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Asia’s Migration Morass

NEW YORK – This summer, 17 Pakistani asylum seekers died when their boat capsized en route to Australia. Given violence at home – exemplified recently by the Pakistani Taliban’s effort to kill 14-year-old Malala Yousafzai for speaking out in favor of girls’ education – it is not surprising that migrants are willing to take great risks in pursuit of new opportunities abroad. In fact, thousands of migrants cross Asia’s numerous and porous frontiers each year with the help of expensive brokers who secure their passage.

As Asia becomes increasingly interconnected, migrants have the potential to contribute to all sectors of society. But government-imposed restrictions on cross-border mobility are generating negative outcomes.

Despite talk of strengthening regional cooperation, a framework for dealing with migration remains an elusive prospect. Given their diverse economic and political circumstances, Asia’s leaders have been unable to agree on a strategy that addresses migration’s fundamental cause: people’s natural inclination to pursue the best available opportunities by any means possible.

Last month, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar outlined their views on regional linkages at the Asia Society’s New York headquarters. While both demonstrated an understanding of the value of cooperation, their strategies have little in common.

In discussing Australia’s economic prospects, Carr emphasized the importance of education, and of fostering a “smart, innovative, productive, and capable” workforce. In order to prosper, Carr declared, Australia needs “to know Asia”; it needs “Asia-literate policies and Asia-capable people.”

But Australia’s new policy on “irregular maritime arrivals” undermines regional cooperation. According to Carr, the use of processing centers in Nauru and Papua New Guinea “create a disincentive to people smugglers,” while ensuring a “more orderly process [that] makes sense for Australia.”   

In contrast, Pakistan’s strategy involves reaching out to its neighbors in order to facilitate rapid development. According to Khar, “It is no coincidence that the beginnings of the Asian century are rooted in regional connectivity and cooperation….The less heralded secret of growing Asian economies is the ability of many of these economies to work together.”

Australia’s new migration policy harms people in countries like Pakistan. By inhibiting migrants from working abroad, it limits the diaspora remittances that are sent home.

Policymakers recognize the need to address migration, but, so far, the challenges have outweighed the solutions. For example, Australia’s government is trying to prevent boat arrivals using disincentives. But human-rights organizations – as well as the president of the Australian Human Rights Commission and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – report that shunting migrants to non-Australian territory will not deter migration.

Meanwhile, America is benefiting from Asian migration. Asians are the fastest-growing immigrant group in the United States, with Asian workers holding the largest proportion of H1-B work visas (non-immigrant visas for foreign high-skilled workers). Fostering linkages with such workers is crucial for America’s competitiveness, particularly in the so-called STEM sectors – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

America’s need for STEM workers is reflected in many areas. For example, the 17-mile journey on public transit from my office in New York City to Newark Airport takes 1.5 hours. The last of five trains, the Newark Airtrain, is more reminiscent of a ride at Disney World than of a viable means of transport. By contrast, the 23-mile trip from Hong Kong’s city center to the airport takes just 24 minutes.

The economically stagnant advanced countries are currently competing to restore growth, and securing talent from abroad is crucial. And, regardless of their current economic trajectories, countries like the US and Australia remain appealing to foreign workers of all skill levels.

Next year, at the UN’s High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development, governments must be willing to defer to multilateral processes and standards. Pressure from businesses and civil-society groups could help to stimulate progress.

The international community must recognize that migration not only stimulates economies, but also provides an opportunity to build business and trade linkages between economies. People will not stop leaving their home countries in their search for a better life. But, without an effective global migration policy, we can be certain that more people will die trying to secure their future.