Author: Prof. Ronald Skeldon
Guest-editor: Elaine Lebon-McGregor
The rightward swing in political opinion in many developed countries, coupled with the rise of nationalist sentiment, has had many consequences, but among the more obvious has been the implementation of anti-immigration measures. From the building of walls and fences to the creation of hostile environments for outsiders, few governments have held out a welcome for immigrants. Yet, as emerging labour shortages are showing, migrants are needed, if not wanted. The reasons for the shortages are not in themselves simply the result of anti-migration policy, but the importation of migrant workers is part of the policy response, particularly if that importation can be seen to be temporary: that migrants will be allowed into a country only to achieve very specific and limited tasks and will go home after those have been achieved. This brief entry first examines issues of terminology and definition, then goes on to consider the more conceptual aspects of the policy before examining a few specific cases of circular migration and coming to a conclusion.
Questions of definition
In this context “circular migration” emerged as a policy concern, particularly in Europe, during the first decade of the twenty-first century. However, right from the early days, no clear idea existed as to how circular migration was to be defined. That it was a temporary form of migration was certain, but then how did circular migration differ from temporary migration? The assumption was that it should be short-term. The experience of the earlier Gastarbeiter programmes of the 1960s weighed heavily on European countries, when temporary work programmes had given rise to permanently settled immigrant communities. Milton Friedman’s pithy epithet that “nothing is so permanent as a temporary government programme” found its equivalent in migration that “there is nothing more permanent than temporary foreign workers”. Circular migration would avoid this outcome by emphasizing the return of the workers.
However, how does circular migration differ from return migration? It can be argued that it has two distinguishing features: that the movement is a return after a short duration; and that circular migration is repetitive. Although no definite time at a destination is usually stipulated before a return move takes place, it is usually assumed that a return migration occurs after some reasonable, if unstated, period of time. A circular migration would occur after a relatively short, if unspecified, period of time. These periods of short-term displacement would then be repeated at regular intervals. However, in this case, is circular migration simply seasonal migration, particularly when agricultural or hospitality workers make up a significant proportion of the proposed circulators? Nevertheless, circular migrants are assumed to encompass more than seasonal workers but could engage in short-term tasks in manufacturing which are not tied to seasonal rhythms.
Thus, in sum, circular migrants are temporary, they do return, and they may encompass seasonal activities but their defining characteristics are that they are involved in sequential short-term movements.
From a policy perspective, circular migration is seen to provide a triple-win outcome. The country of destination benefits because it has access to a pool of labour that can be tapped to cover specific shortages at particular times in specific activities. Perhaps more importantly, circular migration as a policy can be “sold” to the local population as a policy to bring in non-permanent, transient workers rather than long-term residents who might compete with locals. The country-of-origin benefits because it receives remittances from its workers abroad and can take advantage of any skills they may learn while away. Finally, the migrants themselves benefit because they earn more than they could at home and may learn new skills abroad. However, any such win-win-win scenario needs to be critically examined as being too good to be true.
Much of the research into circular migration originated in work on internal migration in which circulation between the rural and urban sectors was shown to have been an integral part of population redistribution during urbanization. The research showed that circular migration was part of rural household diversification strategies through which exposure to risk was reduced through involvement in activities separated across space in bi- or tri-local residences. The system worked because of the flexibility afforded by moving within a single political unit. While some of the advantages of this diversification can be maintained in systems of transnational migration, the very existence of international boundaries introduces a regulation and institutionalization of the circularity that reduces the benefits of flexibility.
The first difficulty is the practical one of accurately identifying labour shortages, designing, and then gaining approval in both destination and origin countries for a programme to implement in a timely manner the recruitment of the required workers. It may be difficult to find sufficient workers who are willing to leave their families for short-term employment away from home. That is, the process of implementation of a circular migration programme, while simple in theory, takes time in practice to the extent that the labour market may have moved on and the labour needs have changed by the time it is in operation. The difficulties of matching labour supply with demand are well examined in Ruhs and Anderson.
Second, it might not be in the interest of employers to have a labour force that is constantly turning over, increasing training costs. While this drawback applies more to semi-skilled than lower-skilled labour, all workers irrespective of skill level need some time to familiarize themselves with the local environment. High-skilled labour on short term assignments will move more within the networks of transnational corporations and facilitated by arrangements agreed through GATS mode IV than through stand-alone circular migration programmes.
