Immigration and the rights of immigrant workers
University of Washington
Rome 31 August 2010
(Please check against text as delivered)
· Migration is a global challenge that requires an active approach.
Throughout human history, migration has been a courageous expression of the individual’s will to overcome adversity and to live a better life. Yet I believe that we need to change –if not completely – our traditional way of thinking about migration as a world of loss and sorrow. In Italy, in particular, we have been holding an open debate on immigration for years now. This is most likely because our country’s history has traditionally been linked to the phenomenon of emigration and it is only fairly recently that we have had to face immigration issues. For a long time we have seen immigration essentially as a tragic phenomenon that involved the world’s poorest people. We felt morally obliged to provide assistance and support to these people once they had reached terra incognita, regardless of any evaluation of whether they had respected the legal migration procedures or of the social impact of their influx.
I believe that, without betraying our traditions, we need to shift from a somewhat passive approach, where we see immigration solely in terms of poverty and distress, to a positive approach, where we see inward migration in terms of an ultimately enriching experience. We can only make this shift if we adopt an active and comprehensive approach to migration in order to respond to this global challenge.
· International migration is an inescapable and vast phenomenon.
According to the UN, there are more than 200 million migrant workers throughout the world, 31 million of whom legally reside in the territory of the European Union. Migrants legally residing in Italy (about 4 million people) now account for 7.1% of the population. These figures are too large to warrant a passive or individualistic approach: a single state cannot cope with such onerous figures.
This is particularly true in the European Union, where we have created an area that envisages the free movement of people. And it is especially true in Italy, given our geographical location as a bridge between two continents.
When migrants land on the shores of Sicily they can easily move on: to Austria, say, and then to Germany and the Netherlands. The issue does not stop at Italy’s borders: it becomes European.
Of course, this does not mean that we want to unload our problems onto Brussels or onto our other partners. It just means that, whereas a common response would enable us to grasp the great potential benefits of migration, any one state, left alone, could be submerged by it. In other words, we need to develop an active, common approach.
· Migration requires us to have a political debate
Today, more than ever, a national and passive attitude towards immigration is not consistent with the fact that this phenomenon has become one of the most complex issues in international politics. Immigration is a subject that divides public opinion, and one of the most visible challenges posed by globalisation.
However, it would be unrealistic to avoid holding the crucial debate on this matter or to overlook the much-needed solutions just because it is a divisive topic. Actually, if well managed, migration is one area where our citizens will clearly see the added value of a proactive response.
· Migration enriches both countries of origin and destination countries
We need to look at migration as an enrichment of today's world, not as a threat. Indeed, both countries of origin and destination countries largely profit from migration.
(1) In destination countries, migrant workers contribute to economic growth by meeting the demand for workers, increasing the demand for goods and services and developing their entrepreneurial skills.
The United States is the best historical example of how a great nation can be built upon immigration. Italians were not only appreciated for their diligence as workers but were also given a chance to be integrated in American society and to expand and enrich American civilization. In the US the flows of migrant workers have successfully continued ever since. They have recently made valuable contributions to the expansion of information technology industries. Silicon Valley would not be what it is today without the enormous role played by clever and enterprising immigrants, foreign-born scientists and engineers.
In Italy, around 8% of our national GDP can be attributed to migrant workers. Moreover, labour and skills shortages are already noticeable in a number of sectors – and are likely to increase. At the same time, Italy’s indigenous population is set to decline in the next few decades, making immigration the main ingredient for demographic growth. The long-term sustainability of our welfare system largely depends, therefore, on the permanent employment of migrants.
(2) Countries of origin also receive significant gains from migration. Migrant workers contribute to their countries’ development by alleviating pressures on labour markets, sending remittances home, acquiring new and improved skills, and making investments – all of which help to reduce poverty.
Remittances provide the most tangible link between migration and development: a relationship that has gained importance since the economic crisis. In fact, remittances are proving to be one of the more resilient elements of the global economy during the current downturn, and are likely to play a large and important role in the recovery of many developing countries. To ensure that these funds move easily and efficiently around the globe, governments should attempt to make remittances as cheap and accessible as possible.
