time-only migration programs. These programs participate in legal immigration programs could be
usually fulfill their aim; some European countries, prevented from engaging in dangerous attempts at
as stated above, have covered a large portion of illegal immigration because they would have the
their seasonal labor demand this way for many reasonable hope of actually reaching their goal,
years without encountering return problems. In possibly with some delay but with a much lower
contrast, the long-standing and large de facto circular risk. This argument is used above all in relation to
migration of Mexicans to and from the United States the ever longer and more perilous passages from
was disrupted when the U.S. government introduced North and West Africa across the Mediterranean
border enforcement policies in the 1990s (Newland et to the European Union. Another consideration is
al. 2008). Obviously, for seasonal laborers, the option that regular migration programs with contingents
to come back again makes the decision to go home for labor migrants are more likely to induce the
easier. It would, thus, be advisable to expressly permit countries of origin to cooperate in the readmission of
this possibility in migration programs. their citizens.

At the same time, it is important to answer Both arguments are plausible, but again, they are
how—from a practical viewpoint—migrants simply hypotheses that remain to be evaluated
could be encouraged to return home. Here, some in practice. This should by no means stop
former recruitment countries have obviously countries from testing and using new strategies
gathered experience that needs to be assessed more and instruments. However, they should avoid
systematically. A cursory assessment based on awakening the impression among the general public
anecdotal evidence would be that most countries’ that this is anything other than an experiment, in
experiences with the implementation of forced return order to prevent false hopes about the chances of
have been negative. But there is also some evidence ever completely controlling illegal migration. In
that return incentives focused solely on financial Democratic countries, the degree of intervention
aid, especially on one-time-only payments, bear the complete control would require is fundamentally out
danger of just producing windfall gains. To foster of the question.
policy implementation and compliance, one option
would be to create programs that provide funds for

12 Transatlantic Academy
3. Policy coherence sending countries. Indeed, if the sending countries
are to gain, the transmission of remittances needs
Finally, it is important that circular migration policies to be facilitated, since there is evidence that these
are coherent. This means—as has been decided have a pro-development effect. Moreover, diaspora
in the European case by the heads of state and communities might usefully be brought into the
government with the 2005 Hague Program—to strive discussion and formulation of development policy
for horizontal coherence, which creates synergies goals and means for facilitating the return of
among related policy areas, such as foreign, social, migrants. Some EU member states have considerable Circular migration
and economic development. Vertical coherence, experience with return programs, and lessons programs need
ensuring close cooperation among different levels could be learned for future programs to facilitate
of government and governance (including civil
a high degree of
immigrants’ reintegration into their countries and horizontal, vertical,
society), and internal coherence, with the formulation regions of origin. Finally, training programs in the
of common goals and their pursuit on the basis of and internal
receiving countries aimed at preventing immigrant
solidarity (Angenendt and Parkes 2008). coherence.
workers from doing work that they are overqualified
Horizontal coherence: The management of for would not only help destination countries to
immigration for labor market purposes does not get the full potential from these workers, but also
occur in a vacuum, cut-off from other policy facilitate brain gain, should these workers return to
areas. Indeed, the struggle against unemployment their countries of origin.
is a central political issue for all the member Vertical coherence: Local, regional, and non-
states, and is inextricably linked to the question of governmental actors need to be involved in all stages
immigration. Public acceptance of increased labor of policymaking. For immigrant integration, this
migration can only be expected if efforts are made is particularly imperative, since most integration
to exploit the full potential of domestic labor. This processes occur at a local level. These actors are
might include training and adaptation programs already busy drawing conclusions from the current
for the unemployed and older workers, shorter integration problems faced by second- and third-
apprenticeships, increased labor market participation generation immigrants; in past decades, most
by women, and a rise in the pensionable age. countries decided to simply do without integration
Policymakers with aspirations to create a coherent measures. Many receiving countries are today
migration policy must already ask themselves about grappling with the negative effects of such decisions.
future sources of migrant labor. Here, a number Thus, integration programs for temporary migrants
of factors must be taken into consideration. If the would be important. Unfortunately, for the time
aim is to attract immigrants from other regions of being, there are no real temporary integration
the world, and the sending countries are to gain as concepts on the market.
well, complex agreements must be forged. For this Internal coherence: Internal coherence involves
purpose, the mobility partnerships proposed by the agreement between sending and receiving countries
European Commission foresee the creation of special on common goals. This obviously makes it necessary
migration relationships. Such possibilities need to be to develop frameworks and institutional settings
probed further. that promote mutual consultations, such as the
Receiving countries must also avoid attracting regional consultation processes sponsored by IOM
skilled workers that are crucially needed on their in several world regions (IOM 2005). With regard
home markets in order to reduce brain drain in the to the European Union, two aspects are important:

