Rarely have I ever seen such a good idea pilloried quite so universally. 

“Arcane and short-sighted.”

“Pure madness and deadly dangerous.” 

“Naïve and out-of-touch.” 

These were just a few of the responses by members of the Dutch parliament – on both the left and the right – to a proposal by one of their colleagues at the beginning of this year. The idea was so roundly criticised you might think it was a call to abolish the Constitution or to give cats civil rights. But you’d be wrong. It was, in fact, a call for the government to take a more serious look at

It was the third rail that terrifies all politicians. More migration. Right and left were united in the vehemence of their condemnation.  

And it’s more or less the same story in every legislative body in the western world. Whether it’s the United States, or Australia, or Italy, it’s very rare to find a politician who dares say the words “more” and “migration” in the same sentence, especially around election time. 

Even though more well-organised, temporary labour migration from low-wage countries to Europe is actually the key to so many of the issues surrounding the migration debate – something of a master key, in fact, capable of opening all the doors that so far have seemed to be locked tight. Both the left and right sides of the political spectrum can sell it to their bases because it offers both humanitarian and economic advantages. It can fix our society’s age demographics problem and the issues in our asylum system in one fell swoop. It’s good for Europe and good for the countries where the migrants are coming from. 

I’ve been writing for many years about migration, working with experts around the world to generate constructive ideas about a better (that is to say more humane, fairer, smarter, more economically beneficial) migration policy, and I just keep coming back to the same answer: more temporary labour migration is the key. And I’m not the only one: and have been clamouring for exactly this for years.

And now, on the cusp of an Earth-shaking recession, we need to start getting serious about it. 

Illustration of construction workers

Let’s face it: Europe is getting old

Let’s take a look at the advantages. To start with the most obvious: the European economy needs workers from outside Europe. Desperately. Because over here

Just the figures themselves are enough to turn your hair white. that Europe’s working-age population is going to decrease by 7% between 2015 and 2035 – that’s 18 million people. To put it in the context of my country, the Netherlands: in 2012, there were four potential working people for every pensioner, but by 2040

There are millions of job openings in the EU right now, in all kinds of sectors, but particularly in tech, healthcare, and construction, as well as for less-skilled workers like salespeople, cleaners and drivers. And right now, that lack of suitable personnel is having a negative impact on their production – and labour migration within the European Union (from Poland, Bulgaria, and so on) will not be enough to cover it. 

The way the coronavirus crisis played out in Italy exposed just how necessary African immigrants already are for the Italian economy

The fact that the coronavirus pandemic is sending us into a recession changes very little about this: we’re still ageing, and the newly unemployed still don’t have the diplomas that employers are looking for; they’re not suddenly qualified electricians, nurses or software developers. And retraining them to be any of those things is not by any means something that all of them want, or can do, or can afford.

Of course, the real question is: is there labour available in, say, African countries, that meets the labour needs in Europe? In some countries, like Germany and the United Kingdom, there are permanent committees investigating where the “matches” are. Many other countries don’t have any such thing. 

The way the coronavirus crisis played out in Italy exposed just how necessary African immigrants already are for the Italian economy: in the height of the crisis, undocumented migrants were granted legal status allowing them to work, because

Yet it is these very people, unskilled workers and people from the lowest educational background, for whom getting a work visa for Europe is effectively impossible. The EU does offer the “Blue Card” programme, but this is only open to people earning more than Unfortunately, both the supply and the demand are to be found in the jobs that pay quite a bit less than that: It’s these people we need to create visas for.

Fewer asylum applications

Besides economic reasons, there is a whole range of other benefits to be gained from pursuing more migration, such as fighting human smuggling, stopping dangerous Mediterranean crossings, and reducing the numbers of dead migrants.

The European asylum system is at its breaking point. Right now, there are waiting for their day in court. That waiting period – these people need to be housed, and fed, and that’s not even to speak of the waste of the productive years of their lives, since they’re not permitted to work or study throughout the process. 

One of the huge problems of the asylum system is that many of these people have no business being in this process at all. This is the group that we often call “economic migrants”, people who are fleeing despair and a dead-end society rather than war, oppression and persecution. They are not the people for whom the asylum system is intended. Take, for example, Nigerians: of the over 40,000 Nigerians who applied for asylum in Europe in 2017, Those are very bad odds. 

But despite this, Nigerians keep coming into the European asylum system, for the simple reason that many of them just have no other option. Without any form of work visa they can even apply for, it’s their only choice. So they keep risking their lives on the dangerous journey to get here, just to roll the dice in a hopelessly overburdened system. And Nigerians are not the only ones: across Europe, less than half of all asylum applications overall succeed.

One good example of a different approach In 2015, the German asylum system was buckling under the stress of tens of thousands of asylum seekers from So in that year, Germany decided to make 20,000 new work visas When they did, the number of asylum applications plummeted by almost 90%:

True, the drop in asylum applications cannot be attributed to the work visa alone. In that same period, Germany also started accelerating the procedure for asylum applications from the western Balkans, and stepped up border controls as well. But it is clear to everyone

We can also draw a connection between the number of options to come to Europe legally and the number of attempts to get in illegally when we look at figures for migration across the Mediterranean from Africa. When the number of visas for west African countries goes down, In 2018, that increasing the numbers of work and education visas appeared to be “the most appropriate tool for reducing illegal migration”. In other words: for reducing the number of deaths on the Mediterranean, and taking the wind out of the sails of human smugglers.

Illustration of ICT workers in building

Less illegality, fewer undeportables

Now, you might be thinking that’s all well and good, but what happens when all those people don’t want to go home? For example, the Netherlands brought in thousands of guest workers from countries like Morocco and Turkey in the 1960s and 70s to fill labour shortages. which ultimately led to major problems with integration. 

