Global recession poses dangers to migrant workers, UN official says

20 November 2008

A senior United Nations official dealing with population issues today urged governments not to use migrants as scapegoats amid the current international recession, warning that migrant workers are already particularly vulnerable to job cuts during economic crises.

“Migration flows are going to be disturbed and migrants are going to share the negative effects the economic downturn is having on the whole population of the world,” said Hania Zlotnik, Director of the Population Division at the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA).

“It is very important that at this moment there is already a mechanism by which countries can talk to each other,” Ms. Zlotnik told reporters at UN Headquarters, referring to last month’s Global Forum on Migration and Development (GFMD), which was held in the Philippines’ capital, Manila.

Ms. Zlotnik said that in the current economic climate it is important for governments to get together to talk about issues of migration and for a forum to exist at the global level because the recession is affecting most of the countries receiving migrant workers.

Since 2007 there has been an increase in the unemployment rates of key groups of migrants in different countries, according to Ms. Zlotnik.

Spain has seen a sharp increase in the number of unemployed foreigners. Between April and June at least 100,000 more people lost their jobs in the Iberian nation, taking the total number of jobless migrants to 280,000.

The same trend is appearing in the United States where the unemployment rate among Hispanics is rising and for the first time in several years the rate of out-of-work immigrant Hispanics is higher than the rate of non-immigrant Hispanics at around seven per cent.

“Unemployment tends to affect migrants first. Many migrants in the developed world and also in the developing countries have moved to these countries to work in the construction industry,” said Ms. Zlotnik.

“It’s the construction industry that is [most] affected by the drop in real estate prices,” she added.

Ms. Zlotnik noted that higher unemployment may have resulted in a significant reduction in the amount of money migrants send home, with Mexican banks experiencing a 4 per cent decline in remittances between January and September.

She added that the World Bank reported a slowdown in the growth of remittances to banks in developing countries in 2007 and 2008, and predicted a contraction of at least 1 per cent in the amount of money migrants will send home in 2009.

The global recession has also contributed to the sharp decrease of the number of people detained for illegally crossing the border into the United States from Mexico. There have been around 40 per cent fewer detentions than previous years, as incentives for jumping borders decrease with the declining prospects for economic prosperity in other countries.

Ms. Zlotnik reported that countries such as Australia are debating whether to cut quotas of skilled immigrant workers by around 20 per cent, while in the United Kingdom the Government is considering cutting the overall number of immigrants allowed into the country as more jobs are lost.

Ms. Zlotnik explained that last month’s GFMD meeting in Manila focused on protecting migrants’ human rights and the promotion of regular migration. The conference emphasised the point that international migration benefits migrants as well as the origin and host countries.

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