Labor Migration Management in Times of Recession: 13

Is Circular Migration a Solution?
first, a common approach needs to be found to the protection. Yet, it offers few channels for asylum-
transitional rules for workers from the new member seekers to reach EU territory and take advantage of
states. The “old” member states that opened their them. It justifies this reduced access with the high
labor markets—especially the United Kingdom and incidence of asylum abuse by economic migrants.
Ireland—appear to have gained; yet, progress toward Obviously, there is some evidence that additional
the harmonization of EU labor markets is sluggish. If legal migration channels could reduce the pressure
the positive experiences reported by the governments on asylum systems. The expected dip in irregular
Additional that have fully opened their labor markets are immigration and asylum abuse resulting from such a
legal migration anything to go by, the other members should do system would allow the member states to offer better
channels might away with their restrictions and instead focus on access to the European Union for those genuinely in
reduce the measures to combat wage-dumping and irregular need of protection. Efforts to identify and promote
pressure on immigration. Second, a common approach, based on such synergies between asylum and immigration
asylum systems. solidarity, needs to be taken if the European Union is policies require the participation of all member states.
to achieve horizontal coherence between asylum and Excessively low circular migration quotas introduced
immigration policies. At present, the European Union by just a handful of EU member states would not
has comparatively robust standards for international produce any significant positive results.

14 Transatlantic Academy
7 Conclusions for Future Circular
Migration Policies

What conclusions can be drawn from the current With regard to circular migration, realistic
debate and the practical experiences with circular concepts must take into account that a substantial
migration programs? Basically, four aspects seem share of migrants will decide to stay in the country,
to be of vital importance for any successful circular either legally or illegally. Therefore, circular
migration policy. migration programs must include provisions for
how to cope with irregular migrants stemming
1. Generally, circular migration programs from such programs. Given the broad variety of
should be realistic and transparent policy options—ranging from forced return to Realistic,
legalization—it would be necessary to harmonize transparent, and
Liberal democracies can, in principle, only
circular migration programs with such policies clearly defined
control migration flows to a certain degree. The
and to secure human rights of the migrants in policy goals are
same holds true for circular migration. Most
all programs. Neglecting this interrelation would
governments want to reduce the number of indispensable.
only lead to incomplete and incoherent policies.
irregular immigrants, but do not intend to, or are
In general, realism, transparency, and coherence
not able to allocate the necessary financial and
would be a sine qua non of any comprehensive
legal means to border authorities, police forces, and
circular migration policy seeking to achieve
other legal enforcement agencies. In addition, there
broader public support. Generally, it should be
is still no evidence that the general public in any
considered if certain types of migration could be
industrialized country would support a tough fight
fully liberalized. The EU experience of granting
against irregular immigration, which would entail
freedom of movement to EU citizens could serve
sweeping measures such as road blocks, extensive
as a blueprint.
identity controls, and frequent raids on workplaces
and private households that could also impede 2. A circular migration policy should contain
upon the native population’s freedom of movement, clear policy goals
civil rights, and civic liberties.
Obviously, circular migration programs are so
In addition, circular migration programs should attractive to policymakers and the public because
consider that all migration flows have their own they promise to merge diverse policy goals. First,
dynamics. The management of migration flows from a labor market perspective, circular migration
will always be beyond the government’s sphere programs seem to be an ideal instrument to fill
of influence to a certain extent, with markets and current labor market shortages and to provide
the interests of employers and migrants playing employers with more flexibility to cope with
important roles in shaping these flows. But this volatile markets. Second, by promising that these
does not mean that public policy does not matter. migrants will eventually return home temporary
To the contrary, even in times of globalization and or permanently (although there is no empirical
shrinking national autonomy, governments have at evidence that they actually do), circular migration
their disposal a broad variety of policy instruments appears to cause less brain drain than permanent
to influence migration flows, and they must use migration, which is a major development policy
them—not least because migration policy is still concern. In addition, it is expected that these
considered a core element of state sovereignty, migrants—who maintain strong ties to their home
and people expect their government to control the communities—will send substantial remittances
borders. home, thus supplementing official development
funds. Third, since circular migration programs

Labor Migration Management in Times of Recession: 15

Is Circular Migration a Solution?
imply close cooperation (and a permanent of these migrants—due largely to past failures
balancing of interests) between sending and to foster the economic and social integration
receiving countries, such programs could lead to of guest workers in Europe—the respective
much closer cooperation on migration policies—in migration schemes should, as a matter of
a policy field that is of vital interest to both sending principle, be short-term, and compliance with
and receiving countries—and could thus provide national labor standards and minimum wages
incentives for home countries to get more involved should be guaranteed.
Circular migration in reducing irregular migration.
programs should • Furthermore, to increase compliance of
Certainly, this broad variety of policy goals is an migrants, employers, and home countries with
be tailored to
asset of circular migration programs. But this circular migration schemes, these programs
skill levels.
strength can become a weakness if the goals at should provide for repeated and multiple stays
stake are not precisely defined. Especially “hidden depending on how probable future return
agendas” (for example, destination countries actually is (and given a corresponding labor
pretending to open additional labor migration demand). Thus, circular migration of unskilled
routes, but de facto only intending to reduce and low-skilled migrants should be subject to
irregular migration) could reduce the compliance clearly defined, properly implemented, and
of other policy players and should be avoided. permanently assessed policies.

