Skip to navigation

Skip to main content


July 2017, Volume 23, Number 3

Europe, Asia

Over 10,000 migrants a month left Libya for Italy during the first six months of 2017, over 83,000 by the end of June. The major countries of origin were Guinea, Nigeria and Bangladesh. In many cases, migrants board dinghies along the Libyan coast and expect to be rescued 14 miles away by waiting search and rescue boats operated by NGOs.

Some of the Bangladeshis who were rescued reported paying $10,000 or more to smugglers. UNHCR estimated that three-fourths of the migrants leaving Libya were economic migrants rather then refugees. Some 180,000 migrants arrived by boat in Italy in 2016.

Twelve NGOs operate search and rescue ships off the Libyan coast; they aided 47,000 migrants in 2016. Some critics say that Libyan smugglers encourage migrants to get on unsafe dinghies by assuring them they will soon be rescued. Some smugglers tow migrants 14 miles offshore and return to shore, leaving migrants waiting to be rescued. NGO rescue ships brought 12,600 migrants to Italy in the first four months of 2017, a third of the total 36,000.

NGOs say that their rescue ships save lives, since migrants would leave regardless. They emphasize that, when the EU's Frontex agency began destroying wooden smuggling boats after rescuing migrants in 2015, smugglers turned to 30-foot rubber dinghies designed for 60 people, which are less safe in the open sea.

In 2016, some 181,000 migrants left Libya by boat and were taken to Italy; over 300,000 are expected to leave Libya in 2017. The EU and Italy are struggling to respond. Some EU leaders have proposed creating camps in Libya where migrants seeking asylum would be safe. Critics emphasize that the 7,000 migrants currently in 20 reception centers in Libya complain of abuse.

Italy in May 2017 signed agreements with Chad, Libya and Niger aimed at reducing illegal migration to Europe by creating Italian-funded reception centers for migrants in these countries. The EU signed migration compacts with Nigeria, Niger, Senegal, Ethiopia and Mali that link EU aid and trade concessions to governments doing more to reduce unauthorized migration toward Europe.

Some 1.3 million foreigners arrived in Europe and applied for asylum in 2015, prompting Austria, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Norway to re-impose border controls to check arrivals from neighboring countries. In 2016, there were 1.2 million first-time asylum applications, including some by foreigners who arrived in 2015. In May 2017, the EU said that intra-EU controls within the Schengen area must cease by the end of 2017.

About 35 percent of asylum applicants in the EU are from Syria and Iraq, and 60 percent of Syrians and Iraqis who arrived in Europe applied for asylum in Germany.

Austria. Some 22 percent of the 5.8 million 15-64 year olds in Austria were born abroad. The highest share of foreigners among 15-64 year olds is in Vienna, 42 percent, while less than 15 percent of 15-64 year olds in the southern and eastern states are foreigners.

About 40 percent of the 15-64 year olds born outside Austria were from EU countries, led by 160,000 Germans, 84,000 Romanians and 60,000 Poles. Almost 60 percent of the 15-64 year olds were from non-EU countries, including 145,000 Turks, 145,000 Bosnians and 107,000 Serbs.

As in most European countries, foreign-born residents have lower labor force participation rates than natives, 63 percent compared to 74 percent. The unemployment rate for foreigners in 2015 was 14 percent, compared to eight percent for persons born in Austria. The unemployment rate for persons born in Syria was 75 percent, and 50 percent for those born in Afghanistan; over a third of those born in Russia and Serbia were jobless in 2015.

Between 2010 and 2015, net migration into Austria was 284,000, including 35,000 Germans, 34,000 Romanians and 31,000 Hungarians.

Britain. British voters went to the polls June 8, 2017, and in a surprise the Conservatives led by PM Theresa May lost their majority, falling from 331 to 318 seats in the 650 member Parliament. May was home secretary under PM David Cameron, who promised to reduce net immigration to less than 100,000 a year; Cameron resigned in 2016 after British voters approved Brexit.

Brexit negotiations promise to be a major challenge. A majority of voters in London and Scotland, as well as younger people, voted to remain in the EU, while older voters and those from smaller cities and rural areas voted to leave. There is speculation that drawn-out negotiations could lead to a second referendum that would find a majority in favor of staying in the EU.