That is why, under the Italian G8 Presidency, the G8 leaders approved an initiative to halve the average transaction costs for migrant remittances.
Today, a growing number of skilled immigrants return to their home countries. Even those who stay in their host countries often become part of transnational communities that link those countries to the economies of distant lands. Migrants’ long-distance networks enhance opportunities for entrepreneurship, investment, and trade, in both their countries of origin and of destination.
· Integration is the answer to immigration
Integration is the best tool to enable us to seize the many and diverse benefits of migration. Legal migrant workers are a crucial component of the competitiveness of both their home and destination countries, but it will not be possible to realise their full potential unless they are given opportunities to integrate into their host society.
For this reason, legal migration and integration are inseparable and should mutually reinforce each other. Integration can only be achieved by protecting the rights of legal migrant workers and tackling illegal immigration. These are two sides of the same coin.
It cannot be emphasised enough that, unless effective measures are taken to combat illegal immigration, the credibility of the legal immigration policy we are working together to shape will be irreparably undermined.
That is why it is in the interests of destination countries to pursue integration between migrant and resident workers, by preventing illegal immigration. Migrants without the right of residence are unable to access the benefits of migration, as their irregular status excludes them from labour and social rights.
That is why we actively participate at EU level in developing partnerships with third countries. These consist of mobility packages designed to better manage migration flows and, in particular, to fight illegal migration, in exchange for enhanced possibilities of access to the EU in the form of legal migration opportunities.
That is why we have strongly supported the establishment of the European Asylum Support Office, which will play a crucial role in improving the implementation of the Common European Asylum System.
That is why we have supported the Stockholm Programme, which gives us appropriate guidelines on how to better promote legal migration and achieve closer integration. We also support the idea of an EU Immigration Code, as indicated in the Programme.
This approach calls for concerted efforts from countries of origin, transit and destination, and for linkages between security and development policies. However, these policies can be successful only if migrants enjoy legal status and have the wherewithal for a decent existence.
· Migrant workers’ rights
Unfortunately, there are still employers who are surprised to find, when they consider hiring migrant workers, that they are dealing with human beings. It should be stressed that as far as fundamental rights are concerned, we are absolutely steadfast in not accepting any compromise. We cannot tolerate any violation of human rights, the protection of which has been the guiding principle of Italian foreign policy.
Italy remains respectful of migrant workers, shunning mere economic exploitation and, instead, placing human dignity at the centre of its endeavours. Italian law guarantees legal migrant workers the same rights as Italian workers, without requiring any condition of reciprocity.
Therefore, legal migrant workers are entitled to the fundamental workers’ rights, such as the human right to freedom from discrimination based on race, national or ethnic origin, sex or religion. They are entitled to equality before the law and equal protection by the law, to safe and healthy working conditions, and reasonable working hours. We must ensure that migrant workers are not paid lower wages than national workers for the same work, and that they are paid all the wages due to them.
As regards retirement pensions, non-EU migrant workers enjoy rights that are not even granted to Italian citizens. They can apply for a pension once they are 65 years old, regardless of any reciprocity agreement with their country of origin. They are not required to have a minimum number of contribution years (a requirement that does apply to Italian workers).
Moreover, protecting the rights of migrant workers provides an additional benefit to destination countries by preventing the development of an unprotected underclass of migrant workers. Restricting migrants’ rights may, on the contrary, generate significant social costs, especially if the restrictions are long-term and lead to the emergence of a large group of second-class residents.
· Co-operation with countries of origin and transit to tackle illegal migration
Measures to combat illegal immigration should be implemented at the beginning of the migration chain. Such measures consist of more open international trade of goods and services; the promotion of peace, political stability, human rights and democratic principles; and the sustainable economic, social and environmental development of the countries of origin. We are all aware, though, that these noble goals are not always easy to achieve.