A third drawback revolves around the ethical issues of allowing groups of workers into a country for short periods of time who have few rights, either to bring family members or to access many of the services available to longer-term migrants, let alone citizens. Circular migrants have no right to stay on and no option but to return.
Circular migration in practice
Many examples of circulation migration policies in operation exist. Perhaps the most notable is the agreement between Canada and Mexico to supply agricultural workers that began in 1974, later expanded to involve several Caribbean countries, which brings in up to 5,000 workers for up to eight months of the year. This programme is “successful” to the extent that it brings in workers to do tasks that Canadians appear unwilling to do and that the workers do return to their families at the end of the stipulated period. Nevertheless, evidence that the programme brings “development” to the communities of origin of the workers seems elusive and the isolation of workers and experiences of abuse during their contract raise questions about any triple-win scenario.
A similar scheme for seasonal agricultural workers from Pacific Island nations to New Zealand was established from 2007, and set an annual quota of 8,000 workers for seven months at a time. Employers played a more proactive role than in the Canadian scheme in selecting the workers from a list prepared by the supplying country, albeit through the use of recruiters or brokers, and being responsible for half of the travel costs. Smaller schemes for agricultural workers have also existed for several European countries that draw on the near neighbourhood but also on workers from Latin America or North Africa. In the majority of these schemes, the selection of workers is biased towards those with young families in order to ensure their return home at the end of their contract.
A different circular migration scheme was trialled by the Dutch government from December 2009, based not on seasonal agricultural labour but upon a two-year cycle of semi-skilled workers identified from areas of shortage in Dutch industries. In the pilot, just 80 workers were to be selected from each of two countries, Indonesia, and South Africa. Those selected would not be able to bring their families but would be expected to learn specific skills that would later be applied in their home countries to bring about development in a direct test of the win-win-win scenario posited above, in a way that the seasonal agricultural schemes were not in a position to do. Unfortunately, the evaluation of the trial did not generate entirely supportive results. Perhaps most critically, the programme came nowhere near to realizing its modest recruitment targets: potential recruits were unwilling to sign up to the conditions on offer. The lack of flexibility found in internal variants of circular migration, which is missing in international planned programmes was a major drawback. However, so too, was political change in the Netherlands that changed priorities. Without built-in flexibility and political commitment, success is likely to prove elusive for any proposed programme of circular migration.
Circular migration, in theory, avoids migration in the sense that it evades the issue of permanent movement to destinations in need of labour. Origin countries also benefit because they do not lose their labour that returns with vital skills. The reality is much more complex. Circular migration can become a permanent part in the overall migration to any destination in that it provides a permanent supply of temporary migrant workers, but it is unlikely to avoid some of them becoming “more permanent”. Circular migration might again appear to be a solution to the difficult policy and practical matters of integration but it raises uncomfortable questions for any country following rights-based policies. The separation of families and the creation of a “permanent” temporary pool of workers with different access to the rights available to the host population, create tensions of their own. Circular migration is not a panacea to labour shortages.
Yet, systems of circulation and mobility arise and persist in both developing and developed countries: as part of off-farm household strategies in the former, and of commuting and regular overseas travel in the latter where recreational mobility has emerged as mass consumer behaviour. Advanced societies have seen steady declines in migration but increases in mobility. One example of this type of circular mobility in the United States was the emergence of a new nomadism, as those dispossessed of their houses following the financial crisis of 2008, literally took to the road in recreational vehicles and followed circuits of short-term, often seasonal employment in parks, Amazon warehouses and sugar-beet harvests. Such systems of mobility are not readily subject to any form of “management” and are becoming an increasingly important part of the circular migration systems.
Ronald Skeldon is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Geography, University of Sussex and Professor of Human Geography in the Graduate School of Governance, Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He lives in Nairn, Scotland. After taking a B.Sc. (Hons) in Geography at the University of Glasgow in 1967, he completed an M.A. and a Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, with a dissertation on Migration in a Peasant Society: the Example of Cuzco, Peru. He became a Research Fellow at the New Guinea Research Unit of the Australian National University, later the Papua New Guinea Institute for Applied Social and Economic Research, in Port Moresby and Goroka, 1974-77. He then joined the United Nations, initially as a census adviser in Papua New Guinea, 1977-79, and later as a population expert based in Bangkok, 1979-82. In 1982, he joined the faculty of the University of Hong Kong, where he remained until 1996, leaving as a Professor of Geography. After four years as an independent consultant based in Bangkok working mainly for international organizations, he joined the University of Sussex in October 2000.
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