But the story is a little more nuanced. Firstly, at that time the Dutch government allowed family reunification. Once workers brought their families over, they had no reason to leave. 

Secondly, when you look a little closer at this history, you notice something interesting. The first group of guest workers arrived in the Netherlands in the 1960s, and It was only in the 1970s, when the Netherlands stopped that the ones who were already here stopped going home – on the one hand out of fear of losing their social safety net, and on the other because they knew that they’d never get the chance to come back. 

In other words, migration turned into a game of poker – the only way to play was to go all in. Stay, or leave for good. 

Just like it is now for the asylum seekers who get rejected. Many don’t wait around to be deported, but disappear into illegality because they know that going back means Once you’re inside Fort Europe, you stay – because getting here was too expensive, too dangerous, to ever go back. 

Migration turned into a game of poker – the only way to play was to go all in. Stay, or leave for good

That would change if there was an option to sign up for work again. 

Another significant difference between then and now is that back then, recruiters weren’t thinking about the guest workers’ return. That can be done differently now.  There are lots of ideas out there to promote people going home – “carrots and sticks”, as policymakers like to say. Things like offering departure bonuses, introducing a mandatory savings system to retain a portion of worker income for payment upon departure, rewarding workers who go back by giving them priority for future return for work, or even “penalising” countries with high rates of overstayers

How? Well, one of the things that makes it impossible to deport such people is that their countries of origin refuse to cooperate. It’s a political game, and one that the EU has been playing for years with countries like Nigeria and Ethiopia, trying to get them to sign the “return and readmission agreements” that would facilitate the return of migrants to those countries. Of course, African countries want something in return – and I’ll give you three guesses as to what that is. Hands up, everyone who guessed

Illustration of a nurse working in a hospital

The best weapon against worldwide inequality

But I still haven’t even mentioned the biggest benefit from increasing labour migration, which is: it has a major beneficial economic impact on the countries where the migrants come from. 

Right now, migrants – enough to keep an economy going, certainly in developing countries like Gambia and Liberia, where these “remittances”

If we want to get serious about tackling global wealth inequality and world poverty, we need to understand that development aid is a drop in the bucket compared to Dani Rodrik, a Turkish economist at Harvard, writes in his book The Globalization Paradox that if world leaders really wanted to do something about global inequality, there’s really only one thing they should be doing: reforming the rules that restrict international labour mobility. “Nothing else on their agenda — not global financial regulation, not even expanding foreign aid — comes even close in terms of potential

I sometimes hear the argument that more work visas will create a “brain drain” in poorer countries; basically, that all the “smart people” will go flying off to work in Europe instead of staying in their own countries where they are so sorely needed. The research data tells a different story, however: firstly, that this is not really a problem and secondly, that this effect is more than compensated for by the money that migrants send home, which then goes to helping family members do things

More control, more support

If you’ve read this rave review of temporary labour migration up to this point, you might be asking yourself how it could be so hard to find a politician who would support it.

The answer has to do with conflating controlling migration with restricting migration. Correspondent member and migration expert Katharina Natter the pitfall of assuming these two things are synonymous. “The most important factor in the heated debate on migration,” Natter writes, “is the sense of ‘loss of control’.” People feel like they’re being overrun by immigrants, that their “way of life” is under threat from new cultures, that they’re no longer in charge in their own country.

It’s these feelings that far-right populism appeals to, and this is the reason that parties like the Lega Nord in Italy were able to come to power by calling for restricting migration. And other parties follow suit – out of necessity, they think, otherwise they’ll be losing votes. Border controls, deals with the Libyan coast guard or the Turkish government, all these things are ways that are being used to “take back control” of migration. 

By opening more legal avenues for migrants, we can control migration

But there’s another way to respond to that feeling of loss of control: more temporary labour migration. By opening more legal avenues for migrants, we can control migration: check who we are and aren’t letting in, make the numbers predictable, choose the migrants who have something to add to our economy. Having this control can actually build support for migration,

It’s important to remember the word “temporary” in “temporary labour migration” – we’re not talking about people who’ll stay for generations, or who can’t return to their own countries for decades because of war. We’re talking about people who get a contract to work for an employer in Europe for a few years. Apropos, I’ve never heard any discussion about “integration” when it comes to corporate expats. And when you get right down to it, labour migrants are just expats without the executive salary. 

As a final word for anyone still concerned about integration: all research on the subject shows that the first prerequisite for successful integration is a job. And labour migrants do, by definition, have that. 

Illustration of daycare workers

What would this look like?

As to what the system for temporary labour migration from outside the EU should look like? There’s no shortage of possible scenarios. In Germany, the “Fachkräfteeinwanderungsgesetz” went into effect on 1 March. This new legislation opens the doors for more migration of trades people from outside the EU. Chancellor Merkel has called it a “paradigm shift”.

In Canada, they use a points system, and some 300,000 labour migrants make use of it every year. Some experts have envisioned a system that would allow rich countries to expand their labour markets by There are think tanks that have proposals for ready to roll, designed to prevent the mismatches between demand in Europe and supply in developing countries,

These are the conversations we need to have: what form could work? My point is not to argue for form A or form B, but to start a political discussion of what form we need. Because the fact that we need one seems indisputable to me.

We may not know how the coronavirus crisis will play out on the labour market, but we do know it’s not going to stop society from getting older, and there are fields we are still going to have too few people for. And for the more charitably minded among us, a worldwide recession is the perfect time to make policy that will genuinely help poor countries,

We might want to start small, with an advisory commission here, a pilot project there … I’ll bet the results will speak for themselves. 

It was translated from Dutch by Kyle Wohlmut.

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