3. Circular migration programs must be • In contrast, receiving countries should abstain
tailored to skill levels from over-regulating the immigration of highly-
skilled migrants. Given the growing international
Obviously, there is no one-size-fits-all circular competition for these migrants, it may only
migration policy that would be applicable to all be possible to attract them if they are offered
types of migrants. Circular migration flows may barrier-free entry. This form of migration should
vary substantially in duration and volume, and be supply-driven, based on a “human capital”
also due to geographical patterns and interests of approach and not tied to a concrete job offer.
the sending and receiving countries. Therefore, Governments must also define precisely whom
circular migration schemes must be adjusted to the they consider “highly skilled” by introducing
migrants’ skill levels, leading to completely different education, training, or—as a proxy—income
types of circular migration policies. criteria. Since this form of migration entails no
negative implications for the domestic labor
• As far as unskilled and low-skilled migrants
market, but rather substantial gains for the
are concerned, circular migration programs
country’s human capital stock, governments
bear a substantial risk of wage dumping and
should roll out the “red carpet” for these
substitution of domestic labor. Therefore,
migrants. Receiving countries should refrain
such programs should be based on sound
from coercing immigrants to return, restricting
labor market analysis demonstrating that the
family reunification, or imposing other
respective labor shortages are structural and
migration obstacles.
enduring, and that they cannot be filled by the
domestic labor force. These programs should be • As a matter of principle, receiving countries
exclusively demand-driven. As there currently should support the mobility of these
is no public support in industrialized countries migrants, while nevertheless offering them
for encouraging the permanent immigration opportunities for legal and political integration.

16 Transatlantic Academy
Such “incoming services” (also for talented • Last but not least, taking into account that some
young foreign students) are currently of these migrants will undoubtedly stay although
underdeveloped in many industrialized the programs are intended to be temporary,
countries and need substantial refinement. On circular migration programs for skilled migrants
the whole, the circular migration of highly- should provide language and other training
skilled migrants means mobility management, courses to facilitate (temporary) integration
not migration policy in the traditional sense. of these migrants. In addition, as there is
consensus in many industrialized countries Circular migration
• A far more challenging issue is that of circular that the failures of the former (European) guest programs are
migration policies for skilled migrants. Although worker policies should be avoided, all future
most industrialized countries are facing
not a cheap
temporary migration schemes should include way out of labor
an increasing structural demand for these integration measures, at least language and
migrants as well, fears of wage dumping and shortages; they
professional training. Of course, this will further
displacements of domestic labor are widespread. require substantial
increase the costs of hiring and occupation of
These more general reservations against an these migrants, adding more incentives to stay
extension of skilled migration programs are met longer. As attempts to expel visa-overstayers
by additional provisos against the temporary are expensive and all too often completely
immigration of these workers. On the one hand, ineffectual, the receiving countries should very
employers usually have very limited interest carefully examine the economic consequences
in training employees and then later having to of such efforts. Generally, receiving states should
replace them with new temporary migrants. support return by offering a capitalization
On the other hand, from a broader economic of a fair proportion of their social security
perspective, skilled migrants that fill labor contributions. In contrary, a definitive loss of
market demands contribute positively to the these contributions might impede a return.
country’s human capital stock, and there is no
convincing economic argument why a receiving 4. Finally, circular migration schemes require
country should force properly occupied migrants substantial governance efforts
to leave after a certain period.
They are definitely not an easy or cheap way out
• Nevertheless, historical experience suggests that of labor shortages. Especially for skilled migrants,
many skilled migrants will return if they have such programs will only be sustainable if they are
achieved their savings or other personal goals, subject to rigid policy management. But this rigidity
if economic conditions in their home countries should be limited to identifying labor market needs,
improve, and if they have adequate support not to enforcing return, which is—as mentioned
for returning home. Thus, successful circular above—always costly and difficult. The emphasis
migration programs for skilled migrants should should be on proving the necessity of the respective
be organized to avoid them being employed form of migration by defining criteria for who should
in jobs for which they are overqualified in the be considered highly skilled and by identifying
receiving country, to protect their economic and structural labor demands for low-skilled and skilled
social rights, to guarantee a safe and inexpensive migrants. It should be proven (by labor market
transfer of remittances back home, and to analysis, taxes, or auctions) that there is a structural
provide return assistance when needed. and growing demand for the respective skills that
cannot be filled by the domestic labor force.

Labor Migration Management in Times of Recession: 17

Is Circular Migration a Solution?
In general, again, policies fostering circular migration • making it easier for governments to mobilize
should only be adopted if accompanied by temporary public support for circular migration than
integration measures, and if development, security, for permanent immigration—an important
and foreign policy aspects are properly taken into aspect given the still-reluctant or even hostile
account. If these conditions are met, it is highly likely attitude toward increasing immigration
that circular migration schemes will contribute to in many industrialized countries; and
a comprehensive migration policy, even in times of
economic recession, especially by: • fostering closer cooperation with sending
countries and thus contributing to
• serving to reduce current labor market more sustainable migration policy.
mismatches and to meet the demand for
low-skilled and skilled foreign labor;

18 Transatlantic Academy
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