Therefore, in the fight against illegal immigration it is also extremely important to be able to rely on the cooperation of the countries of origin and of transit. Examples of such cooperation are our long-standing collaboration with Mediterranean countries such as Egypt and Algeria and the more recent agreements signed by the Italian government with countries such as Libya, Nigeria, Niger, Ghana, Gambia and Senegal. Thanks to the implementation of these agreements, especially those with Libya, the inflow of illegal workers has been significantly reduced (in the first quarter of this year fewer than 150 illegal migrants reached Italy’s shores, while in the same period of 2009 the figures were thirty times higher!).
At the same time, we have intensified our investigative efforts in order to apprehend those responsible for smuggling and trafficking human beings. We have also set up toll-free telephone hotlines to make it possible to report cases of trafficking immediately and to help the victims of the criminal organisations involved.
Moreover, those employers who prefer to hire migrant workers without regard to the law must be harshly punished because we cannot tolerate any form of human exploitation. Nor can we accept unfair competition against those honest entrepreneurs who do abide by the law. For this reason, we have introduced harsher sanctions for those who employ illegal migrants and for landlords who lease to illegal residents.
In this context, I would also like to mention the EU directive on common standards and procedures forreturning illegally staying third country nationals. It allows us to organize the return of illegal migrants by establishing common standards guaranteeing thatthey are returned with full respect for their dignity and human rights. Joint return operations constitute also an important tool for the efficient implementation of the return policy of the Union in full respect for the human rights and fundamental freedoms of the person subject to removal. These are key meansof establishing our credibility and seriousness in the fight against human trafficking and exploitation of illegal migrants. In the fight, I would add, against “21st century slavery”.
· The role of information is fundamental
The best line of protection for migrants before they leave home is to create a migration channel for workers that is fair, open, transparent and legal. And we can do this by providing realistic and accurate information.
Potential migrant workers should be adequately trained before leaving their home countries to allow them a greater chance of being integrated in their destination societies. They should be thoroughly informed about the risks posed by unscrupulous recruiters, traffickers in human beings and the dangers of migrating under irregular conditions.
To provide more and better information for potential migrant workers and to better train them in the lead-up to their arrival to Italy, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has financed overseas projects aimed at protecting children from the dangers of illegal migration (“SALEM – Solidarité Avec les Enfants du Maroc”) and training potential migrants (“Migration and return. Resources for development”). Together with Libya and Morocco, we have implemented a project (“Prometeo”) designed to prevent the trafficking of human beings across the Mediterranean Sea. A similar project has been financed in Egypt by the Ministry of Labour. The latter has also funded projects in a “circular migration” context. This scheme provides training in Italy for people from certain countries of origin, such as Moldova, the aim being for them to put their learned skills to good use on their return home. Training courses on specific sectors of our domestic legislation are financed by the Ministry of Interior to the benefit of Chinese entrepreneurs based in Italy.
We have also introduced priority channels in the processing of employment-based visas and permits for migrants who have attended training courses.
· An Italian model of integration.
As F.D. Roosevelt said: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. Unreasonable, unjustified fear sometimes paralyzes us and prevents us from making the efforts needed to convert constructive ideas and proposals into advanced rules and models.
A spirit of alarm may be spread by those people who see migration merely through the magnifying glass of security concerns (which cannot, of course, be ignored). They fail to grasp the benefits that the other side of the medal may generate: integration achieved through better governance of the migration process.
However, if we want to succeed with our integration policy, we cannot merely pay lip service to the principles of responsibility and the rule of law. We need to recognise the importance of effectively implementing these principles, by requiring migrant workers to abide by the law and to fulfil the basic principles of the society they live in – just as we do ourselves.
In other words, we have to combine our traditional welcoming spirit with the firmness needed to safeguard the respect for legality, for our fundamental values and for our civilisation. In this way, we can develop an Italian model of integration that adequately addresses the various challenges posed by migration.
· A new mindset to tackle immigration.
As a first step towards a new model of integration, we need to allay people’s fears and prejudices about legal immigration while tackling the phenomenon of illegal immigration. These are, as I have said, two sides of the same coin.
