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Stephen Castles

“International Migration after the Global Economic Crisis”

July 10, 2013, 07:00 p.m.
University of Vienna, Kleiner Festsaal
Universitätsring 1, A-1010 Vienna

The global economic crisis (GEC) which started in 2008 was widely expected to lead to a general decline in international migration. Actual experiences have been more complex. For instance, while migrant unemployment in Western European  countries grew, so did migrant employment. This apparent contradiction can only understood by looking at structural change, in this case the shift from men’s jobs in construction and manufacturing to women’s jobs in domestic work, care and other services. Gender dimensions of migration thus take on new importance. Another key issue concerns legal status: many people who had moved within the European Union went home when jobs declined in the UK, Ireland and other countries. They were able to do this because the right to move within the EU meant that they could migrate again once things got better. But migrants from outside the EU were much less willing to leave, fearing that they would not be able to come back later.

My central argument therefore will be that the GEC speeded up already-existing trends towards a global labour market, stratified not just by ‘human capital’ as the neo-liberal model claims, but also according to gender, race, ethnicity, location and legal status. The breaking down of production processes into segments, which can be moved to wherever they can be done most most-effectively has accelerated, exacerbating existing trends towards growing inequality, both within and between regions. These trends include:

· maintenance of overall international migrant stocks at fairly constant levels, but with considerable restructuring;

· decline of migration (especially irregular movement) to older industrial areas, as well as increased migration, especially of highly-skilled young people (e.g. southern Europeans to north-western Europe, Portuguese to Brazil, Angola and Mozambique; Greeks, Italians and Irish to Australia);

· growth of migration to new industrial areas in the BRICS countries and other areas in East Asia, the Southern Cone of Latin America and Africa;

· proliferation of types of migration, such as educational migration, marriage migration, lifestyle migration and retirement migration;

· differentiation of migrants and exclusion of some categories from secure legal status and welfare systems;

· maintenance and then increase in remittance levels;

·  impoverishment of many migrants.

Neoclassical economists have tended to see migration as a strategy for reducing inequality, since they believe that migrants make individual decisions to move from low productivity (and hence low income) areas to places offering better jobs and pay. But actual trends reveal new forms of differentiation. Many migrants do indeed benefit from the expanded human development opportunities (as Amartya Sen puts it) associated with mobility. But others find themselves locked into exploitative work with few rights and little access to welfare systems. Moreover, the creation of global commodity chains has proved to be a factor which can weaken worker rights and welfare systems both in post-industrial countries and in the poorer areas that provide labour for the factories and services of the rich countries.

Understanding the history and social dynamics of migration and its relationship to broader processes of social change is crucial. It is has never been more important to link migration studies with theories of social transformation, inequality and global political economy.

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