France. French voters on May 7, 2017 elected Emmanuel Macron as president, and his La Republique en Marche party and ally Mouvement Democrate won 361 of the 577 seats in Parliament in June 18, 2017 elections; three-fourths of the deputies are first-timers. The traditional mainstream parties, the Socialists and Les Republicains, lost seats, signaling rejection of the establishment that has governed France for decades (some en Marche deputies left the Socialists and Les Republicains parties to join en Marche).

Macron, a former economy minister in the current Hollande government, defeated Marine Le Pen by 66 to 34 percent. During the first round of voting April 23, 2017, Macron won 24 percent of the vote and Le Pen 21 percent in a field with five major candidates.

Macron campaigned in favor of the EU and the Euro, while Le Pen called for France to exit the EU (Frexit) and to stop Muslim immigration. Some analysts emphasized that Le Pen's populism was enough to influence mainstream parties, but not to win national elections. Le Pen and her National Front party may remain a significant force in French politics, especially if unemployment remains at 10 percent and there are more terrorist attacks. However, the National Front is torn between a faction that stresses anti-capitalist and anti-EU themes and another that opposes immigration.

France's public debt is 96 percent of GDP. The unemployment rate has been stuck at 10 percent and is 25 percent for youth, many of whom obtain a succession of temporary contracts that make it difficult to borrow money to buy houses and apartments. Macron wants to revise the 3,400-page labor code to reduce protections for permanent workers to induce more businesses to offer longer contracts to youth entering the labor market, the so-called Danish model offering flexible labor markets with a universal safety net and retraining for displaced workers.

The question is whether French unions, who represent eight percent of workers, will compromise and accept labor market de-regulation or seek to block any changes. The largest union federation, the CFDT, appears more willing to compromise than the GCT, which has lost members but opposes change.

Some 230,000 foreigners sought asylum in France and received protection over the past decade, including 36,000 in 2016. Many foreigners with protection in France want to move to the UK, so they camp near Calais and try to slip onto trucks headed for Britain via the Eurotunnel. A Calais camp known as the Jungle was closed in October 2016, but other camps sprang up nearby. A fire that broke out after a fight between Afghanis and Kurds in April 2017 led to the destruction of a camp for 1,500 in Grande-Synthe.

Germany. Over 1.2 million asylum seekers entered Germany in 2015 and 2016; Germany granted asylum to 445,210 foreigners in 2016. Sweden was second, granting asylum to 69,359 people, followed by Italy and France, which each granted asylum to 35,000 people, and Austria, 31,750.

In 2016, Germany received 266,000 asylum applications from Syrians, and granted asylum to 98 percent of Syrian applicants. Only 56 percent of the 127,000 Afghanis received asylum, 70 percent of the 96,000 Iraqis, and half of the 26,000 Iranians. Germany spent $15 billion on asylum seekers and refugees in 2016, an average of about $15,000.

Of the asylum seekers aged 15 to 64 who arrived in 2015, 10 percent were employed at the end of 2016. Of those who arrived in 2013, 30 percent were employed in 2016. One reason employment rates are low is because almost 60 percent of arrivals have only a primary school education, a third have a secondary school education, and an eighth have a university degree.

Refugees receive housing and support for food, and are expected to enroll in 600-hour German language courses and 100-hour German values courses. Some 317,000 foreigners began such courses in 2016.

Refugees and rejected asylum seekers committed 174,000 crimes in Germany in 2016, up over 50 percent from 2015 and an eighth of the 1.4 million crimes committed by Germans. Two-thirds of asylum seekers in 2016 were solo men under 30, the group most likely to commit crimes.

There are 215,000 foreigners in Germany who have been ordered to leave. The 16 German states are responsible for deportations, and a law enacted in May 2017 allows foreigners who are ordered deported to be held until their removal or monitored with electronic bracelets. Foreigners with no or false documents can be required to stay in one place for up to two years, and their phones can be searched to determine who they are.

Greece. A March 20, 2016 EU-Turkey agreement obliges Turkey to accept the return of all unauthorized migrants who reach Greek islands off the coast of Turkey and do not qualify for asylum. Under EU and Greek asylum law, foreigners may apply for asylum and, if rejected, appeal the denial. They receive housing and food while waiting for a first decision and the results of the appeal.

Only 1,500 foreigners were returned to Turkey in the first year of the agreement, primarily because Greek appeal bodies have been reluctant to force migrants back to Turkey, which some consider unsafe.

