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Coherence in world migrant labor policies necessary, U.N. official says

Mamphela Ramphele, co-chair of the U.N. Commission on Global Migration and formerly one of four managing directors at the World Bank, portrayed the policy incoherence and hypocrisy now endangering the 200 million people who live outside their countries of origin in a talk delivered on Tuesday, Oct. 5, in Wong Auditorium.

Ramphele, 56, a South African physician with a Ph.D. in social anthropology, gave the keynote presentation in an event hosted by the Center for International Studies' Starr Forum to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Inter-University Committee on Migration.

"Migration is as old as human history. Today, capital, goods, ideas and high-tech people move freely. But lower-skilled asylum seekers face many obstacles, resulting in the use of human smugglers and traffickers and in the likelihood of being detained, deported, marginalized and exploited," Ramphele said.

"Policy coherence"--that is, consistency of laws across nations of origin, transit and destination--is the best way to ease the suffering endemic to migration now, she said. "We must find effective and equitable governance of migration, acknowledging the tension between economic necessity and social imperatives," she said.

Social imperatives arise partly, she said, from demographic pressure. For example, the average age of people in Northern Africa is between 15 and 35; in Europe, it is between 35 and 65. Clearly, the young people from Africa are doing work too demanding (or demeaning) for the aging population of Europe. Northern countries need labor from the south to grow their economies, Ramphele said.

"The common hypocrisy is, a developed nation uses this flexible, cheap work force but does not acknowledge it's necessary to the society. Or they admit they need the workers but only consider immigrants as asylum-seekers," she said.

Some developed countries could not work without migrant labor, without people to clean the streets, to work in hospitals or to do jobs others won't do. On the other hand, less developed countries gain from emigration, Ramphele said, noting especially the multibillion dollar flow of remittances to families in less developed countries from relatives working in the diaspora.

Less developed countries remain profoundly at risk from brain drain--the migration of professionals to jobs in developed nations--unless coherent global migration policies are established to allow regular, legal and secure migration across national borders, Ramphele said.

"If doctors and nurses from Malawi (near Mozambique) go, say, to Great Britain or Canada, there may be nothing left even if they want to return after 10 years. Don't strip Malawi of its nurses. Allow circulation among countries over time to regenerate human capital," Ramphele advised.

The Inter-University Committee on International Migration is designed to stimulate research and policy development among NGOs working with refugees and the internally displaced and to promote communication among members. Since its establishment in 1974, it has been a focal point for migration and refugee studies at member institutions, which include Boston University, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Harvard University, MIT, Tufts University and Wellesley College. The committee is chaired by MIT as a program of the Center for International Studies.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 20, 2004 (download PDF).

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