Views on Immigration: The Impact of Public Opinion on Global Migration

By Liebig, Thomas | Harvard International Review, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Views on Immigration: The Impact of Public Opinion on Global Migration


Liebig, Thomas, Harvard International Review


With economic recovery picking up and baby-boomers beginning to retire in many member countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the question of whether or not to rely on more labor migration to support economic growth is again at the forefront of the policy debate, particularly in Europe. Calculations by the OECD Secretariat for the 2010 International Migration Outlook demonstrate that on average, in the absence of migration, there will be 30 percent more exits than entries to the working-age population of high-income OECD countries in the year 2020. In Germany and Poland, this figure will be above 70 percent. Immigration, in conjunction with policies such as better mobilization of domestic human resources, is one way to help alleviate the labor shortages that will result from these demographic trends. Indeed, prior to the crisis, many OECD countries had already taken measures to facilitate labor migration, and these policies were one of the driving forces behind the growth in international migration until 2008.

Yet public opinion in many countries does not seem readily accepting of more labor immigration, as evidenced by the rise of anti-immigrant parties. An analysis of opinion surveys in the 2010 OECD International Migration Outlook shows that although the respondents generally recognize a beneficial impact of immigration on the economy, they would still prefer less immigration in the future.

This paradox seems to be due to skepticism regarding immigrants' willingness to integrate into the host society. Public opinion in virtually all European OECD countries sees such willingness as a more important criterion for selection than immigrants' skills. So-called "civic integration" policies--aimed at promoting language mastery and knowledge of the host country's institutions and history--have become a widespread reaction to this public opinion.

Social integration tends to be closely linked with economic integration. Indeed, the reason why the former is less of an issue in countries like Australia and Canada is that for many years they have been accepting large numbers of labor immigrants on the basis of their skills: in 2008, per-capita labor immigration to these countries was about 2.5 times higher than to the European OECD countries and 10 times higher than to the United States. This policy has resulted in an immigrant population with more favorable socio-economic characteristics on average, thereby limiting negative preconceptions about immigrants as a group and improving integration outcomes.

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