Greece in May 2017 offered those who were rejected for asylum E1,000 and free travel to their home countries under the Assisted Voluntary Return and Reintegration program operated by IOM if they did not pursue an appeal. Foreigners who appeal are not eligible for assisted return.

Greece owes E325 billion, 175 percent of its $190 billion GDP. The government agreed to reduce pensions, raise taxes and further de-regulate labor markets to receive additional aid in June 2017. Greece hopes that, after another EU payment in July 2017, it can sell bonds to investors. The IMF believes that creditors will have to write off some of their Greek debt, saying the country will be unable to repay what it borrowed in full.

Low fertility in southern European countries has fallen even lower because of the economic crisis that began in 2008-09. The average woman in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain has 1.3 children, threatening the viability of pension and health systems that depend on the taxes of young workers to provide benefits for the retired.

Italy. Over 181,000 migrants arrived in Italy in 2016, and over 80,000 arrived in the first six months of 2017. Most were Africans who left Libya in boats, and many were rescued just outside Libyan waters.

The ruling Democratic Party has generally welcomed migrants, reminding Italians that they too once left in large numbers for opportunity and introducing a bill to give children born in Italy Italian citizenship. But resentment against migrants is fueling anti-migrant parties, who did well in local elections in June 2017. Matteo Salvini of the Northern League may rejoin four-time PM Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia to contest national elections expected in 2018.

The Italian government is struggling to improve protections for 40,000 migrant workers in southern Italy. After a 49-year old woman died of a heart attack in July 2015 packing table grapes, investigations found that the contractors who were paid by growers to find workers were taking much of the women's earnings.

Matteo Renzi, who resigned as Prime Minister after a constitutional reform to reduce the size and power of the Senate failed in December 2016, retook the leadership of the ruling Democratic Party in a May 2017 primary in which about two million people paid E2 to vote. Renzi is widely expected to lead one of the three main political parties in elections to be held before May 2018.

Italy's voting system and voting patterns make it hard for any single party to win a majority, forcing governments to form often unwieldy coalitions that fuel corruption. Renzi was able to change some of Italy's voting procedures, but failed to win approval of a bill that would give the party or coalition of parties winning a plurality of votes a majority in both the Senate and Chamber of Deputies.

Renzi's center-left DP is favored by about 25 percent of voters, almost the same share as the populist Five Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo, 30 percent, and Silvano Berlusconi's Forza party, 26 percent. Renzi wants to relax EU-imposed austerity and increase government spending to spur growth despite Italy's public debt, which is 133 percent of GDP.

Sweden. A rejected asylum seeker from Uzbekistan drove a stolen truck into a crowd of shoppers in Stockholm in April 2017, killing four people. The government promised to do more to deport rejected asylum seekers.

Some 191,000 foreigners applied for asylum in Sweden in 2015 and 2016, and the government anticipates that at least 50,000 will not be recognized as refugees. Sweden finds it hard to remove rejected asylum seekers. Of 18,000 failed asylum seekers in the past year, at least two-thirds are still in Sweden. Rejected asylum seekers who remain in Sweden at least four years may apply for asylum again.

Sweden in 2008 ended requirements that employers obtain a certification from the government that they need foreign workers. Between 2008 and 2016, 18,000 foreign workers a year have been admitted, including significant numbers of low-skilled seasonal workers, berry pickers (Thais), cleaners (Mongolia), and restaurant workers (Chinese). There are also IT workers from India.

Turkey. Turkey in February 2017 reported hosting 3.5 million Syrians, and spending $25 billion on them since large numbers began to escape in 2014. Some Europeans believe that there are fewer Syrians in Turkey since some moved to Europe.

Turks voted 51 to 49 percent on April 16, 2017 to approve 18 constitutional amendments that grant more power to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has been in power since 2003 and could continue to lead Turkey for another decade. Before the vote, Erdogan's AKP party used government institutions to campaign for a yes vote, and provoked disputes with EU countries such as Germany and the Netherlands by trying to campaign among Turks there.

After a failed coup July 15, 2016, the government fired or suspended over 140,000 public and private employees who were accused of supporting the coup. Some 50,000 Turks were arrested for alleged links to Fethullah Gulen, the US-based Muslim cleric who is accused of masterminding the July 2016 coup. A state of emergency was imposed that included the closing of 1,500 NGOs and 150 media organizations.

