CARIM - Consortium for Applied Research on International Migration

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Circular Migration

Click here to view the publications in this series.

I. Objectives

The concept circular migration has become rather trendy recently. It is included in the OECD (2007)1 and the World Bank (2007) development projects and, more importantly, the Commission of the European Communities has published a communication (COM 2007 248 final) encouraging the implementation and spreading of circular migration and mobility partnerships between the EU and third countries. Moreover, the “Adoption of measures facilitating the circulation of workers and people” has been already advocated, as an appropriate action for balancing migration flows, at the Rabat Conference on Migration and Development (2006).

The objective of this Thematic Session is to better understand the role that “circular migration” may play in the development of the Euro-Mediterranean area and to raise new issues and highlight new directions for policy interventions.

Firstly, it should be clarified what is understood by the term of “circular migration”. Is it simply a new way of describing temporary migration in the sense of the “gastarbeiters” of the 1960 and 1970s? The answer is probably no. The idea of temporary migration now proposed and promoted by the EU is more similar to a short phase of the working life or to a series of repeated short periods of migration. This could take the form of a stay for several months by a young person working to enhance his/her educational background, i.e. a form of training abroad which increases not only his/her human capital but also his/her social capital. It could also take the form of contracted migration for a period of work abroad for a specific project at the end of which return is default. It could also be seasonal work which may imply that migrants hold two jobs in different countries or a shared job where two or more workers hold the same job in the same country (as occurs with house keeping or nursery jobs).

Secondly, it should be stressed that circular migration is not new. For instance, before the introduction in mid ‘70s of restrictive migration legislation, individuals from the Maghreb countries “migrated circularly” to countries of Northern Europe. Later, these movements continue towards the Southern European countries, before they adjusted their legislation to their new status of receiving countries and introduced controls. Recently, circular migration is emerging again within specific programs aiming to develop legal migration by recruiting seasonal workers directly from the sending countries.

However, even if there is a relatively long experience of different forms of circular migration, the empirical research has focused very little on its positive or negative effects. Of course, the crucial issue is not the short term benefits of migration, but the long term benefits and its impact on development.

II. Is Circular Migration: A Solution to Labour Market Imbalances?

The idea of circular migration has emerged because, partly, legal and, more frequently, illegal migrants exists already. The laws of destination countries are becoming more and more restrictive. Politicians in countries of destination, under pressure of public opinion, seem to believe that the only way to contrast the (real or presumed) negative effects of foreign immigration is to better control their borders and restrict access to their countries. However, the labour market, still needs additional workers. This is one of the main reasons that migration takes place irregularly, either by illegal entrance or by overstaying short-term (tourist, student or other visas) instead of using temporary work contracts. This probably explains why Germany and France, where the short-term visas have a duration of 3 months, issue each twice the number of such visas than Italy, where the short-term visas lasts only 6 weeks.

Maybe a significant number of migrants would like to stay voluntarily in the destination country for a limited duration of time, go back home or elsewhere and then migrate again. But, given the difficulty of (re-)entry, they are trapped in the destination countries waiting for an occasion to be legalized (e.g. through an amnesty). Thus the restrictive legislation of destination countries favors longer illegal presence and irregular work positions. This is not a recent process, of course. At the beginning of the ‘70s, migration from Southern Europe to Germany, France and other countries of Northern Europe, was very similar to the circular migration model, but the policy restrictions implemented by Northern countries after the recession of 1973, transformed circular migratory into permanent migration and encouraged family reunification and naturalizations.

Is the future of international migration in the Euro-Mediterranean area based only upon temporary flows? Probably not, because both receiving and sending countries need permanent flows of population. Receiving countries need migrants because their population is ageing and the sending countries because their population is still young and has grown rapidly. However, for sending countries circular migration could be less disruptive than long term (or definitive) migration. On one hand, the family will not be deprived of one or more of their members for long time and, on the other hand, the frequently return of the relatives could improve the social capital of the family unit. The changes that emigration imposes on the family and society of origin are very difficult to cope with. They can have negative effects or they can favor woman emancipation, in both cases however the children loose the reference of the parental family replaced not always by the extended family.

One of the most important questions is how circular or temporary migration can become a process which contributes to the development of the countries of origin. In absence of any specific empirical evidence on this issue, we have to refer to the question of how “permanent migration” contributes to development of the sending country. For a long time, the general conclusion was that remittances had a positive impact on growth and development of the sending countries while the brain drain was considered as being the weaknesses of the process. More recently, even the positive impact of remittances on the development of sending countries has been questioned by many researchers. Mainly because remittances have often created a subsidized consumption, discouraging labor force participation and employment in jobs with low return. Is circular migration more beneficial for sending areas than permanent migration? Is it not recreating a subsidized economy where the work is distributed only upon few months spent abroad?

The challenge of the circular migration project is to create appropriate job opportunities in the sending countries for the let us call “part time migrants”. These jobs will probably not use the specific skills cumulated aboard but, at least, they could match the general human and social capital cumulated abroad in related activities at home. If brain drain by circular migration could be avoided, this is not enough to guarantee a long term development. Investments in the origin countries should then be encouraged to allow circular migrants to become effective “agents of change” at home.

