Europe: from immigration to emigration?

MMartiniello carte blanche

Marco Martiniello, FRS-FNRS Head of Research at L'Université de Liège (CEDEM-Institut des Sciences Humaines et Sociales)

The financial and economic crisis and its expression in terms of precarity and social inequalities has generated multiple uncertainties and worries amongst the population as to the present and the future. In this context immigration and the presence of immigrants (and their descendants) are often presented as problems and menaces. The discourse and policies of immigration are becoming tougher and tougher or even downright hostile to the scapegoats which migrants are once again becoming given the necessities of the internal politics of European countries. Migrant integration policies are more and more becoming tools for imposing social and cultural conformity on the new migrants. How to distinguish between the happy few to be selected and integrated and the multitude of potential unwanted immigrants? How to get rid of the latter? Political parties or associations inspired by nationalism and populism have taken over these debates by giving simplistic responses to the complex questions surrounding migration, which moreover divide the left and the right.

But one question is completely ignored in the debates concerning migrations in Europe: that of the impact of the global crisis and its European incarnations on migratory movements going outwards from this continent. In other words, whilst Europe is preoccupied with immigration isn’t it once again becoming a continent of emigration? Are we not already seeing the first signs of a new European exodus as a response to the economic crisis affecting Europe and to its social and political consequences for a European youth more and more deprived of insertion opportunities in a very tight job market?

Let us take a few examples to illustrate these ideas. During a recent trip to Dublin I found myself by chance right in the middle of a demonstration in front of the Irish parliament. To my great surprise the slogans were ‘Stop Emigration’ and ‘Keep our Youth Home.’ In effect, since the Celtic Tiger has become a little kitten, numerous young Irish people, often with a high level of education and excellent professional skills, are leaving their country, which they no longer believe in. Australia and Canada in particular are the privileged destinations for them.

Further to the South, Greece. Numerous young Greeks are considering the possibilities not staying in a country, which is on the rocks. With or without an education, whether they are from the lower, middle or even higher classes, men and women, both from the islands and the mainland, are considering themselves as potential migrants. True, not all of them will have the resources required to leave but a good number of them are already doing so. Some will join the Greek diaspora in Australia, others are heading for improbable destinations such as the Lebanon. 

In Italy young Italian graduates are no longer at the migration planning stage. They are leaving, some for northern Europe, some heading for emergent countries such as Brazil, India and China. Here in Belgium Italian applicants for university positions and research posts are growing in numbers. ‘You are our Lampedusa,’ said one of these applicants for academic emigration to one of my colleagues!

Young Portuguese people are for their part rediscovering countries such as Angola and Cape Verde, but also Brazil. The future seems blocked in Portugal as well. These young people are not the ‘Heróis do Mar’ of the 21st century, nor are they neo-colonialists, but quite simply people who are often very well educated and who have lost the hope of being able to build a future at home. The French also seem more and more tempted by emigration. Between 2006 and 2010 the number of French people out in the world rose from 1,340,000 to 1,470,000.

valise émigrant

Here in Belgium several hundred Belgians leave the country each year. Beyond the financial and economic crisis, the painstaking political transition which is dragging on forever is also playing a role in awakening emigration aspirations, above all amongst the most highly qualified Belgians. Today over 300,000 Belgians have already decided to live abroad.

True, these facts do not as such have scientific value. They should nevertheless encourage us to examine in a more global manner the multiple aspects of questions around migration. If we still find it hard to accept ourselves as a continent of immigration, now we have to once again think of ourselves as a continent of emigration. It is a difficult thing to do but it is nonetheless essential. It should also encourage us to better think through our official policies in the area of immigration and integration, certain of which could one day turn against our future European migrants. What would the Europeans say if China were one day to adopt integration policies for new migrants as strict as those which are being developed in Europe for immigration applicants from the countries of the South? What would we say if the emergent countries had requirements concerning European migrants similar to those we have for applicants for immigration to Europe? What would we think if it was necessary to prove mastery of the Chinese language and culture and the country’s institutions before being able to work there as a European, even if qualified to do so? We must think about it carefully and not forget when we construct immigration and integration policies that perhaps one day many of us Europeans will once again be migrants. In effect migration flows are more and more multi-directional in an era of globalisation. A deregulated economy matches up more and more with a deregulated human mobility, despite our restrictive migration policies. The majority of countries are at the same time countries of immigration, emigration and often of transit. Europe receives migrants who are qualified and educated to a greater or lesser extent from the entire world. But it is losing an often highly qualified proportion of its youth to other lands where the future seems more promising. Yet this question of the new European emigration is never discussed. It is totally ignored. On the one hand we have enormous difficulty in accepting ourselves as a continent of immigration. On the other we refuse to see that emigration from Europe is a not inconsiderable reality which is destined to grow if we do not emerge from the current economic and political doldrums in a healthier state by building an economic and political Europe which is stronger, more united and shows more solidarity with the world’s other major regions. More than ever a global approach to migrations (immigration-emigration-transit-integration, etc.) placed in relation to the world’s great inequalities is necessary.