Late last year, over dinner in Vienna, I was having a conversation with a friend of mine who lives in Romania, but who has worked all over the world, about migration and various other things.
He made an important point that Romania and some other nations allowed into the EU in the last 15 years, have made extraordinary progress on various aspects of governance, crime and anti-corruption.
It’s just, he said, that very few people know about it.
I spend some time in Latvia each year and have done a fair bit of digging into how that nation has come from very difficult circumstances to do something very similar.
Countries, when given incentives to do so, can improve dramatically for the better, in a short space of time.
And despite the hysterics about immigration in the UK media, research says that migrants work harder and commit less crime and ask for fewer handouts than other citizens.
Business generally, likes migration. It broadens the talent pool.
(The UK’s new policy of allowing non-EU students to come to the UK, pump money into our education system and economy, then kick them out immediately, appears utterly bonkers to me)
Business also likes, increasingly, diversity. We recognise how important it is for both well run companies and innovation.
Which brings me to my point, well shortly. Do bear with me.
The migration crisis at Calais (or that in Southern Europe) is something that must be tackled.
But is closing the borders the best we can do? It might work, morals aside, for Australia. But Europe?
David Cameron’s plan today is more fences and more dogs. How long term a solution is that?
My friend who lives in Romania had an alternative idea.
Look at it this way he said. These poor desperate would-be migrants are super motivated, determined people.
They have suffered unimaginably to get to the point of entering the EU.
99% of them are not coming here to try and do anything but work and be good citizens.
Surely we can harness their talents and find a role for them in our ageing society?
He wasn’t suggesting a ‘Running Man’ or ‘Hunger Games’ style dystopian entry competition, but taking a sober, practical look at helping people who want to help themselves, help us as a society.
(The moral hazard problem here, the sceptics point, which I don’t know yet how to address, is that if we ‘make it too easy’ for non EU migrants to get in, won’t we be flooded? Therefore, do we then only allow illegal migrants in on a skills basis? That’s a big moral problem. Allowing those in, whose lives are in danger abroad, is supposed to be a fundamental tenet of civilised nations, so how do we balance that with economic migration?)
My italics challenge above aside, if that’s the case (and you may think otherwise) I see a two fold role for business in this debate:
First, encouraging countries like the UK to stay in the EU and be open minded about legal migration. This is already happening, in fact, the UK referendum argument may well have been already won, thankfully. But more needs to be done on encouraging governments to allow global talent into the EU/UK.
Secondly, encouraging government to take more targeted approaches to tackling the illegal migration problem at source. For example, many of the migrants attempting the dangerous crossing to Europe are Syrian or Eritrean.
Both nations have very serious governance challenges. One needs a fundamental political solution, the other that, or at least, a political ‘carrot and stick’ approach to help prevent the rampant human rights abuses in the nation which drive migration.
I’m not suggesting business and progressive lobbying can solve the Syrian conflict, or help clean up Eritrea’s repressive politics, but if companies want to play a role in a better society, encouraging their lobby groups to push governments towards a more mature, nuanced approach to migration, is surely not beyond them.
For example, what kind of export incentives linked to improved human rights performance can some countries be offered? Voluntary Partnership Agreements (adaptations of them I mean) may play a role here.
This is alongside everything else we are asking big companies to play a significant role in, of course.
That’s the price of being big, visible, powerful and heading-grabbingly profit making.
No big challenge can be ignored, and making a visible contribution to tackling the migration issue is most definitely one of them.