Integration itself is a two way process. Legal migrants must see their rights recognised and their duties assigned. As a matter of fact, the acquisition of rights goes hand in hand with the acceptance of duties. If migrants want to be fully integrated in our societies they have to abide by the law, learn the local language and respect our values such as human rights, women's rights and even the duty to send children to school. They should also get acquainted with both our traditions and cultural heritage. In other words, legal migrants should not only restrain themselves from pursuing aggressive strategies against the fundamental values of the destination country but they also have to acquire the necessary cultural and social means in order to actively interact with local people. This is the only way to be involved in the society they live in and to share its goals. I believe that we can succeed in our integration policies only if we manage to reconcile the recognition for the rights of the legal migrants with the respect for the social order and values of the host country.
In the case of illegal migrants, the principles that must inspire our actions are the following:
(1) We must always bear in mind that the life and dignity of human beings is at stake. The utmost respect, therefore, for migrants’ fundamental rights is essential. Any refoulement, or return, of illegal immigrants must take place with due respect for this principle and for the European rules.
(2) We must continue to take in true refugees, i.e. those fleeing from war and persecution. However, we must ask that they be redistributed among the EU member states, initially on a voluntary, and eventually on an obligatory, basis.
(3) We must be as rigorous as possible in hunting down and punishing the criminals behind the trafficking in human beings, the true slave-traders of the 21st century, and in tightening up controls at our external borders.
(4) We must work on cooperation with transit countries and on the prevention of illegal immigration by fostering economic development in immigrants’ countries of origin, as Italy has done by making Africa one of the priorities of its G8 Presidency.
· Facilitating the arrival of skilled workers
On the face of the international economic downturn, it is still in our interest to lure the best human capital. All skills levels are needed, but the real challenge is to attract the workers needed to fill specific gaps.
I believe that it would be a win-win solution to adopt initiatives to attract skilled workers such as a fast-track procedure for the admission of highly qualified workers, potential investors and students.
With this goal in mind, the EU has adopted a new scheme, the so-called “blue card”, which I had proposed in my previous position. The “blue card” aims to make Europe a magnet for highly-skilled migrants by facilitating conditions of entry to the EU.
Concerns that skilled immigrants displace native workers need to be weighed against the fact that foreign-born engineers, for example, may start new businesses and generate jobs and wealth. Moreover, many of the migrants who stay in their destination countries are playing a growing role in linking businesses in their home countries to enterprises in Europe.
I have elaborated on the benefits and opportunities of migration, provided it is dealt with in a context that includes a contribution from the countries of destination, transit and origin, and as long it is guided by suitable integration policies.
I would like to conclude by stressing that:
(1) A passive and unilateral approach to migration, merely based on security issues, would be erroneous and unsuccessful.
(2) Protecting the rights of migrant workers benefits destination countries by preventing the development of an unprotected working underclass and by making it easier for migrants to integrate with their host society.
(3) Integration should not entail a denial of our founding values and principles. A multicultural approach should not allow certain cultural and religious groups to pursue aggressive strategies against our values – values such as individual rights, gender equality and respect for women.
(4) We need to protect ourselves against dangerous violations of our values and principles that could potentially destroy the fabric of our societies. But we also need to work hard to build up and pursue a positive approach to integration. We cannot neglect our traditions; nor can we overlook the fundamental rights that are such an important hallmark of our societies. For many years we unfortunately took this important heritage for granted.
(5) We need to think of integration as a process involving people who are highly motivated and who strongly desire to be part of the society they live in.
(6) In this context, pooling our efforts with those of the countries of origin and of transit makes us stronger not just when dealing with illegal migration, but also in seizing the opportunities embodied by migrants.
(7) That is why we need to adopt a comprehensive and active approach in a framework that facilitates integration and that helps us to exploit the great benefits generated by international migration. In other words, this global issue should be addressed through global actions: a coordinated European response and inclusive contributions from both the countries of transit and those of origin.
Thank you for your kind attention.