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Jakarta Post

International migration and global inequality

  • Riwanto Tirtosudarmo

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta   /   Tue, July 30, 2013   /  10:19 am

The main challenge of any world development agenda is ultimately whether or not it can reduce, if not solve, economic inequality between countries or regions.

Globalization is much praised for benefiting many parts of the world, but has also been indicated as a source of worldwide widening income inequalities.

In any country, eventually only the rich and the middle class are able to harvest the fruits of globalization, while the majority of poor people will be left behind.

International migration is often seen as a market economic mechanism to level off income inequality at the global level. While it might be true in the case of temporary or circular migration, it is certainly not the case for permanent migration.

The movement of skilled workers and professionals from poor to rich countries has caused what is popularly known as '€œbrain drain'€, which is the result of further income inequality between the sending and receiving countries.

The strongly supported argument by the World Bank and its advisors on the so-called remittance effects that go back to sending countries from their fellow workers abroad, in reality, have been criticized as the money is mostly being used for consumption rather than for generating local economies.

Worse is the fact that the social costs and the burden of migration, especially for families left behind, is immeasurable.

What is often overlooked in discussions on economic globalization is the fact that the driving force for international migration is never singular. Yet no one will dispute the fact that the gap between prosperous and destitute countries is widening despite all the efforts by the World Bank and many other international organizations to solve these problems.

In the last 10 years or so, international migration has shown its new dynamics as a result of the changing geopolitical situation in some parts of the world.

Despite the problems caused by the current financial crisis, the European Union (EU) has been regarded as relatively successful in easing cross border movement between its member countries.

This decision understandably has reduced economic tension created by the income gaps through international labor migration, particularly for poor countries in eastern and southern Europe. As a single market, the EU has revolutionized not only the most rhetorically applauded free trade zone but also the free labor zone.

Such a radical change, however, will unlikely is emulated by ASEAN, which set 2015 as the beginning of the so-called ASEAN Community.

The ASEAN free trade zone will likely be easily accepted, but a free labor zone is untenable as the income gap is so wide between, for example Malaysia and Singapore on the one hand, and Indonesia and the Philippines on the other.

As we all know, migrant workers has always been a sensitive issue that tends to be avoided in open discussions among ASEAN member countries. In ASEAN, labor issues have been more safely discussed bilaterally between the countries concerned rather than regionally.

Another pressing issue that needs to be resolved regionally is the issue of boat people heading toward Australia. As a prosperous country in the region and the signatory of 1951 Refugee Convention, Australia is becoming the target country for refugees seeking asylum.

The waves of boat people from Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, have already created a serious problem, as we are witnessing in Nauru, one of the countries in the Pacific that is being used by Australia to dump the boat people who entered the Australian waters. As Christmas Island is no longer able to accommodate the boat people, Australia has persuaded its neighboring countries to accommodate them.

As the case in Nauru '€” with some analysts predicting that it will also occur in PNG '€” is escalating, the Kevin Rudd labor government is running into trouble as the opposition ,as well some civil society organizations, are pressing the government to find a new solution to the crisis.

The recent decision by the Rudd government to signal the boat people make a detour has been met with mixed feelings among the Australian public. As Australia will hold an election on Sept. 14, immigration is understandably a recurrent hot issue and will obviously be highly politicized, as usual.

The case of boat people heading toward Australia shows the complex nature of international migration and global inequality. It has been more than a decade since the 2001 Tampa incident and Australia and the region seem to not have found a solution to the problems posed by boat people.

Unless Australia and its neighboring countries in the region can solve the problem, we will witness the continuation of worsening conditions, human tragedy and global inequality.

The writer is a senior researcher at the Research Center for Society and Culture, the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI).

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