As the one-year anniversary of the coup attempt approach, the Republican Party (CHP) organized a huge protest in Istanbul to demand adalet or justice, alleging that the judiciary was no longer an independent branch of government.

Turkey's bid to join the EU has been put on hold, and there are rising fears that the checks and balances on power fundamental to democracy are eroding rapidly in Turkey. Many EU leaders are talking of a "privileged partnership" with Turkey rather than Turkey becoming an EU-member state; two-way trade between the EU and Turkey exceeds E140 billion a year.

Erdogan began his leadership by building infrastructure, which helped the economy to boom and boosted his popularity. By picking fights with European nations, Erdogan appeals to Turks who believe that Europeans are trying to divide and weaken Turkey.

GCC. The six Gulf Cooperation Council countries rely on migrant guest workers to fill most private sector jobs, especially in construction and domestic services. Segall and Labowitz examined what migrant construction workers paid for their jobs, and found that most low-skilled construction workers pay far more than the estimated $500 in "true" recruitment costs for their jobs; travel to the GCC job is additional.

GCC governments give construction firms demand letters that result in visas for workers at no or nominal cost, but these demand letters are often auctioned to recruiters in sending countries, sometimes by nationals of sending countries who are employed in the GCC firms requesting migrants. Bangladeshi recruiters say they pay $1,500 or more for each demand letter, which is half of the $3,000 total fee they charge a low-skilled worker who earns $300 a month in the GCC.

The second major cost involves the intermediaries between capital-city based recruiters and the rural workers who find GCC jobs attractive despite high recruitment costs. Each agent and sub-agent collects a fee, and those providing required services, from providers of medical checks to travel agencies, can take advantage of migrants who often focus on the higher wages abroad that they expect to more than repay the expenses they incur to leave the country.

Multinational construction firms must have a local partner with a majority stake. There are many such joint ventures, and developers force them to reduce margins to win bids. With labor accounting for a third of the cost of most contracts and the most flexible component of the bid, some low bids anticipate collecting fees from workers to reduce labor costs. About two-thirds of migrant construction workers in a 2016 survey were employed directly by contractors, and a third were employed by manpower agents who shuffled workers from job to job.

Many demand letters issued by GCC construction firms specify that they do not pay recruitment fees. Recruiters who nonetheless recruit workers for such firms bear the cost of finding and screening workers and transporting them to the job site. Sending country governments limit worker-paid fees that recruiters may charge, but these limits are widely ignored. Indian recruiters may charge a maximum INR20,000 ($300) or 45 days foreign wages, whichever is less, and Bangladeshi recruiters may charge a maximum 84,000 taka ($1,050).

So-called free visas are more expensive to migrants, but they allow workers to have a nominal GCC sponsor but work for other employers. Migrants with relatives who have established businesses in GCC countries are especially eager to obtain free visas, which can cost double the $3,000 of a visa that ties a worker to a single GCC employer.

The subagents who recruit rural workers are trusted because of their local roots; workers pay subagents because they have no other way to go abroad to work. Workers pay subagents perhaps $500, and these payments cover transportation to the city where the registered recruiter with a demand letter is located. Registered recruiters may mark up the services they provide to migrants, including air travel.

Japan. Fewer than a million babies were born in Japan in 2016. Japan has 127 million people, but deaths exceed births, and the population is projected to decline to fewer than 100 million by 2050. Despite the shrinking population, there is little public support for large-scale immigration. Many Japanese cite the benefits of a homogeneous population, including high levels of trust and low crime.

North Korea. The North Korean government sends workers to China and Russia and keeps most of their wages, from 30 to 80 percent of what foreign employers pay. By some estimates, the North Korean government gets over $100 million a year from taxes on migrant wages.

A relatively new destination is Vladivostok, where Korean work habits are praised by contractors who do home repairs. Sanctions on Korea because of its missile program making sending workers abroad a needed source of foreign currency.

Australia. The government since 2012 has sent foreigners arriving without documents by boat to offshore camps in Papua New Guinea and Nauru, with no chance for resettlement in Australia. The purpose of this offshore policy is to discourage smugglers from assembling asylum seekers in Indonesia and taking them in boats to Australia. The government has maintained the policy despite criticism from migrant rights groups; the US has agreed to resettle some of the remaining residents of the camps, which are due to close.

Segall, David and Sarah Labowitz. 2017. Making Workers Pay: Recruitment of the Migrant Labor Force in the Gulf Construction Industry. Stern.