Working Through It: The Politics of Return
Whilst some countries reacted to the economic crisis by sending migrants away, others have limited their intake by tightening entrance procedures. So far the Czech Republic and Spain are the only EU countries to have adopted voluntary returns measures, which aim to return unemployed non-EU migrants with legal status to their countries of origin. The Czech ‘Programme of Voluntary Returns’, and the Spanish ‘Accrued Payment for Foreigners Returning to Non-Community Countries’ have been extolled by officials from their respective governments as offering migrants a way out of the miseries inflicted by the economic crisis. With other countries avoiding these measures, we consider how the economic crisis has impacted on policies relating to migration management across the EU.
Across the European Union the rate of unemployment has been rising consistently since the second quarter of 2008. In January 2009 the unemployment rate reached 7.6% for the EU, but the rate for Spain is almost double at 14.8 %, Slovakia records the second highest rate at 9.8%. In the Czech Republic the rate of unemployment reached a more modest 5% in the first month of 2009.
Migrant workers generally experience higher rates of unemployment; working in low-skilled, temporary jobs, and with little advocacy or protection, they have felt the real impact of the crisis. Even in the first quarter of 2008, the Spanish Labour Force summary (Encuesta de Población Activa, EPA) was noting the disparity between unemployment rates for natives and immigrants, coming in at 8.7% and 14.6% respectively. Often working on temporary contracts, and possibly employed through external agencies, companies are able to dismiss these workers with little regard for their welfare. This approach encourages the perception that migrants are both an expendable resource, easy to replace under improved circumstances, and also part of the problem. With native populations feeling threatened by the uncertainties of the economic crisis, the competition for jobs with immigrants becomes part of the general threat. For example in Britain, this is epitomised in the reactionary slogan ‘British Jobs for British Workers’.
However, this attitude fails to recognise the role that migrant labourers may be able to play in improving the circumstances of the crisis. Instead of demonizing migrants for taking native jobs, the International Organisation for Migration has argued that they represent a ‘positive force in alleviating various aspects of the financial crisis and potentially make an important contribution towards overcoming the economic downturn’. However, IOM’s own approach to migration management may be viewed as inconsistent: whilst espousing the positive potential of migration and even noting that ‘trying to combat the financial crisis by simply cutting immigration may make the situation worse’, they are also responsible for the administration of the Czech Republic’s voluntary returns programme.
Recently Assisted Voluntary Returns (AVR), have been considered by some countries as a potential means of limiting the effect of the financial crisis on both their migrant and their native population. In June 2008, the Spanish labour ministry announced a plan to pay unemployed migrants from non-EU countries to return to their home countries. This programme came into effect in November. In a similar move, the Czech Republic established a voluntary returns programme. In both the Czech Republic and Spain, voluntary returns programmes are targeting especially migrants that are, or risk becoming, unemployed, and who face limited employment prospects.
As of 16th February 2009, the Ministry of the Interior of the Czech Republic established a ‘Programme of Voluntary Returns’, which will provide returns assistance to a projected 2000 applicants. This programme is meant to address the predicted wave of unemployment relating to 12,000 foreigners currently in the Czech Republic. A large proportion of the vulnerable workers are Vietnamese, Ukrainian and Mongolian migrants. The ministry argues that the programme will dissuade migrants from getting involved in questionable or criminal activities.
The project focuses on unemployed migrants who hold valid work and residency permits. It offers free transport to their home country plus an incentive contribution of 500 Euro allowance. It also provides emergency accommodation from the period of registration up to the migrants’ departure from the Czech Republic. The conditions state that someone can apply only once, but that the project ‘does not prevent the participant from coming back to the Czech Republic in the future’. In contrast with the conditions outlined on the official website of the Ministry of the Interior, applicants are not asked to provide proof of whether they are able to cover the travel costs for themselves. Whilst the programme has no further restrictions regarding the return, it also provides no guarantee of return for migrants, who may have made great sacrifices in order to reach the Czech Republic.
The project of voluntary returns was passed by the Minister for the Interior Ivan Langer (Civic Democrat) who states that the overall plan will be ‘on the one hand to limit the granting of long-term visas, on the other hand to toughen the conditions for the activities of employment agencies and also to help the people who are unemployed’. This ‘motivation package’ will cost the state around 60 million Czech crowns and according to Ivan Langer is well-invested money because the unsolved problem would incur greater financial costs. The former minister of the Interior of the Czech Republic and now Member of Parliament František Bublan (Social Democrat) argued that the project would not be enough and would only solve the situation of a few hundred migrants. Instead he argued for the establishment of an immigration department, and that unemployed migrants could perform publicly beneficial work or undertake apprenticeships. It seems as though his proposal has been rejected for the time being; Ivan Langer is confident that the foreign police and the ministry are able to deal with the issues and has claimed that he ‘does not believe in new institutions’.
The project of voluntary returns has been viewed critically by many experts. Although potentially helpful, doubts have been raised over the attractiveness of the plan for migrants themselves, many of whom face extensive debts in their home countries due to the extortionate fees they were charged by intermediaries who promised to find lucrative employment for them.