III. Specific Issues & Questions

The Thematic Session intends to deepen the understanding of the role that circular migration plays and could play in the Euro-Mediterranean Area. The issue will be analyzed from three different perspectives: demographic-economic; legal; and socio-political. For each of these perspectives a number of issues / questions are described below. All CARIM Network members are expected to prepare a paper for the Thematic Session, each from the perspectives of his/her country of interest and his/her disciplinary background (for more details, see below).

A. Demo-Economic Perspective: Characteristics of Circular Migration

The first section will analyze the different types of circular migration prevailing; their actual or optimal length; the more appropriate phase of life to get the higher return for the migrant himself but also for the family and the society at large; and the more efficient institution in organizing them. Though we aim to get an answer to the following questions:

  1. When, in the life cycle of individual (family or professional), circular migration has generally took place (i.e. after graduation, after some year of work experience, before marriage etc.)? Please cite both past and current experiences either as sending or receiving country of circular migrants. When, instead, in the life cycle of individual circular migration could more likely take place (familial or professional) and be more proficient for the worker?
  2. Which duration and frequency did the circular migration have? Which would be the optimal combination of frequency and duration for the migrants who are leaving or for those who are entering from other countries?
  3. Which profiles circular migrants had regarding the education, the skill composition including languages knowledge, sex, age and family status? In which sector are they mainly employed?
  4. Are there different countries of destination for circular migrants or are there different areas in the same host country which provide different experiences of circular migrations?
  5. Benefits. Did they reduce unemployment of the specific working groups? Did the human capital of the circular migrant increase? Is it beneficial for the individual and for the economy? Does the migrant’s income increase beneficial for the area where the migrant come from? Could it foster economic development of the area of migrants’ origin?
  6. Costs. Did circular migration produce a shortage of specific skills in the labour market? Did circular migration produce a general brain drain? Other costs (skill down grading, skill unemployment …)?
  7. Comparison of the circular and temporary migration with other forms of migration and point out the balance of the benefits and the costs of the different migration forms and the impact on development.
  8. Is there already an institution organising temporary migration? Which will be the most efficient institution(s) that could be in charge of the worker selection and job allocation (trade union organization, governmental institution, private labour agency, etc.)? Should it be a national agency in the sending or in the receiving countries, a joint agency between the two partners or a regional or international agency?

B. Legal Perspective: Institutional Changes Needed to Favor Circular Migration

This section will focus on the institutional changes needed to implement and favor circularity of migration. Changes should take place in the legislation of receiving countries which should allow a more mobile flow of people. But also changes should take place in the sending countries. The recruitment system should be improved and revised but even more importantly, the portability of social security benefits and contributions should be adapted to the new way of working.

  1. Should entry, stay and exit laws be revised to favor circular migration? In which direction?
  2. If the status of individual regarding work (social benefits and their portability) in both directions in the country of origin and in the host country has to be coordinated, how this may occur?
  3. Is the political participation in the country of origin and in the host countries granted by special agreement or is there a more general law that provides this protection?
  4. Is there everywhere a detailed protection of temporary workers in destination countries?
  5. Are there already bilateral agreements which favor potential mobility partnership and which provides incentives for return and form of control of the agreement?
  6. Do you think that taking all the current legal dimensions together, the institutional setting favors circular migration or not?
  7. See also the questionnaire at the end of this document

C. Socio-political Perspective: How Is Circular Migration Viewed by Public and Private Authorities and by Public Opinion?

This section should analyze the role of public institutions in the debate on permanent and temporary migration. One major objective is to clarify if there is support by the public actors for circular migration or, instead, the complexity and novelty of its organization discourage them? Are workers and their family interested in this less disruptive ways of getting jobs and income?

  1. How is circular migration (politically and legally) viewed by the public authorities of your country?
  2. In May 2007, the European Commission submitted a communication on “circular migration and mobility partnerships between the European Union and third countries”. Are they aware of this communication and of its premises? If so, do they have any opinion regarding its potential effectiveness and implications on your country?
  3. Are there mechanisms allowing the international mobility of labour and the circularity of migration to be supported with a view to benefiting migrants and their country of origin?
  4. If so, which categories of international migrants (skilled, unskilled migrants, seasonal migrants…) should be mostly taken into consideration in public discourses/policies when it comes to dealing with circularity?
  5. Is there a public debate regarding the enhanced circularity of migrants in your country? If so, which public or private institutions (i.e. trade unions, business associations, migrant-aid associations, political parties, ministries, and other public bodies) are the most involved in such debates? Please explain whether these public or private institutions located in your country have taken any positions regarding the issue of circular migration. How do these positions differ from one another?
  6. Does this public debate consider aggregate benefits or the benefits for the individual and the household only?
  7. In your opinion, can circular migration be viewed as a solution allowing illegal migration to be reduced? To what extent and how? Is there a cause-and-effect relationship between circular migration and illegal migration? Please explain.
  8. In your opinion, what are the preconditions for circular migration to contribute to development in both origin and host countries and to tackle the issue of the brain drain?

Click here to view the publications in this series.

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Click on the link to view the papers in the series.

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Page last updated: 16/02/2010NULL