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Optimism, Pessimism, and the Neoliberal Agenda

The theoretical-ideological models outlined above have held sway in three alternating periods of more or less 20 years each. The optimism of the 1950s and 1960s, the decades of mass labour migration in Europe, was replaced by the pessimism of the 1970s and 1980s. Renewed optimism came with the rise of the transnationalist and new economics paradigms in the academic study and policy framing of migration in the 1990s and 2000s. In two important papers, De Haas (2010, 2012) maps these swings of the “migration and development pendulum” as follows (see also Faist and Fauser 2011; Gamlen 2014).

The 1950s and 1960s saw economic reconstruction and industrial expansion in North-Western Europe. Labour migration transferred workers, initially temporary “guest workers”, from labour-surplus to labour-deficit regions of Europe. Little attempt was made to integrate these migrant workers, since it was assumed that their stay would be temporary. True, they were economically integrated into the host country's production system, but they were not encouraged to integrate socially and culturally, and they were given limited legal and civic rights. From a developmental perspective, the general view, at least on the part of many economists and policymakers, was that this labour migration not only helped North-Western European economies to rebuild, industrialize, and modernize, but also upgraded living standards in the sending areas through rising wages, capital transfers (remittances and some capital investments facilitated by low-cost labour and fiscal incentives), and re-skilled returnees (Kindleberger 1967).

Critical voices played down these achievements. They claimed that remittances failed to stimulate development beyond consumption and that returnees, who had mostly done menial jobs in factories and on construction sites, brought little relevant knowledge and skills. Few returnees invested in viable enterprises that spawned economic multiplier effects, like creating new employment for the local economy (Böhning 1975). At the same time, it was noted that migrants had “failed” to integrate largely because of the host society's barriers of exclusion and racism (Castles and Kosack 1973). This pessimism widened to a more general critique of migrationled development after the oil crisis brought a halt to labour-migrant recruitment in Europe in 1973. Seers et al. (1979) applied the core–periphery model to the European case, the result being that “developmentalism” gave way to “dependency” and “underdevelopmentalism” as characterizations of the theoretical and empirical outcome of the post-oil crisis years. It was argued that emigration not only took away the youngest, fittest, and most ambitious of the less-educated workers from the peripheral regions, it also produced a brain drain of the more highly educated, leading to an overall decline in the periphery's endowment of human capital.

During the 1990s the pendulum swung again, back towards the optimistic view of migration's contribution to development. Both ideological shifts and a large volume of empirical evidence lay behind this new optimism. First, there was a critique of the deterministic neo-Marxist model of migration, which now seemed oldfashioned and illogical. The downward spiral of cumulative causation—for example, underdevelopment produces migration, which leads to further underdevelopment and thus more migration—could not continue forever; and the accumulating evidence of the migration hump—for instance, the way that the Southern European countries transitioned from mass emigration to mass immigration—was more convincing. Moreover, an increasing body of empirical studies carried out at the time revealed that, under certain conditions, migration could positively contribute to the development of regions and countries of origin, and that a more positive integration outcome often correlated with better home-country development feedbacks (De Haas 2010, 240). Inspired by NELM thinking, migration came to be seen as an effective route out of poverty, and as a rational strategy for household sustenance and improvement. Remittances took centre stage in this M&D neo-optimism. Indeed, they became a kind of mantra for economists and policymakers working in this sector of development (Kapur 2005). Against the pessimists' claim that remittances were “wasted” on extravagant housing and social-status performances, studies traced productive and development-inducing effects (see Adams and Page 2005; Gammeltoft 2002; Lucas 2005, 145–206; Ngoma and Ismail 2013). Remittance spending on housing and consumption, after all, did improve the quality of life and generate multiplier effects in the local economy, creating employment and stimulating demand for goods and services. Improved housing not only raised social status, but also contributed to general wellbeing, health, and safety (De Haas 2012, 13). Once basic needs were met, some remittances were invested in farming, small enterprises, and services, especially in regions where such investments could bear fruit, such as agriculturally productive lands or areas undergoing tourism development.

The new optimism described above reflects neoliberal ideas about individual initiative: the migrant is constituted as the key agent, even the hero, of development. Faist and Fauser (2011, 7) draw parallels with the French policy notion codevelopment, which positions the migrant as a partner in development cooperation. But it is also clear that the preferred type of migration has also changed, shifting back to an emphasis on temporary or circular migration—a return to the guest worker (Castles 2006) without, however, using that term. Circular migration is presented as the ideal type in order to maximize remittances and home-country commitment, as well as (though this is rarely made explicit) to prevent long-term settlement and consequent “integration problems”. This shift in thinking about migration is currently receiving considerable academic attention (e.g., Ruhs 2006; Skeldon 2012) and has become enshrined in the terminology and policy thrusts of many prominent international policy actors. We cite three examples to make this point. The Global Commission on International Migration (GCIM), set up by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, noted in its report, 'the old paradigm of permanent migrant settlement is progressively giving way to temporary and circular migration' (GCIM 2005, 31). The GCIM stressed 'the need to grasp the developmental opportunities that this important shift in migration patterns provides for countries of origin' and went on to encourage 'countries of destination [to] promote circular migration by providing mechanisms and channels that enable migrants to move easily between their countries of origin and destination'. Second, successive volumes of the IOM's World Migration Report have likewise proposed that more circular migration can bring developmental benefits to developing countries (see, e.g., IOM 2008). Third, the UNDP's 2009 Human Development Report paired “human mobility” and “development” in its subtitle and argued strongly for 'overcoming the barriers' to mobility, thereby releasing the potential for temporary migration to contribute 'large gains to human development' (UNDP 2009, 3).

These landmark statements by key international actors reflect different variants of the so-called “triple-win” scenario whereby migration is said to be “good” for the receiving and the sending countries, as well as for the migrants themselves. However, doubts about the attainability of the win-win-win situation lead us towards a more critical stance and a possible backswing of the pendulum towards a fourth stage, 'neo-pessimism' (De Haas 2012, 22; Gamlen 2014), based on a two-pronged reappraisal of the optimistic view of M&D. First, empirical evidence on migrants' real lives, either when they are working in exploitative conditions abroad, or from the perspective of their still-poor home communities, often reveals that the overcelebratory discourse of M&D is misplaced. The second reframing comes from questioning the ideology underlying the neoliberal agenda. Bronden (2012, 3) sees the 'positive' M&D initiatives and policies discussed above as the 'human face of neoliberalism', masking more repressive agendas driven by the global North relating to migration control, securitization, and the necessity of preserving the hegemony of the dominant economic and geopolitical powers. This encourages us to redirect our gaze to the structural forces that are obscured by neoliberal rhetoric about migrants as the “best” agents for development—which for Glick Schiller (2012, 93) is little more than 'spin'. As Harvey (2005) among others shows, neoliberalism has created new wealth but only by destroying previous spatial structures and social relations of production, changing distribution and consumption patterns, and generating new forms of desire (see also Glick Schiller 2011, 37). These transformations and translocations, whilst opening up new opportunities for migrants within segmented, gendered, and sexualized fractions of the global labour market, have at the same time subjected many migrants to regimes of control, social exclusion, and denial of rights. Migrants' vulnerability has been increased rather than reduced, as the latest economic crisis has demonstrated, especially in countries like Greece and Spain that have been harshly affected by financial meltdown.

 
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