Like the Czech Republic, in recent years Spanish industry has come to rely on non-EU migrant workers. Now, with Spain experiencing the highest unemployment in Europe, this migrant labour is increasingly perceived as a burden to the state. In response to this situation, the Spanish government introduced an ‘Accrued Payment for Foreigners Returning to Non-Community Countries’ in June 2008. Under this scheme unemployed workers who opt to return to their home countries will receive 40% of the unemployment benefits due to them prior to their departure. The further 60% being paid once they have returned. The scheme also funds transportation costs to their home country, along with other expenses that are incurred as a result of the return. The scheme is only open to migrants from countries that have a reciprocal social welfare agreement with Spain, and the conditions are that they will not be allowed to return to Spain for another three years. However, in contrast with the Czech programme, provisions are made for their return after that period, for example with migrants offered priority in obtaining working papers and the period of absence discounted in applications for permanent residency.
Reactions to the Spanish scheme have been muted, with less than 1400 of an eligible 100,000 immigrants taking up the scheme in the initial months. Immigrants' rights organisations have condemned the scheme for treating migrant workers like moveable resources. ‘We are talking not just about workers but about human beings,’ complained Alvaro Zuleta, president of the Colombian group Aculco. ‘We need to make sure that the immigrant who agrees to return finds the right conditions to restart his life’. Those migrants that do return are likely to face poor employment prospects in their own countries, with no guarantee of return. Raul Jiménez, a spokesman for the Ecuadorian association Rumińahui, criticised the programme as ‘unfair’. He told El Pais: ‘just a short while ago, we were hearing that Spain needed foreign labour; it seems contradictory to propose that the crisis will be solved by reducing it’. Significantly, he notes that this kind of limited, quick fix option enhances ‘the perception that immigrants are to blame for the economic crisis’.
In Spain, Britain and Russia the idea that migrant labour is part of the problem has been promulgated by governments’ conservative reactions to the financial crisis. In late 2008 Putin signed a decree halving the quota for foreign workers as activists from the Young Guard, the ruling party’s youth wing, marched under the banner ‘our country, our work’. Meanwhile Spain’s Labour Minister Celestino Corbacho was promising to ‘cut the number of work visas to roughly zero’ in 2009. The UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown simultaneously scaled back the number of ‘shortage occupation’ visas, which were to form part of the UK’s new skilled migration points system, from 1 million to 800,000.
However some countries have managed to resist this conservative backlash. For example in Austria, the unemployment situation these days is not any better. The number of unemployed Austrian citizens has risen above 12.2% and the number of unemployed migrants has witnessed a percentage increase of 19.1%. However, Austrian migration experts argue that international labour migration declines automatically under bad economical conditions and that there is no need for more stringent immigration measures.
Indeed this approach is supported by the latest figures for migrant workers’s registration in the UK itself. Over the last few years the country has relied on an influx of Polish workers to support the housing boom. However the figures for 2008 show that the number of registratered migrant workers dropped by 53,000 to 165,000. This decrease is largely explained by a fall in approved Polish national applicants, which fell to around 16,000 in the fourth quarter of 2008 compared to 36,000 in the fourth quarter of 2007. John Philpott, Chief Economist for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, noted that ‘this change in trend highlights the extent to which rising unemployment and a sharp drop in the value of the pound has reduced the UK’s economic pulling power. It is now clear’, he added, ‘that not only are fewer Poles coming to the UK but also more are going home too’. At least for EU nationals, freer in their movements between home and host country, the state of the economy seems to regulate the flow of migrants in itself.
It remains to be seen how effective these programmes will be in addressing the problems associated with the crisis. By the end of the first month of the Czech scheme, around 500 migrants had expressed an interest in the scheme. However, with a projected 12,000 migrants threatened by unemployment in the next few months, these measures may not be sufficient. Governments may argue for the economic sense in paying migrants to return to their countries of origin, but it is as yet unclear whether it will make economic sense for the migrants themselves.
 Eurostat’s data set for Jan 2009, Principal European Economic Indicators: Harmonised unemployment rate; http://epp.eurostat.ec.europa.eu/tgm/table.do?tab=table
 Jessica Duran, IKEI, Economic downturn impacts most on migrant workers; http://www.eurofound.europa.eu/ewco/2008/09/ES0809079I.htm
 p. 1, as above
 Ministry of the Interior of the Czech Republic, official project description: http://www.mvcr.cz/mvcren/article/project-of-voluntary-returns.aspx
 According to the Ministry, travel costs and allowance are provided if: “you are not able to cover the cost of travel back home from your own resources“.
 Spanish Public State Employment Service, http://www.inem.es/inem/en/ciudadano/prestaciones/retorno_extranjero.html
 Quoted in the Guardian (July 2008) http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/jul/21/spain; also ref.: http://www.migrationinformation.org/Feature/display.cfm?ID=710
 Originally: La contratación de inmigrantes en sus países de origen se aproximará a cero
 Derstandard.at (title: 17. February 2009, 19:12 Migrationsbremse Arbeitslosigkeit) Austrian newspaper
 p. 21 Control Of Immigration: Quarterly Statistical Summary, UK, Office of National Statistics, Management Information from the UK Border Agency; http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/pdfs09/immiq408.pdf
Ceri Hughes studied English Language and Literature for her BA Hons degree. Since graduating in 2007 she has taught English as a foreign language and been involved in social innovation and community education projects in the UK. She is currently an intern at Multicultural Centre Prague.
Adela Jones is currently studying British and Czech culture, literature and linguistic studies at the Technical University of Dresden. At present she is an intern at the Multicultural Center Prague.